Intermittently over the last 30 years we’ve been discussing justification. It began when Norman Shepherd, who taught at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, proposed in class that sinners are justified through faith and works. He used that language. He used it in a required systematics course (on the application of redemption) and in a ThM seminar. Later, he revised his language to “faithfulness.” This debate raged within (and without) the walls of the venerable WTS, where he was opposed by a minority of the faculty, from 1974 until 1981, when he was finally dismissed by the Board of Trustees (in a very close vote). He was proposing what we now know as the self-described “Federal Vision” theology: one is in the covenant such that he is elect, regenerated, united to Christ, justified, sanctified temporarily and conditionally. If the baptized person fulfills his part of the covenant by cooperating with grace, he retains those benefits.
Outside the walls of WTS most of the Reformed world lined up against Shepherd’s views and the debate went silent until he retired from pastoral ministry and began writing and speaking publicly again in the late 90s, when he resuscitated his positions for public debate. He re-stated them in The Call of Grace and that book helped to spur the formation by others, who had sympathized with his views, of the self-described “Federal Vision” movement, which was composed of thenomists and those influenced by Klaas Schilder (as Shepherd was), who shared his version of postmillennialism and others. The movement was a theological stew.
In the interim, between the Shepherd controversy and the Federal Vision controversy revisions of the Reformed doctrines of the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and union with Christ took hold. Distinctions such as that between law and gospel, which Mr Murray had defended heartily, came to be regarded as distinctively Lutheran. At the same time, in many places, the doctrine of justification was either ignored or forgotten. The controversy between the “Free Grace” (antinomians) and “Lordship” advocates in Dispensationalism was used as a way to understand the same questions in Reformed circles, as if we hadn’t already confessed views on these questions or as if we were as disconnected from the history of the church as the evangelicals. The perceived and real moralism that developed produced, as it always does, an antinomian reaction.
Now, predictably, we have a reaction to antinomianism real and perceived. This is why I’ve been working through the Marrow of Modern Divinity on the Heidelcast. On one recent episode, I borrowed from Jeff Foxworthy, and proposed some indicators of nomism. If you’re not sure what that is, please listen to the series on nomism and antinomianism.
Recently, someone proposed a series of counter-theses, using the Foxworthy-esque rhetoric: “You might be an antinomian…” I agree with most of them, as those who’ve been listening to the series know. I have a little difficulty with a couple and I thought it would be worth considering them in more detail.
If you believe that God loves you and that your ongoing sin or your incremental obedience does not in any way affect God’s love for you, you just might be an antinomian.
This is debatable. The phrase “in any way” is ambiguous. Do we believe that when a Christian sins that God stops loving him? I doubt we want to say that. Does not Hebrews say that God chastens those whom he loves?
Can we say that God is displeased with us when we sin? Sure. This language, quoted above, however, seems like an over reaction to the antinomian notion that God cannot see our sins.
If you believe works are not necessary for salvation, you just might be an antinomian.
Here the term “salvation”needs to be defined. I think that we say as Protestants that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, don’t we?
The other ambiguity here is the preposition “for.” It is the case that believers will produce works. It is the case that good trees produce good fruit. It is the case that good works are a logical and evidentiary necessity. The denial of works as fruit or evidence would be antinomian.
This language, quoted above, however, could be interpreted to imply some sort of causal or even instrumental relation between works and justification. I doubt that is what the author intended but it isn’t very clear.
The word “necessary” is ambiguous. Necessary in what sense, in an instrumental sense or in an evidentiary sense? All Reformed theologians affirm the latter.
Salvation often means justification and sanctification. To be sure, sanctification involves effort and works are the fruit of sanctification. The word salvation, however, is frequently used among Reformed writers to mean simply justification. In that sense it would be quite improper to say salvation is by works or that works are, in that sense, necessary for salvation.
More than a few of our classic Reformed writers have said that salvation is “by grace alone.” I doubt that we want to dismiss those writers as antinomian.
If we consider salvation as deliverance by God from sin and death we still want to say it is by grace alone don’t we? Were the Israelites delivered from death, at the Red Sea, partly by their works?
Surely we want to agree that works are a product of our sanctification, which is wrought by the Spirit. There can be no question that Christians ought to do good works. The question is whether we may ascribe to them some instrumental role. I think we should agree with the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.
Is anyone prepared to say that the Shorter Catechism is antinomian? That would be something to see. I don’t see anything here about the instrumental role of works. Further, I see that we confess that we “are renewed” and “are enabled” and that righteousness, that is sanctification, is the consequence of God’s working in us.
In the current discussion the pendulum has swung back toward nomism but in our attempt to respond to antinomianism let us not lose sight of the rest of what we believe. If we would read The Marrow again, we would see that Fisher recognized a difference between those who were accused of antinomianism and those who really were antinomian. We should do the same.