A Brief Refresher On Norman Shepherd’s Doctrine Of Conditions In The Covenant

…Just as Adam was obliged to meet the conditions of the covenant that God graciously established with him, so believers are obliged to meet the conditions of the covenant of grace in order to inherit eternal life. Just as Christ was obliged to live in covenantal loyalty and faithfulness to God, Shepherd maintains, “so his followers must be faithful in order to inherit the blessing” (p. 19). As we have noted, Shepherd is even willing to speak of Christ’s obedient faith being “credited to him as righteousness” in a manner parallel to the way Abraham’s (and every believer’s) obedient faith is credited to him for righteousness.

But this kind of parallel between Christ’s faith and ours would mean that the believer’s inheritance in the covenant of grace finally depends upon his following Christ’s example. Salvation and blessing are the (non-meritorious, though earned?) reward of the covenant for those who keep the covenant’s conditions and stipulations. Missing from Shepherd’s discussion at this juncture are several key features of the historic Reformed view of salvation. Shepherd does not make
it clear, for example, that the believer can only obtain eternal life upon the basis of the perfect obedience, satisfaction and righteousness of Christ alone received by faith alone (compare the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 23 & 24). Nor does he make it clear (indeed, on page 62 he seems to deny it) that the believer’s imperfect obedience, which Christ by his Spirit graciously works in him, adds nothing to the work of Christ in respect to his standing before God and right to eternal life. Rather, Shepherd argues that the traditional Reformed view, which insists that the (sinfully imperfect) good works of believers provide no basis for their acceptance before God, fails to do justice to the genuine obedience of believers (p. 62). By this argument he fails to appreciate the classic Reformed conviction that Christ’s work as Mediator of the covenant of grace constitutes the only ground for the believer’s justification (and sanctification!) before God.

—Cornelis Venema, Review of The Call of Grace

13 comments

  1. A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing;
    Nor fear, with thy righteousness on, my person and off’ring to bring.
    The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;
    My Saviour’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.

    The work which His goodness began, the arm of His strength will complete;
    His promise is Yea and Amen, and never was forfeited yet.
    Things future, nor things that are now, nor all things below or above,
    Can make Him His purpose forgo, or sever my soul from His love.

    My name from the palms of His hands eternity will not erase;
    Impressed on His heart it remains, in marks of indelible grace.
    Yes, I to the end shall endure, as sure as the earnest is giv’n;
    More happy, but not more secure, the glorified spirits in Heav’n.

    Augustus Montague Toplady.

  2. “I must deprecate, and I do it in love, the use of uncouth and newfangled terms and phrases in teaching sanctification. I plead that a movement in favour of holiness cannot be advanced by new-coined phraseology, or by disproportioned and one-sided statements, or by overstraining and isolating particular texts, or by exalting one truth at the expense of another…and squeezing out of them meanings which the Holy Ghost never put in them… The cause of true sanctification is not helped, but hindered, by such weapons as these. A movement in aid of holiness which produces strife and dispute among God’s children is somewhat suspicious.” – JC Ryle

  3. One of three hymns sponsored in a forum that is hosted by yours truly.

    As a reminder, the “hymn of this forum,” by Ms. Havergal. Ever-fresh and strengthening, God’s gracious covenant with us and our children. Ms. Frances Ridley Havergal. Ms. Havergal was raised in the home of a 19th cent. Church of England cleric’s home. She was baptized and buried in the Church of England, a servant of the Covenanting-Redeemer, the Eternal Three-in-One. Mr. Packer does not connect this grand hymn to a tune, but it works with the “Old 100th.”

    We’re using the tune of the old 100th to the lyrics by Ms. Havergal. We have no other option. We can find no tune to Ms. Havergal’s composition, an astute hymn capturing the essentials of the covenant of grace made with our forefathers, ourselves and our children by baptism, affirmed in the frequent Lord’s Supper, and HM’s Gospel. Ever sure in these troubled times.

    Ms. Frances Ridley Havergal. No known tune to this scribe, but it works with the “Old 100th.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NcyUMT7uhzE

    1. Jehovah’s covenant shall endure,
    All ordered, everlasting, sure!
    O child of God, rejoice to trace
    Thy portion in its glorious grace

    2. ‘Tis thine, for Christ is given to be
    The covenant of God to thee;
    In him, God’s golden scroll of light
    The darkest truths are clear and bright.

    3. O sorrowing sinner, well he knew,
    Ere time began, what he would do!
    Then rest thy hope within the veil;
    His covenant mercies shall not fail.

    4. O doubting one, Eternal Three
    Are pledged in faithfulness for thee;
    Claim every promise sweet and sure,
    By covenant oath of God secure.

    5. O feeble one, look up and see
    Strong consolation sworn for thee;
    Jehovah’s glorious arm is shown
    His covenant strength is all thine own.

    6. O mourning one, each stroke of love
    A covenant blessing yet shall prove;
    His covenant love shall be thy stay;
    His covenant grace be as thy day.

    7. O Love that chose, O Love that died,
    O Love that sealed and sanctified
    All glory, glory be,
    O covenant Triune God, to thee

  4. Amen and Amen and Amen. I think I’m starting to understand why I could sit in a PCA church four four years and, when the cross was mentioned, hear only the perfidiousness of my Dad’s ancestors and nothing of the atonement. I pray for the preacher’s sake that I’d been nodding off or something and missed it thus. In any case, the man posted letters on the bulleting board defending Shepherd and had FV sympathies.

  5. The undermining of the gospel is necessarily and always in the minimizing or distorting the reformed doctrine of justification. Why?… as Luther wrote, it is the article upon which the church stands and falls, and of which Calvin wrote, “justification by faith is the hinge on which all true religion turns.”

  6. Jack, I take it then that you would argue that the minimizing or distorting the Reformed doctrine of sanctification doesn’t undermine the gospel?

    • David R,
      Why would you “take” that assumption? To emphasize justification in the gospel is not to undermine sanctification. They aren’t in competition. Where does Paul (since he writes more specifically than any) emphasize sanctification with the gospel in the way he does with justification? In Romans and Galatians he goes to great lengths to emphatically defend justification as the core message of the gospel –

      2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not toward God.

      3 For what saith the scripture? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness.

      4 Now to him that worketh, the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but as of debt.

      5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness.

      6 Even as David also pronounceth blessing upon the man, unto whom God reckoneth righteousness apart from works,

      7 saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, And whose sins are covered.

      8 Blessed is the man to whom, the Lord will not reckon sin.

      9 Is this blessing then pronounced upon the circumcision, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say, To Abraham his faith was reckoned for righteousness.

  7. Jack, I wasn’t assuming. I was reading your words, “The undermining of the gospel is necessarily and always in the minimizing or distorting the reformed doctrine of justification.” I agree that “To emphasize justification in the gospel is not to undermine sanctification,” but that’s not the same thing, is it?

    • David,
      “To emphasize justification in the gospel is not to undermine sanctification,” but that’s not the same thing, is it?

      Of course not. But without justification through faith (God justifying the ungodly) there is no gospel. And it follows that without justification through faith there is no sanctification. God sanctifies those he has justified.

  8. Jack, I agree. It just looked to me like you were saying that the gospel is only corrupted when the doctrine of justification is corrupted. I hope you can see how what you wrote can be interpreted that way. I’m glad to see you didn’t mean that.

  9. >>>>“so his followers must be faithful in order to inherit the blessing”<<<<

    This is a pervasive belief in modern evangelicalism. I call it "working for the blessing."

    "Be good and do good!"

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