It Was A Covenant Of Works, Not A Covenant Of Grace

. . . though this flattening of the covenant relationship throughout the course of history, before and after the fall, may have a superficial appeal, it has huge implications for the way we interpret the respective “work” of Adam and Christ, the second Adam. Shepherd makes clear that he rejects the traditional Reformed doctrine of a pre-lapsarian “covenant of works” that promised Adam life “upon condition of perfect obedience” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. VII.ii). To say that Adam’s acceptance before God justly demanded his performance of an obligation of obedience, is, Shepherd argues, tantamount to treating the covenant relationship as though it were a contractual one, on analogy of an employer to an employee, rather than a familial one, on analogy of a father to a son (p. 39). We should recognize that God always treats human beings on the basis of his sovereign grace and promise. Just as children never “merit” their father’s favor by their good works, so human beings never “merit” God’s favor by their obedience to the covenant’s obligations. However, life in covenant with God, though not “merited,” is nonetheless obtained only by way of the obedience of faith. This means that what God required of Adam, he requires of Abraham and all believers, including Christ.

Lest this interpretation of Shepherd’s view be regarded as a misreading of his position, it should be noted that Shepherd explicitly draws a parallel between what God obliges Abraham, Christ, and all believers to do as a necessary condition for their salvation. In his description of Christ’s saving work, Shepherd uses the same language that he earlier used to describe Abraham’s faith: “His [Christ’s] was a living, active, and obedient faith that took him all the way to the cross. This faith was credited to him as righteousness” (p. 19, emphasis mine). By this language Shepherd treats Christ as though he were little more than a model believer whose obedient faith constituted the ground for his acceptance with God in the same way that Abraham’s (and any believer’s) obedient faith constituted the basis for his acceptance with God. In his zeal to identify the covenant relationship between God and man in its pre- and post-fall administrations, Shepherd leaves little room to describe Christ’s work as Mediator of the covenant in a way that honors the uniqueness, perfection and sufficiency of Christ’s accomplishment for the salvation of his people.

—Cornel Venema, Review of Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace (HT: D. G. Hart)

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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6 comments

  1. I suggest reading the complete review by Cornel Venema. I rejected Shepherd’s theology a long time ago. It is another gospel as far as I am concerned. Good grief!

  2. Mark Jones, Antinomianism p 24–“There was a perfect synergy involved in Jesus’ human obedience and the Holy Spirit’s influence…Following this pattern, although man is completely passive at the moment of regeneration, he cooperates with God in sanctification.”

    Mark Jones thinks his Christology is better than other that of other folks because he identifeis the justification of Christ with the sanctification of sinners. Like the Galatian false teachers, Mark Jones equates “living by faith’ with obeying the law. Jones argues from the fact that Christ obtained salvation “bestowed on conditions” to the idea that Christians must obtain “sanctification” in the same way–, bestowed on conditions of obeying the law.

    Instead of talking about the Christ’s merits, Mark Jones writes of Christ’s living by faith, which was obeying the law, to get to the idea of Christians living by faith, which for Jones means obeying the law.. He has flattened out the difference between faith and works, and between law and grace.

    • I think it is quite problematic to claim that Jesus was justified by his faith. Dr Jones, in his attempt to flatten out the covenant, sees the law as a covenant that required faith and works, as does the Gospel. Certainly Jesus had faith in God, but the law is not of faith. Using this kind of language can only be confusing. We are justified by faith, and Jesus is the object of that faith. Who was Jesus’ mediator? Isn’t it the case that a just man does not need to be justified?

  3. For a number of years I sat under a pastor strongly influenced by the FV movement, who also said good things about Shepherd. I also noted that whenever he mentioned the crucifixion of Christ, he got in a good jab at the perfidiousness of the Jews, but I don’t recall him ever expound how Jesus’ death on the cross provided atonement. I hope I was just nodding off.

    • Could someone who knows Shepherd’s work better tell me how he treats the death of Christ? I was wondering if that justification by faith and works idea and the denial of the prelapsarian covenant of works has a faulty view of the atonement as well.

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