Sinclair Ferguson On Shepherd (1977)

…Dr. Shepherd makes no attempt to define his concept of covenant, and yet it is imperative, in view of its centrality to scripture, theology , and history, that this term should be defined, and used with the utmost precision.

…He assumes that passages like Ephesians 1:1-14 are “suffused with covenantal language”. The present reviewer agrees with this contention, and regards it as important. But Shepherd does not sustain his case by demonstration. He gives no indication as to what covenantal language is, and this is a great deficiency.

…This demands comment. First, Shepherd appears to adopt the view of the prevailing academic critique of the covenant theology of the seventeenth century (forcefully presented decades ago by Perry Miller), which suggests that the doctrine of covenant somehow makes God’s secret counsels less harsh. We ought therefore to look at covenant, and not at election. This analysis, both historically and biblically we reject.

…But most eyebrows will be raised by Professor Shepherd’s comment that “Baptism rather than regeneration is the point of transition from lostness in death to salvation in life” (p 66) – to which, it must be added, he provides a note to the effect that “The position here advocated should not be confused with the sacra mentalist doctrine of baptismal regeneration” (ibid). His point is that when evangelism is election-oriented, it is also regeneration-oriented, so that the whole thing is viewed from the standpoint of the secret work of God. The problem with this approach is that, “Judgments have to be made which belong properly and exclusively in the hands of God.” Just because such judgment belongs to God, the evangelist should not attempt even an approximation” (p 67). This whole view, according to the author, leads to the tension in reformed evangelism of works of preparation for grace, to which he objects: “Even the exhortation to ask for a new heart does not square with insistence on total inability. There is nothing the unregenerate man can do or will do in the direction of his conversion” (p 69). “In contrast to this regeneration – evangelism a methodology oriented to the covenant structure of Scripture and to the Great Commission presents baptism as the point of transition from death to life” (p 71). This, he argues, is demonstrated by the emphasis in the New Testament, not on people being converted, but on their being baptized, and he cites Acts 2:41 and Acts 16:33 as illustrative of this very principle.

There are a number of strands here, and each must be criticised separately. First of all, Professor Shepherd does not seem to give due allowance to the fact that regeneration is not the only work of God. It may have precursors. Jesus said that men, unregenerate as they were, should strive to enter in by the narrow gate that leads to life. Then, in the second place, Shepherd is somewhat guilty of mishandling the texts he quotes in favour of the priority of baptism over conversion. On the one hand the verses do say what he states; but he fails to remind us of other things they state. Thus, for example, that the 3000 who were baptized were those who “gladly received the word”, and that Paul and Silas baptized the jailer because he believed in God. They must have borne the distinguishing marks of a work of the Spirit of God. The apostles must have judged these men to be truly regenerate. Rather than draw attention away from conversion, these instances simply highlight that, for the adult, a profession of faith in Christ, and of conversation was a prerequisite for baptism.

Thirdly, Shepherd is guilty at least of confusion of expression, if not more. It is true that baptism is what “should mark the passage from death to life”(p 72), but it is another thing to suggest that it actually constitutes “the point of transition from lostness in death to salvation in life”(p 66). This is to confuse the sign and the thing signified, and to be guilty of an offence against reformed teaching. Surely Professor Shepherd means something different from what he says? It is perhaps not surprising that, while critical of the current expressions that a man is “truly converted” or “really born again”, and emphatic that in the New Testament the phraseology was that he was “baptised”, and that these other expressions were redundant, he does not himself manage to escape an addition to baptism as the expression of fruitful evangelism, when he says that “All who have been baptized and are seeking to do the will of God are to be regarded as Christian brothers”(p 74, emphasis mine).

Sinclair Ferguson, “Review of The New Testament Student and Theology” in Banner of Truth Magazine (July-August, 1977), 59–63. (HT:

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One comment

  1. Very interesting. The idea that covenantal theology is somehow an anodyne to the theology of the eternal decree (which for too many secular academics, as well as the man in the street, is what “Calvinism” is first, last, and always) is a very common misperception. Yet the two are there, hand in hand, in Zwingli, Calvin, the Puritans…

    Perhaps the covenant is how God’s eternal decree to save the elect by a mediator moves from eternity into our created, historically conditioned lives?

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