We are approaching on Reformation Day again this seems like a good time to cover the basics again. The medieval church came to teach that we enter a state of grace through baptism. According to the medieval church, we remain in a state of grace by the exercise of our free will, which we were said to have retained after the fall, in cooperation with grace. This consensus was confirmed at the Council of Trent and became Roman Catholic dogma.
It remains Roman dogma:
§1989The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man (Catechism of the Catholic Church)
For Rome, acceptance with God includes forgiveness but it “with justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us” (ibid, §1991). Justification
establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent (ibid, §1993)
As part of this article, the catechism quotes the teaching of Session VII of the Council of Trent (1547), which declared “man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it.” According to Rome, the Spirit enables our cooperation but we must do our part. It can be lost, unless we do our part.
The Reformation was a repudiation of the scheme of acceptance with God on the basis of forgiveness plus moral renovation, i.e., by grace and cooperation with grace or by grace and faithfulness. According to the Augsburg Confession (1530), Article 4, the Protestants confess:
men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.
Article 11 of the Anglican Articles (1552, 1563, 1571) confesses:
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort; as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.
Article 18 of the French Confession (1559):
XVIII. We believe that all our justification rests upon the remission of our sins, in which also is our only blessedness, as says the Psalmist (Psa. 32:2). We therefore reject all other means of justification before God, and without claiming any virtue or merit, we rest simply in the obedience of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to us as much to blot out all our sins as to make us find grace and favor in the sight of God. And, in fact, we believe that in falling away from this foundation, however slightly, we could not find rest elsewhere, but should always be troubled. Forasmuch as we are never at peace with God till we resolve to be loved in Jesus Christ, for of ourselves we are worthy of hatred.
Article 23 of the Belgic Confession (1561):
We believe that our blessedness lies in the forgiveness of our sins because of Jesus Christ, and that in it our righteousness before God is contained, as David and Paul teach us when they declare that man blessed to whom God grants righteousness apart from works.
And the same apostle says that we are justified “freely” or “by grace” through redemption in Jesus Christ. And therefore we cling to this foundation, which is firm forever, giving all glory to God, humbling ourselves, and recognizing ourselves as we are; not claiming a thing for ourselves or our merits and leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified, which is ours when we believe in him.
That is enough to cover all our sins and to make us confident, freeing the conscience from the fear, dread, and terror of God’s approach, without doing what our first father, Adam, did, who trembled as he tried to cover himself with fig leaves.
In fact, if we had to appear before God relying—no matter how little—on ourselves or some other creature, then, alas, we would be swallowed up.
Therefore everyone must say with David: “Lord, do not enter into judgment with your servants, for before you no living person shall be justified.”
Question 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism says:
60. How are you righteous before God?
Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.
Recently I received an email from a evangelical, Protestant pastor, who identified himself as a Calvinist, who wrote that he believes “under the new covenant” we enter “by faith” but that “we must maintain our place in the covenant, i.e., justification via faithfulness to the moral law.”
In light of history the very brief history of the doctrine of justification sketched above, this is a remarkable thing for an evangelical Protestant to say. It’s remarkable because it represents a (probably) unintentional repudiation of everything the Reformation stood for and achieved by God’s grace.
The sentiment expressed by this pastor is entirely medieval. The Council of Trent says, “Amen.” The Congregation for the Doctrine of the (Roman) Faith says, “For what are you waiting? You’ve adopted the very doctrine of holy Mother church.”
As he explained his view it became clear that he adopted this view for the very same reason that the medieval church adopted its view and that Rome, in 1547, adopted her view: to ensure that her people would be sanctified.
To desire sanctity in God’s people is a very good thing. God clearly reveals himself in Scripture as desiring, even demanding it of his people. What Scripture teaches and what the Reformation rediscovered, however, is that making our acceptance with God in any way conditional upon our obedience or our cooperation with grace will never produce the sanctity desired.
If grace and cooperation with grace is such an excellent formula for producing sanctity why was the late medieval church in the moral mess that it was? If covenant nomism or covenant moralism is so successful and producing sanctity why did it fail the Galatian church? After all, having sorted them out with respect to the good news the Apostle then proceeded to explain to them the nature of the Christian life that follows from justification. It is clear that legalism, moralism, nomism had not produced the sort of fruit that Paul expected of believers.
Why then, if it failed those NT churches who were tempted by it, if it failed after most of 1000 years of church history, if the universal testimony of the confessional Protestant churches (Lutheran and Reformed) rejected it with one voice, would folk continue to find this proposal so enticing?
Above we quickly introduced the basic doctrine of covenant nomism, namely that God has established a system whereby sinners are admitted to the covenant by grace and they stay in or they retain that status or they retain the benefits given by faith and works or faithfulness or by grace and cooperation with grace. We saw that this is essentially the medieval and Roman view. There are those who otherwise identify with the Reformation who, nevertheless, construe “getting in” and “staying in” that create the conditions for similar problems.
Federal Visionists, Lutherans, and Baptists
Sometimes it is said that one is admitted to the covenant through baptism. This is the doctrine of the Federal Visionists. Lutheran orthodoxy also teaches that God confers salvation through baptism. Article 9 of the Augsburg Confession (1530) teaches of baptism “it is necessary to salvation,” and that the baptized “are received into God’s favor.” More pointedly, Martin Luther (1483–1546) argued at length in his Large Catechism (1529) that though it is true that we are justified by faith alone, the water of baptism, having been joined with the Word of the gospel, becomes a sacrament and so “faith clings to the water, and believes that it is Baptism, in which there is pure salvation and life.” He reiterated that “without faith it [baptism] profits nothing.” For Luther, baptism, as a gospel sacrament, has the same power of the Gospel to effect new life. It God’s work, not ours. Whatever ambiguity there might have been in Luther’s doctrine of baptism, was largely removed by the orthodox Lutherans who interpreted Luther (and the Augsburg Confession) to teach that baptism is a “means of justification.”13 Further, it “works forgiveness of sins…washes away sin…sanctifies and cleanses…regenerates and saves.” Though orthodox Lutheranism confesses a doctrine of unconditional election, they also deny our doctrine of reprobation and perseverance of the saints. According to them, at the moment of the administration of baptism faith is kindled, and one is not only included visibly into the church, but one is made alive and shall remain so unless and until he resists the grace of the Spirit. Not surprisingly, as a consequence of this view, the orthodox Lutheran theologians were and remain highly critical of our Canons of Dort.
Though like the Anabaptists (See Belgic Confession Art. 34) in their rejection infant baptism (paedobaptism) as contrary to the New Covenant, Modern Baptists are actually descended from the congregational and Presbyterian churches. The Baptists reject paedobaptism on two principal grounds:
- It is not taught in the New Testament
- It is contrary to the Spiritual nature of the New Covenant.
In the confessional Baptist understanding, only those who actually believe are members of the New Covenant. Therefore the London Baptist Confession (1689) teaches that those “who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance” (29.2). In the confessional Baptist view, baptism is not merely a sign and seal of what is true of those who believe, but of categorical statement of what is actually true of the person baptized at the time of baptism (21.1). In the Baptist confession, baptism is not about promises made by God, in baptism, and realized by faith, but only about present realities. If the realities symbolized by baptism are not present, one is not eligible for the ordinance. To Reformed folk, Baptists seem impatient. They expect too much of the heavenly reality in this life and they confuse the substance of the covenant (possession of new life, faith, and justification) with its outward administration.
Iin their own ways, the Federal Vision, Roman, Lutheran, and Baptist views of baptism all identify too closely the sign (baptism) with the thing signified (the benefits of Christ). Only the Reformed view of baptism confessed in the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards (1647–48) avoids either confusing baptism with covenant and election or stripping from it the promises of God which make it a sacrament and a means of grace. [Much of this post is taken from the pamphlet, Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace.
Why is Nomism So Attractive?
No one but God knows what’s is in the hearts of other people, so I’m not judging or speaking to personal intentions. We can, however, look at the history of Christian theology and draw some conclusions. This is not the first time that people have proposed the “get in by grace, stay in by works” program whereby our final acceptance with God is dependent upon our obedience. We call this “nomism.”
In every case of which I’m aware, the first motive behind nomism has been to create a system that requires people to be good, to be sanctified, to obey, to be accepted by God. Setting aside, for the moment the question whether it is biblical, it has seemed like a rational plan. After all, if employers want employees to be more productive, they set incentives that either reward success or punish failure. Schools do the same with children, so why not in salvation?
The answer, of course, is found in Paul’s explanation of the difference between works and grace in Romans 11:6
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
Paul sets out two distinct principles: works and grace. The works principle is expressed clearly in Genesis 42:18, when Joseph set a test.Our Lord Jesus articulated this principle to the lawyer who asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. In answer Jesus told him that he must keep the law of God (love God with all one’s faculties and one’s neighbor as one’s self). “do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28). The other principle is grace, i.e., God’s favor, free acceptance with God. John 1:17 makes a contrast between grace and law. Acts 15:11 and Romans 6:14 makes this contrast. Relative to acceptance with God grace is the antithesis of our performance. It is premised upon the performance, the obedience, the righteousness of another for us.
We see the very same contrast in Galatians 3:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
In his attempt to get Christians to be good the nomist sets a test: “do this and live.” When he does, he has turned (the covenant of) grace into (a covenant of) works. Biblically, however, these are two distinct, if closely related, principles.
A second reason nomism is attractive is, as suggested above, that it seems to be so reasonable but there is a difference between reason (or rationality) and rationalism. The latter confuses our understanding with God’s or chooses ours over God’s. This was Luther’s critique of the medieval consensus that we are justified because we are sanctified. He called it a theology of glory.
Acceptance on the basis of performance makes sense to us intuitively because, as Mike Horton and others have noted, we were originally wired to present ourselves to God on the basis of performance, on the basis of our doing. The implication of “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die” and the very existence of the tree of life is that there is life beyond the garden. We were created “good” and we were able to meet the test God set but mysteriously we chose sin and death over obedience and life.
The great error that Pelagius, much of the medieval church, Rome, and all other forms of nomism have made is the failure to distinguish between our abilities before and after the fall.
There are two ways to confuse before and after. The medieval church found a way to do both simultaneously. They came to believe that were broken simply by virtue of being human. That’s first way to confuse things: reading the fall back into the prelapsarian (pre-fall) world. The second way of confusing them is to read the prelapsarian state into the fallen world.
Since the early 20th century there has been a widespread revolt against the idea that there was a covenant of works as “legalistic.” It is has often been rejected as contrary to grace so that grace has swallowed up everything in history. According to G. C. Berkouwer, this is what happened in Karl Barth’s theology, election (grace) swallowed up history.
That “triumph of grace,” however, came at a cost. As we’ve seen in the earlier posts in this series, Scripture has two principles grace and works. The latter is about justice. If grace swallows everything then there is no justice and frankly it is beyond me how one can read Scripture and conclude that God is not concerned with justice. Unless one takes a Gnostic or Marcionite view of the OT (where the “god” of the OT was said to have been a sort of evil demi-god) then we have to reckon with phenomena such as the cities of refuge or the 10 plagues. For those of us who still believe Scripture, who cannot dismiss 2/3 of Scripture as myth, those are taken as real events that witness to something real in God: a desire for righteousness, a desire which he himself satisfied in the active and suffering obedience of his Son, our Savior Jesus.
One consequence of obliterating the distinction between the covenants of works and grace is that the covenant of grace becomes a covenant of works. This is what has happened in the theology of Daniel Fuller, Norman Shepherd, and others who have followed in their footsteps. So, even for those who say they are “all about” grace the works principle comes back but instead of Christ fulfilling it for us, we end up fulfilling it for ourselves and thus the covenant of grace is no more a promise of free acceptance with God but a covenant that really says, “you’ve been given an opportunity: don’t blow it.” That’s a deadly message to sin-corrupted people.
The unspoken assumption behind the conversion of the covenant of grace into a covenant of works is that we really aren’t that sinful. It’s semi-Pelagian. We’re able to do, with the help of grace, for acceptance with God, what God requires. This is what Protestants have called “moralism.” See C. Fitzsimmons’ excellent book on this, The Rise of Moralism.
The two main reason reasons nomism finds favor are both sub-species of what Luther called “the theology of glory:” rationalism and moralism. Neither have anything to do with the Christian religion, the theology of the cross, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection for the justification of sinners.
This essay first appeared as a series on the HB in 2012.