It is ironic that, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Reformed-ish wing of evangelicalism is having a controversy over salvation. It has been proposed by a leading evangelical pastor that we are initially justified by grace alone, through faith alone but saved finally only through “that fruit and that faith.” At least one of his apologists, when asked directly whether he was affirming salvation through works answered unequivocally: “yes.” Of course, by now you have seen the headline from the Desiring God Twitter feed declaring, “You are not saved through faith alone. Be killing sin.” Some apologists for this doctrine and rhetoric are appealing to the Epistle of James, as if the Protestants never wrote any commentaries on it, as if the 16th-century Romanist interpretation of James is obviously the only interpretation. Still others are alleging that anyone who denies this formulation is antinomian.
When the followers of Norman Shepherd dubbed themselves “the Federal Vision” (c. 2001) and began attempting to popularize his gross errors again, in the wake of his book, The Call of Grace, several orthodox Presbyterian and Reformed folk said to me that they were shocked that we are “having this discussion again,” that they thought that “justification was settled doctrine.” My reply then as now is to note that history tells a different story. As I noted in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry (2007) and have noted in this space since that time, almost as soon as the Reformation achieved clarity on salvation it came under attack from two sides: the antinomians, who would not tolerate the abiding validity of the moral law as the norm of the Christian life and the nomists, who would not abide free salvation earned for the elect and freely applied by the Holy Spirit. They wanted to include the fruit and evidence of salvation (justification and sanctification), i.e., good works into the ground (the basis for God’s declaration of righteousness) or the instrument (faith resting and receiving Christ and his righteousness). Even as the orthodox Lutherans and Reformed were consolidating their shared understanding of these things (on this see, e.g., Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology 3.232ff) the two errant sides (the antinomians and the nomists) were pecking away at the heart and soul of the Reformation. Neither the antinomians nor the nomists accepted the pan-Protestant settlement as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude (or law, gospel, and Spirit-wrought sanctification in union with Christ and communion with the church).
So it has been ever since. In the 18th century, when Thomas Boston and others (the so-called 12 Apostles) re-discovered the 17th-century Marrow of Modern Divinity, it set the Scottish Presbyterian Church on fire with controversy because it had already become dominated by nomists. They were charged with teaching antinomianism simply for preaching the gospel, for teaching Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. So it is today. There are some who identify with the 18th-century nomists, who opposed the Marrow men. Most of them think that Norman Shepherd was railroaded out of job because he was “the last Reformed theologian,” who opposed the growing influence of broad evangelicalism within Presbyterianism. Like the Wizard of Oz they want desperately for you to ignore the man behind the curtain and the obvious: the NAPARC churches have universally condemned Shepherd’s soteriology.
As with the Federal Vision controversy the contemporary nomists ignore distinctions vital to Reformed theology:
For orthodox, confessional Protestants, whether Lutheran or Reformed, there has never been any question whether regenerate, believing persons saved sola gratia, sola fide will be graciously, gradually sanctified nor that out of salvation God produces in us the fruit of good works. Sanctification and good works are said to accompany true faith. This is how the churches summarize this doctrine in the Westminster Confession of Faith (11.2):
2. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.
Notice what faith does in justification. It rests and receives. The nomists hate this. They like the Roman doctrine that faith is “formed by love,” i.e., that faith does what it does (saves) because it is what it is, i.e., becoming a reality. a saving virtue, by grace and cooperation with grace. Bob Godfrey explained this difference very well in his essay in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry on the difference between faith that looks to Christ and faith that is “formed by love” (fides formata caritate).
The orthodox Reformed and Presbyterian confession is that faith is accompanied by “all other saving graces” so that it is not alone (that would be sola fides) but those graces never become the ground or instrument of our salvation. Christ’s righteousness for us is the ground and faith is the sole instrument of our salvation. The accompanying graces do not make faith what it is. Christ makes faith powerful. Saving faith is not dead. It lives because it is the gift of God and it rests in and receives Christ, who graciously works sanctity in the believer.
One of the most alarming aspects of the current controversy is that our neonomists do not seem to understand the Reformed and Presbyterian doctrine that faith is the sole instrument of salvation. We signal that instrumental function with the English preposition through. The elect are saved by grace (divine favor) alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). Any attempt to supplement the sole instrument of our salvation (justification and sanctification) necessarily makes, in the words of the Belgic Confession 22), Christ “but half a Savior.” The Heidelberg Catechism agreed:
18. But who now is that Mediator, who in one person is true God and also a true and righteous man?
Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is freely given unto us for complete redemption and righteousness.
30. Do those also believe in the only Savior Jesus, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else?
No, although they make their boast of Him, yet in deeds they deny the only Savior Jesus, for either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior, must have in Him all that is necessary to their salvation.
If our good works become any part of the ground or instrument of our salvation, then Christ has been reduced to a mere facilitator, as if he said on the cross: “I have done my part, now you do yours.” To any such suggestion the Reformed Churches reply:
For it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith has his salvation entirely. Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God—for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified “by faith alone” or by faith “apart from works.”
We are in the midst of an attempted coup. Some want to take us back to the nomism of the 1520s–50s or back to the nomism of the 18th century as if that was the normative theology of the P&R churches. It is not. Brothers and sisters, we have a confession (the Belgic, the Heidelberg, the Canons, the Westminster Standards) and it is quite clear on this.
The Federal Visionists, whom the critics of the Reformed confession either support or tolerate, could not tell the difference between is and through or because. Thus, in turns, they would claim good works as the ground or instrument of justification. We are having essentially the same argument today with those who want to make good works the instrument of salvation. They seem not to grasp the difference between is and through. Scripture says (e.g., John 15) that it is the case that certain things shall be true of believers. It does not say that they are saved by or through those things. This leads us to word condition about which many pixels have been burned. It is the case that believers are being gradually, graciously sanctified. That Spirit-wrought reality, however, never becomes either the ground or instrument of our salvation. It is a condition in the sense that believers are in a state of Spirit-wrought holiness at their glorification. It is the case that believers will and shall do good works. That is what happens. It is what believers do. This is James’ teaching in James chapter 2. Their problem was that they were confessing Deuteronomy 6:4 but they were not evidencing new life and true faith in their lives. James was preaching the law to them, convicting them of sin, driving them back to Christ and to faith in him and to repentance.
Again, if our sanctity or the good works that issue from it, is any part of the ground or instrument of our salvation then not only is Christ but half a Savior but we are lost because none of us leaves this life perfectly sanctified or produces works of sufficient quality or quantity to be saved through them.
Here the Westminster Shorter Catechism is eminently clear and helpful:
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.
God the Spirit is graciously sanctifying his people. He is enabling us to struggle against sin, putting it to death in us and making us alive to Christ (Heidelberg 88–90). We do struggle against sin—we must!—but sanctification is by grace alone, through faith alone. It is a gospel mystery, not a legal mystery. We do good works for our neighbor not in order that we might be saved (that is Roman doctrine) but because we have been saved, i.e., we are now completely and finally justified and we are being graciously sanctified. We have been sealed (Eph 1:13; 4:30).
The truth is that there are some out there who do not like our this aspect of the Reformed confession, who want to change it. They do not like the covenants of works and covenant of grace. They reject the covenant of works but, were it possible, they would turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. This is the result of speaking of two “stages” of salvation (initial and final). They make our entrance into heaven conditioned not upon Christ’s work for us but our work for him.
It is remarkable that, on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we are having this argument again but Luther would not be surprised. It happened in his life time and it has happened repeatedly since. We might even be thankful for the opportunity it gives us to refresh our understanding and give thanks again for the blessing of the Reformation and most of all for those glorious words: “It is finished.”