My first interaction with the theology of Norman Shepherd probably came in seminary. He was dismissed from his position as a professor in a Reformed and Presbyterian seminary, where he taught the course on the doctrine of salvation (soteriology) in 1981. I began seminary in 1984. Perhaps I heard something about this controversy as a college student. The point is that we have been dealing with what we now know as the self-named Federal Vision theology for a long time now. When we consider that the same set of questions has arisen regularly since the early 16th century, we realize that we have always had this problem with us and it shall likely always plague us. The Apostle Paul faced it in his day. Whatever name we might give a particular manifestation the problem is moralism (i.e., salvation by being good), the doctrine that sinners may be saved (justified and sanctified) on the basis of or through the means of grace and works.
At a conference this fall someone asked, “having been to a church where works-based theology was an issue, how do we keep people aware that this is still a thing today?”
1. The first step is to recognize that moralists (in our day the so-called Federal Visionists and their defenders and enablers) exist. When the Shepherd case became public knowledge in the 70s one of the initial responses was to say, “I cannot believe that we are having this discussion after all these years.” The assumption is that the doctrine of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) is so clearly expressed and so basic to the Reformation that it is beyond question. It should be. It is, after all, as J. H. Alsted said in 1618, “the article of the standing or falling of church” but just as in a mass shooting or a medical emergency the first response is often denial: “this cannot be happening.” The surprise we experience when such a foundational doctrine is undermined or even openly attacked comes because many of us are not aware of the history of the doctrine or of the Reformation itself. Almost as soon as the Protestants began articulating the Reformation doctrine of salvation some within their midst began to undermine it either by denying the abiding validity of the moral law (antinomianism) or by nomism (and later neo-nomianism or renewed nomism). As settled as the doctrine became in the middle of the 16th century it became so amidst controversy. In other words, we should not be surprised that some, even favored and beloved teachers who are regarded as godly and useful should be found to be undermining the doctrine of free salvation. It has always been that way.
2. The second step is never to “move on” from the gospel of free salvation. One of the more important mistakes made in the wake of the first phase of the Shepherd case was for ministers, elders, and laity to say to themselves and to each other that they had dealt with the problem and it was time to “move on.” Many times I have heard it said, “We know what the gospel is. We need to move on to the Christian life.” That sentiment is one of the pre-conditions of moralism or nomism. We can never “move on” from the gospel of free salvation. Imagine had someone said to Moses, “Yes, yes, I know that Yahweh graciously delivered out of Egypt by his mighty right hand but that was then and this is now. We need to get on with it.” The Psalmists certainly did not look at salvation that way. They consistently looked back to Yahweh’s free salvation of his people as the paradigm for the believing life. Paul did the same with the death of Christ. We do the same in the Belgic Confession when we confess in art. 34 that “the Son of God is our Red Sea.” That reality is the touchstone of the entire Christian life. We live, in union with Christ. We live out of the knowledge that by grace alone, through faith alone, we died with Christ. We have been raised with him. The good news is our life.
3. Know the signs. In self-defense courses instructors teach that the first and most important thing one can do to keep safe is to pay attention to what is going on around one. Going about with one’s eyes on one’s phone is exactly the wrong thing to do. What we call “paying attention,” they call “situational awareness.” Does anything or anyone look out of place? They teach students to condition themselves to admit that what we hope will not happen really is happening. That sound you heard downstairs may actually be glass breaking. Those fellows running into the bank with masks on their faces really are bank robbers. Many of us go about in denial. We do not like to think that terrible things really are happening right in front of us. So it is with the doctrine of free salvation. It is difficult for us to see that teachers whom we otherwise admire really do not understand this in the same way Paul did or the way the Reformation churches do. There are many reasons for this but just because a teacher has been valuable in the past does not mean that he is infallible now. In the early 5th century AD, when a British monk named Pelagius began to contest Augustine’s doctrine of salvation his friends defended him on the grounds that he was a pious man used by God in many good ways. Fortunately, the churches paid attention to what Pelagius and his friends were teaching and declared it at the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) to heresy against the ecumenical faith. Arminius’ defenders made the same case, that Arminius loved the Lord and his Word, that he was pious and beloved by his students. Again, the Synod of Dort (1618-19) focused on what Arminius et al. were teaching rather than upon his piety. So we must do.
After all, in the age of the internet, error is only a click away. Further, to take but on example, the Federal Visionists have apparently decided that they want to continue to teach Federal Vision doctrine but they no longer want to be called “Federal Visionists” (even though they gave this name to their doctrine). Thus, when asked whether one agrees with the Federal Vision theology, they are likely to say, “Well, who really knows what the Federal Vision really is?” This is what we in the business call a dodge. Again, it is not really new. The Evil One said, “Has God really said?” We know what the Federal Vision theology is. They have summarized it for us in their Joint Federal Vision statement (2007) and it has been described clearly and accurately in numerous ecclesiastical reports. The PCA, the URCNA, the OPC, the RCUS among others were all able to identify the key doctrines, most central of which this: every baptized person receives Christ and his benefits (election, justification, union, adoption etc) and retains them by cooperation with grace. Most of the NAPARC denominations and federations have identified and rejected the Federal Vision doctrine. Thus, it is not so elusive after all. Just because a Federal Visionist no longer wishes to bear the name does not mean that he is no longer a Federal Visionist. Pay attention. Read beyond the headlines. If a writer says that he no longer wishes to be called a Federal Visionist but continues to affirm the tenets of FV, then he is a Federal Visionist.
4. The next thing to do is to call the cops, as it were. Should you hear some one entering your home at 2:00 AM, you would call 911 and take other prudent measures. In case of moralism, of course I do not mean to call 911, the city police, or the sheriff. I am speaking figuratively. You should, however, call your pastor and/or your elders. They cannot be everywhere or see everything. Most pastors and elders are paying attention (as they ought) to their congregations but you as an engaged lay person might become aware of teaching in the congregation or elsewhere that is entering the congregation through a small-group study or perhaps in discussion. When you come across nomism (salvation by law-keeping), moralism (salvation by being good), or Federal Vision theology, or a “two-stage” doctrine of salvation (an initial justification or salvation sola gratia, sola fide and an ostensible “final” justification or salvation through works) tell your pastor and elders. It is their high calling from God to protect you and the rest of the flock from such errors. This is why we have confessions and catechisms. Our doctrine of salvation is very clear and it says nothing of baptismal election or two stages of salvation. It does say:
That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me, that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
The good news is not that God has done his part and now I must do my part to receive it. That is the very mess from which the Reformation rescued us. The good news is that Jesus accomplished our salvation for us and graciously administers it to his people who, in union with Christ, gratefully respond by living for him. We obey not in order to be saved finally but because we have been saved freely.
5. 2018–19 is the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dort so a fifth point is in order: pray and attend to the preaching of the gospel, to the use of the sacraments (the due use of the ordinary means of grace). This is, after all, a spiritual matter. If you find yourself confronting a corruption of the gospel you may find yourself under spiritual attack. The only response to a spiritual attack is a spiritual defense. Prayer and the means of grace are essential weapons in any response to spiritual and theological corruption.
Most of the time the fellow walking by is just out for exercise but sometimes he is casing the neighborhood. There is a difference between paying attention and being paranoid and in a time when well-known evangelical teachers are being confusing about the the gospel it is only reasonable to take prudent precautions.
- Forty-Three Years of Federal Vision Theology
- On Sanctification and the Third Use of the Law
- Resources on Justification and Sanctification
- For Those Just Tuning In: What Is the Federal Vision?
- The Moralists Will Be Back
- The Arminius Paradigm