Principles Of Spiritual Self-Defense

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.


  1. Forty-Three Years of Federal Vision Theology
  2. On Sanctification and the Third Use of the Law
  3. Resources on Justification and Sanctification
  4. For Those Just Tuning In: What Is the Federal Vision?
  5. The Moralists Will Be Back
  6. The Arminius Paradigm

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Thank you for this timely warning. We need to always be ready to fight the good fight of faith because Satan prowls around like a hungry lion seeking someone to devour. I am comforted to know that God is sovereign, and that he can turn evil to good, as we are promised in Romans 8. He even uses heresy to purify the Church. Thanks be to God that this false teaching of covenant moralism has been exposed for what it is and rejected by faithful leaders and ordinary members in the Reformed churches. Let us follow their example. “For there must also be heresies among you, that they which are approved may be manifest among you. I Cor. 11:19 KJV

  2. Yes, an always timely reminder. Heresy will always be with as, and that in the plan of God, that those who are faithful might be manifested.
    But an Uzza-like reaction at the first inkling of any perceived stumbling into the dreaded anti-nomianism hole, is what causes people like Piper come up with a ‘final justification’ by way of one’s works fix for such.
    Whereas any incipient nomianism doesn’t seem to evoke anywhere near a similar alacrity of rebuke and condemnation as perceived anti-nomianism does. I put this asymmetrical response down to our Adamic heart’s secret approval of a justification by our works, and to an indignation toward those who while joyfully serving the Lord according to His Word, seem to find the only law they need is ‘the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.’

    • God has given us the law to show us how we may joyfully serve Him in Spirit and in truth. The Holy Spirit points us to the Word, where we may know God’s truth, not to new, private revelations. The law is part of God’s Word where we may confidently know what He ordains for us to know. The Holy Spirit points us there, not to personal revelation.

    • As has been repeatedly brought to your attention, Reformed theology teaches the abiding validity of the law as the norm for how we ought to demonstrate love and gratitude to God and how to love our neighbor. We DO NOT strive to obey the law to be justified. Christ has done that on our behalf. We strive to obey the law, albeit imperfectly in this life, because God has revealed to us, in His Word that this is what is pleasing to Him. The problem with Piper and other moralists is not that they encourage us to obey the law, but that they want obeying the law to be part of our justification. That is the problem, they mix the use of the law in sanctification with justification. The process of sanctification involves the Holy Spirit, who is gradually conforming us to the image of Christ, who is the perfect keeper of the law. We are justified by trusting in His perfect law keeping on our behalf, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit who is working in us to make us more and more like Him. The law shows us God’s holy, righteous character and it is His ultimate purpose to make us like Christ who has this same character. To conform us to His image is to make us like Him in character, perfectly obedient to the law which will be realized at the resurrection. Jesus told us how to love Him, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” John 14:15-31

    • The law has always been the way to obey and be accepted by God! But Adam, our first representative made that impossible for us by his disobedience. Christ obeyed the law, and suffered the consequences of our transgression, as our representative, that is why we are accepted by God if we trust in His merits. Obedience of the Law is the only way to a right standing before God! That is why David loves the law. See Psalm 119 That is why Paul says in Romans 7 that the “law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” That is the written, moral law of His Word.

  3. What a blessing that we have our Reformed confessions which provide a precise summary of our doctrines. Every member should make it a priority to know what the confessions state as a first line of defense and offense in the good fight of the faith. If we identify something that does not accord with confessions, we can respectfully but confidently bring it before the consistory, classis, and synod if discussions with the individuals involved does not resolve the matter. The confessions give every member, who is in agreement with them, the authority of the consensus of the Reformed churches on their side! It is my understanding that the courageous actions of an elderly couple, who were just ordinary church members, in appealing to the confessions, through the process of appeal outlined in the Church Order, led to the rejection of the covenant moralism of the Federal Vision. What an inspiration they are, to stand up for sound doctrine, and how clearly this shows the value of the confessions, to safeguard sound doctrine, and in giving every member the right and responsibility to fight the good fight of faith in the Reformed Church.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you once again for ‘paying attention’ to this important issue! It continues to matter.

    “Most of the NAPARC denominations and federations have identified and rejected the Federal Vision doctrine.” Yes, but I’m concerned they have remained pretty silent since their 2007-08 edicts and generally speaking are lax on the Rose by another name in their midst.

    “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”

    Thanks again, keep beating this drum.

  5. Means of grace? Lol. That’s as bad as the heresy you wrote about. Grace is free and the only “means” is looking to Christ.

    • Mike,

      The Protestants who helped us recover free grace all taught that God uses means, instruments. They learned it from the Apostle Paul in Romans 10, where God’s Word says,

      How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom 10:14–17; ESV).

      The “hearing” to which Paul refers is the reading (out loud) and preaching of the Word in the visible church. When he wrote those words virtually no one had “a bible” or physical copies of Scripture. They did, however, have preachers who proclaimed the Word, from the text of Scripture to them.

      Our Lord instituted Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as ways of strengthening our faith.

      That’s all we intend by the phrase “means of grace.” God uses instruments.

  6. Get the point.

    However, when someone enters my house at 2:00 AM, I know it’s my grown son coming home from his odd-hours job.

  7. Was the “Marrow Controversy” anything like the Federal Vision issue in reverse? I have read some of Thomas Boston and “The Marrow of Modern Divinity.” Were the “Marrow Men” victims of legalist attacks?

    • The marrow men opposed the idea that the offer of grace would be subject to conditions. By making the offer of grace conditional, the churches had lapsed into moralism/legalism. The Marrow of Modern Divinity explores the wider issue of how the law is to be used in God’s plan of redemption. It shows the right uses of the law contrasted by wrong use as expressed by legalisms/moralists and antinomians. The second half of the book reinforces the right use of the law in the life of the Christian, as the norm for living a life that demonstrates gratitude and love to God and love to neighbor. Obedience to the law does not justify us before God, only trusting in Christ’s obedience is justifying, but the law has an abiding validity in the life of the Christian as the norm for how he is to please God.

  8. Jesus agreed with the lawyer (Mark 12) that it was the Shema that was the supreme commandment, and commenting on the lawyer’s recognition of this, said; “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” What was still needed was the realization, as revelation, that he was condemned and without hope but for grace in Christ, as Paul also so forcefully asserted.

    • Loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves is to perfectly obey the Decalogue. That is what Christ did for us, and He also suffered the consequences of our disobedience. Trusting in His perfect keeping of the law on our behalf is the reason we are justified. We are sanctified by the indwelling Spirit who is conforming us to Christ’s image, to ultimately make us like Him, to be completely realized at the resurrection, as perfect doers of the law. We are in training, if you like, and the law continues to be the standard we are aiming for. No longer can it condemn us, but it functions as the rule or norm of the Christian life as we are being sanctified by the Spirit, whether it is expressed as the Decalogue or summarized as our duty to God and neighbor. God’s written Word informs us how we are to please God by obeying His law. “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good work, which God has has beforehand prepared for us to do, that we should walk in them.” Eph. 2:10 We cannot do works toward our justification, but works, obedience to the law, is the purpose for which we are saved. Both justification and sanctification are by God’s sovereign grace, by God working in us. The evidence or fruit of this is that we strive to obey the law out of love and gratitude to God as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Rom. 12:1

  9. Thank you all so much. This blog is real doctrinal gymnastics. You have really helped me to see more clearly. I was serving as a RE when much of the FV debate was being had in the PCA. Sadly, I did not understand what the big deal was. By God’s grace some of the Elders did and protected us from error.

  10. I am in a PCA congregation with a strong Fed Vision contingent. The main proponent is a man I really admire and learn much from but I have no patience for the Fed Vision stuff. I hardly want to look for another church, it took us two years to find this congregation.

Comments are closed.