Godfrey on Shepherd In 1978

Editor’s Preface
During the controversy at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia), not only did faculty devote meetings to the highly objectionable views of Norman Shepherd, but they also wrote articles for the seminary’s theological journal and even used class lectures to counter arguments from the other side. One such instance was a lecture that W. Robert Godfrey gave on December 4, 1978 in his course on the Reformation. A high tech student—all it took then for technical prowess was a tape recorder—recorded the lecture and later transcribed Godfrey’s remarks. We are grateful to that student, Ken Myers, and to Professor Godfrey for granting us permission to reprint the substance of that lecture.


Now, I want to pause at that point and do something different… One of the concerns in studying the Reformation, particularly at the beginning but right through the study of the Reformation, is a concern with the doctrine of justification. And as you know, the doctrine of justification has been a matter of some concern around here for some time. And, as you all probably also know, the doctrine of justification is to be debated here in an open session of the Presbytery of Philadelphia of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church on December 16. I’m not a member of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and probably will not take active part in that discussion, but on learning that some thirty-four theses on justification had been distributed to the student body, and having been asked questions by several students about that, it seemed to me that it might be of value for me to comment and give some of my thoughts on those thirty-four theses at this point…

I obviously don’t have time to comment on all of the theses, but I do want to comment on a few in particular. Thesis 3 offers what seems to be a kind of working definition of justification at the beginning, where it says:

Justification is an act of God by which He forgives sinners acquitting them of their guilt, accounts and accepts them as righteous, and bestows upon them the title to eternal life.

This seems to me a strangely and fundamentally defective statement of the doctrine of justification, in that three elements that are always to be found in the confessional standards’ statements about justification are not to be found there. First, there is no reference to our Lord, or a clear statement that it is His righteousness that is the ground of our forgiveness. Secondly, there is no clear statement that the righteousness of Christ, which is the ground of our justification, is His imputed righteousness. And thirdly, there is no statement that that righteousness is received by faith.

Now it seems to me that it is not insignificant that these matters are missing here. The notion of imputation does not seem to function significantly in the theses generally. There is only one reference to imputation, that in thesis 26, where the concept is used to oppose Roman Catholicism. In the causative formulation of the doctrine in the theses, imputation does not seem to function centrally. We will return to the question of how centrally the notion of faith functions as we go along, but I think it is important that in all of the confessional statements, the fact that we are justified by faith is always important.

Thesis 4 offers two kinds of justification: an initial justification in the life of the believer, and a justification “with reference to God’s open acquittal and acceptance of’ the believer at the final judgment.” Now, it is true that occasionally within the Scripture the word we normally translate “justify” is used in reference to the final judgment. But in terms of theological discussion of the locus of justification, as it is expressed, for example, particularly in the confessional standards, justification is never used in reference to the final judgment. It seems to me that when we are talking in terms of theology, in terms of systematic theology, it is inappropriate to talk about us “going to be justified.” Whatever usefulness the distinction has in other circumstances, it seems to me profoundly inappropriate in reference to justification. We are already justified. But I would be willing to argue quite forcefully that it is not true that we are not yet justified. There awaits, it is true, the open acquittal before the judgment-seat of God. There awaits us the vindication of God’s saving purposes. And there awaits us our glorification. But it does not seem to me that our justification awaits us.

In thesis 5, the statement is made:

The ground of justification or the reason or cause why sinners are justified is in no sense to be found in themselves or in what they do, but is to be found wholly and exclusively in Jesus Christ and in his mediatorial accomplishment on their behalf.

This statement certainly sounds good, although again there is no declaration about imputation. But, if we absolutely identify ground with reason with cause, then we have no room left it seems to me for an instrumental cause, namely faith. It is true that faith is not the meritorious cause, nor is it the efficient cause, but it does seem to me that it is the instrumental cause. And in fact faith is to be found in those who are justified. And by eliminating the possibility of faith as an instrumental cause at this point, there is some conflict with the confessional standards.

Thesis 7 says:

In the order of the application of redemption in the case of an adult, justification is by faith, and the sinner must believe in order to be justified; however, to use the categories of antecedence or priority to describe the relation of faith to justification obscures the truth that the justifying verdict and the gift of faith are received together at the moment the sinner is united to Christ by the Holy Spirit.

Well, I don’t see how you can use language “the sinner must believe in order to be justified” without some notion, at least, of priority, if not antecedence. And one begins to get the feeling that language is beginning to cease to have any real communicating power. It seems to me that it has always been the Reformed point of view that there is at least a logical priority of faith to justification, even if there is no temporal priority. And that seems to me to be abundantly manifested in the confessional standards.

When we come to thesis 11:

Justifying faith is obedient faith, that is, “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6), and therefore faith that yields obedience to the commands of Scripture.

If one means by that that the faith which justifies is also the faith that obeys, then there is certainly no problem here, and thesis 11 makes no link between obedient faith and justification. But, if one wants to say that in order to be justified, one must have faith that obeys, then it seems to me one is adopting a position similar to that which some Roman Catholics adopted in the Middle Ages and in the Sixteenth Century.

Theses 13 through 15 are to my mind particularly significant, in that I think that there is in these theses an explicit contradiction of the Confession. These theses discuss the relationship of faith and repentance. In the Confession of Faith of the Westminster Assembly and in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, repentance as it is discussed then as a separate topic is always repentance unto life. And these theses are talking about that repentance, repentance unto life, which, as thesis 13 points out, includes not only “a grief for and hatred of sin, a turning unto God,” but also “a purposing and endeavoring to walk with God in all the ways of his commandments.” Repentance unto life, then, includes endeavoring to walk with God in all ways of his commandments. And this kind of repentance that includes endeavoring to walk, in thesis 14 it is declared, “although not the ground of forgiveness, is nevertheless so necessary for all sinners, that there is no pardon without it.”

And then thesis 15:

The forgiveness of sin for which repentance is an indispensable necessity is the forgiveness of sin included in Justification, and therefore there is no justification without repentance.

Or, one could by substitution say (this is not what is said; I’m saying this is what is equivalent), there is no justification without endeavoring to walk with God in all the ways of his commandments.

What is important here is that repentance unto life in the Larger Catechism is discussed as a subsection of sanctification, and properly so. Because when you’re talking about walking in the ways of God’s commandments, you’re talking about the subduing of sin, and that’s what sanctification is all about. And the Larger Catechism in Question and Answer 77 is very explicit that the subduing of sin is not related to justification, because justification is concerned, not with the subduing of sin, but with pardoning of sin. And if you want to argue that sin is only pardoned when it is being subdued, then you have confused sanctification and justification, and abandoned the Protestant position.

Now in thesis 34, allusion is made to Westminster Confession of Faith XV, 3, which is on repentance unto life, where it is said there is no pardon without repentance. And that would seem to substantiate then the position of the theses. But the allusion is not a quotation and the quotation is “none may expect pardon without” repentance. And I would argue that that’s a fundamental difference. If you say there is no pardon without repentance, you are talking, then, about the ontological state of things: one needs repentance in order to get justified. If you say none may expect pardon without repentance, then you’re talking about the actual life experience, and the subjective apprehension of the Christian. It is true that none who remain impenitent may expect pardon as their experience in life. It seems to me the Confession is talking about the practical syllogism.

In any case, it seems to me that it is an unavoidable conclusion that in theses 13 through 15, repentance has been raised to the level of an instrumental cause equal with faith for our justification. Now exactly how that stands in relation to thesis 5, which seems to rule out instrumental causes altogether, I leave up to you.

Thesis 18 declares:

Faith, repentance, and new obedience are not the cause or ground of salvation or justification, but are, as covenantal response to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the way (Acts 24:14; II Peter 2:2,21) in which the Lord of the Covenant brings his people into the full possession of eternal life.

Here there is an equation of the function of faith, repentance and obedience, not as ground, but as way. And I cannot see how one can conclude anything else but that way here is equivalent to instrumental causality. And therefore, it seems to me, again there is an explicit contradiction with the confessional standards, which declare that faith alone is the instrument of justification. And it seems to me that when you intrude the notion particularly of new obedience as the way of justification, I don’t see how you can avoid making justification a process. New obedience takes time.

Thesis 19 begins with the statement:

Those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and are his disciples, who walk in the Spirit and keep covenant with God, are in a state of justification and will be justified on the day of judgment.

Here again, this strange notion that somehow we are justified and will be justified; how those two states can exist simultaneously is never made clear.

Thesis 20:

The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are no persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified.

“Faithful disciples” will be justified.

There again, it seems to me, justification has become a process, faithfulness or obedience has become an instrumental relationship to justification. Of course one can differ on the exegesis of different texts without necessarily arriving at different theologies, but I think it is significant to note that Calvin’s exegesis of Romans 2:13 is radically at odds with that offered in thesis 20, and Calvin’s position was that, while it was true in principle that doers of the Law would be justified, Paul’s conclusion in Romans 3 seems to be clear that there is no one who does the Law and is thereby justified. Even faithful disciples of Jesus Christ are not exempted, it seems to me, from the verdict of Romans 3, that there are none righteous, no not one.

Thesis 21:

The exclusive ground of the justification of the believer in the state of justification is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, but his obedience, which is simply the perseverance of the saints in the way of truth and righteousness, is necessary to his continuing in a state of justification (Heb. 3:6, 14).

That seems to imply a certain uncertainty, although this is later explicitly rejected. It is true that the saints of God will persevere because of the preserving work of the Holy Spirit. But I do not think the Christian needs to live in any sense of fundamental anxiety about his persevering.

Thesis 22:

The righteousness of Jesus Christ ever remains the exclusive ground of the believer’s justification, but the personal godliness of the believer is also necessary for his justification in the judgment of the last day (Matt. 7:21-23; 25:31-46; Heb. 12:14).

Now the scene at the great judgment where the sheep are divided from the goats does take account of personal godliness. One can say that there will be a measure of progress in sanctification of God’s own, but it seems to me profoundly inappropriate to speak of that personal godliness as being necessary for justification, even at the judgment.

Thesis 23 equates justification with salvation, and therefore seems to want to argue that anything that is necessary for salvation broadly conceived is necessary for justification. But salvation broadly conceived includes justification, sanctification, glorification, and one must still, it seems to me, keep those foci of theology carefully distinguished.

Thesis 24 is of some importance, because it seeks to distinguish between works of the Law, as that in which one pridefully rests to claim the right of justification, seeks to distinguish those from the good works of the believer, which is claimed are not prideful, and therefore are appropriate as the way of justification. I’m not convinced that that is a Biblical or Pauline distinction, and in any case, still raises the problem of the instrumental causality of the works of the believer.

Thesis 25 is significant, it seems to me, because here the question of the doctrine of justification by faith alone is raised. One must observe that in the confessional standards, the formula “faith alone” is embraced and approved. The thesis reads:

The Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone does not mean that faith in isolation or abstraction from good works justifies, but that the way of faith (faith working by love), as opposed to the “works of the Law” or any other conceivable method of justification, is the only way of justification.

Then there is a quotation from John Calvin which seems rather neatly to refute the point of the thesis. Calvin declares:

Indeed, we confess with Paul that no other faith justifies “but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). But it does not take its power to justify from that working of love. Indeed, it justifies in no other way but in that it leads us into fellowship with the righteousness of Christ.

So it seems to me that Calvin is arguing that it is precisely faith abstracted from love that justifies, even though faith in reality is never fully abstracted from its working out in love.

Thesis 26 is a very good thesis, but doesn’t seem to square entirely with the rest of the theses.

Thesis 31:

Because faith is called for in all gospel proclamation, exhortations to obedience do not cast men upon their own resources to save themselves, but are grounded in the promise of the Spirit to accompany the proclamation of the whole counsel of God with power so that the response of the whole man called for in the gospel is wrought in the sinner.

There is probably a good sense that can be given to this thesis. I would be willing to grant that a call to obedience is a proper call for the gospel ministry. But I do not think it takes adequate account of how easily the call to obedience can be linked in the minds of a congregation with a call to save themselves. And I would encourage you all as you meditate on these things to ask yourself how great is the danger in the congregation of people failing to hear the gospel of justification by faith alone, and in hearing appeals to obedience as a covenant method of evangelism, to misread that and to rely upon their powers to save themselves, or to think that they have contributed and added to the righteousness of Jesus Christ. It seems to me much wiser to stay with the presentation of the doctrine as found in the standards. And of course I argue that because I am convinced that the doctrines found in the standards faithfully reflect the Scripture.


This transcript first appeared in Nicotine Theological Journal 13.4 (Fall, 2009): 1–4, and appears here with the permission of the publisher of the NTJ. Thanks to HB reader Nathan Stockwell for reminding us of this piece.


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  1. Wonderful, how Dr. Godfrey exposes the murky ambiguity of these confused statements and explains how they deny the sound doctrine clearly explained in our Reformed confessions, that faith in Christ, whose active and passive righteousness is imputed to us, plus nothing, is the ground of our justification.

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