One of the main matters of business at Synod Schereville was to address an overture brought by Classis Michigan regarding the Federal Vision theology. As part of dealing with that overture Synod took two actions. First it re-affirmed and strengthened the language first adopted at Synod Calgary regarding justification by faith alone (sola fide). Synod affirmed:
- “that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, based upon the active and passive obedience of Christ alone.”
- “that the Scriptures and confessions teach that faith is the sole instrument of our justification apart from all works.”and determined to
- “remind & encourage individuals and churches that, if there are office-bearers suspected of deviating from or obscuring the doctrine of salvation as summarized in our confessions, they are obligated to follow the procedure prescribed in Church Order Art. 29, 52, 55, 61, and 62 for addressing theological error.”
That same assembly also voted overwhelmingly against the distinctive doctrines that compose the Federal Vision movement. So there were 3 Points on sola fide and 9 Points on the Federal Vision adopted in two motions.
The question has been raised as to who can interpret these decisions by Synod. It has been suggested that only those who were actually in attendance can actually, accurately interpret the “Three Points on Sola Fide” and the “Nine Points.”
This is an odd hermeneutic. Let us test it.
It seems safe to think that neither you nor I were present during any part of the history of redemption or revelation. Only those who were present can (i.e., have the ability) to interpret the history of revelation and redemption properly.
What will our ministers preach this Lord’s Day? Of course, if they are fulfilling their vocations and their ordination vows, they will proclaim the law and the gospel. How can they do it? Scripture was given to be heard, read, and understood. It is true that all Scriptures are not alike plain in themselves, but Scripture is clear enough, with the help of God’s Spirit, to be understood for faith and life, that even the simplest of God’s people can do it.
Let us try this test again. Only those who were present at the Synod of Dort may interpret the Canons of Dort. You and I were not present at Dort ergo, we cannot interpret the canons properly. The skepticism implicit in this proposed hermeneutic is plain. Let us hope this hermeneutical skepticism does not catch on or else soon we will not be able to read the newspaper or anything else for which we were not personally present. This might be a good way to reduce the amount of information and we must consider and interpret, but would also seem to create a very small, solipsistic world.
Fortunately, the Reformed Churches have and should never consider that only those present at synods can actually discover the intent of the document and the intent of the body in adopting a document. When a body adopts a document or a series of points that say, “Synod affirms…synod denies” the intent of Synod is not a mystery, is it? The question remains what exactly Synod is affirming and denying (hence the posts expositing the 9 Points) but it is clear that Synod has taken a clear stand for some things and against others.
Further, it is quite clear from the “Three Points on Sola Fide” that Synod intends to reject the revision of the doctrine of justification proposed by the Rev Mr Norman Shepherd and his followers (i.e., the Federal Vision). Synod’s rejection of the inclusion of works in the definiton of faith as it functions in the act of justification in straightforward. The ground of justification is also completely clear: the imputation of the active and passive obedience. Again, Synod has rejected the views propounded by the Rev Mr Shepherd and by some (not all) of his FV followers.
Why is it necessary for one to have been at Synod to know these things? For no reason at all that I can see. Whatever the skeptics might say, I am glad that the ministers and elders delegated to Synod Schereville spoke unequivocally in favor of the gospel and against the dangers inherent in covenantal moralism.
I am especially glad for the courageous stand taken by men (just to pick one) such as the Rev Dr Cornel Venema who spoke up in committee for the right of Synod to speak on these issues and who gave, according to reports, two stirring and decisive speeches on the floor of Synod to help the delegates understand what is at stake and the necessity of clear testimony to the gospel. God bless Dr Venema and for all the men who stood for the gospel at Synod Schereville and God bless them for creating two statements that even the simplest of God’s people, even if they weren’t present at Synod, can read and understand and apply to our circumstances. May the Lord of the Church grant the Spirit of wisdom and courage to follow through and the intent of Synod as expressed in the two statements.
I do not doubt that being present at Synod does color one’s reading of the motions. At the end of the day, what was adopted, even if it is described as pastoral advice –ultimately all actions of Synod are “pastoral advice” in a federation since any congregation that cannot submit to the decisions of Synod are free to withdraw from the Federation, is still a series of unequivocal denials of error. Those errors are clearly stated and just as clearly rejected.
The pastoral advice is hardly saying, “Well, perhaps you might think about this but if you disagree, well, that’s fine too.” No, Synod said, “Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those who….” The words “Synod rejects” are unambiguous.
As I suggested above, it was said before Synod that the body could only deal with the Federal Vision problem if a minister or elder was charged with error and if that case came to Synod on appeal. On that procedure there could never have been a Synod of Dort. Of course Synod can address doctrinal errors that threaten the whole Federation. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed at Synod Schereville and the delegates found a way to speak clearly to this issue.
It is clearly within the authority of Synod to address matters “that pertain to the churches of the broader assembly in common” (Church Order Art 25). It is clearly within the power of Synod to make decisions that are “to be received with respect and submission, and shall be considered settled and binding, unless it is proved that they are in conflict with the Word of God or the Church Order.” (Art. 29). I see no place in our Church Order for “pastoral advice.” Indeed, the only usage of the noun “advice” that I see in the CO is relative to classis (a regional assembly of churches). In other words, though Synod described or characterized its actions as pastoral advice, absent any such category in the church order, it is very hard to see how the use of those words materially changes the nature of Synod’s actions.
In the same way that those who said that Synod could only address the FV on appeal were wrong, so too are those wrong who said, “Study committees are Presbyterian, not Reformed.” Apparently Synod Schereville didn’t get the memo as Synod established not only a Federal Vision/Justification study committee but also a second to consider the prerequisites for church membership. In fact, there is little difference in principle between a short study committee, which meets while an assembly is in session, and a decentralized study committee that meets in the interim between assemblies. Why are shorter, less well-informed, study committees preferable to ad interim committees?
There Is A Reformed Covenant Theology
Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine. Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those….
This preface to the Nine Points is particularly important as it establishes a fundamental point, a foundation, and conviction that guides the points that follow. Indeed, the Nine Points are really nothing more than an elaboration of this foundational truth.
Reformed theology is covenantal. Yes, Reformed theology may be expressed in dogmatic or systematic terms, indeed it must be. It may and must be expressed in catechetical terms also, but covenant theology is the Reformed account of the history of redemption and it is substantially identical to what we confess in our Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism and to what we teach in our systematics/dogmatics texts.
Because “covenant theology” is the shorthand way of saying, “the Reformed account of redemptive history” and it is that stuff that informs and controls what we teach in dogmatics/systematics and what we confess as churches, to change our account of the history of salvation is to change our faith. “Covenant theology” is inextricably bound up with our confession considered narrowly as ecclesiastical documents and considered broadly as the Reformed understanding of Christianity.
All this is to say that, though there is room for difference of opinion and variety, the Reformed understanding of Redemptive history is not endlessly elastic. It is not possible, e.g., to postulate that Adam was not the head of humanity or if he was he was only an example and that nothing he did does anything more than set a bad example, and call oneself “Reformed.” With such a view one might call one’s self a Pelagian yes but Reformed, no. There is a boundary on which I trust we are all agreed.
It is not possible to say that God established for national Israel one way of being accepted by God as righteous and being delivered from sin and judgment, and that God established another way of acceptance with God and deliverance from sin and judgment for the New Testament church. So there’s another boundary on which we can agree.
Now I have been told for the last seven years that there was enormous variety among the classic Reformed theologians on “covenant theology.” I have been told that there were great differences of opinion of the Reformed of the 16th and 17th centuries regarding their understanding of the history of redemption. As a result, I have been told, we really can’t set up any firm boundary markers today as to what one can say about “covenant theology.”
Well, I have done a little bit of reading (and writing) on the history of Reformed covenant theology and I’m still waiting for the documentary evidence for this claim of enormous elasticity in classic Reformed covenant theology. What I have found are some variations in the language about how the covenant of works/nature/life are described and some variations in how the covenant of redemption is described and, of course, differences of opinion about the exact role of works in the Mosaic covenant, but on the whole I have found a remarkable consensus about the mainlines of covenant theology.
It has been asserted repeatedly over the last seven years that the “covenant of works” is a “Presbyterian” doctrine or “Westminster Confession” doctrine but that it is not a “Dutch Reformed” doctrine. This claim is baseless. The doctrine of the covenant of works was just as widely held among the Dutch as it was among the British Reformed theologians and churches and it was denied or modified by both groups just about as often. There were British Reformed theologians who rejected a strictly legal covenant of works, but they were a minority. There may have been Dutch Reformed theologians who rejected a strictly legal covenant of works in the 17th century, though I’m not aware of them.
I am aware, however, of a number of Dutch Reformed theologians from the 17th century, who taught the covenant of works with every bit as much fervor as any British theologian. Witness 1, Herman Witsius (1636–1708):
In the covenant of works there was no mediator: in that of grace, there is the mediator,
Christ Jesus….In the covenant of works, the condition of perfect obedience was required, to be performed by man himself, who had consented to it. In that of grace, the same condition is proposed, as to be, or as already performed by a mediator. And this substitution of the person, consists the principal and essential difference of the covenants (The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, 1677, 2 vols. 1.49).
Witness 2, Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635–1711):
Acquaintance with this covenant is of the greatest importance, for whoever errs here or denies the existence of the covenant of works will not understand the covenant of grace, and will readily err concerning the mediatorship of the Lord Jesus. Such a person will very readily deny that Christ by His active obedience has merited a right to eternal life for the elect. This is to be observed with several parties who, because they err concerning the covenant of grace, also deny the covenant of works. Conversely, whoever denies the covenant of works, must rightly be suspected to be in error concerning the covenant of grace as well (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 1700; 1.355).
Witsius and Brakel were not exceptional. These two were mainstream Reformed theologians and entirely representative of Reformed orthodoxy across Europe and Britain. Further, we should not accept the premise that there was a distinctively “Dutch” Reformed theology. I find no evidence for such a claim. Scholars of Reformed orthodoxy have known for many years that Reformed theology was an international phenomenon. The British Reformed theologians were reading the Europeans and the latter were reading the former.
From where do these ideas, that there was a distinctively “Dutch” Reformed theology, and that there was endless variety to Reformed covenant theology, come? They are forms of special pleading generated by particular ecclesiastical arguments from the 1940s. The Schiderites/Schilderians, in reaction to what they perceived to be persecution by the Kuyperians, in the midst of a nasty theological and political fight, made the argument that they were the true heirs of the Afscheiding theology (the 1834 “Separating” by conservative and confessional Reformed folk from the national Dutch Reformed Church). In so doing, they cast their Kuyperian opponents as “scholastics.” This rhetorical move signaled to folks in their movement that the “scholastics” (i.e., the mainstream of 16th and 17th century Reformed theology!) were somehow tainted and not to be trusted. As a consequence of such moves (e.g., “Calvin v the Calvinists”), much of the Reformed world in the 20th century lost contact with the sources of classical Reformed (covenant) theology.
In other words, the ground for these two claims is not historical, not grounded in the actual documentary history of Reformed theology, but in polemics that were fueled by an important but heated argument about covenant theology and the nature of the church and related questions.
Folk also seem to get the idea that there is such diversity from reading the variety of idiosyncratic accounts of covenant theology that developed in the 20th century, during which time the orthodox/confessional view became the minority report, back into the tradition. I see this all the time. I have done it myself on occasion. The reasoning goes this way: “I’m Reformed. I think/have been taught x. Ergo, x must be what we’ve always believed.”
Of course this reasoning is completely fallacious but that does not mean that it is not widespread. It is widespread. A great lot of folk seem to think that whatever they have been taught by their pastor or prof must be whatever has always been believed and often in the 20th century, that connection just hasn’t existed.
Some of our writers such as John Murray, who revised the covenant of works, were quite plain about the revisions they were proposing. Others, however, have either not been aware of the fact that they were proposing a major revision or haven’t let on that they were. In any case, with a couple of notable exceptions, covenant theology in the 20th century has been a mess and is not a reliable guide to the Reformed tradition.
Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine. Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those….
Reformed theology is covenantal. Not all “covenant” theologies are Reformed, however. There are lots of “covenant” theologies. The early and medieval churches had an account of the history of revelation and redemption that contained truths but also contained significant errors. Many of the fathers and virtually all the medieval theologians thought of Bible as containing two kinds of law, the old and the new. When these writers said “gospel,” they meant “new law.” According to the medieval church, the difference between old law and new law is the greater degree of grace available (via the Roman sacerdotal system) under the new law enabling Christians to obey the law toward final justification.
The Reformation formulated a significantly different account of the history of revelation and redemption. The magisterial Protestants all agreed the Bible reveals that God entered into a legal relationship with Adam as the first head of humanity and, after the fall, he entered into a gracious relationship with sinners, in Christ. The Protestants confessed that, after the fall, God revealed progressively one story of salvation, by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone. Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, and Calvin (to name but a few) taught explicitly that the Bible has two ways of speaking to sinners throughout the Scripture: “do” (law) and “done” (gospel). Thus, the relationship (covenant) that God made with Adam was fundamentally legal: “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” The relationship (covenant) into which God entered and the promises that he made to all those who would believe was fundamentally gracious.
This distinction between law and gospel was a fundamental structure to the Protestant account of redemptive history, i.e., the story of the covenants in Scripture. Another fundamental structure was the idea of the covenant of grace whereby God made promises in types and shadows (by illustration and foreshadowing) to save his people by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
The 16th- and 17th-century Protestants who developed this covenant theology, this way of reading the history of redemption, also wrote our catechisms and confessions. Those 16th- and 17th-century Protestants did not see any tension between their reading of redemptive history and revelation and their systematic reading of Scripture and their catechisms and confessions. They saw the types of teaching as closely inter-related and as reciprocal. In other words, they said what they did about systematics and they confessed what they did because of the way they read the history of redemption (covenant theology).
What distinguished the Reformed from the earlier Protestants is that they developed a covenant theology more intentionally and thoroughly, but it is important to understand that, in the history of Reformed theology, covenant theology was not some highly specialized, technical, or mystical discipline that only a few illuminati could understand. Covenant theology was simply our way of talking about the history of redemption and revelation and our covenant theology was not terribly complicated.
Biblical Theology And Our Confessions
This is important because, in the modern period, there has been a concerted attempt to drive a large wedge between “systematic” theology, our confessions, and what has come to be known as “biblical” or “redemptive-historical” (i.e., covenant) theology. Prior to the 19th century, however, there was no great dichotomy between these ways of doing theology. In the 16th century, one of the authors of our catechism, Caspar Olevianus wrote both kinds of books as well. About the time of the Synod of Dort, one of the more important handbooks of systematic theology was written by an Old Testament professor, Johannes Wollebius. In the 17th century, the great theologian Johannes Cocceius (Koch) wrote books on both the history of redemption and on systematic theology.
Beginning in the 19th century, however, both liberals (i.e., those who do not really believe the historic Christian faith but who wish to be considered “Christians” nonetheless) and pietists (i.e., those who think that religious experience is more important than the confession of faith) began to set covenant theology against systematic theology. They argued that covenant theology arose as a way of alleviating the problems created by systematics. These moves and claims have been widely influential, even among orthodox Reformed people who should know better.
Thus, there developed in Germany a specialized field of study known as “Biblical Theology.” Since the development of this field, there has been a tendency among pietists (who may or may not be orthodox), liberals, and conservatives to treat “Biblical Theology” as a “scientific,” or “neutral” enterprise under which rubric one may say whatever one will without any regard to what Reformed systematic theology teaches or what the Reformed Churches confess.
This approach to Biblical or covenant theology has created serious tensions, in some cases, in the covenant theology held by Reformed folk and the confession of the churches and the historic Reformed theology. Some folk have seemed quite happy to let this tension continue to lie unresolved. As a consequence of this tension, one may hear a “redemptive-historical” (i.e., covenant theology) sermon in the morning service saying one thing, e.g., that the covenant of grace is a matter of getting in by grace (i.e., baptism) and staying in by faith and works and in the evening sermon one might hear a perfectly orthodox sounding sermon from Heidelberg Catechism Q. 21 on true faith.
Even more unhappily, however, for the last 30 years, some folk (now known as the Federal Vision) have been resolving this tension between their “covenant theology” and their systematic theology in favor of their covenant theology. This move has led them to re-define key words and ideas of the Reformed faith according to the new covenant theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this new covenant theology, there is said to be no difference between faith and works. Faith implies works and works imply faith, even in the doctrine of justification. Faith in the act of justification is said to be “trusting and obeying” or “faithfulness” or even sometimes, “faith and works.” Why? Because this is how the Federal Vision movement has come to read the history of redemption, as is the story of “covenant faithfulness” from beginning to end.
Of course not every practitioner of Biblical Theology has made this mistake. Geerhardus Vos, who taught in the early days of what became Calvin Theological Seminary, and more famously at Princeton Theological Seminary, set out to show that it was possible to do Biblical Theology AND systematic theology without setting one against the other. As he worked on this project he found himself in conflict not only with the liberals, who wanted to reconstruct Christianity in their own image, but also some conservatives from various branches of the Dutch Reformed churches who were developing an idiosyncratic covenant theology that could not be reconciled with the Reformed confessions and which was quite out of accord with the mainstream of Reformed covenant theology from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Vos published his work in several volumes. His lectures on Biblical Theology were later published in a volume by that title. Since Vos, however, practitioners of Biblical Theology in the Netherlands, Britain, Australia, and in the USA have continued to set Biblical Theology against systematics and the confessions as if they were in tension. In other words, folk have not always written and taught their account of the history of redemption and revelation with an eye to the confessions, catechisms, and systematic theologies.
In the recent controversies over covenant and justification, when queried about this method, these “covenant theologians” have replied, “we are just following the Bible.” What they mean, however, is that they are trying to read the Bible as if no one has ever done it before. When folk try to read the Bible as if no one has ever done it before, we call that “biblicism.” This approach to Scripture is very influential among American evangelicals and surprisingly, among liberals. Indeed, the earliest “liberals,” in the 16th and 17th centuries, were known as Socinians. They rejected the Protestant faith because, they said, it wasn’t biblical enough. They said “we are just following the Bible” as they denied the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, justification sola gratia, sola fide, and eventually, the Trinity. This biblicism has affected the Reformed churches. Some of the Remonstrants (Arminians) in the 17th century, rejected at the Synod of Dort, also argued that they were “just following the Bible.” Eventually, the Socinians and some of the Remonstrants coalesced and formed the basis for the modern Unitarian movement.
So, we should be alert and wary when folk say, “I am just following the Bible.” Indeed, frequently in our contemporary discussions, when criticized, the FV folk will reply, “I am just following the Bible.” Well, that is fine, but the Reformed Churches have also read the Bible and we’ve reached different conclusions.
In fact, no one “just” reads the Bible. Everyone reads the Bible in a place, i.e., in a cultural, historical, and theological context. Further, after Adam, as it were, no one who reads the Bible is the first to read it. The church has been reading and meditating on Scripture for a very long time, but it is common among evangelical and liberal biblical scholars to write and speak as if they can read the Bible in splendid isolation. This way of doing business is bound to create tension between the confessions of the churches and this sort of “biblical theology.”
The Reformed Churches have never taken such a “biblicist” approach to Scripture. We have always related our confessions very closely to our reading of redemptive history (covenant theology) and vice-versa. We’ve always related our systematic theology very closely to our covenant theology and vice-versa.
In the preface to the Nine Points, the United Reformed Churches are saying, in effect, we reject the premise that one can develop a “biblical” or “covenant” theology which in substance contradicts what we confess. In this preface, the URCs are also saying, in effect, we reject not only the creation of the tension between covenant and confessional theology but also the resolution of that tension by the FV whereby our confessions are substantially revised to mean something other than what they have historically meant.
Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine. Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those:
The last point to be made about the preface to the Nine Points is closely related to the first, and it is this: what one says about covenant theology (the history of redemption) necessarily colors what one says about the doctrine of justification. The Reformed doctrine of justification exists within the environment of covenant theology. The latter is the womb or matrix of the doctrine of justification. Whatever a pregnant woman eats or swallows touches her unborn child. So it is with covenant theology and the doctrine of justification in Reformed theology. Thus, the changes to covenant theology in the 19th and 20th centuries have not been without consequences for the doctrine of justification. As Karl Barth radically revised Reformed covenant theology by jettisoning the covenant of works (more on that later) he also radically reversed the Reformed hermeneutic (i.e., way of reading Scripture). Instead of law and gospel (see ch. 12 in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry on law and gospel in Reformed theology) Barth proposed “gospel and law.” This move was followed by some “evangelical” theologians, most notably Daniel Fuller and Norman Shepherd. This reversal of law and gospel (and the accompanying claim that Reformed theology rejects the distinction between law and gospel) is mainstay of the Federal Vision program. They, and the so-called New Perspective(s) on Paul, have us “in by grace” (i.e., united to Christ, head for head, in baptism in an “all or nothing” covenant) and we “stay in” by “faith and works” or “covenantal faithfulness.” Thus, this reversal, especially in the hands of the “covenant moralists” sets the Reformed faith upside down! Instead of the Christian life flowing out of grace and gratitude, lived in union with Christ in the covenant community, we would be, if it were possible, according to the Federal Visionists, back under the law and in constant jeopardy of apostasy if we do not keep “our part” of the covenant.
All of these revisions flow from the revisions in Reformed covenant theology, parts of which were first proposed in the 17th century and which have been proposed and rejected repeatedly since, that took hold in the 19th and 20th centuries.
If, for example, the covenants of works and grace are not distinguished clearly, then the ground of righteousness before God and definitions of faith are bound to change. This is precisely what has happened in the so-called Federal Vision. Having put us under a legal/gracious covenant before the fall, they have us under a gracious/legal covenant after the fall. In this scheme, the terms of “the covenant” (as the FV writers like to say) are and always have been “faith and works” or “faithfulness.” Though he is not clear about most things, Norman Shepherd is quite clear about his claim that we and Adam are on the same footing. Adam owed faith and obedience. Jesus owed faith and obedience and we too owe faith and obedience. Christians who know the greatness of their sin and misery realize that Shepherd has done them no favors, as it were, by placing us on the same footing as Adam and our Lord! Nor has he done them any favors by making the Christ into the first Christian, in the same way as the 19th-century German liberals. In such a revised covenant theology, Christianity always becomes just another scheme for religious experience and moral improvement.
Again, such radical revisions turn Reformed theology on its head. The Reformed faith is a doctrine of divine revelation and salvation, not religious experience and self-improvement (even if that self-improvement is cast in terms of “grace and cooperation with grace”).
Grace is God’s favor to sinners. Adam wasn’t a sinner until he sinned. We, as Adam’s children, are sinners and therefore we sin. We are corrupt in all our faculties:
- In our intellect — we think corruptly;
- In our affections — we love corruptly;
- In our wills — we choose corruptly;
Therefore, “grace” which is not really grace at all, which is thought to be merely divine assistance to those who must “do their part” is not really grace but a recipe for damnation. God doesn’t help those who help themselves. He saves those who can’t and won’t save themselves. Grace is Christ’s salvation of those who would voluntarily choose hell over heaven, who come to trust Christ and love God and hate sin only because the Holy Spirit makes them alive, gives them faith, and unites them to Christ. The story of the covenant of grace is the story of God’s free favor/grace to those who by nature hate him.
So it is with the instrument of the covenant of grace: faith. By definition, faith is and has nothing to do with our “doing.” One critic of Synod Schereville said to me that the language adopted by Synod is imprecise because it uses the verb “to be.” It says “faith is the sole instrument of our justification apart from all works.” If this language is “imprecise” then tell it to the Belgic Confession and all the Reformed Churches since 1561 since this is the very language we have confessed since then! In Art. 22 we confess:
faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness.
We say: “faith is.” We do not say: “the exercise of faith is” (as was suggested by the critic). Why not? We should not speak this way because even the turn to the verb “to exercise” changes the nature of the verb. Faith does what it does, i.e., receives, rests, leans, trusts, and knows, because of the power of its object. Faith has no power in and of itself. That is why the Reformed have often described faith, in the act of justification (which is what we are about here) as an “empty vessel” or, in Calvin’s case, an empty hand.
Faith does not justify because it does anything. That is why Synod was quite right to adopt the three points reaffirming and strengthening our stand on justification by faith alone “apart from all works.” The very point of the Belgic Confession is to exclude our “doing” from the definition of faith in the act (declaration) of justification. To turn faith into any more than this receptive instrument is to make something or someone other than Christ into a Savior. That, the Belgic says,
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.”
Covenant theology is not some innocent enterprise. What a minister or teacher or writer says about covenant theology will, even if he himself doesn’t intend or realize it, necessarily have consequences for the definitions of grace and faith and justification, and it is upon these articles that the church stands or falls.
Point 1: On Adam’s Ability To Obey The Commandment Of Life
Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those: 1. who deny or modify the teaching that “God created man good and after His own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness,”” able to perform “the commandment of life” as the representative of mankind (HC 6, 9; BC 14);
One of the more important moves by those who have spent the last 30 years attempting to revise the Reformed doctrine of justification and Reformed covenant theology is to change our perception of the difference between our state before the fall and after.
What I mean is that, among those who teach the so-called Federal Vision of covenant theology, an antipathy to the doctrine of the covenant of works/nature/life (historically the prelapsarian covenant has been described with all three designations). To be sure, there are folk who are orthodox on justification who nevertheless deny the covenant of works/life/nature.
Those who reject the covenant of works/life/nature typically do so because they think it is “legalistic,” i.e., they think it is unseemly to speak of God entering into legal relations with Adam before the fall. They assume that if God has a legal relation to Adam he cannot also have a filial relation.
This assumption needs to be queried and rejected. Of course Adam can have both filial and legal relations to God simultaneously. It happens all the time. Of course any example to which I appeal now comes from the postlapsarian world, but in principle, there’s no reason why such conditions are inherent to a postlapsarian world. Take marriage for example. My marriage is relational, personal, AND legal. My good relationship with my wife, our personal interaction and mutual regard for one another is premised to no small degree on our legal relations. These two facts complement each other and intertwined.
Others reject the covenant of works/life/nature because they reject the idea that Adam could have “earned” anything from God. Again, this problem is grounded, at least partly, in misunderstanding. No one is saying that Adam, outside of a covenant, could have earned anything from God. The question is whether God is free to establish a covenant whereby he promises to reward Adam’s obedience? Of course he may! Did he? Reformed theology says: Yes, he did.
That covenant has been described in a variety of ways. It has been described as a covenant of works, which focuses on the condition of the covenant. The prohibition: “you shall not eat…” implied a positive command, just as “you shall not steal” implied a positive command to seek the welfare of our neighbor. So, Reformed theologians have, since the 16th century, spoken of a covenant of works. This language was made confessional in the Westminster Standards but when they did so it was quite uncontroversial. This same aspect of the covenant with Adam is also captured in phrase used by several sixteenth-century Reformed writers, “the covenant of law.”
The same covenant can also be and has been described as a covenant of nature. In this case the focus is on the situation in which the covenant was made. Adam was, to use later language, “in a state of nature.” This is a shorthand way of saying that Adam was created good, righteous, and holy, i.e., without defect. Adam was made able to obey. Adam wasn’t a sinner or sinful until he sinned.
The third way of describing the prelapsarian covenant is to speak of the promised reward: life. Here the noun “life” stands not just for bare existence, because Adam already had that, but rather it stands for “consummate existence” or the state of glorification. Adam was sinless, holy, and righteous but he wasn’t glorified. Since the earliest church fathers it has been recognized in Christian theology that Adam was in a probationary state. This state has not always been described as a covenant of works, but this idea of a probation is of the essence of Reformed, confessional covenant theology and it is a truly catholic idea. It has been recognized for the whole Christian period, i.e., for the entirety of Christian history that Adam was the federal representative all humanity and that implicit in the Tree of Life was an offer of glorified existence for him and for us in him.
It is true that some of our modern theologians (e.g., John Murray) preferred to speak of the “covenant of life.” Fine, but it entails all the allegedly objectionable features of the covenant of works and nature and law, so it doesn’t really change anything fundamentally to speak of a covenant of life.
Here’s the problem. The Federal Visionists want to eliminate the fundamental difference between the prelapsarian covenant and the postlapsarian covenant. This is a very serious matter.
In the history of Christian theology, the attempt to flatten out the difference between our state and ability and the conditions of glorification before and after the fall has been known as Pelagianism. Pelagius was a British monk who lived about the same time as St Augustine. Pelagius was offended by Augustine’s doctrine of divine sovereignty. He argued that it would lead to bad behavior as it reduced the incentive to good behavior. The whole Western church rejected Pelagius doctrine that we are all just like Adam and that we become sinners when we sin as heresy.
Now the FV isn’t Pelagian exactly but it wants to put us on the same highway. They might not even intend to put on the road toward Pelagianism, but that’s not really very important. What matters is the consequence of what they are saying.
There are others, who, speaking strictly, are not Federal Visionists, but who also reject any great difference between the covenant of works/nature/law/life and the covenant of grace. They speak of a “so-called covenant of works” (e.g., K. Schilder and his followers). They speak of a “covenant of favor” before the fall and a covenant of grace after the fall.
Well, from the perspective of the history of doctrine this a most unhelpful way of speaking. Historically “favor” is a synonym for “grace” and to say a “covenant of favor” before the fall is tantamount to saying “a covenant of grace” before the fall. To speak of a “covenant of grace” before and after the fall necessarily flattens out the great difference between Adam’s state (and ours in him) before the fall and after.
The phrase “covenant of favor” as a way of describing the pre-fall relations between God and man is profoundly ambiguous. It could possibly mean, “Adam was in a state of divine approval so long as he obeyed.” If that is what is intended by the phrase “covenant of favor,” then all is well. It is, however, a poor choice of words. Do those who speak this way intend to say “Adam was in a state divine approval so long as he obeyed.” If that is what those writers means, why do they not use one of the older expressions such as â€œcovenant of works,â€ â€œcovenant of life,â€ or â€œcovenant of natureâ€? Those who speak of a â€œcovenant of favorâ€ this way seem to deny the confessional, historic, Reformed covenant theology in favor of one of the modern revisions.
Some writers, (e.g., Norman Shepherd), have been quite plain in following the consequences of this way of speaking. They say that Adam would have been glorified had he persisted in trusting and obeying. Jesus was accepted and glorified because he trusted and obeyed and we will be accepted if we trust and obey. Sometimes they even move directly from Adam to us!
There are at least two huge problems here. First, to move from Adam to us, skipping Christ, is just Pelagian. It ignores sin and it downplays the great difference between the pre-fall and post-fall condition of man. Second, it treats us as if we had the same ability as Adam before the fall. Third, it skips Christ. How can an allegedly Christian theology either omit Christ or make him a mere example of how to be good? At best, this approach does what the 19th- and 20th-century liberals did: it makes Jesus into the first Christian. He wasn’t a Christian. He was and is the Christ.
Finally speaking of the pre-fall covenant as a “covenant of favor” tends either to eliminate Adam’s legal obligations or it tends to confuse grace and law and to speak of grace and law before the fall and grace and law after the fall tends to put us on the same footing as Adam. There is nothing Pauline or Calvinist about this at all.
we are not at all on the same footing as Adam before the fall. We are dead in sins and trespasses. In Adam’s fall sinned we all. Christ obeyed, died, and was raised for the justification of sinners!
Most fundamentally of all, as I have already suggested, by minimizing the difference between Adam and us before and after the fall tends to confuse grace and works. Paul was very clear about this:
“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom 11:6)
These are two competing principles relative to justification. They can never be confused. To say “grace” is to say is to say “gift” as Paul does in Rom 4:4: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due” and Rom 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” These are competing categories. Before the fall Adam had no need of “giftsâ€ or â€œgrace,â€ in the sense in which Paul used the word in these verses. Before the fall, Adam was not corrupt or corrupted in any way. Before the fall, he wasn’t wicked. His will was right, his mind clear, and his heart pure. That is why we confess in the Belgic Confession that he had the power to perform “the commandment of life.” After the fall, of course, the commandment of life continues but now we are sinful, corrupt, and vitiated in all our faculties. After the fall we are no longer able to fulfill the commandment of life. We need another to perform that commandment for us and God graciously sent one, in the fullness of time: Jesus the Christ, the Savior of helpless sinners.
Did Adam have “gifts” in another sense? Sure. His very existence may said to have been a gift. All his endowments may be said to have been a gift. Fine, but that’s not what is at issue here. What is at issue is the way God related to us and we to him in the pre-fall state and in the post-fall state.
Is there any useful way of speaking about “grace” relative to Adam’s state or the covenant of works/nature/life/law before the fall? Well, God may be said to have made the covenant graciously. Please note the adverb. The adverb â€œgraciouslyâ€ describes the way God acted in making a covenant at all but it does not characterize the nature of the covenant itself. Adam was not under grace but under law and, because he was created in righteousness and true holiness, he was not a sinner or lawbreaker until he sinned by breaking the law.
The Westminster Divines might have said that God graciously made the pre-fall covenant, but they did not. Instead, they chose to say that God made the covenant of works/nature/life/law by “voluntary condescension.” This was a deliberate choice of words. They focused on the freedom of the divine will. God was not obligated to a covenant with Adam but chose to do. Why did the divines speak so? They used this language and not the alternative expressions because they wanted to avoid the very problem that the Federal Visionists and others have created by speaking of a gracious covenant or a covenant of favor before the fall.
I am grateful that Synod spoke as they did. I understand that Synod chose its words very carefully and avoided requiring anyone to say “covenant of works” or even “covenant of life” but the phrase “commandment of life” is confessional. Whatever quibbles one might have with the traditional phrases it is necessary to affirm a h2 and clear difference between the condition of glorification before the fall (no need for justification before the fall) and the condition and instrument of justification and glorification after the fall; after the fall we need to be justified before we can be glorified).
All this gets back to the basic principle of the prologue: Reformed folk are not allowed to say one thing under the heading “biblical theology” or “covenant theology” and another under “confessional” theology. What we confess must permeate and inform our reading of redemptive history.
Point 2: On The Law And The Gospel
Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those who, in any way and for any reason, confuse the “commandment of life” given before the fall with the gospel announced after the fall (BC 14, 17, 18; HC 19, 21, 56, 60)
This is striking language. Not only did Synod recognize as an error the implicit or explicit denial of the “commandment of life,” but Synod also rejected as an error any confusion of the principles between the prelapsarian and postlapsarian states. The second point is closely related to the first and every bit as important if not more important.
Adam was under the “commandment of life” before the fall. The principle of the “commandment of life” was “do this and live.” After the fall, the “commandment of life” continues to demand, in the language of the Westminster Confession (7.2) “perfect and personal obedience.” The law must be obeyed and it must be obeyed perfectly. Of course, this is exactly what our catechism says:
9. Does not God then do injustice to man by requiring of him in His Law that which he cannot perform?
No, for God so made man that he could perform it, but man, through the instigation of the devil, by willful disobedience deprived himself and all his posterity of those divine gifts.
We were made to “perform” the law. Because we were created to perform the law, and the law is just, the obligation continues even after the fall. At issue here is the divine justice. Those who would elide the difference between the covenant of works/nature/law/life and the covenant of grace would also fail to account for the necessity of satisfying justice. Grace doesn’t have to be satisfied, but justice does. The covenant of works was about “wages.” The covenant of grace is about gifts.
Also at stake here is the nature of grace and the gospel. Those who confuse or conflate the covenants of works and grace also confuse the law with the gospel. Grace, in its nature, is free, unconditional, and undeserved. The revisionists want to make the pre-fall and post-fall covenants partly legal and partly gracious. Of course, for sinners, a partly legal post-fall covenant is not good news.
In this point Synod recognized that there are two fundamental principles by which human beings relate to God: law and gospel. Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83), the primary author of our Heidelberg Catechism and the authorized (by Frederick III, the Elector Palatinate who commissioned the catechism) expositor of it in the 16th century, explained the difference this way:
Q.36 What distinguishes law and gospel?
A: The law contains a covenant of nature begun by God with men in creation, that is, it is a natural sign to men, and it requires of us perfect obedience toward God. It promises eternal life to those keeping it, and threatens eternal punishment to those not keeping it. In fact, the gospel contains a covenant of grace, that is, one known not at all under nature. This covenant declares to us fulfillment of its righteousness in Christ, which the law requires, and our restoration through Christ’s Spirit. To those who believe in him, it freely promises eternal life for Christ’s sake (Larger Catechism, Q. 36).
The other primary author and editor of our catechism, Caspar Olevian (1536-87) said,
For this reason the distinction between law and Gospel is retained. The law does not promise freely, but under the condition that you keep it completely. And if someone should transgress it once, the law or legal covenant does not have the promise of the remission of sins. On the other hand, the Gospel promises freely the remission of sins and life, not if we keep the law, but for the sake of the Son of God, through faith (Ad Romanos Notae, 148; Geneva, 1579).
John Calvin’s colleague and successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza (1534-1605) wrote,
We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity (The Christian Faith, 1558)
Though tragically many Reformed folk have come to think of this distinction as “Lutheran,” nothing could be further from the truth. Our Reformed theologians and churches were, until the modern period, every bit as committed to this distinction as were the Lutherans. None of these writers was confessionally or ecclesiastically Lutheran. This distinction was absolutely fundamental and essential to the Protestant Reformation. For much of the period before the Reformation the church read Scripture as if it were all law. The medieval church and Rome today distinguishes between the “old law” (Moses) and the “new law” (Christ) but it is all law. According to the medievals and Rome, “Do and live” is law and “For God so loved the world” is also law. For Rome, the law is the gospel and the gospel is the law. So it is for the covenant moralists in the current controversy.
Synod said: Enough. This is a basic, non-negotiable distinction. This distinction is not some boutique idea but as basic to being Reformed as air is to human beings.
This distinction was not meant to be an abstraction. According to Ursinus, these principles came to expression in two distinct covenants.
What does the divine law teach?
The sort of covenant which God began with man, in creation; by which man should have carried himself in serving God; and what God would require from him after beginning with him a new covenant of grace; that is, how and for what [end] man was created by God; and to what state he might be restored; and by which covenant one who has been reconciled to God ought to arrange his life (Larger Catechism  Q. 10)
The Dutch Reformed theologian, Herman Witsius, said the same thing:
In the covenant of works there was no mediator: in that of grace, there is the mediator, Christ Jesus….In the covenant of works, the condition of perfect obedience was required, to be performed by man himself, who had consented to it. In that of grace, the same condition is proposed, as to be, or as already performed by a mediator. And this substitution of the person, consists the principal and essential difference of the covenants (The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, 1677, 2 vol;1.49).
Let us be clear here. What is at stake in the second point is the gospel. Is the gospel “Christ was born under the law,” “for God so loved the world,” “I will give you rest,” “And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,” “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” or is it, “If you do your part, I will meet you half way”? This is exactly what is being offered by the covenant moralists (e.g., Norman Shepherd, the Federal Vision, and the NPP), we are said to “get in by grace” and to “stay in by works.”
This is why Synod said, “in any way and for any reason.” Why this language? Frequently in this discussion those who would revise the Reformed doctrine of justification and Reformed covenant theology have pled “good intentions.” With this language Synod said, “Your intentions are not the most important consideration here.” There are simply some things that cannot be said by Reformed folk and “in by grace, stay in by faithfulness” is one of those things. “The law is the gospel and the gospel is the law” is another.
Just as when we drive on the road there are boundaries that we may not cross (lines and barriers) so in our theological discourse there are limits on what Reformed ministers, elders, and members can say and remain in good standing. If we are to remain Reformed Protestants then there are fixed boundaries that must be respected. This is no light matter. The doctrine of justification is of the “standing or falling of the church.”
Point 3: The Ground And Instrument Of Justification
Synod rejects the errors of those:. who confuse the ground and instrument of acceptance with God before the fall (obedience to the commandment of life) with the ground (Christ who kept the commandment of life) and instrument (faith in Christ) of acceptance with God after the fall
When Synod says “acceptance with God” with respect to Adam, they were referring to the biblical and confessional doctrine that Adam was given a law to obey as the condition of glorification.
Gen 2:16-17 says:
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, â€œYou may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Our Belgic Confession calls these words the “command of life.” His life was contingent upon obedience to this command which we, with Paul, understand as a synecdoche, i.e., a part for the whole. The law of God requires that we love God with all our faculties and our neighbor as ourselves. In this case, Adam’s immediate neighbor was Eve but, in a sense, as the federal (representative) head of all humanity, Adam was to love us also by keeping the law, which he had the power to do.
Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15 set the paradigm for our understanding of this aspect of Gen 2. In 1 Cor 15:45 Paul speaks of the “first man Adam” and he calls Christ the “last Adam.” That is, he reads the whole of redemptive history in terms of two representative men, Adam and Christ. One was disobedient and missed glorification. The other was obedient and glorified. In Rom 5, the Apostle Paul uses the same “two Adam” scheme to interpret redemptive history.
In v. 12 Paul says that it was Adam’s disobedience that brought sin into the world. Notice that it wasn’t Adam’s “fall from grace.” Adam’s sin was law breaking. That is what the Apostle John says: Sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). Thus, we confess that sin is “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 14). The fundamental human problem is legal and therefore its solution must also be legal.
This why Synod spoke of the “ground of acceptance by God.” On what basis does God accept anyone? On the basis of perfect legal righteousness and because Paul links Adam and Christ so closely and they are so closely linked in our theology and confessions, whatever we say about Adam tends to color what we say about Jesus. If we say that God would have accepted Adam’s obedience on the basis of grace (or congruent merit whereby God imputes perfection to imperfect obedience) then what of Christ’s obedience? Some defenders of the covenant moralists have said to me that God the Father accepted Jesus obedience by grace. Some of them have argued that Paul teaches this in Philippians 2. David VanDrunen and I have replied to this claim in Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry. The short answer is that this claim relies on a fallacious etymology.
In fact, as we demonstrate, Jesus earned approval from the Father by doing all that the Father gave him to do and all that he voluntarily agreed to do on our behalf. Just as the First Adam was in the covenant of works, so the Last Adam was in a covenant of works. Unlike the first, Adam, however, Christ, the last man did not fail. He resisted temptation. He rebuked the evil one with God’s Word and he underwent the penalty due to the first Adam and all his children. This is precisely what Paul continues to teach in Rom 5:14, that Adam was a “type of the one who was to come.”
According to Paul, (v. 15) “many died through one man’s trespass….” That “one man” was Adam. Again, please note that Paul here speaks of Adam’s “trespass.” This is legal language. This is the language of the courts. “To trespass” is to violate the law. Only in this case does the contrast make sense: “But the free gift is not like the trespass.” When Paul says “free gift” he is speaking of grace. We, who trust in Christ’s finished work, are the beneficiaries of the satisfaction of the law for us. Grace is premised on righteousness. Christ satisfied all righteousness (Matt 3:15).
Adam’s disobedience brought death and condemnation (vv.16, 18a). Christ’s obedience brought grace, life, and salvation to all who believe (vv.16, 17). In v. 18b Paul puts a fine point on things. He contrasts Adam’s “one trespass” with Christ’s “one [act of] righteousness” that brought “justification of life.” V. 19 says the same thing. By “the one man’s disobedience” all were constituted sinners, i.e., Adam’s sin was imputed to us all. So too, by the “the one man’s obedience” will believers be constituted as righteous. Just as Adam’s trespass is imputed to those whom he represented (all humanity), so the Second Adam’s obedience is imputed to all those whom he represented, i.e., the elect, those who believe.
In both cases, the ground of our standing before God was righteousness. In Adam’s case, it was his actual righteousness, under the terms of the covenant, until he forfeited it by sin. In Jesus’ case it was actual, inherent righteousness by virtue of his obedience for us that is imputed to us. This is the ground of our justification.
The Protestant and Reformed view of justification is not that it is a legal fiction. It is not. Christ actually fulfilled the law. That actual, perfect righteousness is credited, reckoned, imputed to all who believe. The ground of our righteousness after the fall is not inherent or intrinsic to us. It is inherent or intrinsic to Christ our righteousness.
The Federal Visionists have repeatedly either called into question the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ, either by denying the imputation of Christ’s active obedience or by quibbling about “imputation,” or by openly denying that we sinners need anyone’s righteousness imputed to us.
Thus Synod also rejected the revision of the definition of faith, in the act of justification, proposed first by the Arminians –that faith justifies because it obeys — and put forward by Norman Shepherd from 1974, i.e., that faith justifies because it trusts and obeys. Of course, it is obvious that if faith justifies because it works then the power of faith does not rest fully in Christ and in his finished work. In the words of Belgic Confession Art. 22, if that were so, “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.’”
The question about the “instrument” of justification is about the nature of faith in God’s declaration of justification. How does faith function in God’s declaration? Does God declare us righteous because true faith “embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own….” (Belgic Confession Art. 22) or does God declare us righteous because we trust and obey? This is the choice faced by the Reformation churches. This was the choice faced by the Reformed Churches at Dort and this is the choice faced by the Reformed Churches today. This is why we deny that “faith itself” justifies (BC, 22). Faith itself does not justify. Faith is not the legal basis for God’s declaration that we are righteous. Christ’s righteousness imputed justifies. Christ’s righteous imputed is the legal basis for our justification. We confess that “faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness.” (BC, 22).
This is what Synod meant by speaking of the “instrument” of acceptance with God. As you know, the Heidelberg Catechism defines true faith as a “certain knowledge and a hearty trust.” Belgic Confession Art. 23 defines faith in the act of justification (God’s declaration) is “leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified, which is ours when we believe in him.”
Because we define faith this way, it is inappropriate to speak of Adam or Jesus having faith in this sense. Did they trust their Father? Certainly! But Adam, in his state of righteousness, needed to trust no one else for justification because he was just. He needed no “mediator,” in that sense. To say that our Savior needed to trust the righteousness of another is blasphemy.
For us sinners, Christ and his obedience for us, in our place, is our righteousness. True, justifying faith leans, rests, trusts, and accepts Christ and his righteousness as one’s own. Anyone, for whatever reason, who says anything else about the ground or instrument of justification before God, is certainly not teaching the Reformed doctrine of justification.
Point 4: On The Imputation Of Christ’s Righteousness
Synod rejects the errors of those 4. who deny that Christ earned acceptance with God and that all His merits have been imputed to believers (BC 19, 20, 22, 26; HC 11-19, 21, 36-37, 60, 84; CD I.7, RE I.3, RE II.1)
I first encountered what is today known as the “Federal Vision” in the late 90s. The movement didn’t have a name but I called them “covenantal moralists.” They seemed to think that, so long as they invoked the word “covenant,” (and affirmed divine sovereignty) they were entitled to teach anything they wanted and call it “Reformed.”
They also found a following by offering an alternative to the way some segments of broad evangelicalism and some forms of Lutheranism speak about the moral law. Some of these groups deny the “third use” of the moral law. In contrast, Reformed folk confess that the moral law (in the Ten Commandments and summarized in Matt 22) is the norm for the Christian life. Thus, when the FV fellows talked about how we have to avoid “easy believism,” (again, following Norman Shepherd) their rhetoric was plausible. Our own sloppiness gave a foothold to the covenantal moralists.
One of the most disturbing aspects of this movement, however, has been that their persistent denial of the category of “merit” altogether. They deny that Adam could have “merited” anything. They sometimes speak of Adam “maturing.” With this they begin to plunge us back into the morass of the medieval and Roman doctrine of the “super added gift” (donum super additum) which says that Adam was inherently defective by virtue of being human and thus needed this gift to enable him to obey the law.
They not only deny that sinners can merit anything, but they also deny that Jesus “merited” anything for us. Again, this move had a certain plausibility among some because of the long-standing Protestant rhetoric about “merit.” it is easy to find Calvin or Luther or any number of dozens of Reformed theologians inveighing against “merit.” Partly we were a victim of our own rhetoric. We all know that salvation is by God’s sovereign grace and we are “against merit.” So, when folks encountered these feature in the FV theology they were predisposed to agree with them.
In fact, if we are to believe the Reformed confessions, we are not opposed to “merit” at all! We need to make some distinctions here. Before the Reformation, the medieval church had come to speak about merit in two ways: condign (pron. “con-dine”) and congruent. By the latter, many medieval theologians taught that God accepts our best efforts toward justification and imputes perfection to them. In this way, it was theorized, we are able to “do what lies within” us toward our own justification.
Let us be clear about this: All the Protestants rejected congruent merit. The fundamental premise of congruent merit is that humans are sinful but not so sinful that they cannot cooperate with grace. This was also a basic premise of the Arminians, that God has given a kind of universal grace with which sinners can and must, if they will, cooperate toward justification.
Condign merit was said to be that which, because it is wrought by the Spirit, is inherently perfect and therefore worthy of recognition by God toward justification. Again, the Reformation rejected the idea that we can have condign merit, but we did not reject the notion of condign merit altogether.
In fact, the Reformed taught that Christ earned merit for his people. Read Calvin, read the Reformed orthodox, confessional theology from the 16th and 17th centuries. They repeatedly invoked the category of merit in this way. Most important, however, is that it was the judgment of the Reformed churches that God’s Word teaches that Jesus Christ merited acceptance with the Father for us. Perhaps you noticed the lengthy list of confessional references given as part of this point? In each of those references the Reformed churches confess that Jesus merited our justification. It is implied in Belgic Confession articles 19 and 20 and explicit in art. 22 where we confess that true faith “embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits….” Again, we confess: “Jesus Christ is our righteousness in making available to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place.” In Art. 23 we deny that we sinners could ever have any “merits” in contrast with the “sole obedience of Christ crucified.” In context here, the words “sole obedience” refer to Christ’s merits. In Art. 24 we deny that we have any merits. We do good works, “but nor for merit—for what would we merit?” You see how the Confession distinguishes between the merits of Christ and our good works. The latter are only a response to grace, the former are the ground of our justification. We speak of resting on the “merit of the suffering and death of our Savior.” Art. 35 also speaks of Christ’s merits in the same way.
The Heidelberg Catechism speaks repeatedly and exactly the same way about Christ’s merits and our lack of merit. The premise and doctrine of questions 11–18 is that where Adam failed to obey, Christ succeeded by obeying God’s law thereby meriting our justification. Question 21 makes point this explicitly. True faith believes that “forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.” Question 56 speaks of the “righteousness of Christ” and question 60 is explicit that by this we mean to speak not of our “merit” but of “all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me….” Again, question 63 (and in Q. 86), our good works merit nothing, but, in Q. 84, our sins are “really forgiven …for the sake of Christ’s merits.”
The doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s merits occurs in the Canons of Dort. In the Rejection of Errors, under the First Head of Doctrine, para. 3, we confess that, under the Arminian doctrine, “the merits of Christ are made of none effect….” Under the Second Head of Doctrine, Rejection of Errors, para. 1, we confess again that Christ “merited” our redemption. We confess that the Arminian doctrine of universal atonement “tends to the despising of the wisdom of the Father and of the merits of Jesus Christ.” In RE para. 3 we explicitly condemn those who deny “Christ by His satisfaction merited neither salvation itself for anyone….” In RE 2.4 we again confess the “merits of Christ” as the ground of our justification.
If you want to read more you can see the chapter David VanDrunen and I wrote on this in Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry.
The evidence in our confessions for the doctrine of Christ’s (condign) merit is enormous, clear, and compelling to those who would be Reformed. That the Federal Visionists explicitly and implicitly deny the doctrine of the imputation of the merits of Christ and tolerate such a denial says a great deal about this movement. Their denial and toleration of those who deny the imputation of Christ’s merits tells us that this movement is patently unconfessional and therefore the movement is not Reformed.
I remember the first time I saw this denial of the category of “merit.” I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how Reformed ministers (who were, at that time, still in good standing in a Reformed federation) could do such a thing when our confessions are so plain about this. How could it happen? There are a couple of answers:
- The 1976 translation of the Heidelberg Catechism does not use the word “merit.” In hindsight, this was obviously a pedagogical mistake. How are we going to teach the Christian vocabulary to our children and to our congregations without using it?
- The FV is clearly a movement that finds its inspiration outside of the classic Reformed theologies (that informed the confessions) and the confessions and catechisms themselves. Oh they quote them when it suits them, often out of context, but they don’t have the same interests or intent as the confessions and catechisms. It is an alien theological system attempting to find a host. I’m grateful that many of the NAPARC denominations and federations have refused to give them a home.
To deny the Reformed doctrine of Christ’s merits inevitably leads to two things, the resurrection of the Roman doctrine of OUR merits and this is what is happening among some of the Federal Visionists. Having denied that Christ merited our justification they have begun to talk in openly Romanist ways about our Spirit-wrought sanctity (i.e., condign merit) being part of the ground of our acceptance with God and some of them advocate the doctrine of God’s imputing perfection to our best efforts (i.e., congruent merit) toward acceptance with God.
There really are two systems at work here: the confessional and the moralist. The choice for Reformed folk is clear.
Points 5 and 6: On Conditional Election And The Two Ways Of Being In The Covenant Of Grace
Synod rejects the errors of those
5. who teach that a person can be historically, conditionally elect, regenerated, savingly united to Christ, justified, and adopted by virtue of participation in the outward administration of the covenant of grace but may lose these benefits through lack of covenantal faithfulness (CD, I, V);
6. who teach that all baptized persons are in the covenant of grace in precisely the same way such that there is no distinction between those who have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace by baptism and those who are united to Christ by grace alone through faith alone (HC 21, 60; BC 29)
With these points Synod struck at what is perhaps the fundamental error of the Federal Vision, which the Nine Points has already addressed in principle in the preface. This is also perhaps the most difficult aspect of the FV theology to grasp. Essentially what the FV movement has done is to set up two parallel theologies, the historical or covenantal and the decretal, that, like a drawing of two lines that converge in perspective down the line. They begin distinct but they end up becoming the same thing.
The FV argues that just as the Lord established a temporary covenant with national Israel so too the Lord establishes a temporary, historical, conditional covenant with Christians today that is inaugurated in the covenant of grace in baptism. Having been initiated into this conditional, historical covenant by grace it remains for the Christian to fulfill his part of the covenant by cooperating with grace. Those who cooperate sufficiently with grace are said to be decretally elect. To facilitate this understanding of “covenantal election,” i.e., an historic, conditional, temporary election they teach that, in baptism, every baptized person is united to Christ such that he has all the benefits of salvation: election, union with Christ, justification, adoption, and sanctification. According to the FV, however, these baptismal benefits can be lost if the Christian does not cooperate with the grace given him.
All this, they say, is the result of their biblical theology. They say they just want to be faithful to the narrative of Scripture and they don’t want dogmatic or systematic theology to flatten out the biblical story. They say that they continue to affirm (most) of the traditional and confessional Reformed theology of election and union. There is, we are told, a covenantal account and a systematic or confessional account. They say that they don’t want to let the doctrine of election unduly color or ruin the story of covenant and redemption.
In this series I have already sketched some of the difficulties with this approach to doing theology. First of all, it isn’t biblical. Scripture itself doesn’t have two competing accounts of the faith that are in tension with each other. Scripture tells the story of the history of redemption and the draws theological conclusions from it. Imagine in the Apostle Paul followed the theological method of the FV! The book of Romans would look rather different. The Apostle Paul had no difficulty relating election and covenant. We can see how he does it in Romans 9. The beginning of the chapter starts with a truly historical problem: the fact of unbelieving Jews. How should we think about the fact that, despite the covenant God made with Israel, many Jews has rejected Christ as Messiah? Is it the case that either Jesus is not the Messiah or that, somehow, the covenant has failed? “No,” Paul says, “there is no fault with the covenant and there is no doubt that Jesus is the Messiah.” Rather he offers another solution, one that seems to have eluded the FV altogether: Election. God loved Jacob unconditionally from all eternity and he hated Esau from all eternity. There never was when Jacob was not unconditionally elect and there never was when Esau was not reprobate.
The FV simply cannot say this and that is perhaps the most damning fact about the FV. They’ve set up a system that cannot be reconciled with Paul’s explicit teaching about the history of redemption and its relation to the divine decree. They have an alternate system that is neither Pauline nor confessionally Reformed.
There is much more to be said about this problem than can or should be said in the space of a blog post. I have addressed this issue at length in two places and in two formats.
You can read online, for free, part of the essay: Baptism and the Benefits of Christ. This essay has been available for more than year and, with one exception, I have seen little evidence that the FV movement has taken account of it. You can order a copy of volume 2 of the Confessional Presbyterian Journal in which it appeared here. I hope to republish the whole essay in a revised form in a collection of essays.
Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace is a popular booklet that covers many of the same issues as the essay in the Confessional Presbyterian Journal but without the same documentation (footnotes, lengthy quotations etc).
The answer to the problem created by the FV theology is to make a distinction which they consistently deny, minimize, or ignore, viz. to distinguish between the two ways of being in the covenant of grace. The great Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Witsius spoke of a “double mode of communion” in the covenant of grace. This is exactly what Calvin taught both in his commentary on Romans 9, in his Institutes (3.21-24), and his sermons on election. All baptized Christians are in the covenant of grace. As Calvin said, to deny that is virtually blasphemy. It doesn’t help the problem to do as some have been tempted to do, i.e., to deny that unbelievers or reprobates have any relation to the covenant whatever. At the same time, it is just as harmful to refuse to distinguish between ways of being in the one covenant of grace. From Calvin to Witsius (and after!) the Reformed sorted out this problem by saying that, though there is one covenant of grace, there are two ways of being in that one covenant of grace. All baptized persons are in the covenant of grace outwardly or externally but they are not all in the covenant of grace inwardly or internally.
Jacob and Esau were both in the covenant of grace. Both had received the sign and seal of the covenant, but the sign and seal were, as it were, fruitful for Jacob but not for Esau because they were not combined with faith (Heb 4:2). Though Jacob and Esau were both in they covenant of grace, they did not have, ultimately, the same relation to the one covenant of grace. They were both “in” the covenant of grace, but they weren’t both “of” the covenant of grace.
Why not? Paul says it was a matter of election.
With this understanding, we avoid another great FV error (one which takes them so close to Arminianism that the two positions are virtually indistinguishable!) that teaches that there are those who are believers who nevertheless apostatize. More on this next time.
Consider this statement:
That those who are incorporated into Christ by true faith, and have thereby become partakers of his life-giving Spirit, as a result have full power to strive against Satan, sin, the world, and their own flesh, and to win the victory; it being well understood that it is ever through the assisting grace of the Holy Spirit; and that Jesus Christ assists them through his Spirit in all temptations, extends to them his hand, and if only they are ready for the conflict, desire his help, and are not inactive, keeps them from falling, so that they, by no deceit or power of Satan, can be misled nor plucked out of Christ’s hands, according to the Word of Christ, John 10:28: “Neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” But whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginning of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of neglecting grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full confidence of our mind.
This statement has all the hallmarks of a FV statement. In fact it quite resembles the recent FV Statement that has been discussed here and in several other places (e.g., Green Baggins and Reformed Musings). It says things that are true. It speaks of being incorporated into Christ by “true faith,” just as the Reformed did, but it also contains much error. It suggests that believers become partakers of the Spirit by virtue of faith. Of course, unless the Spirit has worked through the Gospel to make one alive, he could never believe. Yet it goes on to say rightly that the Spirit gives believers power to fight against sin, the flesh, and the devil, that God gives his people assisting grace in sanctification with which they must cooperate, but again it seems as if we must take the first step. There are certainly shadows of error across the statement even as there real truths in it. If we cooperate, they wrote, we cannot be plucked out of Christ’s hand. You see how this statement makes our perseverance contingent ultimately on our cooperation with grace or our “covenantal faithfulness.” it is possible, the statement says, for those who have “true faith” to fall away, such that they do not simply lose the joy of their salvation or the sense of God’s presence, but that they actually return “to this present evil world….” There is ambiguity here, however. The statement recognizes that this doctrine is difficult and its final formulation has yet to be “more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full confidence of our mind.”
Right down to the closing ambiguity and feigned expression of humility this brief statement has Federal Vision written all over it. Who wrote it? Wilson? (after all it has affirmations of important orthodox points even as it undermines them at the same time – classic Wilson) or Wilkins, Leithart, or Barach –the ambiguity at the end seems to come from his keyboard. Is this a part of the recent FV statement that was lost on the cutting room floor?
No. it is none of these things.
This statement was published in 1610 by a group known then as the Remonstrants. You know them as the Arminians. In 1609, their leader, who spent most of twenty years denying that he was teaching these things, died. Not long afterward, the Arminians or Remonstrants published their Five Articles. It was to these five articles that the Synod of Dort replied.
If you know the Canons of Dort (1619), then you know that the Reformed Churches replied to this article in the Fifth Head of Doctrine. Under this head the Reformed Churches of the Europe and Britain uniformly and utterly rejected the notion that there are regenerate, elect people who fall away from Christ. The Reformed know nothing about a Christians being historically, temporarily, conditionally elect (and united to Christ etc). CD 5.4 says that sometimes the elect “are not always so influenced and moved by God that they cannot depart in some particular instances from the guidance of divine grace, and be seduced by the lusts of the flesh and obey them.” This doesn’t mean that they actually fall away, i.e., that they become reprobate. By this language the Reformed described the subjective experience of the elect not their objective state. One of the great problems of the FV doctrine is that they do not make this distinction.
Thus, believers are urged to “continually watch and pray, lest they should be led into temptation.” When they are careless, “they may be not only be carried away by the flesh, the world, and Satan into great and heinous sins….” If this occurs, as it did with King David, it is by “the righteous permission of God.” This isn’t the same thing as saying that one was elect (in any way) and then fell away.
That the Synod was describing the subjective condition of the believer is clear in CD 5.5 when we confess that
by such sins they very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their consciences, and sometimes for a while lose the sense of God’s favor, until, when they change their course by serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them.
Like the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2, so in the Canons of God 5.6 there is a glorious, “But God…”
But God, who is rich in mercy, according to His unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from His own people even in their grievous falls; nor does He allow them to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption and forfeit the state of justification, or to commit the sin unto death or against the Holy Spirit; nor does He permit them to be totally deserted and plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.
Notice how we speak about election. When it comes to salvation, we only know about one kind of election: the eternal, unconditional kind. So we speak of God’s “unchangeable purpose of election.” From those whom God has elected, God never withdraws his Spirit. They never lose God’s grace. They never lose their adoption or justification.
In 5.7, we confess that God has placed, within his elect, an incorruptible seed of regeneration. Therefore the elect can never fall away, they can never be “totally lost.” In 5.8 this is attributed entirely to the mercy and grace of God. This has nothing to do with our cooperation with grace or our “faithfulness,” but with God’s initiative and sovereign grace. The ground of our salvation and preservation lies in God’s immutability (exchangeability). Our God cannot be changed. His decree (counsel) cannot be changed. Neither can the “or the merit, intercession, and preservation of Christ be rendered ineffectual, nor the sealing of the Holy Spirit be frustrated or obliterated.”
For this reason, we can trust the promise of God (CD 5.9–10), we can have assurance without “any peculiar revelation contrary to or independent of the Word of God” that we belong to Christ and that his elect will never fall away. The source of our comfort, confidence, and assurance is “God’s promises, which He has most abundantly revealed in His Word for our comfort; from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit that we are children and heirs of God….”
Yes, in this life we will doubt (5.11) and we may not always have the “full measure of assurance” that we ought to have, but “God, who is the Father of all consolation, does not suffer them to be tempted above that they are able, but will with the temptation make also the way of escape, that they may be able to endure it, and by the Holy Spirit again inspires them with the comfortable assurance of persevering.”
No, this doesn’t lead to immorality. Grace produces gratitude and sanctity; not all at once but gradually (5.12–14). This is a very important point. Notice how the Reformed deal with sanctity. How do we “get there”? We get there via the promise and gospel of Christ. There’s no shortcut to sanctity around the foolishness of the gospel. If preachers want their congregations to be sanctified, the secret is not to preach sanctity (at least not all the time). The secret is to preach Christ and his obedience for his people. The secret is to preach the unmerited, eternal favor of God toward his people. The secret — and it is no secret really, we’ve been doing it for centuries! — is to preach Christ’s faithfulness in the history of redemption. These are the things that produce piety in Christ’s people.
According to CD 5.15, these things are alien to the “carnal mind.” Telling Christ’s people to “be pious,” however intuitive it might be, isn’t going to work, neither will it work (contrary to the expectations of Francis Beckwith, who recently converted to Rome, partly because he felt he had not enough incentive to be good) to make our justification before God contingent upon our behavior. Even if it all depended on our cooperation with grace or faithfulness, i.e., upon our sanctity, that would not be enough incentive to overcome our sinfulness. Grace and gratitude is a more powerful, if less intuitive, motive for piety than fear of damnation.
Finally, there is a section after each head of doctrine in our Canons of Dort titled, “Rejection of Errors.” These rejections have not received as much attention as the positive teaching of the Synod, but we learn from them a great deal about the threat the Reformed faced from Arminianism (in roughly the same way we learn the threat Paul faced from the judaizers by reading Galatians).
In RE 5.1 we reject the error of saying that perseverance is not the fruit of election but rather that it is a condition of the new covenant, “which (as they declare) man before his decisive election and justification must fulfill through his free will.” Notice that the Remonstrants distinguished between a “conditional election” and a decisive election! Now, I’m not saying that the FV are “Arminians,” but I am saying that they have been very foolish by wandering so near to the Remonstrant reservation. The FV makes a similar distinction, though theoretically different, practically ends up in very similar place. This is remarkable for ministers who call themselves Reformed and who say they subscribe the Canons of Dort. Have these fellows read the Rejection of Errors?
In RE 5.3 we reject the idea that “God does indeed provide the believer with sufficient powers to persevere, and is ever ready to preserve these in him if he will do his duty.” Again, Synod rejected the same sort of conditionality proposed by the FV. Do we believe in “conditions” in the covenant of grace? Sure we do, but not the sort that the Arminians attached — whereby salvation becomes merely possible for those who do their part or that the FV attach whereby salvation becomes merely possible for those who do their part.
The Synod calls the idea that God preserves those who do their part “outspoken Pelagianism….” It might make men “free,” or it might make it seem that they’re free, but it robs God of his honor.
Thus we reject the idea that the elect can ever actually fall away or commit the sin against the Holy Spirit (RE 5.3-4). We can know that we are elect, not by asking, “Am I elect?” but by asking, “Do I believe the gospel of Christ?” Only the elect believe and if one believes, then one is elect. it is that simple. If anyone tries to make it more complicated — well, I think we know what to do with such tempters.
We do not need a special revelation to have assurance of faith (CD RE 5.5). We trust the promises of God. To require special revelation for assurance is to reintroduce the “doubts of the papist” into the Reformed Churches.
In 5.7 we reject a sentence of the Arminians that is perilously close to that of the FV: “That the faith of those who believe for a time does not differ from justifying and saving faith except only in duration.” Isn’t this exactly what the FV says about the common state of all the baptized? Isn’t this what they say about “baptismal union with Christ” and perseverance? I have been told by Federal Visionists more than once that the difference between Esau and Jacob is that the latter persevered and the former did not.
Not according to the Canons of Dort. Full stop.
As RE 5.9 concludes, our Lord prayed that believers should continue in faith. The Arminians, and to the degree the FV agree in substance with them, “contradict Christ Himself, who says: “I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail” (Lk 22:32).”
This is a grave matter. Either perseverance is by grace alone, through faith alone, grounded in the sole obedience of Christ for his people, and in the preserving grace of the Spirit, behind all of which is the unconditional decree of election, or it is not. The FV cannot have it both ways. They cannot tell us that they believe in an unconditional decree of election but then refuse to bring it to bear on our understanding of the way the covenant plays out in history. By doing so they make the decree theoretical and become practical Arminians. They don’t like this accusation but it stings because it is true.
We don’t have two systems of theology: a covenantal and a systematic. We have one faith that we express in two different ways. This is a basic difference between the orthodox and the FV and the fact that, after all the discussion and writing, they still don’t understand this problem (as evidenced by their July 2007 Statement – released after the PCA GA and the URCNA Synod rejected their distinctive views) suggests that this no mere “experiment” (as they have sometimes said). This is a conviction for them which places them at odds with our confession. They are not “of us.” They don’t want us to think or say that because to recognize their theology as alien to Reformed theology, piety, and practice means excluding the Federal Visionists from our churches. They like living in our midst, benefiting from the orthodox but they don’t want to confess our faith.
Just as they can’t have two versions of the doctrine of election (covenantal and decretal) so they can’t have two relations to our confession (to affirm and deny).
Now it is up to the orthodox to see if we really are orthodox and if we’ll make the decisions of the GAs and Synods stick in the courts and assemblies of the churches or whether we’ll allow these quasi-Remonstrants to continue to subvert the faith from within and create the sort of havoc they’ve been doing.
Synod rejects the errors of those who: 7. who teach that Spirit-wrought sanctity, human works, or cooperation with grace is any part either of the ground of our righteousness before God or any part of faith, that is, the “instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness” (BC 22-24; HC 21, 60, 86)
One of the great misconceptions about the Western church before the Reformation and therefore about the Reformation reaction is that the medieval church taught “salvation by works” or, more precisely, “justification by works” whereas the Reformation taught “salvation by grace” or, more precisely, “justification by grace.” There are a couple of reasons why this way of speaking is misleading or problematic.
First, the claim that the medieval and the Tridentine (and post-Tridentine) Roman Church (even today!) teaches justification by works is a true conclusion and a powerful slogan but a misleading because one will not find many medieval or counter-Reformation or post-Reformation Roman theologians or Councils or Papal decrees saying “justified by works.” Because the debate was (and is) rather more nuanced, sometimes Protestants are surprised to find the medieval and Roman theologians speaking so often and so effusively about grace.
Indeed, the Roman system of salvation (and justification) is positively infused (pun intended) with grace. Remember through the course of medieval history the Western church developed an elaborate sacramental system designed to impart grace to the sinner at every turn. So, a medieval or Roman theologian, when accused baldly of teaching justification by works could quite rightly reply, “What do you mean? There’s never been such a gracious system of salvation!”
Here’s the problem, and it is a very important problem touching the New Perspective(s) on Paul, the Federal Vision, and other sorts of moralists as well as others. It is too often assumed that the only categories by which these problems, e.g., Paul and Second Temple Judaism, the Reformation reaction to the medieval church, are the categories “Pelagian” or “Anti-Pelagian.” This is a mistake. Though the Reformation often used the adjective “Pelagian” to describe the Roman soteriology, in fact it wasn’t actually Pelagian any more than the Second Temple rabbis were Pelagian (i.e., teaching that we are not sinners until we sin and therefore don’t need grace). The Rabbis recognized that we are sinful, but they held we are not so sinful that we cannot keep the law. They had—at least some of them—a doctrine of sin and grace and so did the medieval theologians and so did Trent and so does Vatican II.
Failure, however, to recognize that, in each of these cases, the opponents of either Paul or Luther, had a doctrine of depravity and grace, has led too many to think that so long as they acknowledge sin and grace; and especially in Calvinist circles, so long as they say “sovereign grace” that everything else they say is “covered,” as it were. No. It doesn’t work that way.
Paul’s case and in the Reformation, we said: You aren’t just a little sinful, you’re dead in sins and trespasses. All medieval theologians taught, in one way or another, the necessity of grace and cooperation with grace toward justification. The Reformation rightly understood Paul to reject this formula and certainly the Reformation rejected this formula utterly.
The Second Temple rabbis and the Roman Church weren’t baldly Pelagian. They were “semi-Pelagian.” That term didn’t come into use until later in the sixteenth century, but it is the best way of describing the views we rejected. Semi-Pelagians, be they first-century rabbis or twenty-first-century late modern moralists, teach justification by grace and cooperation with grace. It is the “and by cooperation with grace” part that got Paul, Luther, and Calvin so wound up.
To say “and cooperation with grace” is to change the formula completely because it attempts to synthesize two contrary principles: grace and works. When it comes to justification there is no synthesizing grace and works. Either we stand before the perfectly holy God on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Christ imputed to us sinners and received by grace alone or we do not. It is not possible to say “by grace and works.” If it is by grace, then it is not by works and if it is in the tiniest bit by our works, i.e., our cooperation with grace, then it is not by grace. This is what Paul says 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” or in 2 Tim 1:9, “not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began….”
The medieval church taught (and the Roman church today teaches) that God the Spirit sovereignly works grace within the sinner working sanctity. They called this Spirit-wrought sanctity “condign merit.” It is condign (i.e., “worthy of divine acceptance because it is perfect) because it is Spirit-wrought. Nevertheless, the sinner is obligated to cooperate with grace or there can be no merit.
Remarkably, the moralists of our day are arguing a very similar program. There are two outstanding cases that come to mind. In our own federation, a minister preached a notorious sermon, “The Lion Won’t Bite the Innocent” in which it was argued that, at the judgment, we shall stand before God not on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ but on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity by virtue of our union with Christ. This sermon caused a complaint to the minister’s consistory and the matter eventually came to Synod where our churches responded by affirming our belief in the imputation of the active obedience of Christ as the sole ground of our justification.
At the same time this was happening, in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a ruling elder was teaching and writing the same doctrine as found in the “Lion” sermon. This elder taught (and continues to teach impenitently) that, at the judgment we will stand before God on the basis of real, intrinsic, inherent righteousness infused within us by the Spirit by virtue of our union with Christ.
The medieval church and the entire Roman curia are cheering “Amen!” but Paul, Luther, and Calvin are booing louder than the loudest Yankee fans Kim Riddlebarger has ever heard! These two, the minister (who has since left the URCs) and the elder (who remains in the OPC) are teaching precisely the same thing that the entire Protestant Reformation rejected and they are teaching under the guise of being “truly Reformed.” I’m sorry, but there’s nothing “Reformed” about justification on the ground of Spirit-wrought sanctity or grace and cooperation with grace. There’s nothing Pauline about it. It is judaizing, it is medieval, it is Roman, it is moralizing, but it isn’t biblical or Reformed in the least.
There’s no doubt that the Reformed confess the necessity of Spirit-wrought sanctity and even grace and cooperation with grace but not for justification. The fundamental distinction that Paul made, and that the Reformation recovered, is the distinction between justification as the divine declaration of righteousness and the sanctification as the progressive out working of that righteousness in our lives as a consequence of justification. This is why our catechism is in three parts: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. The last section flows from the second. It is the result, the consequence of it, not the basis or even the instrument by which we stand before God now or ever.
Second, this is why the Reformation theologians and churches were so careful to use the solas, the “alones” (or, in Luther’s case, <emallein). This is why we say “by grace alone.” When we say “by grace alone” we are intentionally rejecting the formula of “grace and cooperation with grace.’ There is no “and” when it comes to justification. This is why we say “through faith alone.” Faith is resting in and receiving Christ and his finished work. It is leaning on Christ. It is a certain knowledge and a hearty trust in Christ and his finished work “for us” not his ongoing work “in us,” not as touching justification. Faith, in the declaration of justification, receives, it looks to another, it is an open, empty hand. It is not our doing, and its power is not anything to do with us or anything wrought in us. The power of faith in the act of justification is in its object: Christ and is finished, perfect obedience for us and imputed to us.
This is why we say “in Christ alone.” He and his righteousness for us is the object of faith in the declaration of justification. Faith does not look to or at anything or anyone else. It does not look at the believer or anything wrought in the believer by the Spirit. In this point Synod did a great service to the URCNA and to the entire confessional Reformed community. By it we send a message not only to ourselves about how we understand God’s Word and our confession but also where we stand in a fundamental issue in the current debate. One hopes that our sister churches will give special attention to this particular point.
Point 8: The Definition Of Faith
Therefore Synod reject the errors of those:
8. who define faith, in the act of justification, as being anything more than “leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified” or “a certain knowledge” of and “a hearty trust” in Christ and His obedience and death for the elect (BC 23; HC 21);
For a very long time before the Reformation, in an effort to get Christ’s people to behave themselves, some of the fathers and virtually all of the medieval theologians (I say virtually because I haven’t read every word that every one of them has written on faith) defined justification as sanctification and they defined sanctification as Spirit-wrought, producing condign merit, with which we must cooperate. The defined faith in this process of justification as, in effect, trusting and obeying or trusting and cooperating with grace or as trusting and being “formed by love.” These are all different ways of saying the same thing. The medieval church never denied that faith involved trusting Christ but the medieval church (and Trent following that tradition) denied that faith, in justification, is only confidence (the word used by the Council of Trent) in or trusting in Christ and his finished work. Faith, in the process of justification, they said, is “formed by love.” This expression “formed by love” means “can be said to exist to the degree one is sanctified.” To be “formed” in this case means “to be brought to reality.” In other words, the medieval doctrine was that one is as justified as one is intrinsically, inherently, personally sanctified. Now you can appreciate why Luther was so terrified of God. He was perfectly sane and he actually believed what the medieval church confessed!
With this background you can also appreciate why the Protestants were so clear about their re-definition of justification. It is no longer to be considered a process but rather a once-for-all declaration by God about sinners, that they really are righteous before God, not on the basis of anything done by them or wrought by the Spirit in them, but only on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Christ (who was himself intrinsically and inherently righteous) imputed to believers.
Faith, in the declaration of righteousness, necessarily can be nothing more than resting, trusting, receiving, and leaning upon Christ and his finished work. If it is anything other than these things, if it involves the least bit of our cooperation with grace, or our cooperation with Spirit-wrought sanctity, then necessarily the object of faith is no longer Christ and his finished work for us but must also include my cooperation, my Spirit-wrought sanctity. In other words, if faith is anything than what we confess it to be, then it has at least two objects. If so, then we are no longer teaching justification on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone. Christ is no longer the sole object of faith.
In case you missed it it is the conjunction AND that is the killer. In justification, if it is faith AND anything else, then Christ is only half a Savior. If it is “p And q And r” then he’s only 1/3 Savior. Do the math. Did Jesus obey and die and rise to make salvation possible for those who do their part or did he obey, die, and rise to accomplish salvation for his people?
At the Council of Trent, Rome rejected categorically the Protestant definitions of justification and of faith. Rome confesses:
If any one says, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favor of God; let him be anathema.
She also says:
If any one says, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.
Rome understands what we confess. Synod Calgary affirmed that we are justified on the ground of the active obedience of Christ imputed and received through faith alone. Synod Schereville re-affirmed this conviction when it declared, ““that the Scriptures and confessions … teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, based upon the active and passive obedience of Christ alone.” Synod re-affirmed our confession “that the Scriptures and confessions teach that faith is the sole instrument of our justification apart from all works.”
When we say “apart from all works” we are referring to Romans 3:28 and Belgic Confession Art 22. This is how we understand by faith alone (sola fide). We believe in and confess “Spirit-wrought” sanctity. We believe in and confess the logical and moral necessity of good works as the fruit and evidence of justifying faith. It is in this sense that James speaks of faith in James 2. Notice the question that James asks in 2:14 “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?”
Notice please that James says, “if someone says he has faith….” This is the essential question. There are folk, as becomes plain through the letter, in the Jerusalem congregation, who are claiming to be Christians, who claim to believe but the life of the congregation suggests otherwise. Thus James preaches the law to them, to teach them their sin and to drive them to Christ.
See how James continues: “Can such a faith save him?” (The way the text uses the definite article suggests that the best translation is “this faith” or “such a faith”). Clearly, for James, the question is the sort of faith that the congregation has or doesn’t. They have a “faith” that doesn’t produce fruit, it has no works. It is a dead faith. There’s no evidence that they have true faith, which unites one to Christ and consequently produces life and fruit in the believer. If there is no fruit, or if the fruit is evil, then we have a right to doubt the claim to faith.
Then James continues to give examples (vv. 15–16) of their refusal to share basic necessities with fellow Christians. Then in v. 17 he says, “This faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” This faith is no true faith. It would be helpful if, in the English, the editors put “faith” in quotation marks to indicate James’ attitude toward their claim to faith.
This case becomes clear in v. 18. They will show their workless “faith” and James will show his faith “by” his works. Again, he reminds them of the Shema (Deut 6:4) that they recited every Sabbath in the Synagogue. it is fine to say the Shema, “Hear O Israel…” but even the demons believe and know that God is one. v. 21: Abraham was vindicated by his works when he offered up Isaac. James asks, “Was not Abraham our father declared to be just by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” Remember the question that James is asking, about “such a faith.” How do we know that Abraham had true faith? Because he offered up his son. He believed God’s promise. He believed in the resurrection. God did not declare Abraham righteous because or through his works or even because or through faith and works but rather James is making the point that, unlike his congregation, Abraham (whom they claimed as their father) had true faith in Christ and demonstrated it with obedience. “Justified” here clearly means “manifested” or “demonstrated.”
Notice how James proceeds in v. 22: “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;” “Completed” makes sense if he’s speaking about vindication, about evidence of the reality of true faith, but if it means that his righteousness was not yet completed, well, then we have a difficulty with Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
James’ view of justification before God is clear in 2:23: “and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness….’” Thus, he has a clear distinction and doctrine of justification or demonstration of faith before men: vv. 24–26: “You see that a person is justified [vindicated] by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified [i.e., her faith demonstrated] by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”
The problem with the covenant moralist revision (the Federal Vision, Norman Shepherd et al) of the definition of faith, so that it includes “works” or “Spirit-wrought sanctity” in faith, in the act of justification, is not only that it is anti-confessional and poor theology, it is bad biblical exegesis. The book of James isn’t that difficult if we understand correctly what it is James is about. Unlike Rome and unlike the moralists, James knew the difference between law and gospel. He’s preaching the law to his congregation to teach them their need of a Savior! He’s pointing them to Christ and pointing them to clear examples of true faith. He’s calling them to genuine repentance and to true faith in Christ and his finished work. He’s not telling them that they are justified by faith and works (as Norman Shepherd said in 1974 and since revised to “faithfulness”).
HC 21 is crystal clear on this:
What is true faith?
True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.
In all the years of this controversy (since 1974) I have yet to see one of the moralists (i.e., Norman Shepherd or the Federal Vision) reconcile their views and revisions with HC 21. Typically when they appeal to the catechism on justification it is from the third section further strengthening the claim of the critics that the FV does not understand or accept even the basic structure of the Reformed faith: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude.
Point 9: Initial and Final Justification
We reject the errors of those who teach: 9. who teach that there is a separate and final justification grounded partly upon righteousness or sanctity inherent in the Christian (HC 52; BC 37).
As the medieval church accepted the premise that God can only declare one righteous if that one is actually, intrinsically, inherently, righteous (God says what he says because you are what you are) they also developed a corollary: a distinction between initial and final justification.
In the medieval and modern Roman system, one is said to be initially justified in baptism. If one survived infancy (infant mortality rates in the middle ages and through the 16th century were very high) then one was said to have an “unformed faith” until after the grace of confirmation. Following that one is now obligated to final justification based upon inherent, intrinsic, personal sanctity. This holiness was (and is) said to be the fruit of grace, it is Spirit-wrought (condign merit) and cooperation with grace. Faith is now said to be “formed by love” (i.e., grace and cooperation with grace). At the final judgment after one has achieved perfection (following purgatory in most cases; unless one had a plenary indulgence!)
The motive of this system is patently obvious: To get Christians to behave themselves. The funny thing is that it was a complete failure. It didn’t work. The church records and humanist literature from the early 16th century, from the period just before the Reformation, show that moral corruption in the church was extensive. An early 16th-century council complained that the Roman church was corrupt in head and members! When Luther traveled to Rome, his one trip away from “Germany” (there wasn’t any such thing really in the 16th century), he found corruption on a scale that he could not imagine. He expected to find the holy city, the city of God, a city shining on a hill (7 of them!) but instead he found indulgences for sale to a degree that dwarfed Tetzel’s operation in Germany. The city was rife with prostitution (the scene in the recent Luther film captures this nicely). The principal customers were pilgrims and priests.
Essentially, the medieval and Roman system (grace and cooperation with grace or “grace and works”) put the Christian on a legal footing in order to ensure obedience. The theory is that, if we want Christians to behave, we must suspend their final standing before God upon good behavior or else they have no incentive to be good. The theory is that the best incentive to behave is fear of damnation. Who could complain? After all, every Christian had been given his share of divine help and medicine (grace) and now it was up to him to do his part, to do, as some of them put it, “What lies with himself” (facientibus quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam). God will give grace to those who do their part, who fulfill their part of the covenant.
The system was a total failure. The pre-Reformation popes were mostly corrupt. Some of them were outright murderers and adulterers. it is no surprise that the Protestants described the papacy as “Antichrist.” It was! What is utterly shocking and appalling about the turn by the Federal Vision and others such as John Kinnaird, an OPC elder who found himself, a few years back, on the floor of the OPC GA defending himself over this and who has recently re-iterated on the OPC discussion list that he still believes the things for which he was charged, and a former URC minister who has now united with the CREC, is that they have returned to this theological vomit.
After reading the FV and NPP (and related) literature, one would think that we never had a Reformation, that we never considered these matters, that this is the first time “Protestants” have ever faced a decadent culture and corrupt church and had to decide what to do.
When the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestants faced these problems they responded by distinguishing clearly between law and gospel, between justification and sanctification, and between justification and vindication. When the neo-moralists (a small number of whom have already seen the logic of their position and united with the Roman communion) face these issues they resurrect long-discredited medieval and Roman doctrines.
According to the Reformed understanding of God’s Word, there is only one justification. Full stop. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” “Having been justified.” These are Paul’s words about this subject. The judgment has already been executed upon Christ the Second Adam. Justice has been done. Punishment has been meted out. The law has been fulfilled. Our sins were imputed to Christ so that Paul could say that Christ “became sin” for us. We, who are united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, have “become the righteousness of God.”
We who are resting, receiving, leaning, and trusting only on Christ and his finished work ARE righteous right now. We ARE justified right now. There is no future justification. We are as justified now, as we’ll ever be. Jesus isn’t getting any more righteous. He accomplished all righteousness. That righteousness has been imputed. it is done. I think Jesus said something, somewhere, to that effect.
What happens at the judgment is vindication. It is announcement of the true state of things. It is a recognition of the realities accomplished by Christ, that are true of his people, that have been clouded by sin. This is why we described ourselves, in the 16th century, as the churches under the cross. We had a theology of the cross. We didn’t expect the world to recognize us as Christ’s people, any more than the world recognized Jesus as the Christ. We knew that, at the judgment, we would be vindicated in Christ.
These are two quite distinct operations: justification and vindication. The first is the divine declaration of righteousness on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed. The second is the recognition of the first in the face of all doubt and contrary claims.
There is no reason to confuse these things. It is not that complicated, unless one is trying to revise the doctrine of justification or the doctrine of vindication, unless one takes up the Romanist language of initial and final justification, unless one is looking for a way to wedge in works (Spirit-wrought sanctity and cooperation with grace) as part of the ground or instrument of justification.
Initial and final justification: not good news for those trusting and obeying and hoping to be someday recognized by God as fully sanctified. As they say: Good luck with that. Justification and vindication: Good news for all those resting, leaning, trusting, receiving Christ and his finished work FOR us.
Yes, but what about sanctity? Well, the Protestants and the Reformed confessions and churches hold that the justification and vindication scheme is Christ’s way of sanctity. Yes, it is counter-intuitive. It doesn’t seem like a very obvious or sensible way to get folk to behave themselves, but remember this is the God who thought it was a good idea to save his people by becoming incarnate and who as the God-Man suffered, obeyed, died, and was raised for our justification. In other words, the whole Christian faith is counter-intuitive. That’s why Paul calls the gospel “foolishness.” That’s why the cross is a stumbling block and rock of offense.
The gospel mystery of sanctification (to borrow a phrase) is that God the Spirit works sanctity in his people by the gospel of justification sola gratia, sola fide. Are Christ’s people morally obligated to behave themselves? Absolutely! Do they get to heaven in any way BY behaving themselves? No, for if they did, then Christ died for nothing. That’s what Paul says.
So, let the covenantal moralists, the New Perspective(s), and Federal Vision (and related folks) have their semi-Pelagian system of grace and cooperation with grace. If they want to try to stand, on the basis of grace and cooperation with grace, before the living God who destroyed whole cities by the power of his word, who sent fiery serpents among his people, who demanded such righteousness that the Son of God had to be our substitute, let them try.
Let us continue to hide unashamedly behind and trust only in our righteous Christ. We will continue to muddle through the Christian life dying to sin and living to Christ, sinning and repenting, crying out for grace and mercy, trusting our Savior to guide us safely through the valley of the shadow of death.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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1. I am most grateful to the Rev. Mr. David Linden for his help in proof reading this essay. Any remaining errors are solely the responsibility of the author.
2. This essay first appeared as a series in 2007. It is republished here with minor revisions.