More than twenty years ago, in the summer of 2001, Mike Horton and I were sitting beside a hotel swimming pool one evening during Synod Escondido, along with several ministers from our federation (denomination) of churches (the United Reformed Churches in North America). What would become known, in 2004, as the Federal Vision movement was under way and we had Federal Visionists in our federation. Some of them were with us at the table and we were discussing these issues and one of them proposed that our good works contribute to our “final” justification before God. Mike asked this fellow how that could be since our good works are always tainted with sin. The Federal Visionist replied that God imputes perfection to our best efforts. In case you are just tuning in, the Federal Vision doctrine teaches that, at baptism, all the benefits of Christ (i.e., election, effectual calling, regeneration, faith, union with Christ, and adoption) are given but must be retained by grace and cooperation with grace. Like the Roman church, some of them teach that there are two stages of justification. Some of these Federal Visionists teach that initial justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, but so-called “final justification” (not a Reformation category or a category confessed by the Reformed churches) is through faith and works or faith and faithfulness.
A friend recently wrote to me to say that some who advocate the so-called “Lordship Salvation” doctrine are defending it on the ground that “perfection of life” is not required for passing the “tests” of 1 John but rather the direction of one’s life, i.e., whether one has “truly surrendered” to the Lordship of Christ and therefore does not habitually practice sin.
These two cases are excellent examples of how the study of church history and historical theology can pay real dividends for the church. Both groups, the Federal Visionists and the advocates of Lordship Salvation, are appealing to a doctrine that was prominently articulated by the Franciscan theologian William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347) in the 14th century and popularized in the 15th century by the Franciscan theologian Gabriel Biel (c. 1420–95).
Ockham was something of a revolutionary theologian in Oxford in the 14th century. In his lectures on Lombard’s Sentences, which was the authorized theology textbook from 1215, Ockham proposed, among other things, that God had endowed all humans with certain “antecedents,” and had established a covenant (pactum) in which he was “prepared to co-act” with those who capitalize on those “antecedents.” Biel reduced this doctrine to a catchy formula: “to him who does what lies within himself, God denies not grace.” What these formulae meant is that God has endowed all humans with what Arminius and the Remonstrants later called “common grace” (not to be confused with the orthodox Reformed doctrine of common grace). Like Pelagius, they turned grace into nature and nature into grace. This is one important reason why Augustine, the Augustinians, and later Thomas and still later Calvin and the Reformed, distinguished between nature and grace. Conflating them was basic to the Pelagian program. It allowed Pelagius, and later Ockham and Biel, to say that by virtue of nature, humans have all they need to be saved. They do not really need special, sovereign, saving grace. They spoke of “grace” but they re-defined it to mean nature. Of course, all Pelagians always deny or significantly downplay the effects of the fall. So it was with Ockham and Biel.
So, according to the Franciscans, we have what we need and we have the ability to capitalize on that potential, to be saved. For them, we are not dead in sins and trespasses. We are not helpless. Far from it. Thus, “to the who does what lies within him…”. We know this doctrine from the slogan, “God helps those who help themselves.”1 This was the Franciscan doctrine of salvation (including their doctrine of justification). This is the theology that Luther was taught in university and it was this Franciscan theology that he came to reject in 1513–14 as he lectured through the Psalms while reading Augustine’s lectures on the Psalms. He came to see that we are deeply affected and corrupted by Adam’s fall, that, after the fall we are not just injured or wounded (the man lying by the side of the road, in Luke 10:30, became the paradigm for much of the medieval understanding of the effects of the fall) but dead (Eph 2:1) in sins and trespasses.
He came to see that the covenant theology he had been taught was Pelagian and not Pauline. In his later lectures on Genesis (to the degree what we have reflects his lectures), he would articulate a kind of covenant theology that took account of the Augustinian view of sin and grace. He came to see that grace is not nature, that grace is God’s free, sovereign favor toward sinners, that faith is not faithfulness but knowledge, assent, and trust in Christ and his promises, and that justification and salvation are God’s free gifts.
One of the more clever aspects, however, of the Franciscan program of the 14th and 15th centuries was their proposal that God imputes perfection to our best efforts to do “what lies within” us. God, they argued, has promised or covenanted to impute perfection to our best efforts, which need not be perfect but only sincere. In short, according to the Franciscans, God grades on a curve. When Scripture says, “do this and live” (Lev 18:5; Luke 10:28) it really mans, “do your best and God will do the rest.” Where most had taught that merit is that which has intrinsic worth (“condignity”), which meets the demands of justice or righteousness, the Franciscans were teaching a different category of merit: congruent. This category of merit does not intrinsically meet the demands of justice but God has covenanted or promised to treat it as though it has. So, they had a doctrine of imputation but what was to be imputed is not Christ’s perfect (condign) merit but rather perfection was to be imputed to our (inherently) imperfect efforts.
This, of course, is what the Federal Visionists and the defenders of Lordship Salvation are doing: invoking the Franciscan doctrine of congruent merit in place of the Reformed doctrine that Christ’s condign (i.e., fully, inherently righteous) merits are imputed to us by grace alone and received through faith alone. This is their escape clause when it is pointed out to them that our good works can never meet the terms of justice. “Do this and live,” however, does not mean “do your best.” Uzzah (2 Sam 6) did his best. He made a great, diving catch. God was unimpressed with his best efforts. God was not prepared to co-act with Uzzah’s best efforts. God struck Uzzah dead for his best efforts. God demands perfect righteousness. There is no curve. There is no wiggle room.
Jesus did not obey and die and nor was he raised in order to make it possible for God to justify those who do “what lies within” them. God does indeed deny favor to those who do what lies within them. At the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Martin Luther declared that to do what lies within oneself is a mortal (damnable) sin. What we need is what Jesus did for us, in our place, as our substitute and Mediator. We need a condign, perfect righteousness which is what he accomplished and which is what is imputed to all who believe.
The Protestant Reformation was a repudiation of the Franciscan doctrine of congruent merit. It was a repudiation of the notion that Jesus is a facilitator of salvation for those who do their part. Thus, when our colleague answered Mike’s question with Franciscan covenant theology, we both gasped audibly and turned to each other and said at the same time, “that’s congruent merit.” We were both genuinely shocked that a Reformed minister would articulate so baldly the very theology against which the Reformation responded. On reflection, I remembered that Arminius had been very well educated (Reformed people sponsored his studies and he traveled extensively during his graduate study years) and he too had embraced the Franciscan covenant theology. It is possible.
I am less surprised, however, to hear my Dispensational friends articulating Franciscan theology or other ancient errors. My former URCNA colleague had a Reformed education and thus should have known better, but historical theology and church history have not been priorities in the Dispensationalist tradition. The embrace of Franciscan covenant theology (it is ironic that those who repudiate covenant theology should unknowingly embrace the very covenant theology repudiated by the Reformation) by advocates of Lordship Salvation also reflects their roots in the holiness movement. The Dispensationalists were never rooted in the Reformation. They were always animated by a different set of concerns. Thus, to Reformed people, my message is clear: knock it off. We have no business with the Franciscans on this point. To my Dispensational friends, my invitation is this: leave the holiness tradition, Franciscan covenant theology, and embrace the Reformed covenant theology with us. To those who are discontent with the Federal Vision or Dispensationalism, there is an alternative: salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone and sanctification as the supernatural and necessary fruit of the free, justifying grace of God in Christ.
Reformed covenant theology is not about God’s promise to recognize our best efforts but, rather, it is about God’s gracious promise to impute Christ’s perfect work to helpless sinners and to grant new life and true faith to all of God’s elect, to grant them union with Christ and adoption as part of the covenant of grace.
1. I have long thought that this saying belonged to Benjamin Franklin but that seems to be the wrong attribution. Eric Metaxas attributes it to Aesop’s Fables, specifically to “The Ox Driver and Herakles.” In that fable, a wagon falls into a ravine but the ox driver does nothing about it except to invoke Herakles (Hercules), a sort of ancient Greek superhero figure. Think of Superman in our modern pagan pantheon. When Herakles does appear, he says to the ox driver: “Put your hand to the wheels, goad the oxen, and do not invoke the gods without making some effort yourself. Otherwise you will invoke them in vain.” See Aesop, The Complete Fables (London: Penguin), 57. If this is indeed the source, then we may suppose that the saying was shortened and Christianized, if you will, but the sentiment is pagan on any account.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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