What The Confessional Reformed Churches Have Said About Doug Wilson

The Heidelberg Reformation Association has received queries in recent days asking about our view of Doug Wilson, a proponent of theonomy, Christian Reconstruction, Christian Nationalism, and the Federal Vision movement, among other things. We think that the best way to respond is to let the study committees of the confessional Presbyterians Reformed churches answer the question. As a service to the Christian public we have harvested the most salient portions from three study committee reports and we present them here for your consideration. If you wish to know more we encourage you to follow the links to our resource pages linked above and to the various reports, which are linked below.

Reformed Church in The United States

Douglas Wilson is the pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. His congregation is part of the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). Wilson is perhaps best known for his rather prolific writing, which until the advent of the Federal Vision was mainly concerned with classical education and the Christian home. He is also credited with starting New St. Andrews, a four year undergraduate institution in Moscow, Idaho, Credenda/Agenda magazine and Canon Press. Wilson began his ministry without any formal theological training, but he considers himself to be historically Calvinistic and Presbyterian….

Doug Wilson argues that he holds to the historic Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone. For example, he writes, “the historical Protestant position on justification is correct, and the Roman Catholic understanding of individual justification as a process involving an infusion of righteousness is wrong.” Again, he writes, “Justification must not be understood as an infusion of righteousness. Rather, justification is the pardon for sins and the legal reckoning of our persons as righteous. … We are justified for Christ’s sake only. God does not justify us for anything done by us, and, far more importantly, for anything done in us (even by Him). Nor does God justify us because of our faith – rather He justifies us because of Christ’s obedience and work, and this is appropriated by us through faith.” “We are saved through faith alone.” “Faith is the only instrument God uses in our justification.” “Justification is permanent, and God never ceases to see a justified person as perfect. This has reference to the person’s legal status; they are secure in their position within the family of God.” Wilson reaffirms “the traditional Protestant doctrine of the righteousness of Christ imputed to those individuals who are elect. This, plus nothing, constitutes the ground of their final acceptance before God.”

On the surface, this appears to be consistent with the Biblical doctrine of justification. However, there are other statements by Wilson that indicate that his understanding is, at best, deficient. It is necessary to examine other things written and weigh these against the above claims. There are good reasons to doubt the accuracy of Wilson’s claim that he holds to the historic Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, and the following arguments demonstrate these reasons.

First of all, Wilson’s summary of the historic Protestant doctrine of justification is not complete. It is missing a very crucial element. Though Wilson is careful to say repeatedly that “good works are not in themselves the ground of our salvation,” and that “the ground of every aspect of our salvation is Christ,”100 he neglects to point out that the ground of justification has never been the issue in the justification controversy. The issue is whether good works are in any way an instrument of justification.

Norman Shepherd is the primary teacher of this distinction between works not being the ground and yet an instrument of justification. He admits that Christ is the only ground of justification and specifically denies the Roman Catholic argument that justification is an infusion of righteousness. Nevertheless he argues that good works, though not the ground of justification, are an instrument in obtaining justification. According to the Westminster Seminary Board, “Shepherd questioned making justification by faith alone a touchstone of orthodoxy, since, as he argued, what can be said of faith can also be said of good works; neither can be the ground of justification, both can be instrument.” To make good works an instrument of justification is to make good works necessary for continuing in a state of justification. In his “Thirty-Four Theses on Justification in Relation to Faith, Repentance, and Good Works,” Shepherd makes himself perfectly clear: ‘The exclusive ground of the justification of the believer in the state of justification is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, but his obedience … is necessary to his continuing in a state of justification (Thesis 21).’ ‘The righteousness of Jesus Christ ever remains the exclusive ground of the believer’s justification, but the personal godliness of the believer is also necessary for his justification in the judgment of the last day (Matthew 7:21-23; 25:31-46; Hebrews 12:14) (Thesis 22).’ ‘[G]ood works … though not the ground of [the believer’s] justification, are nevertheless necessary for justification (Thesis 23).’

Wilson argues a similar position. While he says that justified persons are “secure in their position within the family of God,” he adds the qualification that “men fall away because their salvation was contingent upon continued covenant faithfulness [emphasis added] in the gospel.” By making salvation “contingent” upon the “covenant faithfulness” of a believer, he has made salvation contingent upon a personal quality in, or a state of being of, the believer. This is the simple meaning of the suffix “-ness” in “faithfulness.” In so doing, Wilson has shifted the means by which we appropriate the work of Christ from the exercise of faith to a change in the quality of one’s character. This can be understood in no other way than salvation being contingent upon something in or of a person other than Christ.

Second, Wilson so defines faith that, at times, faith becomes indistinguishable from good works. Again, this parallels Shepherd who implies that justification by faith could just as easily mean justification by good works. For Wilson, faith and good works (obedience) are used interchangeably in Scripture: “We simply want to say that for those faithful to the covenant, initial faith and initial obedience are used interchangeably in Scripture. Consequently, this ought to be one of the scriptural definitions of obedience. For example, take Romans 6:17–18a: … This is a converting obedience. Another scriptural name for this is faith. The gospel is to be obeyed. Another way of saying this is that the gospel is to be believed.” Wilson grants that one should not use the phrase “faith is obedience” without qualification, but his qualification does not exclude every kind of obedience from justification, only a certain kind of obedience: “And so, to qualify again, to think a man can earn his way into heaven autonomously by any amount of choosing, willing, running, do-gooding, obeying, brownie-pointing, Westminster-confessing, or whatever else a foolish man may think up to take credit for, is a false gospel.”

This is again a misunderstanding of the way in which the Scriptures relate faith to obedience and oppose faith to good works. Obedience does indeed flow from true faith, as Paul states in Romans that the purpose of his apostleship is to bring about the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5). But that is precisely the point. If obedience is “of” or “from” faith it must be the case that faith is prior to and the motive for that obedience. As such, obedience cannot be an instrument by which we appropriate to ourselves the “satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ” if, as Scripture teaches and the Belgic confirms (Article 24), any good works or acts of obedience are preceded by and flow from faith.

Third, Wilson shows that by “covenant faithfulness” and “obedience” he means precisely “good works” as an instrument of justification. He insists we “have to say, using biblical language [i.e. the language of James], that we are justified by good works.” Like Norman Shepherd, Wilson does not endorse the traditional reconciliation between Paul’s statement that Abraham was not justified by works (Romans 4:2), and James’ statement that Abraham was justified by works (James 2:21). Wilson argues that James is using the term justification in the same sense as Paul, and so he says (a la Shepherd) that it is proper to speak of justification by means of good works, as long as we understand that James “is not speaking of rabbinical works-righteousness, or Pelagian self-salvation, or of medieval merit theology.” Note that Wilson here does not reject good works as an instrument of justification. He rejects only self- righteous and meritorious works as instruments of justification!

Again, if Wilson wants to be orthodox, he must unambiguously proclaim that good works are not an instrument of justification. He needs to embrace what has been taught by Reformed theology concerning James’ use of the term “justify.” Calvin’s says it well when he writes: “If you would make James agree with the rest of Scripture and with himself, you must understand the word ‘justify’ in another sense than Paul takes it.” We “must take notice of the twofold meaning of the word justified. Paul means by it the gratuitous imputation of righteousness before the tribunal of God; and James, the manifestation of righteousness by the conduct, and that before men, as we may gather from the preceding words, ‘Show to me thy faith.’”110 In rejecting this understanding of James, Wilson rejects the traditional interpretation of James and places James at odds with and in contradiction to the teachings of Paul. Therefore, Wilson is wrong. James is not using justification in its usual declarative (Pauline) sense. When James says Abraham was justified by works he does not mean God declared Abraham righteous, or that Christ’s righteousness was imputed to Abraham, when he offered up Isaac. He is simply teaching that, like wisdom, the outcome proves the possession. In making “good works” a co-instrument with faith in the appropriation of Christ our righteousness, Wilson denies that justification is truly by “faith alone.”


Fourth, along with good works being a co-instrument of justification, Wilson also adopts a position on the sacraments that makes them to some degree instrumental in appropriating our justification. This is especially true with respect to his teaching on baptism.

Wilson says, “The only hand which a man may extend to receive the gift of justification is faith,” yet, as with good works, he also says that baptism is an instrument of justification. Do you think “baptism is a means of salvation, just not the means of salvation? That’s what I think,” says Wilson. Wilson argues that the “efficacy of the baptism … is a saving efficacy.” This does not mean, cautions Wilson, “that salvation automatically comes to someone simply because he has been baptized.” A person must bring faith to the baptismal font: “Those who come to the sacraments with true evangelical faith in God are those on whom this blessing of salvation is bestowed.” Wilson believes that this is precisely what is taught in the Westminster Standards, particularly in the Shorter Catechism, Q&A. 92: “A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.” “This means,” argues Wilson, “that an honest and strict subscription to the Westminster Standards requires a man to say that he believes that the benefit of justification and the benefit of regeneration (both being benefits of the new covenant) are applied to a man through the sacraments when that man has faith.”

Note what Wilson clearly says: the benefit of justification is applied through baptism to the man who has faith. By confusing the sign with the thing signified, Wilson makes baptism co-instrumental with faith in the appropriation of the work of Christ to the sinner. This again denies justification by faith alone. If baptism is a means of justification, then obviously faith is not the only means of justification. Although we can speak of union with Christ being signified by baptism, it is not the same as when Wilson says: “We are united to Him in faith and in our baptism.” Salvation, then, is received by faith plus baptism.

Wilson’s primary failure is to distinguish between the work of the sacraments in the confirmation of faith. In this, all the graces of God are at work. But it is a confirmation of that faith by which alone we are justified. Wilson attempts to prove his case that the efficacy of the sacraments is a saving efficacy, by a simple juxtaposition of questions 89 and 91 from the Shorter Catechism: “How is the Word made effectual unto salvation?” (Q.89) and “How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?” (Q.91) Wilson’s inference is that God uses both Word and sacrament to apply salvation, but this is not how the Westminster Standards put the matter. Rather, the Westminster Standards make a distinction between the Word as a means of saving grace, and the sacraments as a means of sanctifying or edifying grace: “the grace of faith … is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, … and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened” (Westminster Confession, 14.1). Note that, according to the Westminster Confession, the sacraments come after salvation in order to increase and strengthen faith!

Wilson fails to note the different senses in which Word and sacraments are means of salvation. With respect to the Word as a means of salvation, the Shorter Catechism distinguishes between the Word as converting sinners, and the Word as edifying believers. Question 89 asks, “How is the Word made effectual unto salvation? A. The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.” Note that the phrase “unto salvation” applies in two senses, in the sense that sinners are saved, and in the sense that the converted are built up. Thomas Vincent’s comments are helpful in connection with this question: How is the Word made effectual unto salvation? “First, in reference unto sinners and ungodly … to convert them from sin…. Secondly, In reference unto those that are converted, the Word is effectual unto salvation, as it is a mean of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.”

Therefore, if the Word can be effectual unto salvation in a sanctifying or edifying sense, then so can the sacraments, especially since, as the Westminster Confession states, the sacraments increase and strengthen faith. Nowhere do the Westminster Standards speak of the sacraments as they do the Word, as a means of converting sinners!

G. I. Williamson offers a very good summary of the teaching of the Westminster Confession concerning the efficacy of baptism, correctly observing that the efficacy is not a saving efficacy: “Baptism never causes union with Christ. It never has that effect. That is not the purpose of baptism. The purpose of baptism is … to confirm and testify … that God gives union with Christ to whom he will, as he will, and when he will. … Baptism, like circumcision, may have no effect upon some people. But infant baptism … does have a profound effect upon some who are converted long after they are baptized. The order then may be either (1) baptism, then effectual calling into union with Christ, and then the efficacy of baptism, or (2) effectual calling, then baptism, and then efficacy of baptism. It cannot be in any other order. For one cannot … experience the efficacy of baptism prior to effectual calling.”

Wilson’s claim that his view is that of Calvin is blatantly erroneous. Calvin never said that the efficacy of the sacraments is a saving efficacy. The sacraments, Calvin said, are “confirmations of our faith.” They “sustain, nourish, confirm, and increase our faith.” The Lord “nourishes faith spiritually through the sacraments, whose one function emphasis added is to set his promises before our eyes to be looked upon, indeed, to be guarantees of them to us.” The ministry of the sacraments helps us “sometimes to foster, confirm, and increase the true knowledge of Christ in ourselves; at other times, to possess him more fully and enjoy his riches. But that happens when we receive in true faith what is offered there.”

Regarding passages such as Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16, Titus 3:5, and 1 Peter 3:21, Wilson says that we ought to use the language of Scripture. If Scripture says we must believe and be baptized in order to be saved, or be baptized for the remission of sins, or baptism saves, then we ought to say that too: “Peter tells us that baptism saves, and his subsequent qualifier does not mean that baptism does not save.” “In blunt language, Ananias told Saul to come to the baptismal font in order to wash away his sins.”

Contrary to Wilson, Calvin said that passages like these “did not mean to signify that our cleansing and salvation are accomplished by water, … but only that in this sacrament are received the knowledge and certainty of such gifts.” Calvin’s interpretation of Acts 2:38 is, “we receive Christ’s gifts by faith, and baptism is a help to confirm and increase our faith.” “Why, then, did Ananias tell Paul to wash away his sins through baptism if sins are not washed away by the power of baptism itself? … Ananias meant only this: To be assured, Paul, that your sins are forgiven, be baptized.”

Wilson is wrong, and Louis Berkhof was correct: “Calvin and Reformed theology proceeded on the assumption that baptism is instituted for believers, and does not work but strengthens the new life.” “According to Reformed theology, it i.e. baptism is not, as the Roman Catholics claim, the means of initiating the work of grace in the heart, but it is a means for the strengthening of it or, as it is often expressed, for the increase of grace.” Whereas the Reformers viewed the sacraments as a means of confirming or strengthening saving grace, Wilson views them as a means of bestowing saving grace.

To sum up, if Wilson is going to be clear of heresy he must renounce his errors and confusion and truly affirm the historic protestant doctrine of justification by means of faith alone apart from works of any kind – including the work of baptism!

United Reformed Churches in North America

In the history of the Reformed churches, a distinction is commonly drawn between the so-called “visible” and “invisible” church. Though this distinction is variously defined, its most basic function is to acknowledge that not all professing believers and their children, who belong to the concrete, visible expression of Christ’s church in the world, are truly saved and members of Christ by faith… Douglas Wilson, another advocate of the FV, has expressed similar reservations regarding this distinction, since it allegedly undermines the importance of membership in the visible church. Wilson proposes that we should distinguish between the “historical” (as it visibly exists now) and “eschatological” (as it will perfectly exist in the future consummation) church. According to FV writers, the distinction between the “visible” and “invisible” church or a similar distinction between an “internal” or “external” membership in the covenant of grace, creates insoluble pastoral problems of assurance (Am I truly a member of Christ? Am I elect?). Contrary to the implications of the distinction between the visible and invisible church, FV authors argue that we should affirm that all members of the covenant community are truly and savingly in Christ. As we noted previously, while FV writers acknowledge that some members of the covenant people of God may not persevere in the way of salvation, they want to insist that all members of the covenant are nonetheless in true and saving union with Christ.

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church

Underlying all the preceding theological positions of FV that we have herein examined is a doctrine of the church in which ecclesiology threatens to swallow soteriology and a vibrant sacramentalism threatens to turn into sacerdotalism. Foundational to FV ecclesiology is a tendency in FV to deny the inner/outer aspects of the covenant along with the visible/invisible aspects of the church.311 These tendencies will need to be addressed elsewhere (and are more fully treated, e.g., in the forthcoming analysis of the FV by Guy Waters), especially since ecclesiology has assumed the all-consuming role that it has for many in FV. To be sure, much FV ecclesiological and sacramental theorizing goes beyond what we are able to consider: the impact of FV ecclesiology on its doctrine of justification. While the Committee may differ with various strands of FV ecclesiology on this or that point, what is relevant in this critique is how FV ecclesiology affects the FV doctrine of justification. Given that focus, we now turn to examine some FV teaching on the sacraments and their efficacy, seeking to gauge its impact on the doctrine of justification.

Wilson on the sacraments writes, for instance:

Raise your hand if you knew that the Westminster Confession of Faith taught baptismal regeneration…. Baptism means that the one baptized has a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, the one baptized has been grafted into Christ, he has the sign and seal of regeneration, forgiveness of sins and the obligation to walk in newness of life.

Wilson’s language of “baptismal regeneration” is, at best, confusing, since the Reformed have not historically used this language to refer to baptism.313 One may have a high view of baptism and its efficacy without believing that the outward act of baptism itself is to be described as regenerative.314 No small part of Wilson’s problem here, we observe, lies perhaps in what he fails to say. In Wilson’s writing about sacramental efficacy one does not find a reference to WCF 14.1 on saving faith. WCF 14.1 teaches that “the grace of faith” that enables the elect to believe “is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word”; and that this grace of faith “is increased and strengthened” by the Word, sacraments and prayer (emphasis). The Word brings about faith and faith is then increased by the Word, sacraments, and prayer. This is the order set forth in our Standards. WLC 155 and WSC 89 support this contention, asserting that the Spirit of God makes the reading and especially the preaching of the Word “an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners.” Nowhere does the Confession or Catechisms ascribe this work of convincing and converting sinners to the sacraments. It is “especially the preaching” of the Word that produces, by the Spirit’s ministration, saving faith. Anytime saving faith is in view, or at stake, so is the doctrine of justification, inasmuch as faith is a gift of God whereby He enables us to apprehend Him. Thus we would maintain that there is a distinction between the ministry of the Word and the administration of the sacraments that many of the FV promoters seem to be missing.

Furthermore, Wilson tends to stress that the sacraments are efficacious regardless of the recipient’s subjective condition, which is not what the WCF teaches. Time and again the Confession ties the efficacy of the sacraments to being in the covenant of grace (WLC 162) or to being those who by faith receive them (WSC 91). Wilson does mention the need for evangelical faith in the use of the sacraments, but blunts or negates this assertion by his insistence on what he calls the objectivity of the sacraments. In Wilson’s teaching the sacraments constitute one as a real branch of Christ. It might prove to be a fruitless branch, but it is a real branch nonetheless: “A true son is brought into the covenant and is nourished there. A false son is brought into the covenant and by his unbelief incurs the chastisements of that covenant. Objectively, both the true and the false son are brought into the same relationship.”316 In this way the sacraments work in all, according to Wilson. But WCF 27.3 envisions them as working in “worthy receivers,” correlative with WCF 28.6, which notes that baptism is efficacious “to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto,” i.e., the elect. Wilson, however, sees both true and false sons brought into the same relationship. Again this follows because of Wilson’s tendency to reject the Confession’s teaching on the visible/invisible distinction of the church and the internal/external standing of the individuals in the covenant.

The Presbyterian Church in America

Two of those identifying symbols or boundary-markers are the doctrines of election and covenant. It is true that many FV proponents affirm the decretal view of election found in the Westminster Standards. As Douglas Wilson writes, “The fact of decretal election is affirmed by every FV spokesman that I know of.” This view of election is accompanied, however, by an equally strong affirmation of the need to view election from Scripture and from the viewpoint of the covenant. According to Steve Wilkins, “The term ‘elect’ (or ‘chosen’) as it is used in the Scriptures most often refers to those in covenant union with Christ who is the Elect One.”

Central to the FV understanding of “covenant” is their definition: “covenant” is defined as a vital relationship with the triune God. “To be in covenant is to be in real communion with God, attendant with real privileges and real blessings.” Coupled with this definition is their understanding of the “objectivity” of the covenant. “A covenant is also objective, like your marriage. It’s there whether the members of the covenant feel it’s there, or they believe it’s there, whether they even believe in the covenant or not.” As Douglas Wilson states, “We have noted repeatedly that baptism in water is objective, and it establishes an objective covenant relationship with the Lord of the covenant, Jesus Christ.” This concept of covenant objectivity includes the view that “every baptized person is in covenant with God and is in union, then, with Christ and with the triune God.” This confluence of “covenant objectivity” through baptism and “real and vital union” with Christ produces significant confusion about the relationship between the “sign” and “thing signified” and the nature of children who are “in this respect” within the covenant of grace (WCF 27:2, LC 166).


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      • That’s how FV equivocation fools people. They say we are justified in Christ alone but what they really mean is that we are justified IF we keep the terms of the gracious, conditional covenant in this life, so we will be justified at the final judgment. That is, if our faithfulness (faith and works) is judged to be sufficient for final acceptance with God. That is the worst kind of news, when you understand that God requires perfect obedience, not some sort of congruent obedience that God accepts, where you tried your best. That is just the old Roman Catholic scheme of justification, that the Reformers rejected.

  1. i would be more concerned about his treatment towards women than what he believes about the tenets of christianity. Form the research I have done, he is lacking in many areas of basic christian behavior.

  2. Unbelievers have no union with Christ, regardless of what they profess in words or any acts they perform. If they have not (yet) received the gift of faith they are not (yet) believers, regardless of whether or not they have been baptized. This doesn’t mean that they cannot (later in time) receive it, but while they are in a current state of unbelief, meaning they still reject Christ, they have no union with him.

        • If FDR shook hitlers hand and told him he’s proud of his work, then sure. I’m not sure why we need to go straight to Hitler?

          In fact with Hitler, prior to world war II there were many who did shake Hitler or other similar leaders hands at the olympic games in Berlin, not because a handshake is endorsement, but because a handshake is a customary greeting. Lawyers will shake hands with those they are prosecuting in cases even. In church courts, those in disagreement or even across the aisle as it will will shake hands often. I’m assuming the assumption underlying this idea is that a handshake equals camaraderie, but in most cultures, countries, and situations, a handshake has been a simple greeting of custom, or after a debate. Christian apologists will shake the hands of their atheists opponents after debates for instance.

          All this to say, as someone who disagrees heavily with Mohler and Wilson regarding their view of politics, I see no need to read so much into a handshake.

          All the best!


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