*This is the text of the speech given at the convocation exercises of the Protestant Reformed Seminary on September 4, 2002. The first five installments appeared in the issues of the Standard Bearer immediately preceding this one. The speech has been revised and expanded for publication by naming theologians, books, and articles and by giving full citations.
What is truly significant about the movement we have been considering in these editorials in the past few issues of the Standard Bearer is not that there is widespread denial of justification by faith alone in reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Neither is it that those denying justification by faith alone openly align themselves with the Roman Catholic Church. Such apostasy from the faith, gross as it is, has occurred before.
The significance of the movement presently corrupting the gospel of grace in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, in an open, deliberate manner, is that it presents itself as a consistent development of the doctrine of a conditional covenant. The movement attacks the system of doctrine contained in the Canons of Dordt and in the Westminster Standards—Calvinism—on the basis of a conditional covenant.
A New Emphasis on the Covenant
The movement emphasizes the biblical covenant. The men who spearhead the movement charge both Rome and evangelicalism with ignoring the covenant in their theology. But Presbyterian and Reformed churches, they allege, have also failed to do justice to the covenant in their doctrine of salvation and in their work of evangelism. This emphasis on the covenant makes the movement attractive to Reformed and Presbyterian church members, who are generally aware of the importance of the covenant in Reformed thinking.
The sub-title of Norman Shepherd’s defense of justification by faith and works, and assault on all the doctrines of grace, The Call of Grace, is How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism (Eerdmans, 2000). The content of the book is a reexamination of the entire way of salvation and of the message and method of evangelism in light of the biblical doctrine of the covenant. Shepherd exhorts the Reformed community, “We need to learn to think covenantally” (p. 63).
There very definitely is relation between the movement now devastating the gospel of grace in conservative Reformed circles and the “new perspective on Paul” associated with E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and N. T. Wright. For Wright at any rate, who is the most influential of these men on evangelical and Reformed theologians, covenant is the basic truth. Wright justifies his rejection of the Reformation’s understanding of righteousness in Paul and his own new understanding of righteousness by appeal to the doctrine of the covenant: “Though it is unfashionable to use covenantal categories in interpreting Paul, I believe … that they are actually central” (The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, Fortress, 1992, p. 203).
Development of a Conditional Covenant
But the doctrine of the covenant that spawns the teaching of justification by faith and works in reputedly conservative Reformed churches today is that of a conditional covenant. According to Norman Shepherd the biblical covenant, which is fundamental to the entire way of salvation and to the message and method of evangelism, is conditional. It was conditional in the form it had as the covenant with Abraham.
We ought to ask whether the covenant that God made with Abraham really was, in fact, unconditional. Would the promises be fulfilled irrespective of any response on the part of Abraham and his children? The biblical record shows that conditions were, indeed, attached to the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham.
These conditions included Abra-ham’s act of circumcising himself and his children, Abraham’s believing, and Abraham’s obedience of life. It is Shepherd’s teaching that “the promises made to Abraham were fulfilled only as the conditions of the covenant were met” (Call of Grace, pp. 13-20).
Also as the new covenant, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the covenant is conditional. Although in the new covenant God graciously promises many blessings, “at the same time, faith, repentance, obedience, and perseverance are indispensable to the enjoyment of these blessings. They are conditions…” (Call of Grace, p. 50).
In view of the fundamental importance of a conditional covenant for the new Calvinistic doctrine of justification by faith and works, Presbyterian and Reformed theologians are laboring mightily to prove that John Calvin and other Reformed fathers taught a conditional covenant. Noble Reformed scholarship is now forced into the ignoble service of the lie of self-salvation. This enslaved scholarship discovers that John Calvin, as a conditional theologian, differed from Martin Luther in the essential Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone. Wonderful to relate, Calvin was open to, if he did not teach, justification by faith and the works of faith (see Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology, Baker, 2001).
Logical Development of a Conditional Covenant
The prominent, powerful movement in reputedly conservative Reformed churches today rejecting justification by faith alone and with this doctrine all the doctrines of grace is a movement of “covenant consciousness.” It advertises itself as a development of the doctrine of a conditional covenant. And, in fact, it is a genuine, logical, necessary development of the doctrine of a conditional covenant. For the first time in the history of Reformed Christianity, defenders of a conditional covenant are themselves acknowledging, indeed proclaiming, that a universal, conditional (breakable) covenant implies universal, conditional (losable) justification; universal, conditional (losable) election; universal, conditional (losable) atonement; universal, conditional (losable) regeneration; and universal, conditional (losable) preservation. In a word, the doctrine of a universal, conditional covenant implies universal, conditional (resistible) grace.
It does so in at least three ways.
First, the doctrine of a conditional covenant maintains that faith is a condition. By “condition,” it does not mean what some of the earlier Reformed theologians meant by “condition”: a necessary means by which God bestows His salvation upon the elect sinner, without which God does not save the elect sinner, and which God Himself works within the heart of the elect sinner. But the conditional covenant means by “condition” an act of the sinner himself upon which the covenant promise, the covenant itself as regards its continuance and final perfection, if not its establishment, all the covenant blessings, and the covenant God Himself depend.
In what must be the rankest statement of faith as a condition ever by a Reformed theologian, Norman Shepherd has written:
Thus, the promises made to Abraham had to be believed if they were to be fulfilled. We must not discount faith as a condition to be met for the fulfillment of promise. In fact,
says that Abraham’s faith was so significant that it was credited to him as righteousness! If so, then righteousness was a condition to be met, and faith met that condition (Call of Grace, p. 15).
According to Shepherd, faith is the act of the sinner. Upon it depends the promise of God. As such, the act of believing is itself the sinner’s righteousness. Not the obedience of Jesus Christ for Abraham is Abraham’s righteousness by imputation. But Abraham’s own believing is his righteousness.
The conditional covenant regards faith as a condition in precisely the sense the Canons of Dordt have in mind when they reject the error of making faith a condition, not only of election but also of salvation (I, Rejection of Errors/3, 5; I/10). The conditional covenant refuses to view faith, with the Belgic Confession, as “only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness . . . an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits” (Art. 22).
The defenders of a conditional covenant are always speaking of our being and remaining in the covenant, our being justified, and our being saved, “because of faith,” or “on the basis of faith.” In his explanation of Romans 3:24-26, N. T. Wright says, “Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly … on the basis of the entire life (What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Eerdmans, 1997, p. 129; emphasis added). Scripture, however, only speaks of our being justified “through,” that is, “by means of,” faith, or “out of faith,” as instrument, or source (Rom. 3:28; Rom. 5:1).
If faith is a condition of thecovenant and all its blessings, including justification, faith is a human work. It is a human work upon which God’s gracious work depends, regardless of the denial that this work is meritorious. Faith is a human work that contributes to one’s salvation, contributes greatly to one’s salvation. Justification, which like the covenant depends upon the sinner’s faith as a condition, is by human work—the human work of believing. But if faith itself is a human work, upon which righteousness with God depends, all of the good works that flow from faith should also be viewed as conditions of righteousness and salvation, indeed as part of the sinner’s righteousness with God. Thus, the contemporary heresy of justification by faith and the works of faith is really only the natural development of the doctrine dear to a conditional covenant, namely, that faith is a condition.
In keeping with their view of faith as a condition, defenders of a conditional covenant are averse to acknowledging faith as the gracious gift of God—fruit and effect of election (Canons, I/9); purchased by the death of Christ (Canons, II/7); and actually “conferred, breathed, and infused into” the elect, both as regards “the will to believe and the act of believing also” (Canons, III, IV/14). Norman Shepherd repeatedly insists that the covenant demands faith. He refuses to say that the covenant gives faith, as indeed it also gives obedience (Jer. 31:31-34).
(to be concluded)