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*This is the speech given at the convocation exercises of the Protestant Reformed Seminary on September 4, 2002. The first three installments appeared in the January 1, January 15, and February 1, 2003 issues of the Standard Bearer. The speech has been revised and expanded for publication by naming theologians, books, and articles and by giving full citations.

Those developing the doctrine of a conditional covenant in reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches today are not content to attack only the truth of justification. This would be impossible. Justification by faith alone is the heart of the gospel of salvation by the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ. Destruction of the heart is the death of the whole body of the truth. Justification by faith alone is the central element of the Reformed system of theology as expressed in the “Three Forms of Unity” and in the Westminster Standards. Denial of justification by faith alone is necessarily rejection of the entire system of salvation by grace. This becomes evident in the contemporary development of a conditional covenant that denies justification by faith alone. Young as the movement is, it already lays unholy hands on every one of the confessional doctrines of sovereign grace.

 

Atonement

 

The doctrine of the atonement of Christ is corrupted. Such is the relation of justification and the cross that if justification is not God’s saving act imputing to the believer the obedience of Christ, neither was the cross God’s imputation to Christ of the disobedience of the elect. Those who are attacking the confessional teaching of justification by faith alone are also denying that the death of Christ was satisfaction by the substitute to the justice of God. N. T. Wright, who, although not himself Reformed, is extremely influential with those in the reputedly conservative Reformed churches attacking justification by faith alone, has stated his opposition to the creedal doctrine of the death of Christ as satisfaction. To teach that God punished Jesus Christ in the place of His guilty people is a “crude theory.”

It is therefore true to Paul to speak of the punishment which all have deserved being enacted, instead, on the cross. But Paul has here nuanced this view in two ways which distance it from the cruder theories made familiar in some branches of theology. First, he is careful to say that on the cross God punished (not Jesus, but) “sin.” …Second, his argument functions within the whole matrix of thought according to which the death of Jesus can be interpreted in this way because he represents Israel and Israel represents humankind as a whole (N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, Fortress Press, 1991, p. 213).

There is a second way in which the movement within the Reformed churches attacking justification by faith alone corrupts the creedal doctrine of the atonement. The movement is teaching universal atonement. The reader will have noted in the citation from N. T. Wright that the Anglican theologian, in addition to rejecting the doctrine of satisfaction, teaches that Christ died for all “humankind.” Earlier, Wright was even clearer in his advocacy of Christ’s death for all without exception:

God has deliberately given the Torah [Law] to be the means of concentrating the sin of humankind in one place, namely, in his people, Israel—in order that it might then be concentrated yet further, drawn together on to Israel’s representative, the Messiah—in order that it might there be dealt with once and for all.

This doctrine of the death of Christ somehow dealing with the sin of all men is, says Wright, “one of Paul’s central themes” and “the most significant point to be made about Paul and the law in current debate” (The Climax of the Covenant, p. 196).

The Reformed theologians who are calling the doctrine of justification by faith alone into question likewise proclaim universal atonement. Having criticized the “Calvinist” interpretation of John 3:16 that insists the “saving love of God revealed in the atonement is only for the elect,” Shepherd boldly declares, “The Reformed evangelist can and must preach to everyone on the basis of John 3:16, ‘Christ died to save you'” (Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism, P&R, 2000, pp. 84, 85).

Presbyterian theologian John M. Frame confirms this analysis of Shepherd’s teaching. In his recent book, The Doctrine of God, Frame criticizes “some Calvinists” who hesitate to say to all unbelievers “God loves you, for they think that God loves only the elect.” (These Calvinists are so very few in number that I am surprised Frame takes up space in criticizing them. No doubt their error is grievous, a radical departure from the Reformed standards. Nevertheless, I notice Frame does not so much as refer to a single article in the creeds that these erring Calvinists violate. Surely the offense of this handful of Calvinists is not that they stray from the canons of Frame rather than from the Canons of Dordt?)

Frame announces that the reprobates “experience the love of God—real love.” “On the basis of John 3:16 [and here we move in the sphere of the doctrine of the atonement of Christ: ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son’—DJE], we can also say, ‘God loves you'” to unbelieving reprobates. Especially did God love all without distinction in Old Testament Israel. By implication, especially does God love all without distinction in the visible church of the New Testament.

In

Deuteronomy 7,

Moses tells the people of Israel that God “set his affection on” them

(Deut. 7:7)

and “loved” them

Deut. 7:8;

cf.

Deut. 4:37, 10:15, 23:5, 33:3; Ps. 44:3; Jer. 31:3;Hos. 11:1; Mal. 1:2),

even though there have been, are, and will be unbelievers within Israel. His covenant with them is a “covenant of love.”

(Deut. 7:12)

The prophets tell the people about God’s love in order to motivate their faithfulness.

The force of Frame’s doctrine of the covenant love of God for all without exception in Israel and in the visible church can be appreciated only by reading all of the texts he adduces and applying them to every single Israelite and to every single member of the visible church. God loved, elected, kept His covenant oath to, redeemed, blessed, saved, showed His favor to, drew to Himself in lovingkind-ness, and called out of Egypt all Israelites without exception. All of this rich, saving covenant love, God now lavishes on every member of the visible church without exception. But on Frame’s own admission some perish, God’s love and Christ’s death notwithstanding.

We cannot refrain: What does this teaching do to the doctrines of grace? What is left of a certain election unto glory; of an effectual redemption; of an irresistible, effectual grace; of the perseverance of saints? What of Paul’s ringing affirmation inRomans 9:6 precisely with regard to the perishing of many Israelites: “Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect”?

But where did Frame learn this universal covenant love of God with its death of Christ for all who are born in the sphere of the covenant? He tells us in a footnote: “Thanks to Norman Shepherd for suggesting this point to me” (John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R, pp. 418, 419).

The reason for universal atonement in the case of Shepherd and his supporters is their doctrine of a conditional covenant. According to them, God makes the covenant with many more than those who are finally saved in and by it. It may even prove to be their doctrine that God has established His covenant, conditionally, with all men without exception. We shall see. The movement is disclosing itself and developing as we write and read. But the covenant is grounded in and confirmed by the death of Christ. As the Canons ofDordt teach, “Christ by the blood of the cross … confirmed the new covenant” (II/8). If now, as Shepherd and those who share his doctrine of the covenant hold, God makes His covenant of grace with many more than only the elect, Christ must have died for many more than only the elect. And this is what they are openly teaching.

There is a special instance of the necessary connection between a universal, conditional covenant and the teaching of universal atonement in the case of the baptized children of believing parents. Both the Heidelberg Catechism, in Question and Answer 74, and the Reformed “Form for the Administration of Baptism” affirm that God’s making of the covenant of grace with someone, and thus his inclusion in this covenant, which is the meaning of baptism, is based on the redemption of the cross. If at baptism the covenant is established with all the children of believers alike, conditionally of course, Christ must have died for all the physical children alike, those who eventually perish as well as those who are finally saved. And this is what the conditional covenant people are openly teaching.

 

Election

 

The enemies of justification by faith alone in reputedly Reformed churches assail election. Especially do they assail election. The intimate relation between justification by faith alone and election is evident in Romans 8:33: “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth.” God’s justifying of a sinner by faith alone, which faith is God’s gift to the sinner, is purely gracious salvation. It has, and can only have, its source and explanation in God’s election of that sinner. The justified sinner may and must know himself, not only forgiven and saved, but also elected in eternity.

But if, on the contrary, justification depends squarely upon the sinner’s own work of faith, as a condition he must fulfill, and upon the good works the sinner performs by his faith, election—biblical, creedal election—is an embarrassment.

The teaching about election that prevails among those presently attacking justification by faith alone is that election must be buried in oblivion. Election is the great irrelevancy. It is irrelevant to the covenant. It is irrelevant to evangelism (that is, the preaching of the gospel). It is irrelevant to the Christian life (regeneration). It is the main purpose of Norman Shepherd’s The Call of Grace to cut the covenant, evangelism, and regeneration loose from election. For all practical purposes, there is no eternal, sovereign election. Election is buried in the tomb of the first head of the Canons of Dordt. Not only is election useless, it is highly dangerous and detrimental. Among other problems it has caused for the Reformed over the past four hundred years, according to Shepherd, the doctrine of election is the cause of the failure of Reformed missions to gather multitudes into the church.

As though election accompanied by an equally eternal, sovereign reprobation is not the apostle’s explanation in Romans 9-11 of the saving of only the remnant in Old Testament Israel!

As though Christ’s evangelistic message in John 6is not “oriented” to election (see vv. 37, 39)!

As though the Canons of Dordt in heads three and four do not relate regeneration to election!

At the same time that the doctrine of a sovereign decree cutting through the sphere of the covenant and controlling evangelism is consigned to oblivion, the advocates of a conditional covenant are explaining the outstanding texts on election, for example, Ephesians 1:4, as teaching a choice of God that depends on the sacrament of baptism, on men’s faith, and on men’s obedience and that includes both those who are finally saved and those who will eventually perish. This is the meaning of their urgent admonition that the Reformed henceforth view election in the light of the covenant.

Perseverance

 

This view of election points to yet another assault on the doctrines of sovereign grace by those advocating a conditional covenant and denying justification by faith alone. They reject the doctrine of the perseverance of saints. One can lose his justification. One can lose his election. One can go lost even though he has been incorporated into Christ. At the public Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference in Louisiana last year, John Barach, minister in the United Reformed Churches, said:

God gave them [those in the sphere of the covenant who fall away and perish everlastingly—reprobates] genuine promises that are just as real, just as dependable, and just as trustworthy as the promises He gave to people who do persevere to the end. He gave them real promises of salvation. He united them to Christ in whom alone there is salvation, and they themselves really rejected it because they didn’t receive the promises mixed with faith.

Total Depravity

 

Implied in the teaching of justification by faith and works is the rejection of the Reformed doctrines of sin and total depravity. If our good works are part of our righteousness with God, they cannot be defiled with sin, as the Heidelberg Catechism teaches they are, in Question and Answer 62: “Our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.” In the words of the Catechism, “The righteousness which can be approved of before the tribunal of God must be absolutely perfect and in all respects conformable to the divine law.” We can expect that the contemporary defenders of justification by faith and works will deny that the good works of Christians are “defiled with sin.” The alternative is to deny the perfection of God.

But total depravity itself must go by the board. Making justification dependent on faith and faith’s works as conditions requires that the sinner produce faith of himself, by his own free will. The sinner must do something of himself, not only to earn in the theology of Rome, but also to make the general promise effectual, keep himself in the universal covenant, and obtain for himself the offered salvation in the theology of a conditional covenant. What the sinner must do of himself is believe, and he must believe with a faith that works. Norman Shepherd states, with perfect clarity, that this monstrous error is the heart of his covenant doctrine: “These are the two parts of the covenant: grace and faith, promise and obligation” (The Call of Grace, p. 63). Faith lines up with obligation; grace lines up with promise. Faith is not of grace: “grace and faith.” Faith is man’s work—”obligation,” a condition. And God’s gracious promise depends squarely upon the sinner’s work of faith.

“Vilifying the Doctrine of the Reformed Churches”

 

So far has the opposition to the gospel of salvation by sovereign grace alone gone in reputedly Reformed circles that Steven M. Schlissel, for many years a favorite of the United Reformed men, long-time columnist for Christian Renewal, and prominent representative of the contemporary movement attacking justification by faith alone, rails against the Reformed confession of the five great truths that constitute the essence of the gospel of grace, that is, the Christian religion: Scripture alone; Christ alone; grace alone; faith alone; the glory of God alone. Christian Renewal reported that Schlissel told a large audience commemorating Reformation Day at Redeemer College, “Christ is the issue in the New Testament, not some abstract doctrine, or abstract solas [Latin for “only” as in “by faith only”—DJE], but Christ Himself” (Nov. 12, 2001, p. 9).

Defending his railing against the doctrines of the gospel of grace, Schlissel savaged the Reformed confession and demeaned the grand doctrines (for which scores of thousands of my Dutch ancestors gave their life’s blood): “‘Does the Lord delight in the solas as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the systems of men [sic!].’ ‘Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “The solas of the Reformation, The solas of the Reformation, The solas of the Reformation.”‘ Rather, God says, ‘Change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly’ (cf. Jeremiah 7)” (Christian Renewal, Jan. 28, 2002, pp. 4-6).

Schlissel is guilty of what the “Conclusion” of the Canons of Dordt calls “violently assailing, or even vilifying, the doctrine of the Reformed churches.”

This wholesale assault on the doctrines of sovereign grace presents itself as a development of covenant doctrine. The men responsible like to call their movement one of “covenant consciousness.”

And this is what it is.

The conscousness and development of the doctrine of a conditional covenant.

— DJE

(to be continued)