Justified Through Our Faithfulness?

As I mentioned in an earlier post in Romans 2:13 Paul writes, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (ESV).1 The chapter begins with matter of judgment. Since 1:18 Paul has been prosecuting the Gentiles on the basis of their natural knowledge of God, which we suppress. Because of the effects of sin all our faculties and desires are corrupted. Because we all know the moral law of God in our consciences we are without excuse before God. Chapter 2 begins with a reiteration of this law principle: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (ESV). Now he turns his attention to Jews, those who had received the old covenant, the Mosaic law, the national covenant (Romans 9:4–5; 3:1–3; ESV). The whole of chapter 2 is a prosecution of the Jews according to the standard that had been revealed to them, the Mosaic law. God had exercised forbearance with the Israelites but because of the hardness of their hearts (vv.4–5) they are storing up judgment instead. Judgment will be rendered according to “works” (v 6). Those who seek “for glory and honor” by patience will receive eternal life (v. 7). Those who do not “obey the truth” (v. 8) will be judged. Because God is impartial, both Jews and Greeks will be judged according to their works (v. 9–11). Those who sinned under the Mosaic law will be judged by that standard and those who sinned under the natural law by that standard (v.12). The rest of the chapter after v. 13 continues in the same vein. The Gentiles have the substance of the moral law written on their conscience (vv. 14–15). The Jews, who boast about having the Mosaic law, will be judged by the standard of the law given at Sinai (vv. 16–29). Thus, when Paul contrasts “hearers” and “doers” it is hearers and doers of the law. Both Jews and Gentiles are under substantially the same law: love God with all one’s faculties and one’s neighbor as himself (Matt 22:37–40) but, as Paul shows in chapter 3, no one does this. In chapter 5 he explains why this is, because, as the New England Puritans put it, “In Adam’s fall, sinned we all.” The only reference to the gospel in this section is the broad use of the word, the promise that God will judge law breakers. There is no good news for sinners here.

The magisterial Protestant interpretation of Romans 1–3 was that these chapters were largely a presentation of the law, with the intent of demonstrating to Jews and Gentiles the impossibility of sinners of meeting the standard of righteousness. As quoted in the earlier post, Calvin’s interpretation reflects this reading:

They who pervert this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works, deserve most fully to be laughed at even by children. It is therefore improper and beyond what is needful, to introduce here a long discussion on the subject, with the view of exposing so futile a sophistry: for the Apostle only urges here on the Jews what he had mentioned, the decision of the law, — That by the law they could not be justified, except they fulfilled the law, that if they transgressed it, a curse was instantly pronounced on them. Now we do not deny but that perfect righteousness is prescribed in the law: but as all are convicted of transgression, we say that another righteousness must be sought. Still more, we can prove from this passage that no one is justified by works; for if they alone are justified by the law who fulfill the law, it follows that no one is justified; for no one can be found who can boast of having fulfilled the law.

For Calvin, this passage is law, an expression of God’s righteous demand. Anyone who would present himself to God on the basis of the law must actually keep the law. The only thing that satisfies justice is actual, complete, perfect fulfillment of the law. The slightest disobedience to God’s holy law merits only one thing: condemnation. Calvin found no good news for sinners in this section of Romans.

In light of its overwhelming thematic and conceptual unity, in light of the Reformation reading of Romans 1:18–3:20, it is difficult to see how or why any confessional Protestant could or would read this section differently but in 1978 a professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (PA), Norman Shepherd, in the midst of what would become a seven-year long controversy over whether a Reformed Christian may teach justification “through faith and works” or “through faithfulness” proposed 34 theses for discussion and debate. Among them was this one:

20. The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are no persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified (Compare Luke 3:21; James 1:22-25).

This reading dispensed with the historic Protestant (Lutheran and Reformed) distinction between the two principles of law and gospel. Instead, this reading proposed that, in Romans 2:13, Paul was not prosecuting sinners on the basis of the law, that he was not pressing the righteous and holy demands of God upon them to teach them their sins and misery and to drive them to Christ. Rather, according to this re-reading, Paul was speaking of Christians who will so cooperate with grace as to be sufficiently righteous as to be accepted by God was a radical re-reading of this passage.

This radical re-reading of Romans 2:13 continues to reverberate in some Reformed circles to the present day.

The Problem With Progressive Justification
What has been neglected is a 1978 proposal that, at the judgment, “faithful disciples” will be justified before God through their faithfulness.  The current controversy over sanctification is, however, part of an argument that began long before 1978. It has its roots in the late 1520s when Johann Agricola (1494–1566) denounced the doctrine that God’s holy moral law governs the life of the Christian, i.e., what we know as the “third use of the law” (tertius usus legis). In the confessional Lutheran (e.g., in the Book of Concord) and Reformed understanding of justification, salvation, and the Christian life no Christian is “under the law” with respect to his acceptance with God (justification). That cannot be. Paul was repeatedly explicit about this:

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Galatians 2:15–16; ESV).


For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:10–14; ESV)


For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Romans 3:28; ESV)

Much of the medieval church had concluded and Council of Trent confirmed a doctrine of progressive justification through sanctification by medicinal grace (divine and semi-divine substances as distinct from divine favor or approval) and cooperation with grace.

At Trent, Session 6 (1547) Canon 11, Rome declared:

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 Spirit, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favor of God; let him be anathema.

According to Rome, in the sacraments, the Christian is endued with a certain power with which he must cooperate. Justification is through grace and cooperation with grace. Canon 9 made clear the necessity of cooperation with grace unto justification:

If any one says, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

She continued by denouncing the pan-Protestant definition of faith in the act of justification as “confidence in the divine mercy.” No, according to Rome, faith justifies because it works and through working. Faith does what it does not because of its object but because of what it is, because it is formed by love (fides formata caritate). According to Rome, Christ has done his part, on the cross and in baptism, of making salvation possible but we must do our part. This remains the Roman doctrine of justification in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church (§1987ff). To a man the magisterial, confessional Protestants rejected this scheme as no different from “the works of the law” denounced by the Apostle Paul. The Protestant churches confessed the same.

The theological unity on this point, however, did not prevent all difficulties. In the 1550s the Lutheran theologian George Major (1502–74) proposed that good works are “necessary for retaining salvation.” There is nothing new about the NPP/FV doctrine of “in by grace, stay in through works.” The Reformed categorically rejected that doctrine in favor of teaching that sinners are justified (declared righteous) out of God’s favor alone (sola gratia), received through faith alone (sola fide) resting in, receiving, trusting in  Christ, his finished work for us, and in his promises alone. New life and true faith necessarily results in sanctity, which, in turn, produces good works as fruit and evidence of true faith and justification. When faced with the potential modifying this doctrine  the Synod of Dort replied in effect: We get in by grace and we stay in by grace.

Nevertheless, some Reformed Protestants have sometimes given in to the temptation to reintroduce a version of the “works of the law,” i.e., grace and cooperation with grace, into Reformed theology. Sometimes it comes in the front door, as in the case of Norman Shepherd’s doctrine of justification “through faith and works” or “through faithfulness.” Sometimes, however, justification by grace and cooperation with grace has been reintroduced through the backdoor, as it were, by distinguishing explicitly or implicitly between an initial justification and a final justification. In this scheme sinners are said to be justified initially, in this life, by grace alone (sola gratia), sola fide (through faith alone) but finally justified, in the same legal sense as in the first instance, also partly on the basis of inherent righteousness and sanctity produced through union with Christ. Proponents of this approach limit the function of faith to forensic, legal justification in this life. Once we are justified talk of faith recedes and “existential union with Christ” becomes more prominent. Justification and sanctification are said to be logically twin benefits issuing from existential (formerly known as mystical) union with Christ initiated by God at regeneration. In this view there is and can be no logical order between justification and sanctification. At least one proponent (though we can hardly think he is alone in his sentiments) has argued that Reformed Christians must “move on” from “ordo salutis thinking.” Another critic of the traditional (and arguably confessional) Reformed view has labelled as “semi-Pelagian” the notion that, in the application of redemption, in regeneration (defined as awakening from spiritual death to spiritual life) the Holy Spirit creates or endows the elect with new life and with that new life the gift of faith, and through faith creates a mystical union with Christ and his believer. This would seem to the doctrine and intent of the Westminster Shorter Catechism when it says,

Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?

A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling. [emphasis added]

The catechism’s “thereby” would seem to signal that Spirit-wrought faith and not regeneration per se is the “instrument” of our existential, mystical union with Christ in the application of redemption. In other words, according to the catechism, existential or mystical union (as distinct from that union that may said to exist in the decree, from all eternity, and that federal union that may be said to have existed in Christ’s acting for us in his obedient life and death) is unavoidably part of a logical order. It is the regenerated who believe and it is believers who are united to Christ (and that faith is the gift of God) and is believers united to Christ who are justified.

Two Stage Justification And Double Justification
Sometimes proponents of a “two-stage” doctrine of justification have appealed to the language of “double justification” and implied that the Reformed, under that rubric, taught a two-stage doctrine of justification. The evidence does not support this suggestion. When the Lutherans and the Reformed wrote of a “double justification” (duplex iustitia) they were not establishing either two grounds of standing before God (imputed righteousness and inherent righteousness)—that was the Romanist view advocated at Regensburg (1541)—nor were they imply that there are two stages to justification, initial and final. Rather, they were distinguishing between justification as a legal, forensic act, whereby God declares those who are intrinsically unjust to be legally just on the basis of Christ’s condign merit imputed to them and the process of progressive sanctification whereby the consequences of that justification are worked out gradually, graciously in the lives of believers as they are conformed to Christ in mortification (putting to death the old man) and vivification (the making alive of the new man). This doctrine was effectively that taught by Calvin as the “twofold grace of God” (duplex gratia Dei) and by Olevianus and others as the “double benefit” (duplex beneficium) of the covenant of grace: justification and sanctification. According to Calvin, Olevianus and others, the same Spirit who raised us to life, who gave us the grace of faith, who, through that faith united us to Christ, is also at work in us sanctifying us. This is why they had no need of a “two-stage” doctrine of justification and, instead, distinguished between justification and vindication. We are justified in this life and shall be vindicated in the next. This is how Luther and the rest of the magisterial Protestants related Paul and James. Paul was speaking of a forensic, legal justification and James, in chapter 2, was speaking of evidence of faith or vindication of the claim to be a believer.

Ordo Salutis And A Two Stage Sequence
In the course of the original (or first stage of the) Shepherd controversy (1974–81) many informal documents were created. There was a faculty report and responses to the faculty report and addenda to those documents. There were also public letters to supporters of the seminary and responses to those letters and then finally a report by the board of trustees. Not all of the documents are dated so it’s not completely certain when they were drafted or circulated. I believe the document below to be from 1978 but cannot be completely certain. This document, written in defense of Shepherd, shows the beginnings of what would become a more fully developed approach to Romans 2:13 in which it was interpreted not as an expression of the pedagogical use the law (sometimes denominated the first use, sometimes denominated the second) but as an indication that there are two stages of justification, initial and final, and that Romans 2:13 contains a promise of final acceptance with God on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity.

I quote extensively from the document (pages 5–7). The only omissions are internal outline numbering and internal references to other parts of the document on the grounds that to retain these would be confusing to the reader. Nothing of substance in this section of the paper has been omitted. The document was signed but I omit the name in order to focus on the substance of the issue.

The author writes:

The Roman Catholic notion of faith formed by love and other serious misunderstandings of this verse [Gal 5:6] must be recognized and avoided….Faith justifies only as it rests in Christ and his finished righteousness, not as it looks too its working in love. Love and good works do not have a function or instrumentality for justification separate from, parallel to, or beyond that of faith. The sole instrument of justification is faith, from which working through love flows [sic] as the necessary and integral fruit or manifestation. Where the relationship between faith and its working (good works) is not expressed in this or some other equivalent way, the unique function (instrumentality) of faith for justification and so too, then, Christ’s finished righteousness as the exclusive ground of justification threatened to be obscured or denied.

This seems to be a fairly robust affirmation of the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone through faith alone. The subordinate clause, “from which working through love flows” is not entirely clear grammatically but the intent seems to be to say that those who are justified by grace alone, through faith alone will produce the fruit of sanctification.

There is, however, an interesting qualification that should not be missed. “Love and good works do not have a function or instrumentality for justification separate from or parallel to or beyond that of faith.” Though the statement denies the Roman doctrine of “faith formed by love” it seems as if the definition of faith offered here is not far from it. Certainly we should agree with the author that sanctification and consequent good works do flow as fruit of justification and union with Christ but what is the result of saying that sanctification and good works are a constituent of faith in the act of justification? There is a certain degree of ambiguity. Since this was an informal document perhaps we shouldn’t press it too hard and yet this language does suggest that we will want to pay attention to what follows.

Next, the author appeals to the example of Abraham:

The experience of Abraham implies that as long as the believers earthly life continues, perseverance In the state of justification (from which he can never fall, WCF, 11:5) is essential to his being justified (cf. J. Edwards, works (1974), 1:640–642).

The citation of Edwards is fascinating. As anyone who has studied Edwards’ doctrine of justification it is fraught with difficulties to say the least. A recent volume sought to exonerate his doctrine of justification but, so far as I was able to tell, it never made reference to the article that highlighted the great difficulty in the first place: Thomas A. Schafer, “Jonathan Edwards and Justification By Faith,” Church History 20 (1951): 55–67. It may not be possible to say exactly what Edwards’ doctrine of justification was or that he had a single, coherent doctrine of justification. For more on this see the relevant section in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

More significantly, the author appeals to Abraham’s perseverance (which was mixed at best) not as fruit and evidence of his faith (despite the manifold evidences to the contrary—he was a serial liar and doubter. Abraham was a perfectionist’s nightmare) as “essential to his being justified.” Now the picture is clearer. The Canons of Dort (1619) want us to think and say that perseverance is a fruit of our election not condition (to which the Remonstrants added the qualification “foreseen”; CD First Head of Doctrine, rejection of errors, para. 5). Nowhere does the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 60) include perseverance as essential to justification. The justified will persevere but they do so by God’s grace as an outworking or a consequence of election and justification. Obedience is essential to perseverance and if perseverance is essential to justification have we not made obedience essential to justification?

This formulation would seem to contradict the express teaching of WCF 11.1 that believers are justified

not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God [emphasis added]

Perseverance is wrought in us but it is an “evangelical obedience” that attends justification, that gives evidence of justification but is no part of the ground, instrument, or even essence of justification.

The document continues:

Paul and James. The much-debated question of the relationship between James 2:14ff. and the relevant passages in Paul can be addressed briefly in the light of the preceding discussion, particularly in view of their common appeal to Genesis 15:6 and the experience of Abraham. The two are not in conflict. Paul looks at Abraham’s faith as it rests in the promise (the promised seed, righteousness) and so receives the forgiveness of sin. James looks at the same faith as it is active and working (2:22); out of trust in the same promise he offered up his only son (seed), Isaac (vs. 21). That James calls this “justification by works” is because he sees Abraham’s deed only as the manifestation and fruitage of his faith, the faith that continues to rest in the promised seed. The justification of which James speaks is not in place of nor a repetition of justification in Paul’s sense (the once-for-all imputation of Christ’s righteousness and forgiveness of sins). Rather, the former, with a view to the persevering of faith working through love, is the reconfirmation or revalidation of the latter. The one, no less than the other, is forensic and declarative, and both have God as their subject. It is not necessary to insist on a demonstrative, as distinct from or excluding a declarative, sense in James.

We should agree with this account right up to the penultimate sentence. “The one, no less than the other, is forensic and declarative, and both have God as their subject.” The author continues by denying that the justification to which James refers is “declarative” as distinct from Paul’s “forensic” (legal). If by these two sentences the author means to blur the distinction between a forensic (legal, declarative act) and justification in the sense of vindication, i.e., the recognition of what is the case, then we should dissent dissent strongly. James refers to our works as evidence of our claim to faith. This is vindication. Paul refers to God’s declaration that sinners are declared to be righteous on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received through faith alone. These are two distinct things that should not be muddled.

Justification and Sanctification. Justification and sanctification are different, yet they are inseparable (WLC, 77).

They differ in that they address distinctly different exigencies. Justification deals with the guilt and condemnation of sin and is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the pardoning of sin; sanctification deals with the corrupting power of sin and the production of righteousness and the subduing of sin within the believer by the power of Christ’s Spirit.

They are inseparable in that they both inhere and derive from the believer’s vital union with Christ (WLC, 69).

We should agree with the first paragraph and question and qualify the second. There is a double benefit of the covenant of grace, a double benefit of our vital union with Christ. Amen. There is, however, a logical order to the benefits. Without being too graphic consider the birth of twins. Ordinarily, apart from a C-section, twins do not emerge from the womb simultaneously. They emerge in order. Now, that is a chronological sequence. With the double benefit we do not have a temporal, chronological sequence but a logical sequence. It is the justified who are progressively sanctified. I contend that the denial of the logical order has contributed to the original controversy and continues to reverberate in the current confusion.

While it is equally important to distinguish justification and sanctification from each other as it is not to separate them, they are properly distinguished only as their inseparability in Christ is appreciated (cf. 1 Cor. 1:30). Although sanctification in its progressive aspect obviously follows justification in time, the distinction between them is not well expressed by saying, out of concern to safeguard the purity of justification, that it is the basis of sanctification, or by speaking of the priority of justification to sanctification. Much better is the model proposed by Calvin (institutes, 3:11:6): Christ, the sole source of righteousness, is the sun from which proceeds, without confusion or separation, or relative priority both light (justification) and heat (sanctification).

Here we should agree with the author as to what the issue is even as we disagree with his prescription and his analysis of Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ. Since this controversy there has been considerable historical work by Cornelis Venema, Todd Billings, and Richard Muller, to name but three who’ve reached quite different conclusions about Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ and the duplex gratia. My own research into Caspar Olevianus’ doctrine of the duplex beneficium reached similar conclusions regarding his teaching that parallels those of Billings, Venema, and Muller regarding Calvin. More recently, John Fesko has argued the historical case for the logical priority of justification to sanctification.

The temporal sequence is not in question. We should, however, affirm the logical priority of justification to progressive sanctification. ” We have prima facie evidence in Romans 8:30 for thinking this way:

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Romans 8:30; ESV).

It is the elect who are effectually called. It is those who are called who are justified. It is the justified who shall be glorified and glorification is the consummation of progressive sanctification in this life. In Paul’s brief order of salvation here sanctification is represented by and subsumed under glorification.

As the argument unfolds the connection to a two-stage doctrine of justification becomes clearer:

Justification and final judgment.

A pervasive strand of New Testament teaching is that at the end of this age, at Christ’s return all men, including believers, will appear before God (Christ) for judgment (e.g., Matt. 16:27; 25:31–46; John 5:27–29; Acts 17:31; Rom. 2:6, 16; 2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 9:27; 2 Pet. 3:7; 1 John 4:17).

While some of these passages neighbor for to the differing rewards granted to believers relative to each other, others unmistakably describe, not merely relative degrees a blessing for believers, but a judgment involving all men and in which the issue for all including believers, is the ultimate outcome of either internal life or eternal destruction (E. G. , Matt. 25,: 31ff.; John 5:29; Rom. 2:5–8).

While, in the case of believers, the final judgment is not called “justification” (although see Matt. 12:36, 37 and probably, too, Rom. 2:13; cf. Also the future “hope of righteousness,” Gal. 5:5), the essential features involved—a judicial transaction issuing in an irreversible verdict with eternal consequences—are precisely those at stake in Paul’s doctrine of justification. The positive outcome of the final judgment is in fact, if not in name, a justification.

What was implied and suggested above is now more explicit: a two-stage justification. In this case, however, we have observed that the distinction between them is not sharp. We have seen affirmations of the traditional Reformed doctrine of justification sola gratia, sola fide on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and significant qualifications of the definition of faith and justification which, if allowed to stand unchecked, would be fatal to the biblical and Reformed doctrine of justification.

The final justification envisioned in the section quoted above is distinct from the initial justification but continuous with it. Where the traditional doctrine has sinners justified once for all in this life and that justification vindicated at the judgment, this re-casting clear has them justified a second a second time.

Believers Are Already Justified
Above we began looking at a document, from 1978, which proposed a two-stage doctrine of justification. It recognized that there is some risk, some difficulty, in speaking of a present justification and a future justification. Nevertheless, the document contends that biblical text requires us to speak this way.

The question of the relationship, for believers, of justification already received to the final judgment, although difficult, is unavoidable; cannot be pushed aside, out of the proper concern to protect the once-for-all, definitive character of justification, by saying that the final judgment has “nothing to do” with justification. The unavoidability of this question in the case of Paul, especially, is playing. Paul’s gospel is eschatological through and through. Justification is the verdict of the final judgment already pronounced on the believer, in view of the eschatological significance of Christ’s death and resurrection (cf. age. Ridderbos, Paul, pp. 161–166). For Paul, justification by faith is a piece of “realized eschatology,” demanding to be related in it’s organic ties to the still future eschatological aspects of his gospel.

The document contends that we cannot say that the final judgment has “nothing to do” with justification. Since it uses quotation marks we are left to assume that someone, in the course of the discussion, used this language but it rightly responds that the two are related, that justification sola gratia, sola fide, is an eschatological (final) declaration realized in time and space. The question before us is whether a doctrine of a two-stage justification preserves or jeopardizes the definitive, once-for-all character of justification.

The final judgment, with its dual outcome of eternal life or death, is a judgment according to works [Emphasis original] (Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:10) [emphasis original].

In 2009 Rick Phillips gave five reasons why we should not say that we are justified “according to works.”

      • Scripture teaches that justification through faith alone is not provisional in character but utterly definitive in securing God’s righteous verdict.
      • The idea of a future justification of believers suggests that Christians must stand before the Lord with respect to their sinful deeds.
      • According to the vision of final judgment in Revelation 20:11-15, it is only those outside of Christ who will be judged according to their works.
      • Believers will not stand for judgment on the basis of their own works. He explains:

Their key passage is Romans 2:6-13, where Paul speaks of “the doers of the law” being justified (2:13). Reformed theology has classically regarded this passage as describing how religious people hope to be justified apart from Christ. In chapter 1, Paul wrote of the condemnation of pagan idolaters, but in chapter 2 he addresses the religious Jew. Paul warns them against the idea that the law – the Torah – saves them, because one is saved not merely by possessing the law but by keeping it. If you are trying to be justified by the law, Paul says, then you have to do it, not merely possess it. John Calvin explains of Romans 2:13: “The sense of this verse, therefore, is that if righteousness is sought by the law, the law must be fulfilled, for the righteousness of the law consists in the perfection of works.” This is why Paul proceeds to make the point that “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10), and “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The point of Romans 2:6-13 is to show those who seek to be justified by their works that they will have to keep the law perfectly, which Paul then shows they cannot hope to do. Given its clear context, Calvin comments on Romans 2:13, “Those who misinterpret this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works deserve universal contempt.”

The doctrine of judgment “according to works” does not seem to be used extensively by the Reformed Churches in their confessions. It does not occur in the Belgic Confession (1560), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Canons of Dort, the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), or the Westminster Standards (1648). The Scots Confession (1560) chapter 25 does use it:

Yea, the Eternal, our God, shall stretch out his hand on the dust, and the dead shall arise incorruptible, and in the very substance of the selfsame flesh which every man now bears, to receive according to their works, glory or punishment. Such as now delight in vanity, cruelty, filthiness, superstition, or idolatry, shall be condemned to the fire unquenchable, in which those who now serve the devil in all abominations shall be tormented forever, both in body and in spirit. But such as continue in well doing to the end, boldly confessing the Lord Jesus, shall receive glory, honor, and immortality, we constantly believe, to reign forever in life everlasting with Christ Jesus, to whose glorified body all his chosen shall be made like, when he shall appear again in judgment and shall render up the Kingdom to God his Father, who then shall be and ever shall remain, all in all things, God blessed forever. To whom, with the Son and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, now and ever. Amen.

It is not clear that this section of the Scots Confession is teaching the same thing proposed in the (1978) document since the confession does not distinguish between two stages of justification nor does it equate the judgment according to works to justification.

The document continues:

In the case of believers, the final judgment (justification) does not involve a different principle than justification by faith, as if the sinner is first justified by his faith in the righteousness of Christ and then, at the final judgment on the basis of his works. Such a construction would bring Paul into contradiction with himself and destroy the assurance ministered by his doctrine of justification by faith. Rather, from beginning to end (final judgment) the ground of acceptance with God and his justifying judgment is the finished righteousness of Christ.

This passage is interesting because it addresses one of the concerns animating this series on Romans 2:13. It’s interesting that the document recognizes the possibility that the reader might reach this conclusion. Has the document pushed a boulder down the hill—in other words, is there a good, logical reason to prevent the reader from drawing the conclusion the document hopes to avoid?

In the case of believers, the final judgment according to works is the culmination of the justification by works of which James speaks. “Works” in this instance is an abbreviation for “faith working by love”; works are the criterion or fruit (manifestation) of the faith which all along, from beginning to end (final judgment), rest in Christ and his imputed righteousness. In a word, for the believer the final judgment according to work is the consummation of justification by faith.

Since the document speaks of the judgment as the “culmination” of justification it is difficult to see how justification, in this life, really is once-for-all and final. Does this way of thinking and speaking really accord with Paul’s language: “having therefore been justified by faith, we have peace with God”? (Rom 5:1) Scripture does not say “Since justification has been inaugurated will be consummated in the judgment according to works, we have peace with God.” To read Paul this way would turn his intent on its head. His intent is for the believer to know, with a “certain knowledge and hearty trust” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 21) that he is now presently, irrevocably accepted by God for Christ’s sake alone and this not “of works” or “according to works” but “of faith.” This is why Paul says, in Romans 8:1

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Again, Scripture does not say that, though there is now no condemnation but there remains a future and final adjudication. The catechism picks up on this teaching:

Q. 58. What comfort takest thou from the article of “life everlasting”?

A. That since I now feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, after this life, I shall inherit perfect salvation, which “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man” to conceive, and that to praise God therein for ever.

Q. 59. But what does it profit thee now that thou believest all this?

A. That I am righteous in Christ, before God, and an heir of eternal life.

Q. 60. How are thou righteous before God?

A. Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.

When the catechism thinks about the future, even the judgment, it does not envision a second justification nor a second stage of justification. Question 52 assumes that we are already justified.

Q. 52. What comfort is it to thee that “Christ shall come again to judge the quick and the dead”?

A. That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same person, who before offered himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as judge from heaven: who shall cast all his and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall translate me with all his chosen ones to himself, into heavenly joys and glory.

For believers the judgment is not a new adjudication, a second justification but a blessing and a vindication of the justification received by grace alone, through faith alone.

The document takes a step in this direction:

In so far as the final judgment may be viewed, in the case of believers, as a justification, the difference between it and the justification that takes place when the sinner is united to Christ may be expressed at the lead of 2 Corinthians 5:7, by the distinction between justification by faith and justification by sight (cf. WSC, 38: “openly acknowledged and acquitted”), or perhaps between justification by faith and justification in the (resurrected) body (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10).

Yet the document ignores the fact that the divines who framed the standards used different language and categories precisely to distinguish between justification and vindication—”openly acknowledged and acquitted.” What has already been declared, namely the justification of sinners, is recognized. We should not accept the document’s facile equation of an ostensible future justification with the vindication of believers.

The document wants to include our future, final justification “according to works” in the gospel.

The inclusion of the final judgment according to works for believers as an integral element of the Gospel, among other things, serves as a reminder that justification by faith is not only something that has happened in the past experience of the believer but is a present, ongoing concern (cf. The title of Calvin’s Institutes, 3:14). Most assuredly, the removal of condemnation, the invitation of Christ righteousness, the forgiveness of sins, all of which take place at the moment the sinner is first united to Christ by faith, are once-for-all and your reversible, and initiate the state of justification from which believers can never fall (W CF, 11:5). Any presentation of the Gospel or formulation of the doctrine of justification that obscures or denies this is simply unfaithful to Scripture. But at the same time it must also be kept clear that this irrevocable justification is received by faith with a view to it’s persevering to the end…. As true faith, wrought and sustained by the sovereign power of God, it is bound to persevere; but it must in fact persevere, of faith which, as it continues to rest in Christ and receive everything from him, works by love.

Justification is not merely initiated. No, it is declared. Justification has been accomplished and applied. We should not accept that way of speaking about justification.

If we simply allow the judgment to be what it is: acknowledgment of what God has already declared and what he has wrought in them as fruit and evidence, we have resolved the matter

To connect justification and perseverance in this way is not to introduce a note of fear or uncertainty into the gospel or confound the entire graciousness of justification with an element of legalism. Rather it is to make intelligible to the congregation its existence between justification and final judgment, as the people who serve the living and true God as they wait for his son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead for their justification, Jesus, who delivers them from the coming wrath (1 Thess. 1:9,10; Rom. 4:25).

The document does not want to introduce fear and uncertainty but has it succeeded? The document seems dissatisfied with the historic Reformed approach of Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude (the three parts of the Heidelberg Catechism) and the gospel mystery of sanctification graciously, gradually wrought within justified believers united to Christ. It begs leave to connect our perseverance to a putative future justification. This is a new thing. The medieval and later the Tridentine Roman communion sought to induce believers to greater sanctity through a two-stage doctrine of justification: an initial justification in baptism and a final justification through sanctification (by grace and cooperation with grace).

The document wants to avoid this outcome but there are too many similarities between the medieval and Roman schemes to the scheme proposed here to ignore.

Belgic Confession art. 24 makes clear that we believe that believers will be sanctified, they will produce fruit, they will do good works in light of Christ’s work for them and in union with him as he works in them.

In the ordinary course of things believers will do good works, as they should, as they must, as befits those who have received such free favor from God, in Christ. This is the “way of salvation,” i.e., the ordinary process by which the Spirit works salvation (definitive justification and progressive sanctification). These good works are evidence and fruit of the Spirit’s work. The ground of our one justification is the righteousness of Christ imputed. The only instrument of our justification and salvation is faith alone. We do not advance our understanding of Scripture or our confession of faith by re-defining justification or by tying it to sanctification and works.

1. The NA28 says: “οὐ γὰρ οἱ ἀκροαταὶ νόμου δίκαιοι παρὰ [τῷ] θεῷ, ἀλλʼ οἱ ποιηταὶ νόμου δικαιωθήσονται.” The Vulgate reads: “non enim auditores legis iusti sunt apud Deum sed factores legis iustificabuntur.” Theodore Beza’s Latin New Testament has “(non enim qui audiunt legem justi sunt apud Deum; sed qui legem praestant justificabantur.” Arguably the Vulgate is a more straightforward translation. What make’s Beza’s interesting is the insertion of the prepositional phrase apud Deum (with God), the insertion of parentheses (in my 1834 edition) which extend to v. 15, and the use of the somewhat more ambiguous praestant in place of factores. Praestant has a number of senses among them “to fulfill.” It seems as if Beza wanted to make clearer the sense that the law is something that must be performed completely or perfectly and not merely attempted. One of the two notes on this verse in the Geneva Bible (1599 edition) says: “Shall be pronounced just before God’s judgment seat: which is true indeed, if any such could be found that had fulfilled the law: but seeing Abraham was not justified by the Law, but by faith, it followeth that no man can be justified by works.”

Should I Buy It? A Book Review

Frequently I receive the question in my inbox: “Should I buy this book?” What I would like to say is, “Yes, buy every book but don’t buy every book you buy.” I think it is a good idea to own and read books liberally. Sometimes I have the impression that the unstated premise of the question is something like this: “I suspect that I won’t agree with the book, so tell me if that is so and I’ll know not to buy it.” I do not share that view. I regularly purchase books with which I do not agree. This gets us to the second sense of “buy.” I think readers should read widely but they shouldn’t believe everything they read. So we should read liberally but we should read critically, i.e., thoughtfully and always asking ourselves: “Is that true?” “What is the writer assuming?” With these notions in mind I thought it would be helpful to consider the latest systematic theology to be published, John Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2013).

There are presently two competing approaches to Reformed theology. One approach seeks to appreciate and appropriate the Reformed tradition and the confession of the churches and from that starting point and with those resources read the Scriptures and engage the state of the art. The other approach, however, seems to regard the tradition with a wary eye and seeks to revise Reformed theology in sometimes radical ways. The volume before us, though it has traditional elements, falls into the second category. This approach, which is more “biblicist” than confessionalist (on this see Recovering the Reformed Confession), has produced some significant divergences from historic Reformed theology.

The first divergence is methodological. To put it briefly, Frame has adopted what is essentially a dialectical approach to theology.1 I understand that this might surprise some readers. After all, when we think of dialectical theology we might think of Karl Barth and his view of revelation. Nevertheless, there is more than one way of arriving at a dialectical method. By dialectical I mean an approach to theology that affirms and denies something at the same time. Frame does this through a method he describes as triperspectivalism. This method is sometimes taken, naively I think, as a sort of common-sense approach to theology that seeks to take into account three perspectives: the norm to be applied, the situation in which the norm is applied, and the person doing the applying. Were that all that triperspectivalism entailed there wouldn’t be much reason for concern. That account, however, is only part of the story. There is more.

The second divergence, closely related to the first, is theological. Frame has come to defend views that are flatly contrary to the Reformed confession on a number of topics from the definition of theology through to Christian ethics.

  • In his earlier volume on the doctrine of God, he defended the proposition that God is three persons and one person, a view at which, in the present volume. he seems only to hint.2 Last I knew, few reviewers noted this significant departure from catholic (i.e., universal Christian) dogma and the Reformed confession.
  • Under the doctrine of salvation (soteriology), Where the orthodox Reformed writers all rejected categorically and heartily the very doctrines now described as the “Federal Vision” theology, where Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) dismissed Norman Shepherd for teaching justification through faith and works (or “faithfulness”), where the Reformed churches, including his own denomination (PCA) have rejected the Federal Vision theology, in contrast, Frame has defended the right of the self-described Federal Visionists to teach their doctrines. In the present volume he offers a (remarkably revisionist) defense of the principal godfather of the FV theology, Norman Shepherd.3
  • Under the heading of ecclesiology he published a book that presupposed the elimination of the marks of a true church.
  • He has, as I documented in RRC, proposed significant revisions of the Reformed understanding of the second commandment.

For the purposes of this review, let’s consider one result of Frame’s method. His method is not only dialectical, it is a latitudinarian, i.e., the goal is that we should tolerate doctrines that the Reformed churches have condemned. The results of his method also appear in his doctrine of God.

On p. 428 there is a heading, in bold typeface, that reads: “God Is Simple.” He says, “[t]heologians also speak of God’s oneness in another sense: his simplicity. He then turns immediately to a discussion of Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of simplicity that continues through the top of p. 431. To Thomas, whose doctrine of divine simplicity he characterizes as “Plotinian” (the neo-Platonic view; p. 430) and “natural theology ” (p. 433) and to what he characterizes as “scholastic metaphysics” (p. 431), he contrasts the teaching of Scripture. According to Frame, if we follow Scripture we will get “a doctrine of God’s necessary existence rather than a doctrine of simplicity as such” (p. 431).

He argues that God is both simple and complex. About the divine attributes he writes: “Note that these arguments do not rule out all complexity within the divine nature” (p.430) and “But does this pattern justify talk of divine simplicity? If the attributes are perspectives on a single reality, that reality will be simple by comparison, though also complex, as I must keep insisting” (p. 432).

According to Frame, simplicity so defined does not rule out “all multiplicity.” For Frame, the doctrine of divine simplicity is really just a way of talking about God’s necessary existence and his “fully personal” relationship to us as Lord (p. 433). Everything comes back to divine sovereignty and tri-perspectivalism.

So, we began with an apparently clear, boldfaced affirmation of divine simplicity but as we continue we find that, via a dialectical method, God is also complex. How is he complex? It is not clear. At points in the discussion it seems as if he is suggesting that the Trinity itself implies complexity in God. At other points it seems as if the existence of attributes might be the reason. I’m not sure but he does say that God is complex.

Why is this an issue? Well, in Belgic Confession, Art. 1, the Reformed churches confess: “We all believe with the heart and confess with the mouth that there is only one simple and spiritual Being, which we call God; and that he is eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good” (emphasis added).

Westminster Confession 2.1 says,

1. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty (emphasis added).

By setting up a contrast between Thomas and Scripture, Frame creates the impression that he is merely relieving us of an unnecessary problem, a leftover from “natural theology,” as he puts it. The doctrine of divine simplicity, however, is not a remnant of Thomas’ neo-Platonism. It is the interpretation of Holy Scripture and the confession of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. The churches have not confessed a conviction about every theological question or debate but where they have confessed we are bound to it and we do not confess that God is simple and complex. We confess one thing: that he is simple, that he is without parts and we do so, as Luther said, without horns (we don’t say this and not this or Sic et Non). Neither the Trintarian persons nor the attributes make God complex. That is why we say that God transcends our ability to comprehend him.

Frame says, “God’s essence is not some dark, unrevealed entity behind God’s revealed character. Rather, God’s revelation tells us his essence. It tells us what he really and truly is” (p.431).

This passage gets us closer to the heart of the problem, his apparent revision of the traditional Reformed doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God.4 As a matter of truth, God’s essence is a dark, unrevealed entity. God, as he is in himself (in se) is hidden from us. This is basic Protestant theology. Understood on its own terms, the theology of Luther, Calvin, and the Reformed orthodox will not allow us to say that God’s essence is hidden and it isn’t. When Luther taught that God is hidden (Deus absconditus) he was saying that God is a consuming fire (Deut 4:24; Heb 12:29). Our Lord himself said: “No one has ever seen God. The only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18).

1 Timothy 6:16 says “no one has ever seen or can see” God. 1 John 4:12 says that “no one has ever seen God.”  Were it possible to come into contact with God as he is, unmediated, unaccommadated, we would be destroyed. God, as he is in himself, is utterly transcendent, holy, just, etc in a way that, as he is in himself, we are not capable to apprehend, let alone comprehend. This is why the Reformed orthodox repeatedly taught the that “finite is not capable of the infinite” (finitum non capax infiniti). Calvin picked up Luther’s distinction between God hidden and God revealed as did the Reformed orthodox after him.

We know that God’s hidden essence is but we don’t know what God’s essence is. We’re not capable of knowing or understanding that essence. We know what God has revealed of himself to us. God has given us pictures, illustrations, analogies, but he has not revealed himself as he is in himself.  This is the Reformed doctrine of divine accommodation. Dialectically, formally, Frame affirms Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation (p.704) but that doctrine was premised on the very notion of divine hiddenness that Frame denies. Traditionally, Reformed theology has distinguished between what God knows (theologia archetypa) and what creatures know (theologia ectypa). Again, Frame formally affirms this distinction (p. 699–701) but he denies what the Reformed intended to teach by it.

Finally, consider how Frame proceeded on the doctrine of divine simplicity. He set up Thomas Aquinas as a foil and then proceeded to Scripture. What was missing in his account of divine simplicity? Any meaningful dialogue with the broader Christian and Reformed traditions. Certainly readers are not alerted that Frame is not entirely comfortable with the doctrine of the Reformed churches on this point.

Contrast his handling of divine simplicity with that in Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. Under the heading: The Unity of God (p. 61) Berkhof distinguishes between the unity of singularity (unitas singularitatis) and the unity of simplicity (unitas simplicatatis; p.62). The first distinction refers to the numerical simplicity of God: He is one. The most fundamental OT confession is: “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one” (Deut 6:4).

The unity of simplicity refers to the truth that God is not composite. He has no parts. The persons of the Trinity “are not so many of which the divine essence is composed, that God’s essence and perfections are not distinct, and that the attributes are not superadded to his essence.”

There he was following Turretin almost verbatim. He noted that it was the Arminians and Socinians who rejected the doctrine of divine simplicity (p.62). More recently, the classical Reformed doctrine of simplicity has been a bulwark against the heresy of Open Theism, the doctrine that future contingents are unknowable to God. Berkhof observed that it has been common in the modern period to deny divine simplicity as the product of metaphysical speculation and that Dabney argued—strangely—that God is no more simple than finite spirits.

In The Christian Faith (2011), pp. 228–30, Mike Horton’s account of divine simplicity is simultaneously more catholic, engaging with a broad variety of writers across the Christian tradition, more concise, and more orthodox. He gives not a hint that there is complexity in God, who is, according to Horton, “everything that all the attributes reveal” (p. 228). He appeals to the essence/energies (working) distinction in Basil. God is simple but his works are various. He is never self-conflicted (p.229). “None of his attributes can be suspended, withdrawn, diminished, or altered, since his attributes are identical with his existence” (p.230).

Horton’s language about the divine essence, as distinct from his revelation to us creatures, also resonates with the Reformed tradition:

One of the advantages of the “way of negation” (as in immutability) is that is halts before God’s majesty, content to affirm God’s infinite perfection without probing into the mysteries of God’s hidden being. We do not know how God is immutable or how realist the comparison is between his analogies and his essence. Yet God teaches us enough to be able to know that he is infinitely other than we are and at the same time inseparably one with us—the object of our awe was as well as our assurance (p. 242).

The Reformed want to affirm both the mystery of God’s hiddenness and the utterly reliability of his self-revelation. The Reformed theological method has never been dialectical. Read the classical Reformed writers. They don’t affirm divine simplicity and then deny it. There is no perspective from which God may be said to be complex. He is either simple or he is not. The God whom we worship is not simple and complex. He just is.

So, should you buy this volume? It depends on how you intend to use it. If you are looking for a reliable, careful, modern summary of the historic Reformed faith, then this does not appear to be such a volume. Fortunately, that volume already exists. If you’re looking for a speculative, dialectical, and idiosyncratic account of the Christian faith, then this volume will fill the bill quite nicely.

In this review I have used the word buy in two senses. At this point I am most interested in the second sense of subscribe or to agree. Should the reader accept the ideas that the author and those commending the book are selling? Publishers have included “blurbs” (which my dictionary defines as a “short description of a book, movie, or other product written for promotional purposes and appearing on the cover of a book….”) in their products for a long time. In recent years, however, I have noticed the tendency to blitz the reader with a enormous volume of blurbs. Such is the case with this volume. As I noted in an earlier post, at least a few of the blurbs are a little surprising. The endorsement of this volume by leading proponents of the so-called and self-described Federal Vision theology should give orthodox Reformed and evangelical readers pause. Would you trust a systematic theology endorsed by Jacob Arminius, Simon Episcopius, Richard Baxter, and Laelio Sozzini?5 The larger question is why would orthodox Reformed and evangelical folk endorse a volume that seeks to rehabilitate a modern-day Richard Baxter?

Shepherd in effect reinvented the neonomianism of Richard Baxter in the 17th century, and from the same motive—recoil from the practical antinomianism that surrounded him, and desire so to state the gospel as to make perfectly obvious that persevering holiness is enjoined all who hope to be welcomed by Christ the Lord on the day of judgment. Like Baxter, he never understood why he was constantly being accused of reintroducing legalism into Reformed soteriology when his purpose of promoting holiness among Reformed people was so demonstrably right.

—J. I. Packer, Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology
Regent College (1992)

I have my disagreements with Packer but he knows a latter-day Baxter when he sees one. He did his DPhil. thesis on Baxter in the 1950s at Oxford.6 Packer was not alone in his assessment. Dozens of orthodox Reformed theologians and pastors condemned Shepherd’s doctrine of justification as contrary to the Scriptures, the Reformation, and the Reformed confessions. Among them were: R. C. Sproul, D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, , W. Robert Godfrey, O. Palmer Robertson, Roger Nicole, Robert Reymond, George Knight III, W Stanford Reid, Morton Smith, William Hendrickson, Philip E. Hughes.7

Lloyd-Jones wrote about Shepherd’s doctrine of justification:

Another big defect is his misunderstanding of and misuse of the Westminster Confession and the Catechisms. They were concerned as James was to warn against mere intellectual assent or what the Puritans called temporary professors. They rightly emphasized works as regards church membership and admission to the Lord’s Supper, etc., but Shepherd constantly applies this to justification. He does not realize that the purpose of works is: 1) to test profession, 2) to glorify God and to please Him and show our gratitude to Him, 3) to help in the matter of assurance, 4) to prepare us for heaven (1 John 3:3).

His teaching is contrary to that of the evangelicals of the last 400 years and he seems to rejoice in this!

It seems to have been forgotten that, by the time Shepherd was dismissed from WTS/PA, even though only a minority of the faculty then opposed his doctrine of justification, virtually the rest of the Reformed world had rejected it. At the time of his dismissal, Shepherd was facing renewed charges against his doctrine in the Philadelphia presbytery of the OPC but his request for dismissal to the Christian Reformed Church was taken up before the charges could be laid against him. He mostly disappeared from broader public view until after his retirement when he began speaking at conferences, where he continue to advocate the same views that merited (pun intended) his dismissal. When that book, The Call of Grace was published, it was roundly criticized. In his review Cornel Venema wrote:

Fourth, these features of Shepherd’s reformulation of the doctrine of the covenant raise questions regarding his understanding of the doctrine of justification. Though Shepherd studiously avoids any explicit formulation of the doctrine of justification in this study, the trajectory of his position clearly points in the direction of a revision of the historic Reformation position. Just as Adam was obliged to meet the conditions of the covenant that God graciously established with him, so believers are obliged to meet the conditions of the covenant of grace in order to inherit eternal life. Just as Christ was obliged to live in covenantal loyalty and faithfulness to God, Shepherd maintains, “so his followers must be faithful in order to inherit the blessing” (p. 19). As we have noted, Shepherd is even willing to speak of Christ’s obedient faith being “credited to him as righteousness” in a manner parallel to the way Abraham’s (and every believer’s) obedient faith is credited to him for righteousness.

But this kind of parallel between Christ’s faith and ours would mean that the believer’s inheritance in the covenant of grace finally depends upon his following Christ’s example. Salvation and blessing are the (non-meritorious, though earned?) reward of the covenant for those who keep the covenant’s conditions and stipulations. Missing from Shepherd’s discussion at this juncture are several key features of the historic Reformed view of salvation. Shepherd does not make it clear, for example, that the believer can only obtain eternal life upon the basis of the perfect obedience, satisfaction and righteousness of Christ alone received by faith alone (compare the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 23 & 24). Nor does he make it clear (indeed, on page 62 he seems to deny it) that the believer’s imperfect obedience, which Christ by his Spirit graciously works in him, adds nothing to the work of Christ in respect to his standing before God and right to eternal life. Rather, Shepherd argues that the traditional Reformed view, which insists that the (sinfully imperfect) good works of believers provide no basis for their acceptance before God, fails to do justice to the genuine obedience of believers (p. 62). By this argument he fails to appreciate the classic Reformed conviction that Christ’s work as Mediator of the covenant of grace constitutes the only ground for the believer’s justification (and sanctification!) before God.

There have been numerous assessments of his doctrine of justification that reach the similar conclusions. According to David VanDrunen,

the evidence points to the conclusion that Shepherd indeed prefers an understanding of faith that makes good works not merely the fruit of faith, but an element of faith itself.

In Shepherd’s definition, “faith has been turned from the extraspective trust in the obedience of another into an act in which the believer himself offers obedience.” When “Shepherd says that we are saved by a living and obedient faith he means a different kind of faith from that of the Reformed tradition.” 8

We should not be surprised that Frame is seeking to rehabilitate his mentor. He has indicated his intellectual debt to and support for Shepherd for many years. In this volume he is only re-stating what he published 10 years ago and what he wrote to the faculty during the original controversy, in which he was among those who defended Shepherd. What should surprise us, however, is that so many orthodox Reformed folk would commend a volume that defends the teaching of Norman Shepherd on the doctrine of justification. Remember, we’re not talking about the logical order of the decrees, the nature of the creation days, the nature of the Mosaic covenant, or even the imputation of active obedience (which Shepherd rejects). There have been orthodox Reformed folk on both sides of those questions, even at our most important ecclesiastical assemblies (e.g., the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Assembly). No, we are talking about justification sola gratiasola fide, the article of the standing or falling of the church.

Consider this: Frame presents Shepherd’s doctrine of justification as though it is patently orthodox to anyone with a modicum of sense and ability to read English. Yet the evidence in the documents from the original controversy, from Shepherd’s own published writings, and from the assessment of at least three different synodical or General Assembly committees is that Shepherd’s doctrine of justification is incompatible with Scriptures as confessed by the Reformed churches.

I am utterly convinced that the critics are correct: Norman Shepherd’s doctrine of justification is contrary to Scripture and a corruption of the gospel.  Nevertheless, for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that Frame is correct, that all this time (39 years!) Shepherd has been articulating nothing but an orthodox Reformed doctrine of justification. What does this say about all of those who have read, considered, and rejected his theology? What does this say about Shepherd’s competence? What does it say about someone who supports his teaching?  If a minister and professor of theology has not been able make totally clear his views on the article of the standing or falling of the church for 39 years, is that person a reliable guide to the Christian faith? Yes, we’re only discussing a few pages in a very large volume but riddle me this Batman: how large are cancer cells?

Perhaps the fact that Frame has found a way to justify (pun intended) Shepherd’s doctrine of justification says something about his theological method? In Frame’s hands, there is a perspective from which anything (except Reformed confessionalism) can be appreciated and synthesized with Reformed theology and if anything (except Reformed confessionalism) can be synthesized with Reformed theology, then nothing (except Reformed confessionalism) is excluded. Do you really want to live in that house? Is that what we want for the future of Reformed theology, piety, and practice? As Allen Iverson says, “we’re talking about practice; not a game, not a game, not a game. We’re talking about practice.”


  1. Kevin DeYoung recently registered some discomfort (though he did not describe it as dialectical) with Frame’s method in his brief review.
  2. Van Til first taught this in his syllabus in Systematic Theology. This view has also been defended by Lane Tipton in “The Function Of Perichoresis And The Divine Incomprehensibility ” in WTJ 64 (2002). None of the catholic creeds countenance this way of speaking. The catholic way of speaking is to say that God is personal or tri-personal. He is one in three persons. This is the doctrine of the Athanasian Creed. None of the classic Reformed theologians or Reformed churches, in their confessions and catechisms, even hint at the possibility of saying that God is one person. Claims to contrary not withstanding, neither Charles Hodge (1797–1878) nor B. B. Warfield (1851–1921) taught that God is one person. They taught that God is personal but that adjective cannot be equated with the expression “one person.”
  3. Here is an archive of primary source documents. I have read most of the more important documents and can say without hesitation that Frame’s characterization of Shepherd’s teaching (pp. 974–75) is without warrant in the primary documents. Read for yourself the board’s grounds for dismissing Shepherd, who along with three other leading Federal Visionists, have offered ringing endorsements of this volume.
  4. He says that, e.g., Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til did not disagree as much as has been thought. In contrast, I have argued that debate was about a basic Reformed distinction that Clark and others rejected. On this see RRC and the chapter on this debate in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine. This is the nature of a dialectical theological method. There is always a perspective from which to reconcile opposites. Disagreement (except with confessionalist Reformed theology) is always only apparent.
  5. In reverse order: Lelio Sozzini (1525–1562) was an early proponent of the theological method known as biblicism. Sozzini’s writing raised questions about his orthodoxy. He was a rationalist (as biblicists almost invariably are) who seemed to doubt and to challenge the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity on the ground that the theological language used by the catholic (universal) church wasn’t in the Bible. As a consequence of his method and his ambiguity Calvin distrusted him but Bullinger accepted him as orthodox. He was associated with the Italian anti-Trinitarian movement that later produced outright and unequivocal denials of the deity of Christ, the atonement, and the Trinity among other things, led by his nephew, Faustus Socinus (1539–1604). Baxter was a notorious moralist (who taught justification through obedience), to whom John Owen replied at length in volume 5 of his works. Episcopius was Arminius’ successor and the leader of the Remonstrants at Dort and after. Arminius founded a movement to subvert the Protestant, evangelical Reformed doctrines of grace, to whom the Synod of Dort answered in 1618–19.
  6. Published as The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter.
  7. For a clear, accurate account of the 1974–81 controversy at WTS/PA see A. Donald MacLeod, W. Stanford Reid: An Evangelical Calvinist in the Academy, ch. 15. For an excellent longitudinal survey of Shepherd’s theology from 1963–2006, see the chapter by Guy Prentiss Waters on Shepherd in Robert L. Penny, ed. The Hope Fulfilled: Essays in Honor of O. Palmer Robertson (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).
  8. Here are other critiques of Shepherd’s doctrine of salvation: