The Current Challenges

E. Calvin Beisner
Friday, July 2nd 2004
Jul/Aug 2004

My family and I have been reading through Jeremiah lately in our family worship. The morning I began writing this article, we read Jeremiah 22, which begins with God's telling Zedekiah, king of Judah, that if he would do justice and righteousness in obedience to his Word, "then there [would] enter the gates of [that] house kings who sit on the throne of David," and warning, "But if you will not obey these words, I swear by myself . . . that this house shall become a desolation." The chapter progresses with more warnings of God's judgment on Judah and the royal house of David, and ends with chilling words to Coniah (Jehoiachin), one of the last of the Davidic kings: "As I live, declares the Lord, though [you] were the signet ring on my right hand, yet I would tear you off and give you into the hand of those who seek your life….

Write this man down as childless,a man who shall not succeed in his days,for none of his offspring shall succeedin sitting on the throne of Davidand ruling again in Judah."

As I finished reading, I found myself asking, How are Christians, living under and through the Covenant of Grace, to understand and apply passages like this? An obedience/blessing and disobedience/curse principle is obvious here, and that fits with what we read last night from James 1:25: "the one who looks into the perfect law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing." But how, if in the Covenant of Grace we are justified before God by faith apart from the works of the law (Rom. 3:28), can we apply these things to ourselves? I explained to my wife and children that here we have the continuation of the Covenant of Works, with its requirement of law obedience, not as a means of justification but to reveal our sin to us, that we might be led to Christ and, having come to him, be reminded over and over how great debtors we are to the grace bestowed on us in him; to guide us in right ways; and to tell us that God does, still, bless obedience and curse disobedience in this life.

Imagine what would have happened had God simply never spoken his law again after the Fall. After all, the Fall had made it impossible to attain eternal life by law keeping. After he promised the Seed that would crush the Serpent's head, why didn't he just proclaim the gospel from then on? "Believe! Believe! Just believe in the Redeemer, and you will be saved!" Surely it wouldn't have taken long-not even Adam's lifetime, let alone the thousands of years from then to the Incarnation-for the whole world to forget the requirements of the law, the impossibility of fulfilling them, and the awful punishment for sin. Thus people would have heard the gospel with complete bewilderment. "Saved? From what?" Had God ceased setting forth obedience to the law as the condition of life under the Covenant of Works, and had he ceased enacting the sowing-and-reaping principle of blessing on obedience and curse on disobedience, the glorious message of the Covenant of Grace, that eternal life is a gift of God's grace to be received by faith, would have fallen on deaf ears.

I thought of these things as I set about introducing this issue of Modern Reformation, which focuses on an ongoing controversy in Reformed circles about justification, faith, and covenant theology. How we understand and apply passages such as Jeremiah 22 and James 1:25 (and thousands like them), which clearly reveal that in this life God rewards obedience to his laws and punishes disobedience, depends in large measure on how we understand covenant theology and its implications for the great Reformation truths of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Historic Reformed federalism, which received its classic confessional expression in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (1647-48), affirms that God has made two great covenants: (1) the Covenant of Works, "wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience" (WCF 7.2; cf. 19.1, 6), and (2) the Covenant of Grace, "wherein He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Him that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe" (WCF 7.3). With various nuances, Reformed thinkers of the late-sixteenth through twentieth centuries have taught the following:

The Covenant of Works embodies a meritorious works-inheritance principle, while the Covenant of Grace embodies a gracious faith-inheritance principle.Under the former, works are the meritorious condition of life in communion with God, while under the latter faith is the grace-assigned and -given instrument for receiving the gift of righteousness that is necessary for that life.Though its administration has differed under its various dispensations (e.g., the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants; WCF 7.6), the Covenant of Grace is the same in substance from its initiation immediately after the Fall in the promise that God would send the Seed of the woman to crush the Serpent's head (Gen. 3:15) through its fulfillment in Christ's incarnation, life of perfect obedience, sacrificial death, resurrection, and ascension, and to its consummation at the end of history.The moral law expresses the conditions of the Covenant of Works, conditions impossible for the sin-corrupted descendants of Adam to fulfill (and so abrogated as a means of justification [Rom. 10:4]) but useful under the Covenant of Grace to (a) convict of sin and lead sinners to Christ, (b) restrain sin by means of its threats of punishment, and (c) instruct the people of God in the path of righteousness.God made the Covenant of Works with Adam and all in him ("descending from him by ordinary generation," WSC 16) as their federal head, and the Covenant of Grace "with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed" (WLC 31), so that election is the basis for the covenant, not vice versa (WSC 20).Christ by his perfect obedience fulfilled the requirements of and by his atoning death paid the penalty for the violation of the Covenant of Works on behalf of all his elect, thus securing for them justification (by the double imputation of his righteousness and the value of his atoning death to them, and of their guilt to him), adoption, and sanctification, which they enjoy by union with him through faith worked in them by the effectual call of the Holy Spirit (WLC 39, 57-59, 64-76; WSC 20-21, 29-32).The principle that God blesses obedience and curses disobedience, central to the Covenant of Works, continues throughout Scripture (e.g., Ps. 1; Jam 1:25), not as a principle of justification (Rom. 10:4; cf. 3:19-28) but to typify the reward God gives to Christ for his obedience (Ps. 2:8) and lead us to him for justification by grace alone through faith alone (Gal. 3:19-25).

In the last half century, some Reformed thinkers have challenged this general understanding of federal theology, particularly the reality and role of the Covenant of Works. Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) professor John Murray opposed the name and concept of the Covenant of Works. His successor at Westminster (until his dismissal in 1981), Norman Shepherd, followed his lead and went farther, insisting that there has been only one covenant, the Covenant of Grace, from creation on; rejecting merit entirely (even applied to Christ's obedience and death) on the grounds that the concept is rooted in an unbiblical nature/grace distinction carried over from medieval Roman Catholic scholasticism; and challenging the law/gospel distinction. He has been criticized for promoting covenant nomism, expanding the concept of justifying faith to include works. Shepherd's paradigm has gained a following in several Reformed denominations. Some Shepherd followers have linked his paradigm to the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), promoted by E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, and, most popularly, N. T. Wright, who have challenged the Reformation understanding of Paul's critique of Jewish legalism, insisting that what Paul opposed was the view not that obedience to the moral law was necessary to remain in covenant but that Gentiles must be circumcised to enter the covenant. The NPP has contributed to a growing movement that makes law keeping a condition of final justification, thus calling into question the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the material principle of the Reformation.

In January 2002, the speakers (host pastor Steve Wilkins and Douglas Wilson of Christ Church [Confederation of Reformed Evangelicals] in Moscow, Idaho, Steve Schlissel of Messiah's Congregation [independent] in Brooklyn, New York, and John Barach of Trinity Reformed Church [United Reformed Church] in Lethbridge, Ontario [now of Covenant URC, Grande Prairie, Alberta]) at the annual pastors' conference at Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (AAPC) in Monroe, Louisiana, all set forth views of covenant theology that closely reflected those of Shepherd and the NPP. The talks stirred controversy in the audience and, through tapes and transcripts, more widely. Covenant Presbytery of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the United States issued "A Call to Repentance" June 22, 2002, charging the AAPC speakers with "a fundamental denial of the essence of the Christian Gospel in the denial of justification by faith alone" and, among other things, "destroying the Reformed Faith through the introduction of false hermeneutic principles; the infusion of sacerdotalism; and the redefinition of the doctrines of: the church, the sacraments, election, effectual calling, perseverance, regeneration, justification, union with Christ, and the nature and instrumentality of faith." The AAPC speakers denied the charges and complained of being condemned for heresy without trial.

In January 2003, the four speakers presented their views again at the AAPC, at which four critics (Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary President Joseph Pipa and Professor Morton H. Smith, both members of the Presbyterian Church in America; Carl Robbins of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church [PCA] in Simpsonville, South Carolina; and R. C. Sproul, Jr., of St. Peter Presbyterian Church [RPCGA] in Bristol, Tennessee) gave responses. Although a few misunderstandings might have been clarified, serious disagreement continued, with critics charging that at least some of the "Monroe Four" were teaching contrary to their denominations' confessional standards, putting sola fide at risk, and leaning toward sacerdotalism and Roman Catholicism.

Hoping to clear away misunderstandings, identify substantive disagreements, and give the sides an opportunity to persuade each other in a private setting, Knox Theological Seminary hosted a private colloquium in August 2003. The Monroe Four were joined by Peter Leithart of New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho; Tom Trouwborst of Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Schenectady, New York; and Rich Lusk of Auburn Avenue PCA, while the critics (minus Sproul) were joined by PCA teaching elders Chris Hutchinson of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Statesboro, Georgia; Rick Phillips of First Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Margate, Florida; George W. Knight III of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary; and R. Fowler White of Knox. I moderated the discussions, after which the participants agreed to publish their twenty-two papers together. Since then, some colloquium participants continue in frequent correspondence to persuade or better understand each other.

Meanwhile, controversy continues. John Armstrong's Reformation and Revival Ministries hosted a conference in March 2004 titled "Trust and Obey: An Examination of Gospel and Law in Covenantal Perspective," with Schlissel, AAT supporter Andrew Sandlin of the Center for Cultural Leadership, NPP supporter Don Garlington, Catholic priest Thomas Baima, and Eastern Orthodox priest Patrick Henry Reardon, joining Armstrong as speakers. Westminster Seminary, California hosted a conference titled "The Foolishness of the Gospel: Covenant and Justification Under Attack," specifically to respond to AAT, Shepherd's teachings, and the New Perspective April 30 to May 1 of this year. And Reformed periodicals and websites bristle with items debating the issue.

This issue of Modern Reformation carries on the debate. Read, ponder, and pray.

1 [ Back ] In the preceding article, Professor Beisner has quoted from his The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros & Cons: Debating the Federal Vision (Ft. Lauderdale: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), Covenant Presbytery's "A Call to Repentance" which can be found online at Resolutions.pdf; and Christ Church's response which can be found online at

Friday, July 2nd 2004

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