The unconditional character of the covenant of grace in Christ requires us to recognize faith as the sole instrument. The conditionality of faith is unique not because it is a condition that God’s grace provides. The total response of those united to Christ is given by grace. Faith is unique because it presents nothing, but looks to Christ to meet all conditions.
Editor’s Note: Background to this paper was written by Wes White, a PCA minster and regular blogger on issues involving Federal Vision Theology, who found a copy of this important historical document and prepared it for posting on the internet.
Edmund Clowney was president of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia from 1966–1984. He was the president when the Board removed Norman Shepherd from his position at Westminster Seminary. Clowney finally came down in opposition to Norman Shepherd. He wrote:
But after examining his position as carefully as I can, I am persuaded that his views are sufficiently distinctive in emphasis and form to be controversial. By controversial I do not mean simply views that stimulate discussion and debate, but views that differ from our Confessional standards and appear to threaten significant doctrinal positions.
Clowney concluded that there were five areas in which Norman Shepherd “threaten(ed)” our Confessional standards:
- The contrast made in the Westminster Standards between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace is significantly reduced.
- The implications of the fulfillment of the covenant command by the active obedience of Jesus Christ are lost from view in the covenantal dynamic.
- The emphasis of the WCF on the sole instrumentality of faith is relativized by the covenantal dynamic.
- The “covenant dynamic” also substantially qualifies the WCF statement on the “Perseverance of the Saints”.
- Election in the context of the covenant does not describe a “state of affairs,” but presents a word of promise to be received in faith.
What follows is Clowney’s full and careful analysis of the issues.
Report to the Visitation Committee of the Board of Trustees (Revised for submission, November 11, 1981) by Edmund P. Clowney
At the committee’s request I have sought to provide an analysis of the problem at the Seminary that the Committee seeks to remedy. At your invitation I have discussed the issues with you. I appreciate your invitation, and I appreciate, too, the many hours that members of the Committee have spent in discussion with most members of the faculty, with students, and with others concerned.
You had requested me to report in writing to your meeting at the Seminary on October 9. I was not able to provide a full written report at that time, but I did furnish you with a formulation of “Controversial Issues in the Teaching of Professor Shepherd.” I deeply regret that Professor Shepherd did not receive a copy of this formulation until the day of that meeting. I had promised to give him a copy as soon as it was complete, so that he could react to it before the committee received it. I expected to complete it well before the meeting. I did not formulate it finally, however, until the night of October 7.
My secretary was unable to complete the typing in the working day on October 8, and stayed into the evening to finish. I actually added an explanatory paragraph on the morning of October 9. I now want to provide the complete report.
The reasons for my delay in completing my report were in part the size of the task and my access to the material, and in part my own struggles with the issues involved. I have been participating in the discussions since the questions arose in 1975, and have read carefully the writings of Professor Shepherd, his supporters and his critics.
During the summer I reviewed his writings and took extensive notes on his popular lectures delivered at Sandy Cove on the doctrine of the covenant. Only in September did I learn that Westminster Media was distributing the tapes of his course on the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, a set of 42 cassette tapes. I listened to most of these tapes, taking notes.
I then tried to digest what I learned from both the published writings and the tapes. Working from this digest and my other notes I faced what I regard as the crucial question: has the controversy stemmed principally from misunderstanding of Professor Shepherd’s views together with misunderstanding of classical Reformed doctrine, or has it arisen because of distinctive and controversial formulations developed by Professor Shepherd?
It must be recognized that Professor Shepherd does present, in the areas of debate, much that must be described as classical Reformed doctrine. He was a diligent student of Professor Murray and is widely read in Reformed theology. Few theologians, in this country at least, have his knowledge of the Latin theological works of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. His aim is to present a position that is true to the Scriptures as our primary standard as well as to the Confession and Catechisms, our secondary standards.
His statements have been challenged by some who are unaware of elements in classical Reformed doctrine. For example, Professor Shepherd has been dismayed by criticisms of his use of the phrase “the way of salvation” in application to our good works. The Larger Catechism, Q.32 speaks of “all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation” (See Calvin’s Institutes III:18:1.)
Further, there are differences in tradition between the Reformed faith in Holland, in Scotland, and in the United States (to name but three countries!). Klaas Schilder’s views of the covenant and the controversies that led to the establishment of the “Liberated” churches in Holland are virtually unknown in U.S. Presbyterianism, but are well known to Professor Shepherd, who has spent many months in Holland, speaks Dutch fluently, and uses the literature regularly.
From his own background, as well as from his studies with Professor Murray, Professor Shepherd also has extensive contacts with Presbyterian tradition in Scotland. At times Professor Shepherd may puzzle American hearers when he opposes tendencies of which they have little acquaintance–for example, the views of some Calvinistic churches in Holland that result in only a small minority of the congregation participating in the Lord’s Supper. He has been misunderstood at times by those who do not recognize what tendencies or errors he is opposing.
Yet there are distinctive elements in Professor Shepherd’s views and teaching. In the course of the controversy the discussion has centered first on his teaching regarding justification by faith and then on the most inclusive question of his view of the covenant.
The debate about justification arose from concern that Professor Shepherd was making obedience as well as faith instrumental to justification. This was occasioned originally by Professor Shepherd’s effort to deal with James 2:24. His argument was that since good works are not the ground of our justification, just as faith is not the ground of our justification, and since both are necessary for our justification, we may question the legitimacy of speaking of faith as the alone instrument of justification (WCF XI:2). Good works, too, may be said to be instrumental.
This challenge to the Confessional language led to the charge that Professor Shepherd was undermining what the Confession safeguarded: the exclusiveness of the role of faith in justification. Professor Shepherd then warned against an emphasis on faith that would make it the one thing we do, our contribution to salvation. For that reason he saw some difficulty with the use of the term “instrument” for either faith or good works. He cited John Murray’s comments about a certain liability attaching to the use of “instrument” as applied to faith.
He was ready, however, to present the distinct function or “office” of faith in justification. In faith there is an abandonment to Christ and to his righteousness as the only ground of our justification. Professor Shepherd withdrew the question-marks he had put first beside “alone,” then beside “instrument,” in the Confession’s statement. He was now willing to call faith the alone instrument so long as it was understood in the Confessional context, that “yet faith is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love” (WCF XI:2).
The faith that justifies, Professor Shepherd argues, is not an empty “faith-only.” That would be a dead faith according to James and the Confession. Justifying faith is working faith, obedient faith. To establish his understanding of the Confession at this point, Professor Shepherd has appealed to the chapter on “Repentance unto Life” (XV). There we read that repentance is “of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it” (XV: 3). Further, the Confession says that by repentance a sinner “so grieves for and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments.”
Professor Shepherd considers that he [was] merely expounding the Confession when he combined these statements: pardon is part of justification; repentance is necessary to pardon, and therefore to justification; new obedience is part of repentance; therefore obedience is necessary to justification.
This line of argumentation has convinced some of Professor Shepherd’s critics that he is holding that faith justifies because it is obedient. To this he has replied that he holds with Turretin that faith alone does not justify, but only faith justifies; the coexistence of love with faith is affirmed but its coefficiency or cooperation in justification is denied.
Professor Shepherd’s declaration that he is in agreement with this key formula used by Turretin proved reassuring. The formula does safeguard the exclusive role of faith in justification. How then does Professor Shepherd view the necessity of good works for justification? He has been willing to describe their necessity as a manifestation of faith.
Those who continued to be disturbed by his views were those who found him hesitant or unwilling at times to limit the necessity of works to evidence or who felt that other statements that he made were inconsistent with the Turretin formula. His “Thirty-Four Theses,” for example, make no mention of the necessity of works as evidence (cf. 21-25). The tension that many found between Thesis 25 and its citation of Calvin illustrates the latter difficulty.
The committee is familiar with the history of the reviews of Professor Shepherd’s position on justification by the Faculty and the Board. You are aware of the approval he has given to the Westminster Statement on Justification. You are aware of the action of the Board to exonerate him of charges made regarding his views. To be sure, the motion to exonerate was first lost on a tie vote, then carried when cautionary language was added. But Professor Shepherd holds that definitive action has been taken and that further inquiry into his views by the Board is unjustified.
The situation has not remained static, however. Those who have been disturbed by his positions in the long debate, by his writings, and by the effects of his instruction on students have circulated appeals against his views. The faculty has condemned the manner in which this was done, and I have joined in that censure. Yet through this and other means a kind of fire-storm of criticism against Professor Shepherd and Westminster Seminary has swept across the churches and groups from which Westminster draws its students and support. We are being regarded as in error or confusion with regard to the central doctrines of the gospel. The one great asset of Westminster, humanly speaking, is our reputation for doctrinal orthodoxy, and it is this that is being rapidly eroded.
As I travel on behalf of the Seminary I meet this problem continually. Churches and individuals write to cut off support; students are warned by pastors against attending Westminster. The situation is grave, in my judgment. I feel responsible for seeking a remedy.
I did propose one possible remedy to you. I arranged, initially with Professor Shepherd’s consent, a colloquium of scholars for the last week of August, 1981. Those who consented to come included Dr. James I. Packer as moderator, scholars who had been critical of Professor Shepherd, and some who had supported him. My hope was to accomplish two things: to provide real understanding of his views on the part of these scholars, and to encourage discussion that could lead to resolution of the debate. I felt that this would have to involve modification of Professor Shepherd’s views but I genuinely felt that in the intensity of the dialogue both his views and the views of others could be brought to change and agreement. It was essential to this plan that some prominent scholars whose sharp criticisms of Professor Shepherd had been widely publicized should now be willing to speak publicly in his defense.
The plan failed when Professor Shepherd withdrew his consent on the ground that the colloquy had become another trial.
The situation has also continued to change as Professor Shepherd has continued to write and lecture in public and in the classroom. In my judgment, his views of the covenant as they are now being presented (the Sandy Cove lectures of last summer, his classroom lectures) raise other issues that put the justification discussion in a broader setting.
Westminster is in a most difficult position. Professor Shepherd has earned the profound respect and appreciation of his students. He is regarded as one of the best of our professors. In the faculty he is warmly regarded—and I share that regard as a colleague over many years.
The faculty is also rightly concerned as to academic freedom, not simply in terms of job security, but in order to preserve the liberty to study the Scriptures freely and to examine new ways of developing theology that are in accord with our secondary standards.
If I felt that the sources of our present crisis of confidence were limited to misunderstandings of Professor Shepherd’s views or of our Confessional standards, I should feel compelled to oppose any suggestion of resignation or dismissal. But after examining his position as carefully as I can, I am persuaded that his views are sufficiently distinctive in emphasis and form to be controversial. By controversial I do not mean simply views that stimulate discussion and debate, but views that differ from our Confessional standards and appear to threaten significant doctrinal positions.
The many documents that have been produced in the history of this controversy attest this. I have sought not to summarize them, but to formulate the basic pattern of the controversial positions of Professor Shepherd as I see them.
Controversial Issues in the Teaching of Professor Shepherd
What are the controversial elements in the teaching of Norman Shepherd?
Although the controversy has focused on justification, the issues are all related to the deeper problem of Norman Shepherd’s formulation of the doctrine of the covenant. The confusion in the discussion stems from his distinctive formulation of the “covenantal dynamic” and of the “covenantal consciousness” that reflects it.
This theological construction is presented with deep conviction and enthusiasm as the Biblical master-pattern, perceived uniquely in the Reformed Faith, and now freshly clarified. It is contrasted with Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Arminian, and broadly evangelical theologies, but it is also offered as providing a resolution of long-standing controversies. Arminians and Hyper-Calvinists, for example, can stop shouting their favorite texts at each other. Instead, they can reflect on how it is that the Bible seems to offer support for both of their positions with no apparent awareness of tension. The secret is the dynamic of the covenant as Professor Shepherd perceives it.
The covenant dynamic includes divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and grounds the second in the first. That, of course, is standard Calvinistic doctrine. But the distinctiveness of Professor Shepherd’s formulation appears in the “dynamic” interrelation, in the covenant, of God’s free grace and the response of man made in God’s image. The covenantal relation is not speculative or abstract. It is a living relationship of union and communion between God and man. God’s initiative establishes his covenant in the grace of his promise. But God also accompanies his promise with command. The dynamic of the covenant arises from this two-sidedness.
On the one hand, the sovereignty of God’s grace in the covenant is consistently affirmed. God establishes his covenant; the promise and the command are his and both are given in grace; the command is not less gracious than the promise.
On the other hand, the graciously given commands must be obeyed; if they are not obeyed, destruction, the threat of the covenant, will be meted out. Prof. Shepherd would end the shouting-match between Arminians and Calvinists by saying with the Arminians that God does require obedience for salvation and that the threat of destruction for disobedience is real and applicable actually, not hypothetically, to the church of the New Covenant no less than to Israel of the Old. But on the other hand, Prof. Shepherd undertakes to show that his emphasis on the response of obedience that the covenant requires does not jeopardize the Calvinistic insistence on the grace of God, for that, too is included in the dynamic of the covenant.
How can the conditionality of salvation and of the covenant be so strongly insisted upon without Arminian modifications of the Reformed doctrines of election, justification, sanctification, perseverance, and assurance?
Prof. Shepherd holds that we must understand these doctrines in a covenantal context, that is, as qualified by both the promise and the conditionality of the covenant. They are so presented in Scripture, he holds, and to qualify them in this way is compatible with the Reformed secondary standards or even required by those standards.
The following factors are presented by Prof. Shepherd to show that the covenantal context does not undermine the doctrines that it qualifies:
- The covenantal context structures the relation between God and his people from their perspective. It assumes the prior reality of God’s decrees, but since those decrees are part of God’s secret will rather than his revealed will, their contents are not given in the covenant promise or command. They ground the covenant dynamic but are not part of it. The attempt to gain access to the decrees, or to reason as though one could, is an attempt to escape the dynamic of the covenant, to replace promise with information or faith with presumption.
- Reformed orthodoxy has affirmed the necessity of good works for salvation while denying that they are the meritorious ground of our acceptance with God. Good works are the way by which we reach the promised inheritance. In the covenantal perspective obedience is required as the necessary and qualifying response to the covenant promise. God’s covenant faithfulness requires the response of covenant faithfulness from his people. Yet this faithfulness is not meritorious, for two reasons: first, the covenant structure is not a bargaining relationship but a relationship of love established in grace; second, our covenant faithfulness is enabled by grace.
- The Westminster Confession of Faith is structured in a covenantal pattern as it deals with the application of redemption. It first presents the saving acts of God, the content of the gospel promise. God’s saving grace is expounded under the headings of effectual calling, justification, adoption, and sanctification. Only then does it turn to the response of men to God’s grace: saving faith, repentance unto life, good works, the perseverance of the saints, the assurance of grace and salvation. Prof. Shepherd insists that this overall organization is of primary importance. God’s covenant grace is conveyed to us and we respond covenantally. Our response is fundamentally that of obedience. Faith, repentance, and good works are alike actions of obedience, responding to God’s gracious promise and command. This obedience can be rendered only as a result of God’s saving and sanctifying work in us as we are united to Jesus Christ. Only the regenerate can believe (and not all the regenerate at that, for infants and mentally handicapped persons may be regenerated). Those who are regenerate have already been sanctified by grace. It is therefore impossible to divorce sanctification from justification and adoption: God’s work is one. It is equally impossible to divorce faith from repentance and good works. They are intertwined. The Confession defines saving faith broadly, then specifies “the principal acts of saving faith.” The central element of saving faith, abandonment to Christ, is one focus within the complex of obedient faith. Similarly, repentance is necessary to forgiveness, and therefore to justification, but repentance includes the endeavor after obedience. The interweaving of God’s saving acts on the one hand, and of our acts of response on the other, is consonant with the covenantal dynamic. The crucial distinction is between God’s saving action, which must come first, and our response which must be whole-souled and total.
- The covenantal structure, however, does not obliterate the distinctions that are stated or implied in the separate chapters of the Confession presenting the elements or aspects of God’s saving actions and our response. Prof. Shepherd affirms and uses formulations of these distinctions that do not separate what is distinguished. (Among the members of the body only the eye sees, but an eye alone cannot see. So faith alone justifies, but faith that is alone cannot justify. Faith and the other graces are coexistent but not coefficient as instruments of justification. The sun gives light and heat; faith and love are alike fruits of the Spirit, but faith and love are different graces.)
- The Westminster Confession asserts the unity of the covenant of grace, and thereby makes the key affirmation for covenant theology. Prof. Shepherd insists that the basic covenant pattern of promise and command is as characteristic of New Testament theology as it is of Old Testament theology. Indeed, the well-known indicative/imperative of Pauline theology is cited by Prof. Shepherd as pointedly expressing the covenantal dynamic. The continuity of the Old and New Covenants is essential for the covenantal perspective. Without the example of Israel we might misconceive the doctrine of election. For Israel it was not like a new suit kept in the closet; it was the comfortable uniform of daily life. The piety of the Psalms, deeply imbued with the distinction between the righteous and the wicked reminds us that the major Scriptural classification is not believers/unbelievers but righteous/wicked. And not least, the prophets’ warnings to covenant-breakers are manifestly not hypothetical for Israel. The wrath of the covenant was poured out upon them.
- The Confession recognizes the place of good works in the covenantal response. In some circles “good works” have become dirty words, but for the Apostle Paul good works are the culmination of the purpose of redemption (e.g. Titus 2:14). The works that Paul condemns are “works done in righteousness, which we did ourselves” (Titus 3:5), works of the flesh, works of the law. But these are not good works, a phrase that is always used by Paul for the fruits of the Spirit.
Prof. Shepherd appeals to Scripture and to the Reformed secondary standards to support his position. Can his “covenantal dynamic” approach be accepted as a more Scriptural formulation that is at least compatible with the Westminster Standards?
It will be well to note some of the modifications, expressed or implied, that the “covenantal dynamic” as presented by Prof. Shepherd requires in our understanding of the Standards.
1. The contrast made in the Westminster Standards between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace is significantly reduced.
The Westminster Standards (WCF VII:2, 3; LC 30-32) contrast the condition of the first covenant (the covenant of works) with the condition of the second covenant (the covenant of grace). The condition of the covenant of works is “perfect and personal obedience.” The condition of the covenant of grace is faith, a condition that is given by God and functions to “interest” sinners in Christ the Mediator.
The first covenant is made with Adam and in him with his posterity; the second is made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed (WCF VII:2; LC 31). The “perfect and personal obedience” required of Adam was a condition that he did not meet and that his sinful posterity could not meet. That condition, however, was met perfectly by Jesus Christ as the second Adam. “The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself, which he through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him” (WCF VIII:5).
Since Christ has perfectly fulfilled the condition of the covenant of works and has borne the wrath of its curse for his people, the covenant of grace, according to the Standards, has a different condition for those who are its beneficiaries. The condition is not “perfect and personal obedience” but faith, faith that joins us to the obedience and sacrifice of another, the Mediator of the covenant of grace.
The use of the term for “covenant” (diatheke) in the sense of “testament” underscores the fullness and finality of the work of Christ as the covenant Head (WCF VII:4).
Our Standards, therefore, do not compare our new obedience in the covenant of grace to the obedience required of Adam and his posterity in the covenant of works. Rather, faith is the condition of the covenant of grace and the holy obedience that we are enabled by grace to render to God is described, not as the condition of the covenant, but as the evidence of the truth of our faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which God has appointed us to salvation (LC 32).
Prof. Shepherd reduces the contrast of the Standards first by emphasizing the grace of the covenant of works. With John Murray and other Reformed theologians he rejects the term “covenant of works” (the Standards do not insist on the term, cf. LC 30). He stresses the statement in WCF VII:1 that affirms the “voluntary condescension” on God’s part, expressed in his promise of blessedness and reward by way of covenant. He further emphasizes the sonship of Adam and uses the family figure to describe the covenant.
Indeed, he develops all the characteristics of the covenant relation under the “Creation Covenant” made with our first parents. It is a sovereignly established relation of union and communion between God and his people with a command and a promise; it is established in grace with mutually binding ties of love and faithfulness. This same covenantal structure embraces all relation between God and man from Genesis to Revelation. It applies not only to God’ s dealing with Adam before the fall, but to the covenant with Abraham, with Israel, and with the New Covenant people of God.
Adam was created righteous and holy, given the promise and command of the covenant as a son of God. So, too, Israel was re-created by God as a holy nation and given the covenantal promise and command. The same is true in the New Covenant. We are a new creation in Christ Jesus, made to be sons and daughters of God and given the same covenantal promise and the same commandment of love and faithfulness.
To be sure, if Adam had been obedient he would have been justified on the ground of his own inherent righteousness, not on the ground of imputed righteousness. Yet that righteousness would have been but the proven form of God’s gift of righteousness in Adam’s creation. It would not have been meritorious; Adam was a son, not a laborer, the covenant in the garden was not a labor contract. The gift of eternal life could not be merited by obedience to one command so easily performed. Prof. Shepherd describes Adam’s covenantal obedience in terms of essential covenant demand applicable to us in the covenant of grace.
Prof. Shepherd does not minimize the consequences of the fall. Neither does he obscure the significance of the gift of the Spirit and the cleansing blood of Christ in the New Covenant. The law of Moses could not take away sin; the blood of Christ could and did. The law of Moses could not give life; the Spirit of Christ could and did. Yet even here Prof. Shepherd stresses the restorative aspect of the New Covenant. God’s purpose in establishing his Creation Covenant will be fulfilled. The New Covenant is described in language appropriate to the Creation Covenant: “God makes us alive in fellowship with him and holds before us the promise of life to come.” God does not by-pass the covenant requirement of obedience in redemption. He restores responsible covenant relationship.
Since the covenantal dynamic operates in common for Adam, for Israel, and for us, the New Covenant is made to be conditional in the same fundamental way that the covenant with Adam was.
Now the Westminster Confession identifies the law given to Adam and his posterity in the covenant of works (requiring “personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience”) with the moral law contained in the Ten Commandments (XIX:1,2). That law continues to bind all, including justified persons, but true believers are not under it ”as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned” (XIX:6). The threatenings of the law show what the sins of even the regenerate deserve, and what afflictions in this life they may expect for them “although freed from the curse thereof.” Similarly the promises of the law show God’s approval of obedience and his blessings that may be expected, “although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works” (XIX:6).
When the Confession makes a connection between the covenant of works made with Adam and the promises and threats of the law in the Mosaic Covenant its structure is significantly different from the “covenantal dynamic” approach. Prof. Shepherd does speak of the law as written on our hearts in the New Covenant. The Spirit binds the union and communion of covenant fellowship. But “the New Covenant, like all God’s covenants, brings with it two sides, promise and command (Rom. 12:2). The command of the New Covenant has identity with the old.” It is the command to love God and neighbor. The warnings of destruction continue in the New Covenant, destruction of those who do not follow God’s commands.
Professor Shepherd’s insistence that the covenantal structure remains the same has the effect of making the New Covenant conditional in the same way that the covenant with Adam was. It further applies to the people of the New Covenant the threats of the law in the Mosaic Covenant not simply in showing what their sins deserve but as exposing them to the curse. The essential covenantal condition is the required covenantal response: obedience. Faith is part of that obedience and has a distinctive function, but only as part of the full covenantal response. The strong conditional element in the Mosaic Covenant, isolated by the Confession as the threat of the law and related to the covenant of works, is absorbed by Professor Shepherd into the normative and uniform covenant structure. The New Covenant is seen in terms of the Old rather than the Old being transformed by its fulfillment in the New.
2. The implications of the fulfillment of the covenant command by the active obedience of Jesus Christ are lost from view in the covenantal dynamic.
In the quotations above from WCF XIX it is apparent how careful the Confession is to distinguish the sense in which we are called upon to receive the promise and warnings of the covenant from the sense in which they were issued to Adam, or even to Israel in the Mosaic law. The covenantal dynamic approach faces difficulty here in two directions. First, if covenantal obedience is never meritorious, so that Adam would have been justified on the ground of inherent righteousness but not meritorious righteousness, the question is raised as to the meritoriousness of Christ’s righteousness. Calvin discusses this question (Institutes II:17:1): “For there are some men, more subtle than orthodox, who though they confess that Christ obtained salvation for us, yet cannot bear the word merit, by which they suppose the grace of God is obscured.” Calvin goes on to argue that merit in Christ is not opposed to grace: “For Christ could merit nothing except by the good pleasure of God, by which he had been predestinated to appease the Divine wrath by his sacrifice, and to abolish our transgressions by his obedience.” Christ’s merit and God’s predestinating grace are with equal propriety opposed to all the righteousness of men.
But if Christ’s active obedience merits for us eternal life, if the meritorious ground of our salvation is his covenant-keeping obedience, then a second question arises. Our relation to the covenant structure then differs from Adam’s in the garden not first because we have an advantage in the gift of the Spirit but because we have the perfected righteousness of Christ who kept the covenant for us. If the Mosaic covenant is considered, as Prof. Shepherd is willing to consider it, in its setting in the history of redemption before Christ, then the same distinction would apply. We do not differ from Israel under the law primarily in that we can keep the law by the Spirit although Israel could not. The great difference is that just as we died to the curse of the law in the death of Christ, so our justification is sealed by Christ’s resurrection, the evidence of his sinless and perfect fulfillment of the law (Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, p. 501).
Prof. Shepherd certainly believes in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, including his active obedience, for our justification (Rom. 5:18, 19; I Cor. 1:30; II Cor. 5:21; Col. 2:10). Yet because his framing of the covenantal dynamic is keyed upon the uniform two-sidedness of the covenant relation, it does not take account adequately of the realization of the covenant structure in Christ.
Christ receives the promises, fulfills the commands, and bears the curse–all for us. He is the covenant-keeper. The cup of the New Covenant is the cup of Christ’s blood shed for many for the remission of sins. As the second Adam and the true Israel Jesus pays the price of sin. The cup is a cup of blessing for us, the pledge of his finished work. The covenant is kept. Indeed, it is not insignificant that the language of the covenant recedes in favor of the figures of sonship, marriage, the body of Christ and the dwelling of the Spirit, figures associated with the covenant in the Old Testament, but which gain a force of their own in the New.
3. The emphasis of the WCF on the sole instrumentality of faith is relativized by the covenantal dynamic.
This takes place in a number of ways. It is true that the ordo salutis is structured on the question of the application of salvation to the individual. The covenantal dynamic puts the emphasis on the corporate rather than on the individual. It is true that the New Testament does not forsake the corporate for the individual. Yet it is also true that there is a significant individualizing in the New Covenant as over against the Old.
Indeed, Paul’s use of the “corporate” figure–the body–shows the balance of individual
and community concerns. The issues considered in the ordo salutis are important for the WCF and for our understanding and preaching of the New Testament.
Further, the “covenantal dynamic” views obedience as the qualifying response to the gospel of grace. Prof. Shepherd is willing to set aside or refute arguments for any logical priority of faith. Faith (or faithfulness) is one among many gifts of the Spirit, and it is not named first (Gal. 5:22). The “holistic” response to the covenant is entirely a response of obedience; faith is one focus–the “obedience of faith,” Paul’s phrase in Romans, is understood to imply this.
Faith, repentance, and obedience are regularly linked in Prof. Shepherd’s teaching as the covenantal response. Although he no longer teaches that works, like faith, are an instrument of justification, and although he is willing to think of good works as the fruit of faith, nevertheless the effect of the covenantal obedience package is to keep this question alive. Since he regards the term “instrument” as at least partially misleading, he is not enthusiastic about its use for faith. On the other hand, after strongly suggesting the parallel role of repentance to faith, he simply states that the Confession does not have any word like “instrument” to use for repentance.
The problem that is raised by the redefinition of our response in the New Covenant as essentially obedience is obvious. Coupled with Prof. Shepherd’s emphasis on the non-hypothetical nature of N.T. warnings and the two-sided character of the covenant, the conditional emphasis of the covenant dynamic is loud and clear.
4. The “covenant dynamic” also substantially qualifies the WCF statement on the “Perseverance of the Saints”.
The conditional tension that Prof. Shepherd seeks to preserve in the covenantal dynamic leads to an elaborate qualification of the phrase “upon the immutability of the decree of election” in WCF XVII:2. Election in terms of the eternal decree is outside the covenantal context. We lay hold of election as promise, not as information. Prof. Shepherd vigorously opposes seeing perseverance as an implication of election. Perseverance and assurance must be understood as rising not from a peek into the Lamb’s Book of Life, but from the covenant and from holding fast in faith and life to the word and way of the covenant. The Confession and the Larger Catechism (Q. 79 cf. 30, 31) place the nature of the covenant of grace beside the decree of election as the unconditional ground of perseverance. Prof. Shepherd appeals to the parable in Matthew 18:25-35. His observation is that the wicked servant had been forgiven his debt before he refused to forgive his fellow-servant. He refused to forgive his debtor, and therefore his debt was not forgiven. Perseverance in the covenant faces the real possibility of falling, but it stands firm as the believer walks in the way, trusting in the promises of God.
5. Election in the context of the covenant does not describe a “state of affairs,” but presents a word of promise to be received in faith.
A strong statement of the relation of election and covenant is found in Geerhardus Vos, op. cit. pp. 257-258.
Vos argues that the covenant outlook cannot function apart from the doctrine of election. In the consciousness of believers, he says, the covenant expresses the certainty of the state of grace. “It was used as a formula for the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, a doctrine undoubtedly rooted in election.”
Vos then traces the line of argumentation that derives assurance from covenant. He finds it precisely in the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The covenant of works depended on both God and man. It was therefore temporal and uncertain. “The covenant of grace has its fixity in God alone, who answers for both parties, and effects man’s willing and working by the Holy Spirit.” Its fixity does not lie at the end, but at the beginning, in the work of the Mediator already grounded in his eternal guaranty. It is therefore an unalterable covenant, extending into eternity.
Professor Shepherd’s emphasis on the two-sided dynamic of the covenant obscures the fact that God in the covenant of grace “answers for both parties” in the finished work of Christ. It is true that the promise of the covenant is appropriated in faith, but that which is appropriated is God’s sovereign, electing grace in Christ. The unconditional character of the covenant of grace in Christ requires us to recognize faith as the sole instrument. The conditionality of faith is unique not because it is a condition that God’s grace provides. The total response of those united to Christ is given by grace. Faith is unique because it presents nothing, but looks to Christ to meet all conditions.