How A New Kind of Legalist Is Attempting To Bring The Church To "Works" Salvation
The Roman Catholic Church held an almost monopolistic grip on the hearts of millions of people for hundreds of years.
Through the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, the awful legalistic system of "salvation by works" nearly choked out the light of the Gospel of the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Only small pockets of true believers in Christ escaped the dark heavy blanket of Roman Catholicism.
Then around 500 years ago came what we call the Reformation.
Men like Luther and Zwingli and Calvin and Knox, imperfect men, but intense students of the Scriptures, rose up and shined the light of the Gospel into the darkness of European Catholicism.
These brave men brought an end to the monopoly of the Popes. They boldly proclaimed that salvation was...
By grace alone, not by merit;
By faith alone, not by works;
By faith in Christ alone, not in sacraments;
under the final authority of the Word of God alone, not the unscriptural teachings of the Bishop of Rome.
The Central Point of the Reformation
The central point of the Reformation is what we call Justification by Faith. Don’t let the fancy phrase throw you. This is merely the sublime and simple truth that when we believe in Jesus Christ we are “justified” or “declared righteous” by God.
This means that we are fully in right standing with God, our sins forgiven and no longer held against us.
This is accomplished because God judged our sins in Christ on the Cross, and gave us the “gift of righteousness” (Romans 5:17) by imputing the righteousness of Christ to us, when we believe in Christ.
As 2 Corinthians 5:21 puts it, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
Romans Chapter 5:1,2 gives us the result of this wonderful act of the Lord:
“Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.”
The Permanence of Justification
When we are justified, declared righteous by God, it is forever. It is permanent. And it occurs at the moment when we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, when we believe the Gospel.
The “gift of righteousness” can never be taken away, because it is part of a "package deal", to put it crudely. This righteousness is given to us by grace through faith, and that is “not of yourselves” and “not of works” (Ephesians 2:8,9).
Even the very faith by which we believe in Jesus Christ is a gift given by God through the New Birth, regeneration.
This “imputed righteousness” contrasts starkly with the unbiblical Roman Catholic teaching that one is actually “made righteous” (“infused righteousness”) through the Sacraments like Baptism, and the Eucharistic Mass, and through meritorious good works.
And this false teaching goes on to say that this so-called righteousness sort of “leaks out” through sinning, or neglecting the Sacraments, and therefore can be lost, which damns the soul of the one who fails to maintain his “righteousness” by his works and attendance to the sacraments.
Let me put it another way. True biblical justification is when we are declared righteous by God when we believe in Jesus, and that puts us in right standing with God forever, all of our sins paid for and forgiven, past sins, and future sins.
The false teaching of Roman Catholicism says that through the Sacraments, like Baptism, and the sacrifice of the Mass, we are actually "made righteous" in our whole being, but not permanently. We must keep doing good works and going to the Mother Church for the Sacraments, or we will end up in Hell.
And the key word here is "works". This is legalism at it’s worst, and any thinking person who believes in this system will always live in fear, if they’re not doing their good works too well, or missing the sacraments.
Or they will be self-righteous and smug because they follow certain rules and rituals, at least better than the next guy.
In Come the Neo-Legalists
The Reformation did not, of course, abolish Roman Catholicism. This organization of works salvation has continued these many years, and still thrives today.
But until recently one could more or less count on Protestant, non-Catholic, Bible teachers to uphold Justification by Faith Alone. One could more or less count on Protestant Bible teachers to oppose the so-called Justification of Rome, where grace and works are mixed, making it “no longer grace” (Romans 11:6).
But back in the 1960’s and 1970’s there was a professor at Westminster Seminary named Norman Shepherd. In 1975 some of his former students were being questioned by committees for ordination, to be ordained to the Christian ministry, and when the question “How is a sinner justified?” was asked, these students of Shepherd answered, “By faith and works.” The questioners were shocked, and began digging in to why these students answered that way, and they traced their answers back to their professor, Norman Shepherd.
Shepherd was allowed to teach for six more years, which was a disgrace in itself. He should have been immediately thrown out. After all, this is the Gospel we’re tampering with here.
Shepherd was finally released in 1981, the dung having hit the fan hard enough. Even then, though, several professors who then agreed with Shepherd were allowed to remain, teaching hundreds of students who spread the cancer of this heresy yet today.
The big foot of undermining Justification by Faith had been stuck in the door, and the result has mushroomed into several full-blown ministries and movements, some directly from Westminster, and some relatively independent.
Allow me to name some names and then I will attempt to capsulize the kernel of the heresy.
Pioneering writers include E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright, Steve Schlissel, Steve Wilkins, Douglas Wilson, and Peter Leithart.
They have been joined by a multitude of Pastors, bloggers and other writers, and teachers in Seminaries. Many in the Emerging/Emergent Church movement have gravitated toward these men, particularly toward N.T. Wright. And they have infiltrated otherwise orthodox places, including major denominations and seminaries, as well as theological magazines and websites.
Now some of you may say, “Oh you shouldn’t name names. That’s ungracious of you, Terry.”
Friends, this is too important. Those of you who know me know that I much prefer just teaching the wonderful grace of God, both for initial salvation, and for our ongoing lives. It’s all of grace, and that’s my passion. But when teachers and pastors and writers trample on that grace with a convoluted system of works salvation, we need to know about it.
They operate under names and ministries you may have heard:
Shepherdism, named after Norman Shepherd;
Auburn Avenue Theology, named after a church in Louisiana called Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church;
The New Perspective on Paul, or NPP.
This last term is often associated with N.T. Wright, who has become practically a rock star among his followers. An engaging man, a Bishop in the Anglican Church of England, he is a scholar and writes books faster than most people can read them. But he writes for the masses, the common man, so to speak, and so has become more popular than some of the more stuffy academics. And this has made him all the more dangerous in spreading this New Legalism.
What They Have In Common
I won’t pretend the issues and sub-doctrines are not varied and even complicated, but they have one important thing in common -- a rejection of the biblical Justification by Faith.
Like most false teachers, their terminology is often the same as orthodox terminology. But the expression of their error can mostly be bunched under an important term: Covenant Nomism (sometimes called Covenantal Nomism). “Nomism” refers to “Law”.
Although their implementation of the doctrine varies (for example, some teach that one enters the “covenant” through water baptism, others through so-called “faith alone”), the basics are as follows:
1. One enters into a “covenant” of the “people of God”, through “faith” and/or baptism. This is a real covenant which makes one a real Christian, they say, as one follows Jesus as Lord.
2. Once in the “covenant” of the family of God, it is now one’s responsibility to stay in the covenant, and follow Jesus as Lord all the days of one’s life...or else! (more on the “or else” in just a moment). This is blatant Legalism.
3. IF one remains in the “covenant”, by assembling together and obeying the Law sufficiently, THEN, at the end of one’s life, or the end of the age, one will be “Justified”, or “declared righteous” on the basis of their life and works! Did you get that? They’re not justified by faith at the time they believe. They are justified at the end of their life, or the end of time, based on their works.
4. Here’s the “or else”: If one departs from sufficient obedience to the Law, or (in some cases) stops fellowshiping in the local assembly, they are deemed “out of the covenant”, and will never be “justified”, even though they truly believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, and were in His “covenant” and were true Christians. Their works, or lack of them, have ultimately damned them.
What Can Be Done?
Admittedly, this is an extremely brief introduction to Neo-Legalism, or Covenant Nomism.
The men teaching these things are not ignorant, and they’re not stupid. They are biblically classic false teachers.
What would I recommend?
1. I don’t recommend studying these men, except by the most discerning and biblically knowledgeable. Too many have been swayed by their false doctrines.
2. I do recommend studying the biblical doctrine of Justification by Faith, just as the FBI reputedly studies real money, in order to quickly identify the counterfeit.
There are many good books on the subject. A thorough classic is by James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification. Another good one, perhaps easier to read, is James White’s The God Who Justifies.
An excellent sermon by Charles Spurgeon can be read at:
Scriptural support for Justification by Faith can be found at:
3. If you accept true biblical Justification by Faith, have the courage to say so. And don’t be afraid to mention names. Too many Protestant believers and teachers have been returning to Roman Catholicism. While for some there may be an inherent attraction to the ancient religious trappings of Romanism, in many cases it’s simply an abandonment of the great truth that God justifies us, declares us righteous, forever, when we believe in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Having given an inch to the Legalism of salvation by works, they go the whole yard back into the darkness of Roman Catholicism.
Remember, the biblical truth is, we are declared righteous by faith, as a free gift, when we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. To Him be all the glory.