Monday, November 19, 2007

The Undermining of God’s Gift Of Righteousness

N.T. Wright

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;

Federal Vision;

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.


Dante said...

One of the most terrible things about this Federal Vision movement has been the lumping in of RC Jr. No one has any evidence to prove that RC Jr. is part of this, and RC Jr. has repeatedly stated that he is absolutely against FV. (Does anyone remember that he was on the against side at Auburn Avenue 2?) Why do people continue to accociate him with this? Is it because RC Jr. had Doug Wilson in Table Talk? Has no one noticed that DW was in TT before he came out as FV? Even so, does that mean that all things DW are bad because of this? No one seems to discredit everything about CS Lewis even thought there are a number of things that he professed that Reformed folks find in error. But I am not excusing DW. I am defending RC Jr. As a matter of fact, the latest issue of his magazine, Every Thought Captive, coming out in January, is completely dedicated to the refuting of Federal Vision. Will that be enough, or will you continue to malign him?

R. Scott Clark said...

Hi Terry,

You're not alone, the OPC, PCA, RCUS, OCRC, and URCNA have all rejected the FV.

There is a lot of material here:

There are a number of excellent books, pamphlets, and articles listed there.


lydia joy said...

Wow, this is extremely helpful, any chance you know about Sovereign Grace Ministries????

Terry Rayburn said...


Allow me to use what I think is the more useful term, Neo-Legalist, which covers the Anti-Justification of several movements, including Auburn Ave., Federal Vision, and New Perspective.

1. If RC Jr. is not a Neo-Legalist, I would rejoice. I am sincerely interested in the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

2. However, he has so promoted other Neo-Legalists, that he obviously doesn't consider Neo-Legalism the awful heresy that it is. He is even ordained in the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches, which is established and populated by Doug Wilson and other Neo-Legalists. How could he justify even turning a blind eye to this heretical association?

3. You say that he has repeatedly stated that he is against FV. O.K.,

a. could you site somewhere that I could read this? I'm honestly not challenging you, I'm sincerely asking.

b. is he likewise opposed to the other "forms" of Neo-Legalism? I ask this, because I have read some who deny one "form" (e.g., "Shepherdism"), only to turn around and support another form (e.g., Wright's brand of NPP). In other words, does he not just SAY he supports the Reformed Confessions, but specifically believe in Justification by Faith, as a permanent declaration of righteousness from which a member of the Body of Christ cannot fall away?

4. You write, "Even so, does this mean that all things DW [Doug Wilson] are bad because of [FV teaching]?" The simple answer is "Yes". He renounces Justification by Faith, and is therefore a false teacher, not just on peripheral "non-Reformed" stuff, but on the very core of the Gospel of salvation by Grace through Faith. To even ask the question indicates your own cavalier attitude toward Neo-Legalism.

5. Again, I rejoice if Jr.'s latest magazine is dedicated to refuting Federal Vision, but will it stand FOR the Biblical doctrine of Justification by Faith alone, apart from the "covenant works" which Neo-Legalism claims will save or damn a "covenant" member?

Terry Rayburn said...

Professor Clark,

Thank you for the useful resource.

Would you agree that although officially rejecting the FV, that at least the OPC and PCA (I'm less familiar with the others) have not in some cases rejected the Pastors and Elders who teach these Anti-Justification doctrines?

Terry Rayburn said...

lydia joy,

Thank you.

Yes, I'm quite familiar with Sovereign Grace Ministries.

Terry Rayburn said...

By the way, Professor R. Scott Clark (above) is from Westminster Seminary CALIFORNIA.

From my readings, Westminster Seminary CALIFORNIA has not been [what's the right word...tainted?...infected?...influenced?] by Neo-Legalism like Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) has.

I praise God for that.

dec said...

Just before I came here, I listened to an interview with N.T. Wright at
It's interesting that you see similarities with the NPPers and FVs in their dependence on law-keeping. I see some other similarities. (I'm sure I've overgeneralized and misunderstood their views, for all their critics do.)

Both de-emphasize personal conversion and emphasize the Church/Covenant People.

Both see the plan of God as fixing the mess that the world has been in since the Fall, and using the Church/Covenant People to do this work.

Both are interested in helping God fix this mess by being involved in politics, either as Christian Reconstructionists on the Right, or as Christian social activists on the Left.

Here's an interesting quote from N. T. Wright:
"If we had started with Ephesians instead of Romans, and we had read Ephesians 1:10 which says that God’s purpose was to sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth, then we wouldn’t have an ecological crisis, we wouldn’t have an apartheid problem, we wouldn’t have this, that, and the other. We’ve allowed our ideologies to condition our reading of Scripture and my goodness, it’s time to go back and let Scripture do its proper work."

dec said...

Oh, I alluded to, but left out the main similarity. Both see Christ's Kingdom to be of this world.

Terry Rayburn said...


Good insights. Thanks.

dante said...


You ask a lot of good questions, some of which I think might take some more time to discuss, some we may just disagree on. As far as disagreeing on them, I have learned that it's not worth the energy to dispute. I will say, "I don't agree," but I won't try and make you see my way.

I think a lot of the questions can be answered by reading R.C. Jr.'s posts on the subject. I will post them below. I would like to post part of R.C.'s original "Auburn Affirmations" which I think people need to read on the spot. You can tell me what you may disagree with there.

To question you a little here. You have a absolute on the rejection of a person's writings if they fall into neo-legalism and beyond. You then pat Westminster Seminary for not being tainted by these writings. Frankly, you won't find a seminary anywhere that does not refer to any of these neo-legalist authors you want us to eschew. Other Christians recognize the validity of another's writings even if they do believe heresy.

For instance, the Westminster CA library carries many titles from N.T. Wright. If they discredited all of N.T. Wright, they would surely get rid of his stuff.

Likewise, they carry G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton was Orthodox. Orthodoxy teaches Jesus plus. It is very legalist and falls squarely within your neo-legalist checklist. If you say that a person is wrong, and maybe guilty of neo-legalism because of their affiliation with neo-legalists, then you are accusing all of your mentors that came after G.K. as well. Very few people are not influenced by the brilliance of Chesterton.

In this case, I strongly believe you are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

I will post R.C. Jr. next.

dante said...

Here are a few posts regarding R.C. Jr.'s view on FV. Below is an excerpt from one post, "Auburn Affirmations". Likewise, I will send you the as yet unpublished article from the latest Every Thought Captive on the subject. I won't post it because it still unpublished, and though you may reference it, I request that you so not republish it. Yet.

Highlands Study Center Squiblog archives
. Read October 30, December 30, 2003; January 5, March 8, June 28, 2004.

Perseverance, Adoption, and the Objectivity of the Covenant

Here are the affirmations:

* I affirm that I have been judged righteous by God because the blood of Christ covers my sins, and because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to me.

* I deny that my obedience is even a portion of the ground of my justification. In fact, I still struggle with the idea of layers of heaven, in part because if I get what Jesus gets, plus my own works, it would seem I would get more than Jesus gets.

* I affirm that these things are true of me because I trust in the finished work of Christ alone.

* I deny that the sacrament of baptism works that trust in me.

* I affirm that the sacrament of baptism is efficacious, and powerful, and that it, like a marriage ceremony, is a visible manifestation of and seal of a relationship that already exists.

* I deny that baptism is a wet dedication, that it gets you halfway in, that it’s just something we do because Jesus told us to.

* I affirm that we ought to treat all as yet not excommunicated baptized people, baptized into a true church, as our brothers and sisters in Christ, as regenerated, believing members of the one covenant, of the kingdom of God.

* I deny that all baptized people are in fact our brothers and sisters in Christ, are regenerated, believing members of the one covenant, of the kingdom of God.

* I affirm that some who are baptized will be told by Christ, “Depart from Me, I never knew you.”

* I deny that the above people ever had their sins actually atoned for, and lacked only “persevering grace.”

* I affirm that all people who have been actually regenerated grow in grace, which likewise means to grow in law, to grow in obedience to the law of God.

* I deny that this growth is in any way a ground of our salvation.

* I affirm that the covenant of works is gracious.

* I deny that the covenant of works is abrogated.

* I affirm that the covenant of grace makes it possible for sinners to receive the blessings, and to avoid the cursings in the covenant of works.

* I deny that the covenant of grace replaces the covenant of works.

* I affirm that God has a moral obligation to reward obedience.

* I deny that that obligation is anything other than a de pacto obligation.

* I affirm that both sarcasm and strong polemical language are, in their place, biblical.

* I deny that both sides know where that place is.

* I affirm that heresy is premature, and macaroni and cheese is immature.

* I deny that either justifies the other, either forensically or covenantally.

Terry Rayburn said...


Thank you for your follow-up in sending me (here and in your email) the writings of R.C. Sproul, Jr., which indicate, as you said, that he is NOT a believer in Federal Vision, and IS a believer in the biblical doctrine of Justification by Faith alone.

My apologies to him, to you, and to all my readers for indicating otherwise.

Although I would still question some of his associations with those who are FV, that is certainly a matter of conscience.

I have edited the post in question, and am considering how best to remedy my recording as well.

None of us appreciates being misrepresented, especially on important doctrinal issues.

Again, my apologies, and my thanks to you, Dante, for bringing the truth on this.


lydia joy said...

I am wondering if you may know where Sovereign Grace Ministries stands on this issue? Would love to hear your thoughts, I am a formere Sovereign Gracer and am hoping to shed some light on key doctrinal issues......

Reformed IS Enough said...

"Although I would still question some of his associations with those who are FV, that is certainly a matter of conscience."

And conscience dictates that unless you agree with the position you don't give its proponents a platform to promote it.

There does appear to be much to question about R.C. Sproul Jr's associations with many of the most prominent promoters of Federal Vision, and a number of people have questioned it. After being defrocked R.C. Sproul Jr ran to be refrocked by the one and only denomination where Federal Vision is a mainstay, the CREC. There have been too many good questions, too many suspicions, and R.C. Sproul Jr's responses to date have been weak.

R.C. Sproul Jr has often been connected to Federal Vision because he not only "associates" with the Federal Vision crowd, and he's a member of THE Federal Vision denomination, he was responsible for giving Federal Visionists a very prestigious platform for promoting their heretical agenda. Were it not for R.C. Sproul Jr's decision to promote Federal Visionists, as the editor for Table Talk magazine, most of them would be unknowns in Reformed circles. R.C. Sproul Jr helped to legitimize heretics and give them the imprimatur of being "Reformed."

"One of the most terrible things about this Federal Vision movement has been the lumping in of RC Jr. No one has any evidence to prove that RC Jr. is part of this, and RC Jr. has repeatedly stated that he is absolutely against FV."

Of course he has to say that. Too much of his support comes from the Reformed community who, if he were honest and admitted his sympathies for Federal Vision, and his loyalties for Federal Visionists, the Reformed community would cut off their support for him. If it were true that R.C. Sproul Jr wasn't Federal Vision then why would he be so eager to give Federal Visionists a platform to promote their heretical positions? It's for good reason that so many people "lump in R.C. Jr" with the Federal Vision crowd. The fact is he IS a part of that crowd, and they're very pleased about his loyalties for them. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...