Monday, June 21, 2010

The Undermining of God's Gift Of Righteousness (Transcript)

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.


val said...

Rest assured no child of God will go to a hell fire no matter what your religion or belief. All will have eternal life at the resurrection (Ps 82:6). For It is written: A woman shall compass a man and create a new thing in the earth (Jer 31:22), the man is Satan(Isa 14:16), the new thing is now delivered to the world. Satan has deceived the whole world (Rev 12:7), until the heel of time(Gen 3:15). Check out the bruising of Satan by the exposing of his lies

Anonymous said...

Excellent overview of covenantal nomism, thank you for writing and sharing it! I just finished studying this for school. My current graduate school does not adhere to this theory (thank goodness) but in studying it, I discovered that many of the scholars I had read in undergrad, such as James Dunn, were proponents of this "new perspective." And yes, that was at a "Christian" university. We must be well-versed on the Truth so we can recognize the error!

Terry Rayburn said...


You obviously don't believe the Bible. Why quote it?

It reminds me of when the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness by quoting Scripture.

I recommend that you read the Gospel of John.

Then repent and believe in THE Jesus Christ Whom it is written about, that He died to pay for your sins, was buried, and rose again from the dead.

Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, false teacher.

Else you will surely end up in that hell fire that you deny.

Terry Rayburn said...


Thanks. Glad your school is not an adherent to this error.

Matt said...

Have you ever read N.T. Wright? Or Sanders? Or Dunn?

From the way you lump them together and claim things about Wright, it does not appear that you have.

If you have not, I would encourage you to do so, especially Wright, and especially before commenting on his status as unorthodox/promoting heresy. First, Wright is not of the same mind in a whole host of ways with Dunn and Sanders. Second, Wright is a brilliant exegete and an excellent writer. There is nothing heretical about what he says.

In Christ,
Matthew Emerson

Terry Rayburn said...


Of course I've read them. Enough that I have no intention of reading them at length anymore.

While it's true that Wright is not in lock-step with Sanders and Dunn, I don't call anyone a "brilliant exegete" who comes to the conclusions that he does.

1. For example, Wright cannot come to grips with the simple doctrine of "justification by faith".

(Critical sidenote: One of the reasons Wright is such a dangerous false teacher is that he is very confusing. He is perfectly willing to SAY sometimes that he supports "justification by faith", and I won't even judge his heart by saying that he means to deceive in that.

But what he means by "justification by faith" is not what the Bible means, and many of his other statements and teaching DENY the simple biblical teaching that when a person believes on the Lord Jesus Christ, they are PERMANENTLY, FULLY, ETERNALLY forgiven and declared righteous by God, irrespective of any future "judgment" or "works obedience".)

He often talks about "future justification", which is a contradiction to biblical "justification by faith".

Of course the English word "justification" and it's Greek counterpart can have several meanings. That's why James could make the seemingly outrageous statement that one is "justified" by works.

James doesn't mean we are "declared righteous" by God for works, but simply that those works *demonstrate* or *show* our righteousness.

2. Wright says, "Justification is the declaration which God at once make, that all who share this faith belong to Christ, to his sin-forgiven family, the one family of believing Jews and believing Gentiles together, and are assured of final glorification." (from a response to Australian Bishop Paul Barnett)

Sounds pretty orthodox, doesn't it?

Pure confusion, actually, because he also says,

"Justification, at the last, will be on the basis of performance, not possession." -- Romans, page 440.

Matt, that is simply false teaching.

Let me quote him again,

"Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God's final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led - in accordance, in other words, with works." (Transcript, 10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference 2003)

(continued below)

Terry Rayburn said...

3. Two other closely related legalistic false teachings of Wright's are (1)what he refers to as "covenant faithfulness", and (2) the entryway into that covenant, which is water baptism.

If you've read much of anything by him you will recognize the term "covenant faithfulness", so I won't do anymore homework for you on that matter.

The concept is that a "believer" in Jesus as Lord is brought into "the covenant" (basically the Abrahamic Covenant, but existing throughout history, more or less) BY WATER BAPTISM!

He teaches that if you are not water-baptized, you are simply not in the "covenant". And if you're not in the "covenant", then you can't, of course, exercise "covenant faithfulness", which is the "performance" or "works" required for "final justification" under the "final judgment".

And don't gloss over the part about believing in Jesus as Lord.

It's true that a believer must believe in Jesus as Lord, but also as Savior.

Paul preached "Jesus and Him crucified" and it's THAT Lord AND Savior that ones believes in for salvation.

But Wright, although recognizing the death on the cross theologically, teaches that believing in Him as Savior is utterly unnecessary, shifting the subject back to "works" justification in the final day.

"Are YOU in The Covenant, little boy?! Mooo-ha-ha-ha! Really?! How do you know? Are you performing well enough? Really?! On that final day, will YOU be finally justified?!"

4. I really could go on and on, Matt.

You may agree with Wright's teaching. But please don't pretend they are orthodox.

Pure legalism, with a little faith thrown in to fool the foolish.

5. I will admit, though. He is one of the trickiest false teachers EVER.

But when pure unadulterated GRACE is understood...

...when it's understood that the New Covenant is TOTALLY unilateral and FULLY accomplished by the Godhead...

...when it's understood that salvation is by grace through faith, NOT OF WORKS...

N.T. Wright falls by the wayside as just another in a long line of "works" false teachers.

Matt said...

I'm glad to here that you have read Wright's material. That will make this discussion much easier.

You are correct to say that Wright argues for 'final justification', or the idea that in the end "God's final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led."

Tell me something though - how is this in any way contradictory to Luke 6:43-45 - a good tree produces good fruit, a bad tree bad fruit - or 1 Cor. 3:11-13 - "For no can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw - each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done"? Or the many other passages of the NT (and OT) which indicate that belief in Christ is marked by good works produced by him?

I think it is readily evident that belief produces works and that the external judgment of whether one is a believer is primarily based on whether or not they are producing fruit.

Furthermore, and more importantly, you seem to filter out the other part of Wright's argument, which is that God is 'covenantally faithful' to us to produce works in us through his Holy Spirit. In other words, yes, the basis of the final judgment will be works, but God is faithful to produce good works in those whom he has called by his Holy Spirit and justified through the blood of His Son. It is actually a beautiful picture of grace, to say that what God has started in you he will also bring to completion, and do it all by grace.

Terry, I see that you hold to the doctrines of grace, as do I. Tell me - how is that any different than the perseverance of the saints?

In Christ,
Matthew Emerson

Tim said...

So what sort of tree will you be Matt? Don't confuse the judgement with the reward. Remember the reward for our fruit is not the same as the judgement.

Terry Rayburn said...


The problem with legalism as regards salvation -- aside from being unbiblical -- a little minor problem :) -- is that there is never a gauge as to how much "obedience" is enough, or how well "a life led" is led.

I don't deny in any way that faith will produce works. But biblical justification (being declared righteous by God) is based on the faith (Rom. 5; Eph. 2:8,9), not the works, now or at the end of a life.

I also don't deny God's "covenant faithfulness".

On the contrary, I'm emphasizing with the Scriptures that the New Covenant has totally replaced the Old Covenant and is entirely accomplished by the Lord Himself, not reliant in ANY way on the performance of men.

He already knows the end from the beginning, and He knows who are His. That's why He is entirely capable of declaring righteous NOW those who believe in Him.

"Perseverance of the saints" is rightly understood as "perseverance of FAITH [in Christ]", not "perseverance of performance [hopefully good enough to be justified at the end]", a totally unbiblical teaching.

N.T. Wright gives a bad name to "scholarship", when the feeblest old Grandma in her rocking chair with her KJV knows that salvation is by Grace through Faith, not of works! And the scholar can't see it.