Slaying The Dragon of Legalism. Because Grace Didn't End With Salvation.
Thursday, October 31, 2013
Reversing The Reformation – How Some So-Called Protestants Are Subtly Undermining Justification By Faith
Note: This is re-posted from October 30, 2009. I want to add an important point: Much as I am reluctant to recommend studying the writings of neo-legalists…if you DO, you must remember one thing…they are false teachers, and false teachers almost always “blow smoke” (at best), confuse, and outright lie. This is important, because typically these neo-legalists will SAY that they believe in Justification By Faith, fooling the unstudied or gullible. By redefining “justification” and “faith”, they can say it with a straight face, and defend themselves when confronted with their own writings DENYING biblical justification, and promoting works salvation. This re-definition and deceit is similar to the statement in the document of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” which declares that Justification is “by grace through faith”, yet is signed by Cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church — Cardinals who also subscribe to the canons declaring anathema on those who believe this.
October 31 is Reformation Day, celebrating the Protestant Reformation, when the biblical gospel of grace was re-introduced to the Church at large.
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 Romanism.
Then around 500 years ago came what we call the Reformation.
Men like Luther and Zwingli and Calvin and Knox, 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 Bishops of Rome.
The Central Point of the Reformation
The central point of the Reformation is what we call Justification by Faith. This is 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 that this so-called righteousness leaks out through sinning, and therefore can be lost, thereby damning the soul of the one who fails to maintain his “righteousness” by his works and attendance to the sacraments.
In Come the Neo-Legalists
The Reformation did not, of course, abolish Roman Catholicism. This cult of works salvation has continued these many years, and still thrives today.
But until recently one could more or less count on Protestant 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 for ordination, and when the question “How is a sinner justified?” was asked, they answered, “By faith and works.” Shocked questioners traced their answer back to their professor, Norman Shepherd.
Shepherd was allowed to teach for six more years, a disgrace in itself, but was finally released in 1981, the proverbial dung having hit the fan hard enough. Even then, several professors who then agreed with Shepherd were allowed to remain, teaching hundreds of students who spread the cancer 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 N.T. Wright. And they have infiltrated otherwise orthodox places, including R.C. Sproul’s Tabletalk magazine, where R.C. Jr. as editor published a column by Douglas Wilson for three years, as well as articles by Steve Schlissel and Steve Wilkins.
[Important note -- I would like to correct a wrong impression given by the last above statement. Since the publication of this post, R.C. Sproul Jr. has made the following clear to me...1) He loudly and publicly disavows Federal Vision, and 2) He not only published those FV gentlemen before anyone even heard of Federal Vision, but before that time and since that time has published many gentlemen who despise Federal Vision. I'm grateful to RCJR for that clarification.]
They operate under names and ministries you may have heard: Shepherdism, Auburn Avenue Theology, Federal Vision, or the New Perspective on Paul. And they lead churches in virtually every Reformed denomination.
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 (even while sometimes saying they support it).
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”.
Though 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.
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 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 truly “Justified”, or “declared righteous” ON THE BASIS OF THEIR LIFE AND 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”, will never be “justified”, even though they truly believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, and were in His “covenant” and were a true Christian. 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.
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.
3.If you accept true biblical Justification by Faith, have 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. To Him be all the glory.