Letting The Law In The Back Door of Justification

Gospel Mystery of Sanctification When it comes to religion, humans are wired with law.  Since Adam broke the covenant of works in the garden, people have always attempted to please God (or god/gods) by doing something for him.  The law that says ‘do this and live’ is part of human DNA.  This is why it is so hard for some people to believe a law-free gospel – good news that you don’t have to do a single thing for God to be accepted by him.  In fact, you have to stop doing things and receive a gift instead: the Messiah Jesus, who lived, died, and rose again to save sinners.

That humans are law-wired is also a reason why people sometimes sneak the law in the back door of the doctrine of justification.  As I’ve heard it said, everyone has a little Pope or Pharisee in his bosom.  Paul talked about this in his letter to the Galatian churches, where some false brothers infiltrated the church, sneaking the law in the back door: you have to believe in Jesus and be circumcised to be saved (cf. Acts 15:1).  People still do things like this today, mixing a bit of law with the gospel, mixing works with grace.  They talk about a “lawful gospel” or say that the gospel includes law, or they say that we are justified by faith alone – but define faith as “faithfulness” or “obedient faith.”  These types of statements have been used by advocates of the Federal Vision, which is why historic Reformed/Presbyterian churches have very decisively rejected Federal Vision teaching with a loud and unanimous NO.

In The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification Walter Marshall does an excellent job explaining how the law keeps creeping into the picture of acceptance with God (justification).  Sometimes, he says, people want to make conditions to the gospel.  Other times, people want to talk about law-obedience in preparation to salvation:

“We are naturally so prone to ground our salvation in our own works, that if we cannot make them procuring conditions and causes of our salvation by Christ, yet we shall endeavor at least to make them necessary preparatives, to fit us for receiving Christ and his salvation by faith” (p. 51-2).

Marshal goes on:

The error [of necessary preparatives] is pernicious to the practice of holiness, and to our whole salvation, in the same manner with that treated of in the foregoing direction [discussion], and may be confuted by the same arguments which are there produced. Whether holiness be made a procuring condition of our salvation through Christ, or only a condition necessary to qualify us for the reception of Christ, we are equally brought under those legal terms of doing first the duties required in the law, that so we may live.

Therefore, we are equally bereaved of the assistance of those means of holiness, mentioned in the foregoing directions, as union and fellowship with Christ, and the enjoyment of all His sanctifying endowments by faith, which should go before the practice of holiness, that they may enable us for it; and we are equally left to labor in vain for holiness, while we are in our accursed natural state, by which our sinful corruption will rather be exasperated than mortified, so that we shall never be duly prepared for the reception of Christ, as long as we live in the world.

Thus, while we endeavor to prepare our way to Christ by holy qualifications, we do rather fill it with stumbling blocks and deep pits, by which our souls are hindered from ever attaining to the salvation by Christ.

Marshall says a lot there!  Basically, he notes that whether a person says holiness is part of his acceptance with God or whether a person sees obedience as part of preparation for coming to Christ, both are examples of the law being mixed with the gospel – which actually gets in the way of justification and true holiness!  This is exactly what Luther’s first thesis says:

The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance humans on their way to righteousness, but rather hinders them.

Mixing the law with the gospel in any way, shape, or form, is a deadly concoction.  It’s something we need to guard against with all our Christian might.  Keep your back doors locked!

The above quotes were taken from Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, “Direction 7.”

shane lems

Clouding the Gospel, Confusing God’s People

  There’s a reason why historic Reformed/Presbyterian churches respond so quickly, strongly, and ecclesiastically (i.e. in a churchly manner) to preaching that clouds the gospel by mixing law/works and gospel/grace.  When we hear things like “works are instrumental in justification” or “final justification at the last day” or “the lawful gospel” or “I’m not sure ‘imputation’ is the best way to talk” or “faith alone means being faithful to Christ’s call” and other confusing statements, we investigate because these types of statements bring on a theological fog that so quickly confuses God’s people about the heart of the faith, the gospel.  Concerning this, Martin Luther made the following outstanding observations in his commentary on Galatians 1:6 (I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel… NASB).  By the way, these statements are totally applicable today in light of the Federal Vision and New Perspective(s) on Paul:

Paul complains that it is easy to fall (compare 1 Corinthians 10:12). We, too, find in everyday experience how hard it is for the mind to conceive and retain a sound and steadfast faith. It may take ten years’ labor before a little church is properly ordered; then some lunatic gets in who can do nothing but speak slanderously and spitefully against sincere preachers of the Word, and in one moment he upsets everything. That happened with Paul, the chosen instrument of Christ. He had won the churches of Galatia with great care and labor, and the false apostles, shortly after his departure, overthrew it, as this and other letters prove. So great is the weakness and wretchedness of this present life. We walk among Satan’s snares, and one person with mad ideas may destroy in a short time all that has been built up over many years by many true ministers laboring night and day. We learn this from experience, with great grief; yet we cannot do anything about it.

Since the church is such a soft and tender thing, and so soon overthrown, we must be quick to watch against these people with their mad ideas. When they have given two sermons or have read a few pages of the Holy Scriptures, they reckon they are in control of all learners and teachers and are answerable to no human authority. You can find many such people today, bold and impudent persons who because they have not been tried by temptations have never learned to fear God, nor had any taste or feeling of grace. Because they are empty of the Holy Spirit, they teach what they like best and such things as are plausible and pleasant to the common people. Then the uneducated multitude, longing to hear news, soon joins them. And many others who think themselves well versed in the doctrine of the faith and have been tempted to some extent are seduced by them.

Paul teaches us from his own experience that congregations that are won by great labor are easily and soon upset. We should watch very carefully against the devil’s rangings everywhere, lest he come while we are asleep and sow weeds among the wheat. However watchful and diligent the shepherds may be, the Christian flock is in danger from Satan. Let us therefore watch carefully—first, every one for himself, and second, all teachers, not only for themselves, but also for the whole church, so that we do not enter into temptation.

The above quote is found in Martin Luther,  Galatians, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998).

shane lems

The Federal Vision and Union With Christ

The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (OPC)

[Update note: see Lane @ Green Baggins’ helpful “sharpening” of my article below.  Thanks Lane!]

One area in which the Federal Vision is at odds with historic Reformed theology is the meaning of union with Christ.  This is obviously a huge topic; it’s impossible to discuss it all in a single post.  So for now I just want to point out one area of major difference.  The question is this: is union with Christ permanent or something that can be lost?  The Federal Vision movement says it is losable while Reformed theology says it is an eternal union.  The first three quotes below are representative of the Federal Vision; the last two quotes are from Reformed confessions.

Peter Leithart put it this way when discussing baptism and union with Christ in a blog post called “Infant Baptism” (Aug. 6, 2004):

“Apostasy is possible.  It is possible to be united to Jesus Christ, receive His Spirit, and then fall from that gracious condition and back into the world (John 15; 1 Cor. 10; 2 Pet. 2).”

Rich Lusk said it like this:

“In baptism we are brought covenantally and publicly out of union with Adam and into union with Christ.  ….In this relationship, one has, in principle, all the blessings and benefits in the heavenly places delivered over to him as he is ‘in Christ.’  ….Baptism is like an adoption ceremony.  The adopted child is brought into a new relationship, given a new name, new blessings, a new future, new opportunities, a new inheritance – in short, a new life.  And yet these blessings, considered from the standpoint of the covenant rather than the eternal decree, are mutable.  The child is a full member of the family and has everything that comes with sonship.  But, if he grows up and rejects his Father and Mother (God and the church), if he refuses to repent and return home when warned and threatened, then he loses all the blessings that were his.  It would not be accurate to say that he never had these things; he did possess them, even though he never experienced or enjoyed some of them” (“Do I Believe In Baptismal Regeneration?” n.d.).

And the Joint Federal Vision Statement from 2007 explained it thus:

“We affirm that apostasy is a terrifying reality for many baptized Christians. All who are baptized into the triune Name are united with Christ in His covenantal life, and so those who fall from that position of grace are indeed falling from grace. The branches that are cut away from Christ are genuinely cut away from someone, cut out of a living covenant body. The connection that an apostate had to Christ was not merely external.”

On the other hand, Reformed theology says that union with Christ is inseparable, eternal, and unbreakable.  The WLC is clear – and it is worth noting that one proof text for the term “inseparably” below is John 10:28, which also has to do with the perseverance of the saints.  Here’s WLC Q/A 66:

“The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God’s grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband, which is done in their effectual calling.”

The Heidelberg Catechism doesn’t address the “unbreakableness” of union with Christ specifically, but it is assumed and implied – especially in Q/A 76.  Notice the term “forever” below.

“To eat the crucified body and drink the shed blood of Christ…[means]…to become more and more united to his sacred body by the Holy Spirit…so that we…are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, and that we live and are governed forever by one Spirit.”

Again, the discussion is a bit broader.  But apart from sloppy equivocation, purposeful ambiguity, or outright lying, there is no way to harmonize these two positions.  Either union with Christ is inseparable or it is not.  The Federal Vision says it is not.  The Reformed Confessions say it is.  This is one of many reasons why historic Reformed churches have collectively and publicly spoken against the Federal Vision (for two examples, see the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Report on Justification and the URCNA’s Report of the Synodical Study Committee on the Federal Vision and Justification, among others).

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

Baptism is Not Faith

This is a repost from February 2010.

One of the major ways in which the Federal Vision departs from the historic Reformed/Presbyterian confessions is in their view of baptism.  They view baptism as effective instrument which unites a person to Christ.  Here are a few FV quotes to show this significant departure.

“By baptism one is joined to Christ’s body, united to Him covenantally, and given all the blessings and benefits of his work” (Summary Statement of AAPC’s Position on Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation).

“In baptism, we are transferred by the power of the Spirit, from the old Adam, and the wrath and curse of God which rested upon the old man, into the new man, which is Jesus Christ.”  “By baptism the Spirit joins us to Christ since he is the elect one and the Church is the elect people” (Steve Wilkins, “Covenant and Baptism” & “The Legacy of the Halfway Covenant”).

“All baptized persons receive, objectively, the same promised inheritance and privileges” (Rich Lusk, “Do I Believe in Baptismal Regeneration?”).

“Baptism is covenantally efficacious.  It brings every person baptized into an objective and living covenant relationship with Christ, whether the baptized person is elect or reprobate” (Douglas Wilson, “Credos: On Baptism,” #8).

Unlike the Federal Vision, the Reformed position doesn’t attribute this type of efficacy or instrumentality to baptism.  Instead, the Reformed talk about faith alone (sola fide) as an instrument:  the Heidelberg Catechism says we are grafted into Christ and receive all his benefits and our inheritance by faith alone (Q/A 20, 21, 60, 61; cf. Calvin’s Institutes, IV.15.6).  The catechism is unambiguous: the only way we can make Christ’s benefits ours is by faith alone (Q/A 61).  Baptism signifies the truth that Jesus’ blood washes away sins, but baptism’s water does not do that (Q/A 65-66, 72).

In other words, faith alone unites us to Christ and through that faith we receive all the blessings of salvation.  Baptism is an arrow (sign) that points us to Christ’s cleansing blood, and a mark/seal of the promises of salvation.  The Belgic Confession says that cleansing and regeneration are “not…effected by the external water” but by the Spirit applying Christ’s blood to the sinner’s soul through the instrument of faith, which “keeps us in communion with” Christ and all his benefits (BCF 22, 34).

Here’s the historic Reformed position articulated by Herman Bavinck.

“Faith alone apart from any sacrament communicates, and causes believers to enjoy, all the benefits of salvation…Baptism can only signify and seal the benefits that are received by faith and thereby strengthen that faith”  (Reformed Dogmatics, IV.515).

Though this is a brief intro, from the outset it is clear that these two positions are at irreconcilable odds.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

The Formula of Concord on Justification Sola Fide

 For me, one of the most debilitating aspects of moralistic theology is the way works sneak in the back door of justification.  One can see this open “back door” in the New Perspectives on Paul, the Federal Vision, and some Arminian evangelicalism.

In sharp contrast to this moralistic theology, I love this reformation statement on justification sola fide from the Formula of Concord (Solid Declaration) III (called “The Righteousness of Faith before God).

“Neither renewal, sanctification, virtues, nor good works are at all a form, part, or cause of justification, that is, our righteousness before God.  They are not to stand or be set up as a part or cause of our righteousness.  They are not to be mixed into the article of justification under any pretext, title, or name whatever, as though they are necessary and belong to justification.  The righteousness of faith stands alone in the forgiveness of sins out of pure grace, for the sake of Christ’s merit alone.  These blessings are brought to us in the gospel promise and are received, accepted, applied, and appropriated through faith alone.”

I think I’m going to memorize that.  One thing I love about the Lutheran Confessions is that they are clear – not ambiguous.  May God help us all be clear like that when it comes to the heart of the Christian faith – the work of Christ to save sinners.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Justification, Imputation, and St. Paul

  Herman Bavinck said this around 100 years ago – it has to do with justification by faith alone and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

“…It is said in Rom. 4:5 and 5:6 that God justifies the ungodly.  It is impossible…to use stronger language.  The opponents of imputed righteousness should not lodge their objection against Luther and Calvin but against Paul.”


The quote is found in Bavinck’s outstanding discussion of justification: Reformed Dogmatics IV.213.

shane lems

sunnyside, wa

Legalism: Working for God’s Favor Forfeits It

 In this excellent summary of Christian theology (which I’ve used to train younger as well as newer Christians), J. I. Packer writes the following about legalism.

“Legalism is a distortion of obedience that can never produce truly good works.  Its first fault is that it skews motive and purpose, seeing good deeds as essentially ways to earn more of God’s favor than one has at the moment.  Its second fault is arrogance.  Belief that one’s labor earns God’s favor begets contempt for those who do not labor in the same way.  Its third fault is lovelessness in that its self-advancing purpose squeezes humble kindness and creative compassion out of the heart.”

“So far, then, from enriching our relationship with God, as it seeks to do, legalism in all its forms does the opposite.  It puts that relationship in jeopardy and, by stopping us [from] focusing on Christ, it starves our souls while feeding our pride.  Legalistic religion in all its forms should be avoided like the plague.”

This quote is found on pages 175 & 177 of Concise Theology by J. I. Packer.  Right now it is selling for under $10!  I highly recommend this one for all Christians – whether young in the faith or old. 

shane lems