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.
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 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.
- bot1 said…
- Thanks for this post. Just as we need to expose the error of “Easy Believism” you have done an excellent job of exposing the other extreme “legalism” which many reformed folks seem to so subtly embrace.
- 8/20/2011 9:08 AM
- Aussie John said…
Glad to see you writing regarding this great blot on the landscape of Christ’s people.
So many of my beloved brethren have been set free from one bondage and into a greater bondage.
- 8/21/2011 5:56 PM
- Steven Coxhead said…
- Hello Terry,
Just wondering what you would say about why, according to Jer 31:33, a key part of the new covenant has to do with the law being written in the heart.
What would you say to the idea that Jesus has come, not only to make full atonement for sin, but also to write God’s law in the hearts of the elect so as to move them to obedience in order that the promised blessings of the covenant might come?
Also, do you think that the Bible denies that God ever acknowledges the righteousness of those in whom he is working righteousness through the law being written in the heart, and that any such acknowledgement is not also a form of “justification” albeit on a different semantic level from the absolute righteousness that comes through Christ?
- 8/21/2011 10:13 PM
- Terry Rayburn said...
As to why the law was written on the heart, I would say it’s to reveal the will and heart of the Lord to us.
Technically, I wouldn’t say that the *purpose* of the law written on our hearts is to move us to obedience. The Holy Spirit and our own new spirit accomplishes that when we “walk by the spirit”, but led, at least partly by the law written on our hearts.
I can’t think of any verse that would say that the promised blessings of the new covenant are conditioned on our obedience. On the contrary, I believe the New Covenant is quite unilateral as to our blessings.
In other words, we have already received “all spiritual blessings in Christ”, and future blessings (ultimate salvation, glorification, heaven) are nowhere conditioned on our obedience.
As to your third-paragraph question, I’m not sure what Scriptural passage you might have in mind.
“Justified”, in its plain meaning can be “declared or made righteous”, which is the normative meaning of what we call “justified by faith”.
It can also mean something like “shown to be righteous”, which is the demonstration of righteousness.
The former meaning is the important one regarding soteriology, because too many verses make it CRYSTAL clear that our works, obedience, or any performance has NOTHING to do with our salvation.
Still the Lord works in us “both to will and to do for His good pleasure”, but that is not the cause in any sense of our getting or keeping our salvation.
- 8/21/2011 11:15 PM
- Steven Coxhead said…
- Thanks, Terry.
In relation to my previous third paragraph, I have verses like “Well done, good and faithful servant” and Matt 25:34-36 in mind.
The Bible speaks about God commending believers on the day of judgment for the obedience that he has worked in us. Is that positive judgment on the day of judgment also not a form of justification in the sense that it is a judicial declaration that is the opposite of condemnation? If so, then it seems to be a kind of justification by works.
I ask this question because some of the Reformers like Calvin had a concept of double justification in their system. That is to say, justification through receiving the righteousness of Christ is by faith alone, but having been justified on that level God’s Spirit then works obedience in us such that there is also a justification on the level of works in a subordinate way.
- 8/23/2011 2:16 AM
Terry Rayburn said…
I try to steer clear of debating Calvin but I think he (as MANY others do today) went too far in his “double justification”.
He even once wrote, “No one can embrace the grace of the gospel, but he must depart from the error of his former life [ALL error?], enter into the right way [totally?], and devote all his attention [all?] to the exercise of repentence [for an instant? a day? a lifetime?].”
My bracketed insertions reflect the absurdity of the concept.
A few points, then:
1. This is an area where it’s extremely important to put on our sola scriptura hats. While we never want to ignore other Christian thinkers past and present, fine-tuning a doctrine like this calls for going straight back to the Source.
2. My “street” Bible Interpretation General Theory includes these two ideas:
a. “Progressive revelation” calls for all Scriptures to be examined in the light of the latest new covenant scriptures [rightly divided is a given] before coming to final conclusions.
b. The simplest plainest verses must take precedent over the more mysterious obscure verses.
I believe in the general perspecuity (clarity) of Scripture, but one would have to be nutty to think it’s all equally clear and understandable.
3. Even Calvin agreed that one’s obedience to the Lord was the fruit or result of their new birth.
Moreover, he agreed that basic justification (being legally declared righteous by God through the gift of His own righteousness) was the immediate result of faith alone in Jesus Christ (such faith technically being in turn the result of regeneration).
So far, so biblical.
4. Though there is a mysterious element of SEEMING to indicate a second “justification” (in the verses you cited, and some others) I can only refer those mysterious or somewhat obscure verses to VERY plain ones.
Indeed they are SO plain that they would truly have to be twisted to not mean what they clearly mean to entertain any idea of a “second justification”.
Examples of these plain verses should start with Ephesians 2:8,9 – “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; NOT AS A RESULT OF WORKS, so that no one may boast.”
5. The problem with the “salvation partly though obedience” idea is that we believers remain so darned disobedient at times. Which leads one to QUANTIFY obedience on some kind of scale, but the scale is TOTALLY abritrary.
Yet I sure don’t subscribe to the Zane Hodges theory that one can be saved, born again, yet theoretically not exhibit ANY fruit or obedience in their lives. His arguments approach silliness when regarding a “new creation” with the Holy Spirit indwelling him or her.
But I would maintain that such fruit or obedience has literally NOTHING to do with salvation, which is by grace through faith alone, NOT of works.
Scripture goes even further to say that if works are added to grace, it’s not even grace!
“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” – Romans 11:6
6. Finally, one might say, “Well, the second ‘justification’ isn’t in regard to actual salvation, just to some divine pat on the back from the Lord, or some kind of reward.”
Maybe, but then I think the word “justification” is an atrocious choice of word, leading only to confusion and neo-legalism of the sort that my article above deals with.
Better to call it “pat on the back” or as common lingo has it, “final reward”
Thanks so much, Steven, for the interaction.