This review of The Call of Grace was first published in the Mid-America Journal of Theology
Volume 13, 2002, pp. 232-248 © Cornelis P. Venema, Professor of Doctrinal Studies
In this popular presentation of his views, Norman Shepherd makes a case for an approach to salvation and evangelism that is shaped by the biblical doctrine of the covenant. Due to the importance of the subject and the controversial nature of Shepherd’s reformulation of the Reformed view of the covenant, this study will be of particular interest to the Reformed community. Shepherd, who taught systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary from 1963-82, attempts to make his case for a covenant view that resolves some troublesome and unresolved problems of more traditional formulations. Since his covenant view was the occasion of a controversy that led to Shepherd’s dismissal from the faculty at Westminster in 1982, this volume, which basically restates the position Shepherd was advocating already in the 1970s, merits special attention and careful evaluation.
The study is divided into two major parts. Part 1, “Covenant Light on the Way of Salvation,” addresses the question of the nature of the covenant and the way it opens up a helpful view of the long-standing problem of the relation between “faith and works, or grace and merit” (p. viii). The material in this part of Shepherd’s study was originally delivered as the Robinson Lectures at Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West, South Carolina, in 1999. Part 2, “Covenant Light on Evangelism,” considers the significance of a biblical view of the covenant for a biblical and Reformed approach to evangelism. The material in this part is a revised form of lectures originally presented at a conference in 1975 and subsequently published in The New Testament Student and Theology (ed. John H. Skilton [Presbyterian & Reformed, 1976]).
If it is often true that the way a question is posed has much to do with the answer provided, this is particularly true for the way Shepherd poses the question he aims to address in the first part of his study. After noting that we live in a period of history that presents a special challenge “to maintain a clear testimony against unbelief, immorality, and social disintegration” (p. 3), Shepherd suggests that this challenge is aggravated by a long-standing and unresolved problem stemming from the time of the Reformation. Though Reformed believers may be profoundly grateful for Luther and the Reformers’ emphasis upon the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, they have nonetheless inherited from the Reformation some “unresolved questions.” Recent debates within the evangelical community regarding such matters as “lordship salvation” (does salvation include acknowledging Christ as Lord as well as Savior?) and “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” illustrate that the problems of antinomianism and legalism have not found satisfactory resolution. Whereas some Protestants emphasize justification through faith alone and thereby diminish the gospel call to repentance (for fear of legalism), others, as in the Roman Catholic tradition, emphasize the necessity of good works and thereby introduce a new legalism. This continuing problem of antinomianism or legalism is the “legacy of the Reformation on the downside” (p. 8), according to Shepherd. It raises the question that only the biblical doctrine of covenant satisfactorily answers — “how do you preach grace without being antinomian? … [H]ow do you preach repentance without calling into question salvation by grace apart from works?” (pp. 8-9)
In the first part of his study, Shepherd surveys the biblical accounts of the covenant of grace in its distinct Abrahamic, Mosaic and New Covenant administrations. According to Shepherd, all forms of God’s covenant with human beings, whether before or after the fall, involve “a divinely established relationship of union and communion between God and his people in the bonds of mutual love and faithfulness” (p. 12). Though this covenant relationship is founded upon and initiated by God’s grace, the promises of God’s grace toward his people are always accompanied by obligations or demands. Thus, promise and demand are two, closely related components or parts of any covenant between God and his people.
Consistent with this general understanding of the covenant relationship, Shepherd argues that it is incorrect to identify the covenant with Abraham as an “unconditional” covenant. Those who view the Abrahamic covenant, for example, as a “model for the method of gospel grace,” contrasting it with the Mosaic covenant as a “legalistic covenant, in which you are saved by keeping [the] republished covenant of works perfectly” (p. 14), misunderstand both the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. No less than the Mosaic covenant, the Abrahamic is conditional upon its distinctive requirements. Among the conditions of the Abrahamic covenant, Shepherd identifies the following: the requirement of circumcision, the obligation of faith, the crediting of Abraham’s “living and obedient faith” as righteousness, and the command to walk before the Lord and to be blameless. These conditions or obligations of the Abrahamic covenant, moreover, are clearly demonstrated in two ways: first, due to Israel’s unbelief and disobedience, she failed to receive all that the covenant promised; and second, only through the “covenantal righteousness of Jesus Christ” were the promises of the covenant fulfilled. Jesus Christ fulfilled the covenant obligations by means of his “living, active and obedient faith that took him all the way to the cross” (p. 19). The faith (or better, faithfulness) of Christ was, Shepherd maintains, “credited to him as righteousness” and becomes thereby the “guarantee” of blessing for “his followers” who are obligated to “be faithful in order to inherit the blessing” (p. 19; Shepherd’s emphasis). Shepherd summarizes what we may learn from the Abrahamic covenant as follows: “In the Abrahamic covenant, there are promises and obligations. The blessings of the covenant are the gifts of God’s free grace, and they are received by way of a living and active faith. Salvation is by grace through faith. By grace and through faith! Those are the two parts of the covenant” (p. 22).
A pivotal leg in Shepherd’s argument and reformulation of the doctrine of the covenant is provided in his exposition of the Mosaic covenant. In Shepherd’s view, this covenant conforms in its essential parts to the same pattern exhibited in the Abrahamic covenant: God’s grace and promise establish the covenant relationship, but the promises are only enjoyed in the way of covenant faithfulness or obedience to the covenant’s obligations. However, in the history of Reformed covenant theology, the Mosaic covenant has often been misinterpreted as a covenant of works that republishes the pre-fall covenant with humankind in Adam. Citing Charles Hodge as an example of this interpretation, Shepherd identifies the “basic principle” operative in this covenant view as a “works/merit” principle. The Mosaic covenant is regarded as a legal one, which requires perfect obedience to its demands and, upon the condition of such obedience, promises blessing as its merited reward. Just as God promised Adam life upon condition of perfect obedience, the Mosaic covenant, though it functions within the broader framework of the covenant of grace formally established with Abraham, has a legal cast. In this understanding, the Mosaic covenant promises its merited reward “as a matter of simple justice” (p. 26).
The burden of Shepherd’s treatment of the Mosaic covenant is to demonstrate that it follows the same pattern evident in the Abrahamic covenant. Though he does not explicitly reject the whole concept of a pre-fall covenant of works, Shepherd’s argument shows that he regards the concept as a fundamental misstatement of the covenant relationship. The obedience required in the Mosaic covenant is “not the obedience of merit, but the obedience of faith. It is the fullness of faith. Obedience is simply faithfulness to the Lord; it is the righteousness of faith (compare Rom. 9:32)” (p. 39). In his fatherly love and covenantal favor, the Lord graciously covenants with Moses and the children of Israel. This covenant relationship is not merited, nor does its continuance depend upon meritorious good works. However, even as Abraham was obliged to live obediently before the Lord, so Moses and the children of Israel were obliged to keep his commandments. Thus, when the apostle Paul in Romans 10:5-6 and Galatians 3:12 speaks of the law in contrast to faith, he is using an ad hominem argument against the Judaizers in their misuse of the Mosaic covenant. When the law says, for example, that those who do what the law requires will live (compare Lev. 18:5), it is not enunciating a works/merit principle, as the Judaizers claimed, but the covenantal principle of enjoying the blessings of God’s favor in the way of faithfulness. Neither the Abrahamic nor the Mosaic covenants ever contrasts as opposing principles grace and merit, or faith and works. “In both covenants,” says Shepherd, “thee are promises, and these promises are received by a living and active faith” (p. 40).
The remainder of the first part of Shepherd’s study outlines the distinctive features of the new covenant in Christ, by comparison to the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, and draws conclusions for the problems of antinomianism and legalism. Consistent with his main thesis regarding the covenant, Shepherd insists that the new covenant consists of two parts, promises of grace and obligations. The grace of God in Jesus Christ places believers under the obligations of faith and repentance. Believers “must become obedient, as he [Christ] was obedient” (p. 48). Furthermore, believers who believe and repent are obligated to persevere in doing the will of God. This is the only way whereby they will receive “what has been promised as a gift of sovereign grace” (p. 49). Failure to meet these covenant conditions can only result, as was the case under the covenant in its previous administrations, in coming under the curse and judgment of God. Though the conditions of the covenant are not “meritorious conditions,” it remains the case that only a “living, active, and abiding faith is the way in which the believer enters into eternal life” (p. 50).
However, Shepherd also notes significant differences between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant in Christ. The Mosaic covenant has been abrogated in several respects. The elaborate rituals for temple worship are no longer binding. The sacrifices of the old covenant, which typified the sacrifice of Christ for the sins of his people, are no longer needed. Furthermore, the observance of the Mosaic law cannot save any one. Shepherd argues that this is not due to the inability of anyone to “keep the law perfectly as a covenant of works. Rather, observing the law cannot save a person because the Mosaic system is no longer operative” (p. 56). Despite these differences between the old and new covenants, and despite these senses in which the new abrogates the old, all of the covenants, according to Shepherd, are “revelations of salvation by grace through faith” (p. 57). What is new in the new covenant is “not the principle of grace, but the person and work of Jesus Christ” who enables his people “to become the covenant keepers that God intended [them] to be from the beginning” (p. 57).
Shepherd concludes the first part of his study by returning to what he terms the unresolved legacy of the Reformation. The solution to the twin errors of antinomianism and legalism, as well perhaps as the divide between the Reformation and Catholicism, lies in a wholesale rejection of the idea of merit. Both Reformed and Catholic views of salvation have historically allowed the idea of merit to pervert the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. Roman Catholics, on the hand, teach that the believer who cooperates with God’s grace can merit further grace. However, Protestants, who repudiate the idea of the meritorious good works of believers, still retain the idea of merit in connection with the saving work of Christ. Christ alone, by way of his perfect obedience to the law (active and passive), obtains or merits eternal life for his people. This Protestant understanding of merit has the unfortunate consequence, according to Shepherd, of encouraging the idea that an emphasis upon sanctification or the necessity of good works represents “a threat to salvation by grace” (p. 62). Once the whole notion of works (whether Christ’s or the believer’s) meriting salvation is repudiated, however, we can stress the conditional character of the covenant. The blessings of salvation are granted by God’s grace by way of the covenantal obligations of faith, repentance and obedience. A covenantal understanding of the gospel, accordingly, solves the problem of traditional Protestantism’s embarrassment with passages like Galatians 5:6 and James 2:24.
In the second part of his study, Shepherd offers a solution to the problem of a Reformed approach to evangelism. What we need, he argues, is a “covenant-evangelism” approach rather than an “election-evangelism” or “regeneration-evangelism” approach. Because Reformed people have typically approached the subject of evangelism from the perspective of divine election, they have often faced crippling practical obstacles to an effective and rigorous approach to evangelizing the lost. Since the doctrine of election emphasizes the particularity of God’s love and grace, the pastor is faced with the insoluble difficulty of knowing to whom the good news is addressed. If lost sinners are approached as a mixed company of elect and non-elect sinners, only some of who are graciously addressed in the gospel, then how can a pastor confidently extend the gospel’s promise to all? In addition to this difficulty, the Reformed pastor is also uncomfortable with the gospel’s demands of repentance and obedience. Too much emphasis upon what the gospel requires will lead, he fears, to a new legalism or undermine the gospel of grace alone. And, if these practical difficulties were not enough, the Reformed pastor is also shackled by the problem of the assurance of salvation. If we do not know who are elect and non-elect, how can we obtain any real certainty regarding God’s electing grace toward us in Christ?
Shepherd presents his case for a covenant-evangelism approach in three stages. In the first stage of his argument, he begins with an exposition of the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28. In the second stage he turns to the subject of the relation between covenant and election And in the third stage he concludes with a chapter on the subject of covenant and regeneration. The heart of this second part of his study is his insistence that we approach sinners in terms of the doctrine of the covenant, rather than in terms of the doctrine of election.
After showing that the Great Commission is thoroughly covenantal in its nature and assumptions (fulfilling the promise to Abraham, calling all to meet the covenant conditions of faith and obedience, administered by means of Word and sacrament), Shepherd seeks to illustrate how the covenant solves some of the long-standing problems of Reformed evangelism. Rather than approaching people in the “third-person” (“God saves the elect by grace alone, though we do not know whether you or I are elect”), the pastor who speaks covenantally is able to extend the gospel promise without embarassment to all covenant breakers in Adam. Just as the prophets and apostles viewed election from the perspective of covenant, so should the gospel preacher (p. 83). This enables the pastor to address people, not “as a mixed multitude of elect and reprobate, with a view toward separating them,” but as a company of lost sinners to whom he opens up the promise of “covenant life in union and communion with God” (p. 84). Viewed covenantally, the gospel may be addressed “to everyone on the basis of John 3:16, ‘Christ died to save you’” (pp. 84-85). The covenantal gospel, furthermore, grants assurance by focussing upon the covenant promise rather than upon the inscrutable, secret things of God’s decree. It allows the preacher, at the same time, the freedom to stress the covenant’s obligations without fear of legalism, since the promise is always realized in the way of covenant faithfulness. The categories, in this kind of an approach, are no longer elect or non-elect persons. The only kinds of persons with which the pastor deals are covenant keepers and covenant breakers.
According to Shepherd, this covenant approach helps to explain the language of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 1. It also helps to explain why baptism, not regeneration, is “the moment when we see the transition from death to life and a person is saved” (p. 94). When Paul speaks of believers as elect in Christ in Ephesians, he is not speaking in terms of God’s eternal decree of election. Rather, he is speaking of the covenantal status of believers (and their children) in Ephesus, some of whom may prove to be non-elect should they fail to persevere in faith. Contrary to an approach that focuses upon regeneration, which inevitably leads to the practice of dividing the covenant community into two classes, the regenerate and the non-regenerate (who can ultimately be known only to God), covenant evangelism deals with sinners in terms of the covenant and its administration. Because baptism signifies and seals visibly the believer’s fellowship and incorporation into Christ, it must serve as the point of departure for determining whether a person is elect in Christ.
Shepherd is convinced that this kind of covenant-evangelism approach will have a liberating and enlivening effect in Reformed churches. If a Reformed pastor, he claims, consciously orients his evangelistic methodology to the doctrine of the covenant rather than election, “he can and ought to expect permanent vitality in the steady expansion of the church of Christ” (p. 82).
I have taken the trouble to provide this brief sketch or overview of Shepherd’s argument in order to provide a basis for the following evaluation. Though Shepherd’s study is relatively brief and written in an easy-to-read style, it constitutes, as I indicated at the outset, a rather substantial reformulation of Reformed covenant theology. Since the implications of his reformulation are far-reaching and possibly destructive of a consensus within the Reformed churches today, my evaluation will be somewhat more comprehensive than is ordinarily the case in a book review.
Shepherd’s study has several evident strengths. The book is clearly written and makes a good case for recognizing the unity of the covenant of grace in its various historical administrations. Shepherd’s general description of the covenant as a divinely-initiated relationship of union and communion between God and his people is unobjectionable and fairly traditional. In his brief survey of the administration of the covenant of grace in its Abrahamic, Mosaic and New Testament forms, Shepherd properly insists upon the mutuality and conditionality of the covenant relationship. When the Lord enters into a communion or covenant with his people, this covenant stipulates or obligates its members to live together in the bonds of mutual fidelity and love. There are, accordingly, senses in which the covenant of grace is both unconditional in its initiation and conditional in its administration. In his treatment of the Mosaic covenant, Shepherd rightly opposes any view that would interpret it exclusively as a kind of “covenant of law,” neglecting thereby to recognize the priority of God’s grace and promise in this administration of the covenant as well as others. Whatever the peculiar features of the Mosaic covenant, Shepherd correctly maintains its continuity with the formal establishment of the covenant with Abraham and its subsequent fulfillment in Christ.
Since the covenant, according to Shepherd, invariably includes the elements of God’s gracious promises, stipulations of obedience, and sanctions for disobedience or unfaithfulness, it provides a framework for understanding how God’s sovereign grace does not diminish but undergirds human responsibility. When the doctrine of salvation is viewed exclusively in terms of God’s sovereign and unconditional electing grace, and not in terms of the covenant in history, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to accommodate the Scriptural emphasis upon human responsibility in the context of gracious privilege. In this way the error of antinomianism can be resisted, since the privileges of God’s gracious covenant serve not to diminish but rather to establish the responsibilities of the covenant relationship. Shepherd effectively makes these points throughout his study.
In his treatment of the relation between covenant and evangelism, Shepherd also offers a number of helpful observations regarding the benefits of a covenantal approach. In his exposition of the Great Commission, he rightly observes that it can only be understand against the background of God’s promise to Abraham. The promise of blessing for all the families of the earth is now being fulfilled through the discipling of the nations. This promise of blessing and salvation, moreover, does not aim simply to save sinners from condemnation and death. Rather, it aims to gather the nations in order that God’s kingdom come, and that the peoples serve the Lord in truth and faithfulness. Evangelism, therefore, is not merely a matter of “snatching a few brands from the burning,” but includes the goal of preaching the gospel of the kingdom to the ends of the earth. On the basis of this covenantal emphasis, Shepherd also resists the temptation to draw an inappropriate line between the nurture of covenant members and the evangelistic seeking out of non-covenant members in order to bring them into the fellowship of the church. The same covenantal gospel is preached to all, and it is preached with the same goal in view.
Perhaps the primary emphasis of Shepherd’s advocacy of a covenant-evangelism approach is that the gospel preacher should not approach sinners from the perspective of God’s decree of election and reprobation. When this is the case, and the primary focus of interest is upon the regeneration (or non-regeneration) of covenant members, insoluble problems arise for the evangelistic task of the church. Since no one knows precisely who is elect and who is non-elect, the gospel promise may not be generally extended to all recipients of the gospel (for fear that non-elect persons be improperly addressed). Furthermore, since no one knows the “secret things” of God’s electing or non-electing counsel, the gospel may not be communicated in a way that assures its recipients of God’s promise and faithfulness. Anxiety about the assurance of salvation often follows and believers become preoccupied with looking for evidences of regeneration, which then become the basis for a confidence about one’s salvation. Because the electing grace of God in Christ is unconditional, evangelism that is oriented to the decree of election also suffers, according to Shepherd, from an inordinate fear of emphasizing the gospel’s conditions of faith and obedience. However, when we approach people in terms of the covenant with its promises and obligations, we can simultaneously herald the good news of God’s grace in Christ and the corresponding summons to new obedience. Shepherd’s main point regarding covenant evangelism, therefore, is the helpful reminder that we should approach lost sinners with the gospel of God’s covenant grace in Christ, making judgments respecting people in terms of the covenant’s administration (through Word and sacrament) rather than curiously inquiring into the secret things of God.
Despite these evident strengths of Shepherd’s study, there are also a number of deeply troublesome features to his book that I do not believe can be ignored or minimized. Since a full discussion of each of these features would extend this review beyond its proper limits, I will restrict myself to a series of critical observations, each of which could undoubtedly be developed at much greater length.
First, we have noted that Shepherd’s study is presented as a helpful resolution of some allegedly “unresolved questions that are really the legacy of the Protestant Reformation” (p. 4). Chief among these problems is a failure to relate properly faith and works, a failure that is especially evident in the unresolved questions of antinomianism and legalism. Shepherd presents his study, accordingly, as something of a creative contribution to problems inherent in the traditional formulations of Reformed theology going as far back as the sixteenth century. By any standard, this is a rather tall order and daunting task. It is rather perplexing, therefore, to read Shepherd’s study and discover that he cites almost no authors in the course of his study. On one occasion he quotes an unnamed and unreferenced source (p. 13). On another occasion he quotes Charles Hodge on the subject of the covenant of works to illustrate what is wrong with some of the traditional formulations of Reformed theology (p. 25). The historic confessions of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches likewise receive little or no attention. Perhaps these omissions may be excused by noting that Shepherd’s study is a published version of occasional addresses, and that he makes no claim to offer a complete or systematic presentation of his views. However true such points may be, Shepherd’s bold claims for the advantages of his formulations, as contrasted with (unnamed and unidentified) formulators of traditional Reformed theology, would seem to place a greater burden of proof upon his shoulders. That burden includes, minimally, a significant amount of interaction with the exegetical, confessional and theological tradition known as “Reformed.” Readers of this little volume, however, will find such interaction notably lacking.
Second, in making a case for the unity of the covenant of grace throughout the history of its various administrations, Shepherd treats the covenant relationship between God and his people as largely identical at every point, including its administration before and after the fall into sin. In all of God’s dealings with human beings, whether before or after the historic fall into sin, the covenant relationship consists of a graciously established bond of union and communion between God and his people. This covenant relationship is born of God’s free grace, stipulates faith and obedience, and threatens with sanctions those who fail to fulfill its obligations.
This flattening out or virtual identifying of the pre- and post-fall covenants has unavoidable and mischievous implications for our understanding of the way of salvation. For example, one implication of Shepherd’s argument is that the way of salvation, whether for Adam or Christ or any believer, is always one and the same — the way of covenant-keeping faithfulness. Thus, one of the ironies of his formulation of the covenant at this point is that, though Shepherd introduces grace into the covenant relationship before the fall into sin in a way that parallels the priority of grace in the post-fall covenant, he also treats the stipulation of obedience for believers in the covenant of grace as though it were merely a reiteration of the pre-fall obligation of obedience. Salvation is by grace through faith(fulness), before as well as after the fall. God’s promise secures or guarantees the believer’s covenant inheritance. However, that inheritance can only be received by way of the believer’s covenant keeping (p. 19).
Third, though this flattening of the covenant relationship throughout the course of history, before and after the fall, may have a superficial appeal, it has huge implications for the way we interpret the respective “work” of Adam and Christ, the second Adam. Shepherd makes clear that he rejects the traditional Reformed doctrine of a pre-lapsarian “covenant of works” that promised Adam life “upon condition of perfect obedience” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. VII.ii). To say that Adam’s acceptance before God justly demanded his performance of an obligation of obedience, is, Shepherd argues, tantamount to treating the covenant relationship as though it were a contractual one, on analogy of an employer to an employee, rather than a familial one, on analogy of a father to a son (p. 39). We should recognize that God always treats human beings on the basis of his sovereign grace and promise. Just as children never “merit” their father’s favor by their good works, so human beings never “merit” God’s favor by their obedience to the covenant’s obligations. However, life in covenant with God, though not “merited,” is nonetheless obtained only by way of the obedience of faith. This means that what God required of Adam, he requires of Abraham and all believers, including Christ.
Lest this interpretation of Shepherd’s view be regarded as a misreading of his position, it should be noted that Shepherd explicitly draws a parallel between what God obliges Abraham, Christ, and all believers to do as a necessary condition for their salvation. In his description of Christ’s saving work, Shepherd uses the same language that he earlier used to describe Abraham’s faith: “His [Christ’s] was a living, active, and obedient faith that took him all the way to the cross. This faith was credited to him as righteousness” (p. 19, emphasis mine). By this language Shepherd treats Christ as though he were little more than a model believer whose obedient faith constituted the ground for his acceptance with God in the same way that Abraham’s (and any believer’s) obedient faith constituted the basis for his acceptance with God. In his zeal to identify the covenant relationship between God and man in its pre- and post-fall administrations, Shepherd leaves little room to describe Christ’s work as Mediator of the covenant in a way that honors the uniqueness, perfection and sufficiency of Christ’s accomplishment for the salvation of his people.
Fourth, these features of Shepherd’s reformulation of the doctrine of the covenant raise questions regarding his understanding of the doctrine of justification. Though Shepherd studiously avoids any explicit formulation of the doctrine of justification in this study, the trajectory of his position clearly points in the direction of a revision of the historic Reformation position. Just as Adam was obliged to meet the conditions of the covenant that God graciously established with him, so believers are obliged to meet the conditions of the covenant of grace in order to inherit eternal life. Just as Christ was obliged to live in covenantal loyalty and faithfulness to God, Shepherd maintains, “so his followers must be faithful in order to inherit the blessing” (p. 19). As we have noted, Shepherd is even willing to speak of Christ’s obedient faith being “credited to him as righteousness” in a manner parallel to the way Abraham’s (and every believer’s) obedient faith is credited to him for righteousness.
But this kind of parallel between Christ’s faith and ours would mean that the believer’s inheritance in the covenant of grace finally depends upon his following Christ’s example. Salvation and blessing are the (non-meritorious, though earned?) reward of the covenant for those who keep the covenant’s conditions and stipulations. Missing from Shepherd’s discussion at this juncture are several key features of the historic Reformed view of salvation. Shepherd does not make it clear, for example, that the believer can only obtain eternal life upon the basis of the perfect obedience, satisfaction and righteousness of Christ alone received by faith alone (compare the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 23 & 24). Nor does he make it clear (indeed, on page 62 he seems to deny it) that the believer’s imperfect obedience, which Christ by his Spirit graciously works in him, adds nothing to the work of Christ in respect to his standing before God and right to eternal life. Rather, Shepherd argues that the traditional Reformed view, which insists that the (sinfully imperfect) good works of believers provide no basis for their acceptance before God, fails to do justice to the genuine obedience of believers (p. 62). By this argument he fails to appreciate the classic Reformed conviction that Christ’s work as Mediator of the covenant of grace constitutes the only ground for the believer’s justification (and sanctification!) before God.
Fifth, the ambiguity in Shepherd’s formulations (the reader will look in vain in this book for a clear, express statement of the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone) is undoubtedly related to his antipathy for the idea of merit. For Shepherd the biggest obstacle to a resolution of the differences between Reformed and Roman Catholic views of salvation is the employment of the language of merit. In Roman Catholicism the believer’s works are said to “merit” further grace and salvation. According to Shepherd, this undermines the truth of God’s gracious initiative in the covenant of grace and misunderstands the way God rewards the obedient faith of his covenant people. Though obedient faith is necessary in order for the believer to inherit the covenant’s blessings, this obedience is prompted and enabled by God’s grace in Christ. However, Reformed theology has also, according to Shepherd, wrongly employed the idea of “merit” in its doctrine of salvation. In the traditional Reformed view, Christ’s active and passive obedience are represented as the just basis for the believer’s acceptance by God. Because Christ fulfilled the obligations of perfect obedience on behalf of his people, their justification and inheritance of eternal life are justly “merited” by the work of Christ. Shepherd insists, however, that we need to eliminate every idea of merit from our understanding of salvation. Only then will we be in a position to acknowledge the indispensable role of non-meritorious works as an instrumental means for the believer’s obtaining of his inheritance.
The problem with Shepherd’s wholesale repudiation of the idea of “merit” in our understanding of salvation, however, is that it has detrimental implications for other aspects of the traditional Reformed view of salvation. As we have already noted, it requires a thorough revision of the classic Reformed view of the covenant of works. However, it also would seem to require a revision of the classic Reformed view of Christ’s saving work as Mediator of the covenant of grace. The Reformed confessions describe the work of Christ as a remedy for fallen sinners in Adam. The only kind of Mediator who can save covenant-breakers in Adam is One who fulfills all the obligations and liabilities of the law on behalf of his people, and thereby obtains and “merits” for them eternal life. Christ’s obedience is understood in terms of God’s truth and justice, as a satisfaction of God’s justice and a maintenance of the truth of his Word (“in the day you eat you shall surely die …”). Christ’s perfect obedience, satisfaction and righteousness are regarded as the sole and sufficient ground for restoring fallen sinners to full communion with God. Moreover, the Reformed confessions, when they speak of the believer’s works and necessary obedience, make clear that the believer’s sanctification, as much as his justification, is a gracious working of Christ by his Spirit. The whole of salvation and every covenant blessing is graciously and justly procured for believers through the perfect mediation of Jesus Christ.
Shepherd fails to show how this traditional Reformed view of Christ’s saving work, which requires the elements of Christ’s merit and satisfaction of the demands of God’s justice revealed in his law, represents a significant problem. Specifically, he fails to demonstrate how this view undermines the necessity or genuineness of a believer’s good works. To say that Christ’s work “merits” for believers their inheritance in the covenant is only to say that his covenant faithfulness (and substitutionary endurance of the covenant’s sanction) is the exclusive ground for this inheritance. But this in no way compromises the obvious truth, which classic Reformed theology also emphasized, that believers are obligated by God’s grace to walk worthily of the gospel. The Reformed use of the language of “merit” in respect to the work of Christ was always employed to magnify the perfection of Christ’s work in satisfying for the sins of his people. Unlike Shepherd, who seems to think grace and justice, fatherly mercy and judicial satisfaction, are at odds, the Reformed view always insisted upon and assumed their harmony. The covenant is an expression of God’s fatherly favor, to be sure. But it is also a relationship that God justly administers.
And sixth, though Shepherd offers some helpful observations in his apology for covenant evangelism, his treatment of the relation between covenant and election also raises some troubling questions. To put it somewhat simplistically, Shepherd seems to want to view election exclusively through the lens of the covenant of grace in its historical administration. Since we cannot know the “secret things” of God’s eternal decree, we should preach the gospel solely in terms of the promises, obligations and sanctions of the covenant of grace. In this approach, we should regard all baptized members of the covenant as “elect in Christ.” However, this election, which Shepherd maintains can be directly known through the promise signified and sealed in baptism, may be lost, should the baptized person fail to persevere in the way of obedient faith. Shepherd rejects traditional distinctions that Reformed theologians have used to distinguish between the covenant of grace in its administration and the particular election of some, though not all, covenant members. If we say that some members of the covenant of grace in its administration are non-elect, then we imperil the assurance of salvation by raising doubts as to the truth of God’s covenant promise.
Remarkably, because Shepherd is unwilling to distinguish between those with whom God covenants in a broader sense (covenant in its administration) and those with whom God covenants in a narrower sense (covenant in its fruition), he ends up with what sounds suspiciously like a conditional election doctrine. Covenant members are elect in Christ so long as they persevere in faithfulness. However, should they become unfaithful, they may become subject to covenant discipline and lose their election. But this is not the end of the mischief that his approach creates for our understanding of the doctrine of election. For example, Shepherd maintains that the Reformed preacher is authorized by the doctrine of the covenant to address all with the message that Christ died for them, even though some so addressed may choose not to believe and obey the gospel (p. 85). Does this mean that persons for whom Christ died, because they fail to persevere in the way of obedient faith, do not receive the covenant’s blessings? In Shepherd’s formulation of the covenant’s significance for our understanding of election, notes such as these are sounded that can hardly be harmonized with those found in the Canons of Dort, a classic expression of the Reformed faith. For Shepherd, election, covenantally viewed, is corporate and conditional. Perseverance in the way of obedient faith determines whether baptized persons are elect or not, even though God may have earlier declared them elect. Christ’s atoning death is preached as a death for all sinners whom the gospel addresses. What Warfield called the main point of Calvinism, the irresistible working of God’s Spirit in the regeneration of lost sinners, is said to be little or no part of what evangelists should emphasize in their preaching.
(It should also be noted that there is an interesting irony to Shepherd’s reformulation of the relation between election and covenant. Because he wants to view election strictly from the vantage point of the covenant in its historical administration, Shepherd is unable to fulfill his own promise that this approach enhances the believer’s assurance of election. He has no answer for the question: if I can lose my election through covenant unfaithfulness, then why is the promise of my election in baptism so reassuring? Furthermore, by calling into question the way the apostle Paul speaks in Romans 9 [not all covenant members are “children of the promise” in the same sense, since God, according to his “purpose of election” chooses to save one and not the other], Shepherd cannot but leave the impression that the believer’s election, perseverance, and inheritance of eternal life depend upon his faithful performance of the covenant’s obligations.)
Each of these problems in Shepherd’s study deserves further elaboration. They illustrate, however, that there are substantial problems in his reformulations of the Reformed view of salvation, and of covenant and election. Readers of this book need to be aware of these problems and resist the temptation to endorse unwittingly formulations whose implications raise more serious problems than those allegedly inherent in more traditional views.
The solution, for example, to the supposed problem of faith and works is not to confuse justification and sanctification, or to stress the believer’s obligations of obedience as indispensable to the inheritance of blessing. Rather, the solution lies in a careful presentation of the riches of God’s grace toward us in the Person of our Mediator. Christ, as Calvin often remarked, is given to us by God for righteousness and sanctification. In Christ, and in Christ alone, God provides every spiritual or covenantal blessing, whether it be the blessing of acceptance with him, on account of the righteousness of Christ, or the blessing of renewal in holiness, on account of the Spirit of Christ at work in us. The legacy of the Reformation is not an unresolved problem of antinomianism or legalism. The legacy of the Reformation is, rather, nicely put in Q. & A. 86 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Since, then, we are delivered from our misery by grace alone, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we yet do good works? Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image ….” The “call of grace,” according to this legacy, is itself enveloped within the “gift of grace.”