We concluded our ACT 3 Biblical Forum today in Carol Stream. It was a wonderful time for many of us to sit under the teaching of Norman Shepherd. Rev. Shepherd, for those who do not know him at all, was a professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and in the late 1970s came under fire for teaching that the faith by which we are brought into union with Christ in salvation, i.e., the faith that brings justification in the present and at the final judgment, is vital, living, penitent, obeying faith. Shepherd also challenged two other ideas that are held by some Reformed thinkers, though surely not all by a long shot. First, he believes that the is no "covenant of works" made with Adam in the creation by which Adam could have merited his salvation if he had obeyed God. Second, Shepherd believes that we are imputed the righteousness of Christ as forgiveness and pardon but we are not imputed his active obedience, which is an idea that follows the "covenant of works" notion. This second idea says that we are saved by the merit of Christ’s active obedience given to us thus we are, as odd as it sounds at first, truly saved by works, the works of Christ done in our place. Shepherd believes, as I do, that what is imputed to us is not merit at all. We are not saved by merit and this notion is not a biblical one at all. It comes from the period before the Reformation and came to prominence, especially in Holland, after the death of the earliest Reformers as Reformed theology became more and more scholastic.

Several very small and conservative Reformed denominations have drafted statements calling Rev. Shepherd’s teaching heresy. As I listened to Norm teach this weekend, and then heard him answer question after question faithfully, I was struck once again at how clearly biblical his theology of salvation is. It is so easy to put a label on someone’s ideas and then refuse to actually hear them and really deal with what they teach. By this kind of attack on Shepherd many wonderful people in the churches are confused and do not understand what is actually being taught in many cases. A DVD set, as well as an MP3 audio CD, will be available of this wonderful three-day event in a few weeks. If you would like to hear a master teacher explain the teaching of the Word of God on justification and true faith I encourage you to listen to this biblical series. It was the most concise, consistent and well-laid out explanation of Norman Shepherd’s teaching, by Norman Shepherd and not his critics, that he has ever given in one place.

There is room to disagree with Shepherd on several ideas but one thing became increasingly clear to me this week: Norman Shepherd is no heretic. And he is most definitely not teaching that we are justified by our own human works. He is a faithful and clear biblical teacher who ought to be heard by many more people. I found myself seeing my own thoughts come together much more clearly as Norm explained the Scripture by beginning with James 2:14-26. It was a thrilling weekend for many of us.

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Comments

  1. lou November 5, 2007 at 9:06 am

    John, The idea that Sheppherd was out of bounds with the confessions and reformed theology came during examination while he was at Westminster. He was let go specifically for his teaching and beliefs around this issue of justification. The papers documenting it are available at http://www.monergism.com .
    I tend to agree with RC Sproul that the attacks on Sola Fide are attachks on the gospel itself and must be defended, regardless of the conveniences of the emergent movement, etc.. IMHO.

  2. John H. Armstrong November 5, 2007 at 11:38 am

    Lou-
    I am not at all sure how the “emergent” movement got into this discussion. So far as I can tell it has nothing at all to do with Norm Shepherd. I doubt anyone who is a leader in that movement even knows who he is, much less what he teaches. One of the problems I have with emergent leaders is their lack of reading widely in the biblical theological realms that Norm addressed this weekend. While I attend emergent events to learn they do not, generally speaking, attend these kinds of meetings where careful biblical theological teaching is featured in this manner. My hope is that this might change (I am always an optimist) but I am not filled with great enthusiasm presently. For me biblical theology still trumps everything else and this is why Norm’s work was so refreshing to us—he dealt carefully with the Bible.
    By the way, Norm does not “attack” sola fide. He clearly defines it differently than R. C. Sproul but I would not call that an “attack.” This is why we cannot hear one another since we have chosen to put this all in the context of “attacks” and “counterattacks.”

  3. Martin Downes November 5, 2007 at 4:08 pm

    John,
    Would you mind clarifying that comment about Sproul and Shepherd having different definitions of sola fide? How do they respectively define sola fide?

  4. John H. Armstrong November 5, 2007 at 8:56 pm

    First, Shepherd believes we are saved through faith in Christ alone but he defines that faith as “living, obediential, active, penitent faith.”
    Second, Shepherd does not believe that we are saved by the merits of Christ, as a transfer of his good works to us. This would mean that we are saved by good works, Christ’s good works. Shepherd believes that we are saved rather by the forgiveness of Christ, through his shed blood, given freely to the one who believes on the basis of true faith.
    Third, Shepherd does not believe in a “covenant of works” whereby Adam could have merited salvation, or earned it, by obeying God during his time of probation. (He does believe in a covenant of grace, as I do.)
    Sproul rejects all three of these views of Norman Shepherd and believes that Norm is denying the gospel by these three points, especially by the one regarding the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, a term that refers to the transfer of his good works to us so that we are actually allowed into heaven by works. Shepherd believes, as I do, that this is a theological position adopted because of historical terms not biblical ones.
    If I have gotten this wrong, in terms of their clear differences, someone may correct me but this is what I have read in the writings of both men and heard them say with my own ears. People change their views and in this case Sproul may have changed his view but there is no evidence that I know of to suggest that he has done so. I am open to evidence to correct me here.
    There is a little spoof told by some, that I repeated this weekend. It goes in the form of a Catechism Question.
    Q. “When was the covenant of works made with Adam?”
    A. “In the late 16th century in Holland.”
    For me that sums it up in simple terms. This response makes some angry and elicits the protests that Norm, and people like me, are teaching heresy.
    I can respect the two covenant position but I am puzzled at how this can be made the very essence of the gospel when there is next to no support for the idea in the New Testament. If this is the gospel where do you find it preached in the Book of Acts, for example?

  5. John H. Armstrong November 5, 2007 at 8:59 pm

    By the way, the idea that Norm teaches synergism is so false that it has become a huge bogeyman. Generally, synergism refers to human effort contributing the the new birth. Norm posits nothing of the kind and made this abundantly plain this weekend.

  6. Martin Downes November 6, 2007 at 3:34 am

    Correct me if I have misunderstood you but you seem to be summarizing Shepherd as saying that we are saved by an obedient faith, but that Christ’s obedience for us is no part of our justification. So our obedience is essential to Shepherd’s definition of sola fide. And, somehow, this doesn’t mean that we are saved by our good works.
    I take it that you would agree that Shepherd’s view is not expressed in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.
    Finally you mentioned not believing in a Covenant of Works where Adam “could have merited salvation.” I presume you meant to use a different word there since Adam had nothing to be saved from.

  7. John H. Armstrong November 6, 2007 at 8:36 am

    Martin, we are saved by a faith that is living, obedience and active, not a dead faith, as James 2 clearly says. This debate comes down to several issues but one of them is the “nature of the faith that is the instrument”of our salvation. Some go so far as to say justifying faith is “passive” and sanctifying faith is “active” in order to not introduce “works” into justification. Shepherd finds this ludicrous exegetically and I again agree with him. Others insert a so-called “nano-second” between the faith that justifies and the faith that sanctifies in order to preserve the same point. Shepherd does not think either is warranted by the text of the Bible if faith is rightly defined.
    I am no expert on the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) but I do not believe his teaching contradicts the WCF at all, though this point has been at issue among critics. Assuming it does contradict the WCF, and Norm believes that it doesn’t, then I ask: “Has the WCF become the final and complete word on biblical exegesis?” What happened to the [real] authority of Scripture if this conclusion is true? (For many it does seem true, or so it appears to me from listening to this debate for twenty years or more.) Norm noted to us how the WCF treated repentance in a way that left it open to the truth he teaches. I need to study this more, when I have time (my interest in this is not major really) but I fear most of Norm’s critics will have a hard time with such a discussion so long as the WCF is seen as above serious discussion on these points.
    What I meant, as to your last point, was that Adam could have merited eternal life through his obedience if he had passed the probation/test. He would not have been saved from sin, obviously, but rather he would have confirmed his righteousness by his passing the test through obedience. This is why it is called a covenant of works, in distinction from a covenant of grace. You are right to correct my statement as to the technical error of using the word salvation but my point is essentially right. By keeping the word God gave to him he would have passed a text and earned a state of grace without the possibility of a fall. This idea is what I think theologians created post-Calvin and it lies at the heart of the modern debate. At best it has a mixed history among the Reformed and it not universally embraced by the Reformed community, and confessions, by any stretch of the imagination.
    In the end I am appealing for a more open discussion of these matters and believe the WCF allows this if it is treated in a way that does not use the man-made confession (as a final word) to exegete the Bible.
    One final word. If Norm was so far out-of-bounds how come he was examined very carefully on these very points of doctrine by the classis of the Christian Reformed Church, where his ordination was transferred, and he was found to be in agreement with the Three Forms of Unity? Is there that large a difference between the WCF and the Heidelberg and the Belgic Confession? (There are differences for sure but I doubt they are as major as Norm’s critics make them.) He spent, as readers should know, the last twenty-five-plus years of his ministerial life as an ordained Reformed minister. This fact is beyond question.

  8. Dave Watson November 6, 2007 at 10:09 am

    Hi John
    I appreciate reading this. I have never fully understood what the “Shepherd controversy” was all about – and I still don’t, but maybe I have a little bit better understanding after reading your synopsis and commentary. As far as I know, Shepherd had passed the examination of his views in the Philadelphia OPC presbytery, but his opponents weren’t satisfied with that and continued to oppose him – so that Westminster let him go, not so much because of his views but because he had become a lightning rod. His opponents used his case to scuttle efforts at “Joining & Receiving” of the OPC by the PCA – a lamentable turn of events.
    In the Lamb
    Dave Watson, Kent, WA

  9. John H. Armstrong November 6, 2007 at 10:50 am

    David-
    You are quite right in your analysis of what transpired. Norm was never convicted by the presbytery but the seminary asked him to leave, even though many on the faculty then, and some still now, agreed with him. It became such a major blow-up that people had to virtually hide from the fierce opposition that resulted. In some ways the well was so poisoned that it remains so to this day. Sadly, Norm’s views are attacked but dialog about how we can agree to disagree seems impossible with those who believe “the gospel” is at stake here.
    Our event was meant to allow oprn discussion, and we had that frankly, but the opponents of Shepherd either will not attend such an event (they could have and some were personally invited) or if they do they will not dialog on the relevant points but come with “charges” against Norm and turn it into a personal attack on his heretical doctrine, as they call it.
    By the way, the faculty of Westminster Seminary California wrote an entire book against Norm’s views, and I was included in this volume as well. It is titled Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry (Presbyterian & Reformed). A book that responds to this book will be available within days. I will let readers know how to secure it when it is out. For those who want to “understand” the arguments reading both of these books would be a good way to get the drift of what is being said and why. In the name of fairness I hope those who are anxious about this important debate will read both books, not just the one they prefer.

  10. Tony Johnson November 11, 2007 at 11:53 pm

    Dear John,
    You noted that a DVD set, as well as an MP3 audio CD of Prof. Shepherd lectures will become available. How and from where can I order the DVD and CD set?
    Regards,
    Tony Johnson

  11. John H. Armstrong November 12, 2007 at 9:05 am

    Tony,
    I expect they will be ready for sale by early December. We will keep you posted on this blog site and at http://www.act3online.com.
    John

  12. Elder Hoss December 2, 2007 at 2:47 am

    Brother John: I am thankful to the Lord for the conference you sponsored with Andrew Sandlin a few years ago on law/gospel – It was off the charts great. Keep up your utterly vital work (or should I say, “His” utterly vital work).
    If I could comment as one who has spent a number of hours with Norman, and one who has close friends in those camps strenuously opposing him, I do think Norm has opened himself up to this somewhat precarious position due to a lack of clarity in some aspects of his important work “The Call of Grace”. He also could do a better job at tracing out some historical precursors (and current ones) to his framing of justification, lest it continue to appear to be a novelty to the ears of those who believe the “Reformed faith” started in 1648…
    Having said this, it is VERY clear reading Calvin’s Institutes AND the Heidelberg, that the “righteousness” of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone (even a faith which never IS alone) is the DEATH of Christ.
    In teaching on Justification at a Reformation Conference a few years’ ago in Brooklyn, Shepherd noted that in a sense, one can speak of the imputation of the perfect obedience of Christ insofar as, had not Jesus perfectly obeyed the Law of God, He would not be that sinless lamb of God without blemish, and thus, we would have no justification, or salvation.
    I have met some ardent Shepherd detractos who acknowledge this divergence between 16th century (Calvin’s) teaching on imputation, and that of 17th c Reformed Scholasticism, but who nonetheless want to argue that the 17th century represents the summum bonum as it were, the pinnacle, of Reformed teaching, such that Sheperd ought be judged in light of it, as a “gospel denier”, a “heretic” etc. etc.
    What is curious about these claims is the fact that, were we to take them as true, this consigns the ENTIRE pre 17th century church to perdition. Luther, for example, taught an unlimited atonement, gave no indication of a covenant of works construct in his teachings, and taught that justified men could apostatize. I doubt the White Horse Inn crowd is prepared to play the man and be consistent with their position, and thus burn their 55 vols of LW, or cancel their often bombastic “Reformation Day” services.
    Other things could be said here, but I think much of this boils down to the fact that modern Reformed cats in the USA, for the most part, are effectively DE FACTO (if not De JURE) Antinomians. Listen to many of them preach and there is no call to repentance, no delineation of just WHAT justifying faith looks like and how it is manifested, and the like.
    The vitriol against Shepherd (who btw, I don’t agree with at points, as I’m sure you may not) masks a rather grave and profound error latent/patent to most of the popular Reformed teaching in our culture, present-hour. Lacking a clear call to repentance, saying nary a word about the import of baptism, many “gospel” preachers today among the Reformed are giving cute little sawdust sermons utterly foreign to the tenor of the apostolic kerygma found in Acts, and yet curiously enough, blind to their ommissions, they consume themselves with finding fault with other Reformed men who agree with 99% of what they do, whilst hypocritically placarding the teachings of many who diametrically oppose them in a manner far more extensively than does Shepherd.
    I have come to view the Shepherd controversy as thus, a peculiar symptom of a more fundamental malady plaguing most Reformed ministers in the USA. How differen is the spirit from the spirit/carriage of a Lloyd-Jones who, when asked why in the world he would consent to pastor with the Armininan G. Campbell Morgan, responded by stating that “Calvinism is not the gospel, but an explanation of why anyone BELIEVES the gospel”.
    Truth be told, when de facto (or worse) Antimonians omit repentance and the message of cross-bearing at the FRONT DOOR of their gospel preaching, I would suggest it is THEY who are in danger of denying the gospel and its power, not Norman Shepherd.

  13. Jonathan Armstrong December 17, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    Wow! I didn’t realize there was a published Christian author out there with almost the same name as me! I enjoyed reading the material presented here. I will check back again! Wow, I think you’re someone I’d be able to get into a conversation with a lot of different ideas that I’m beginning to formulate.
    -Jonathan

  14. Ron Henzel December 20, 2007 at 8:40 pm

    Elder Hoss writes, “…it is VERY clear reading Calvin’s Institutes AND the Heidelberg, that the “righteousness” of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone (even a faith which never IS alone) is the DEATH of Christ.”
    If this is the case, why then in his critique of Osiander’s “essential righteousness” view did Calvin go out of his way to identify justification with the imputation of BOTH Christ’s obedience AND His sacrificial death? After making it clear that justification is defined in Romans as “imputation of righteousness” (Institutes 3.11.4; Battles 729), and that “we are made righteous by Christ’s obedience” (ibid.), he objected to the fact that Osiander was “not content with that righteousness which has been acquired for us by Christ’s obedience AND sacrificial death” (3.11.5; Battles 730; emphasis mine).
    And how are we to understand Calvin’s words in 3.11.23 other than as an emphatic presentation of his belief in the imputation of Christ’s active righteousness to believers? After stating that any righteousness we have is outside ourselves because it is in Christ, he wrote: “And this does not contradict what he teaches elsewhere, that sin has been condemned for sin in Christ’s flesh that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us [Romans 8:3-4]. The only fulfillment he alludes to is that which we obtain through imputation” (Battles 753). Calvin is clear here. If Paul’s reference to the fulfillment of the Law in us had anything to do with our own personal righteousness, then as far as Calvin was concerned it would have contradicted Paul’s own teaching of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers. Therefore, reasons Calvin, it can only refer to some other fulfillment of the Law outside of us that was imputed to us: specifically, Christ’s fulfillment of the Law from His birth to His death.
    Nowhere does Calvin construe Paul’s reference to fulfillment of the Law’s righteousness in us as simply another way of referring to Christ’s death, much less that “the ‘righteousness’ of Christ imputed to us…is the DEATH of Christ.” He made this all-the-more clear as he went on to borrow Ambrose’s illustration of Jacob hiding under the coat of Esau he wrote, “And we in like manner hide under the precious purity of our first-born brother, Christ, so that we may be attested righteous in God’s sight” (3.11.23; Battles 753-754). As much as it was an act of perfect obedience, dying on a cross did not ultimately demonstrate Christ’s precious purity any more than it demonstrated the purity of the two thieves crucified next to Him. Christ’s precious purity was demonstrated by His active obedience, which, according to Calvin, now covers us like a perfect garment.

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