Examining the Nine Points: The Introduction (III)

Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine. Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those…


Last month, as part of our consideration of the preface to the Nine Points, we considered how the Reformed Churches have historically related the covenant theology to the biblical and confessional doctrine of justification. This month concludes the examination of the preface to the Nine Points by considering the question of the relations between biblical, systematic, and confessional theology. We will also reckon with the influence some types of biblical theology have had upon the doctrine of justification.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, both liberals (i.e. those who do not believe the historic Christian faith but who wish to be considered Christians nonetheless) and pietists (i.e. those who think that religious experience is more important than the confession of faith) began to set covenant theology against systematic theology. They argued that covenant theology arose as a way of alleviating the problems created by Reformed systematic theology. These moves and claims have been widely influential in the modern period, even among orthodox Reformed people who should know better.

Thus, there developed in Germany a specialized field of study known as “biblical theology.” Since the development of this field, there has been a tendency among pietists (who may or may not be personally orthodox), liberals, and conservatives to treat “biblical theology” as a “scientific,” or “neutral” enterprise under which rubric one may say whatever one will without any regard to what Reformed systematic theology teaches or what the Reformed Churches confess.

This approach to biblical or covenant theology has created serious tensions, in some cases, in the “covenant theology” held by Reformed folk and the confession of the churches and the historic Reformed theology. Indeed, it has been the recipe for what the pietists themselves called “dead orthodoxy.” This approach to the Reformed confessions rendered them mere historical witnesses to faith rather than a living and vital confession by the churches. Some theologians have capitalized on this tension between “biblical” and “confessional” theology with the result that one may hear a “redemptive-historical” (i.e., covenant theology) sermon in the morning service saying one thing, e.g. that the covenant of grace is a matter of getting in by grace (i.e., baptism) and staying in by faith and works. In the evening sermon, however, one might hear a perfectly orthodox sermon from Heidelberg Catechism Q. 21 on true faith.

Even more unhappily, however, for the last thirty years, some pastors and professors (in a movement now known as the Federal Vision) have been resolving this tension between their covenant theology and Reformed confessional theology in favor of their revision of covenant theology. This move has led them to re-define key words and ideas of the Reformed faith according to the new covenant theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this new covenant theology, there is said to be no real difference between faith and works in justification. In justification, faith is said to be “trusting and obeying” or “faithfulness” or even sometimes, “faith and works.” They teach this doctrine of justification because this is how the Federal Vision movement has come to read the history of redemption, as is the story of the “covenant faithfulness” of believers.

Of course not every practitioner of biblical theology has made this mistake. Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949), who taught in the early days of what became Calvin Theological Seminary, and more famously at Princeton Theological Seminary, set out to show that it was possible to do biblical theology and systematic theology without setting one against the other. As he worked on this project he found himself in conflict not only with the liberals, who wanted to reconstruct Christianity in their own image, but also some conservatives from various branches of the Dutch Reformed churches who, at the end of the nineteenth century, were developing an idiosyncratic covenant theology that could not be reconciled with the Reformed confessions and which was quite out of accord with the mainstream of Reformed covenant theology from the classical period. Vos published his work in several volumes. His lectures on biblical theology were later published in a volume by that title. After Vos, however, practitioners of biblical theology in the Netherlands, Britain, Australia, and in the USA have continued to set biblical theology against systematic theology and the Reformed confessions as if these three ways of doing theology were necessarily in tension.

In the recent controversies over covenant and justification, when queried about this method, these “covenant theologians” have replied,

“We’re just following the Bible.” What they mean, however, is that they are trying to read the Bible as if no one has ever done it before. This attempt to read the Bible as if no one has ever done it before is known as “biblicism.” This approach to Scripture is very influential among American evangelicals and surprisingly, among liberals. Indeed, the earliest “liberals,” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were known as Socinians. They rejected the Protestant faith because, they said, it was not biblical enough. They said “We are just following the Bible” even as they denied the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, justification sola gratia, sola fide, and eventually, the Trinity. This biblicism has affected the Reformed churches also. The Remonstrants (Arminians) in the seventeenth century, rejected at the Synod of Dort, also argued that they were just following the Bible. Eventually, the Socinians and some of the Remonstrants coalesced and formed the basis for the modern Unitarian movement. So, we should be alert and wary when people claim to be “just following the Bible.” The Reformed Churches have also read the Bible and we have reached definite conclusions, and we have confessed those conclusions in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort. We confess what we do as churches because of our biblical theology.

This is not placing the confessions above the Bible. This is distinguishing between a churchly, confessional reading of the Bible from an independent, private reading of the Bible. It is a distinctly modern view that says that one’s private reading of Scripture trumps all other readings of Scripture. It has been objected, “But what about Martin Luther? Did he not set his private reading of Scripture over against the church’s reading of Scripture?” No he did not. In fact there was no conciliar dogma of justification in the Roman communion. As Martin Luther, and the Reformed with him, came to reject the prevailing medieval doctrine of justification by grace and cooperation with grace, they were rejecting a widely held private opinion on the basis of God’s Word. When it became clear that the institutional church had no interest in submitting to the Word of God a Reformation became necessary. Rome’s excommunication of Luther was one subtle hint of her reluctance to reform.

The question is not the principle authority of Scripture. The question is the authority of individual interpretations of Scripture in the face of established and tested ecclesiastical interpretations of Scripture. After all, it is not as if the private interpretations proposed by the Remonstrants at Dort or by the Federal Visionists in our day do not have a setting. They arose in a time and a place. They did not descend from heaven. Everyone reads the Bible in a place, in a cultural, historical, and theological context. So the Reformed Churches have come to an agreed reading of Scripture and, having considered the revisions proposed by the Federal Visionists and others, we have rejected them in favor of those interpretations we have confessed since the Reformation. In this debate, the choice is between confessional and churchly interpretations of redemptive history and private and non-confessional readings of Scripture. Though it is common among evangelical and liberal biblical scholars to write and speak as if one can read the Bible in splendid isolation, the Reformed Churches have never done so. The modern individualist way of handling God’s Word is bound to create tension between the confessions of the churches and this sort of biblical theology. In contrast, the Reformed Churches have always related our confessions very closely to our reading of redemptive history (covenant theology) and those two to our systematic theology.

Thus, in the preface to the Nine Points, the United Reformed Churches are saying in effect, we reject the premise that one can develop a “biblical theology” or a “covenant theology” that substantially contradicts what we confess. In this preface, the United Reformed Churches are also saying that we reject not only the creation of the tension between covenant theology and confessional theology but also the resolution of that tension by the Federal Vision whereby our confessions are substantially revised to mean something other than what they have historically meant

The last point to be made about the preface to is closely related to the first, and it is this: what one says about covenant theology (the history of redemption) necessarily colors what one says about the doctrine of justification. The Reformed doctrine of justification exists within the environment of covenant theology. The latter is the womb or matrix of the doctrine of justification. Whatever a pregnant woman eats or swallows touches her unborn child. So it is with covenant theology and the doctrine of justification in Reformed theology. The changes to covenant theology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have not been without consequences for the doctrine of justification. As Karl Barth radically revised Reformed covenant theology by jettisoning the covenant of works (more on that later) he also radically reversed the Reformed hermeneutic (i.e., way of reading Scripture). Instead of law and gospel Barth proposed “gospel and law.” This move was followed by some contemporary evangelical theologians, most notably Daniel Fuller and Norman Shepherd. This reversal of law and gospel (and the accompanying claim that Reformed theology rejects the distinction between law and gospel) is a mainstay of the Federal Vision program. They, and the so-called New Perspective(s) on Paul, have us “in [the covenant] by grace” (i.e., united to Christ, head for head, in baptism in an “all or nothing” covenant) and we “stay in” by “faith and works” or “covenantal faithfulness.” This reversal, especially in the hands of the Federal Vision movement sets the Reformed faith upside down. Instead of the Christian life flowing out of grace and gratitude, lived in union with Christ in the covenant community, the Federal Vision would have us back under the law and in constant jeopardy of apostasy if we do not keep “our part” of the covenant.

All of these revisions flow from the revisions in Reformed covenant theology, parts of which were first proposed in the seventeenth century and which have been proposed and rejected repeatedly since, that took hold in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

If, for example, the covenants of works and grace are not distinguished clearly, then the ground of righteousness before God and definitions of faith are bound to change. This is precisely what has happened in the Federal Vision theology. Having put us under a covenant that is both legal and gracious before the fall, they have us under a covenant that is both gracious and legal after the fall. In this scheme, the terms of “the covenant” (as the FV writers like to say) are and always have been “faith and works” or “faithfulness.” Though he is not clear about most things, Norman Shepherd is quite clear about his claim that Adam and we are on the same footing. Adam owed faith and obedience. Jesus owed faith and obedience. We too owe faith and obedience.

Christians, however, who know the greatness of their sin and misery realize that Shepherd has done them no favors, as it were, by placing us on the same footing as Adam and our Lord. Nor has he done them any favors by making the Christ into the first Christian, in a way not terribly different from the nineteenth-century German liberals. In such a revised covenant theology, Christianity always becomes just another scheme for religious experience and moral improvement. Again, such radical revisions turn Reformed theology on its head. The Reformed faith is a doctrine of divine revelation and salvation, not religious experience and self-improvement (even if that self-improvement is cast in terms of “grace and cooperation with grace”).

Grace is God’s favor to sinners. Adam was not a sinner until he sinned. We, as Adam’s children, are sinners and therefore we sin. We are corrupt in all our faculties. We are corrupt in our intellect and therefore we think wrongly. Our affections are corrupted and therefore we love the wrong things. Because of sin, our wills are bent and therefore we choose corruptly. This is what we mean by “total depravity,” that all of our faculties are profoundly ruined by sin and therefore we cannot do “our part” in a covenant that is partly or wholly a covenant of works.

Therefore, any proposed understanding of grace which renders grace to be something other than free and unconditional is not really grace at all. It is merely a form of works righteousness cloaked in the language of grace. Any understanding of grace that makes it mere divine assistance for those who must “do their part” have turned grace into a recipe for damnation. God does not help those who help themselves. He justifies and saves those who cannot and will not justify and save themselves. Grace is Christ’s salvation of those who would voluntarily choose hell over heaven, who come to trust Christ and love God and hate sin only because the Holy Spirit makes them alive, gives them a “certain knowledge and a hearty trust,” and thereby unites them to Christ. The story of the covenant of grace is the story of God’s free favor to those who by nature hate him.

So it is with the instrument of the covenant of grace: faith. By definition, faith is and has nothing to do with our “doing” relative to justification. One critic of Synod Schereville said to me that the language adopted by Synod is imprecise because it uses the verb “to be.” Synod said, “faith is the sole instrument of our justification apart from all works.” If this language is imprecise then tell it to the Belgic Confession and to all the Reformed Churches since 1561 since this is the very language we have confessed since then. In Article 22 we confess: “faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness.” We say: “faith is.” We do not say: “the exercise of faith is” (as was suggested by the critic). Why not? We should not speak this way because even the turn to the verb “to exercise” changes the nature of the verb. Faith does what it does, i.e. receives, rests, leans, trusts, and knows, because of the power of its object. Faith has no power in and of itself. That is why the Reformed theologians have often described faith, in the act of justification (which is what we are about here) as an “empty vessel” or, in Calvin’s case, an empty hand.

Faith does not justify because it does anything. That is why Synod was quite right to adopt the three points reaffirming and strengthening our stand on justification by faith alone “apart from all works.” The very point of the Belgic Confession is to exclude our “doing” from the definition of faith in the declaration of justification. To turn faith into more than this receptive instrument is to make something or someone other than Christ into a Savior. That, the Belgic says, “is a most enormous blasphemy against God—for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified ‘by faith alone’ or by faith ‘apart from works.’”

In Reformed theology and in the Reformed confessions, covenant theology is not some innocent enterprise that can be isolated from our confessions. What a minister or teacher or writer says about covenant theology will, even if he himself does not intend or realize it, necessarily have consequences for the definitions of grace and faith and justification, and it is upon these articles that the church stands or falls. There is a Reformed covenant theology and there is a Reformed confessional theology and these two are in complete harmony. Any proposed covenant theology, therefore, that finds itself out of accord with our confession must be regarded as a covenant theology that is less than Reformed.

Dr. R. Scott Clark is an Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California.


Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine. Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those:

1. who deny or modify the teaching that “God created man good and after His own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness,” able to perform “the commandment of life” as the representative of mankind (HC 6, 9; BC 14);

2. who, in any way and for any reason, confuse the “commandment of life” given before the fall with the gospel announced after the fall (BC 14, 17, 18; HC 19, 21, 56, 60);

3. who confuse the ground and instrument of acceptance with God before the fall (obedience to the commandment of life) with the ground (Christ who kept the commandment of life) and instrument (faith in Christ) of acceptance with God after the fall;

4. who deny that Christ earned acceptance with God and that all His merits have been imputed to believers (BC 19, 20, 22, 26; HC 11-19, 21, 36-37, 60, 84; CD I.7, RE I.3, RE II.1);

5. who teach that a person can be historically, conditionally elect, regenerated, savingly united to Christ, justified, and adopted by virtue of participation in the outward administration of the covenant of grace but may lose these benefits through lack of covenantal faithfulness (CD, I, V);

6. who teach that all baptized persons are in the covenant of grace in precisely the same way such that there is no distinction between those who have only an outward relation to the covenant of grace by baptism and those who are united to Christ by grace alone through faith alone (HC 21, 60; BC 29);

7. who teach that Spirit-wrought sanctity, human works, or cooperation with grace is any part either of the ground of our righteousness before God or any part of faith, that is, the “instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness” (BC 22-24; HC 21, 60, 86);

8. who define faith, in the act of justification, as being anything more than “leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified” or “a certain knowledge” of and “a hearty trust” in Christ and His obedience and death for the elect (BC 23; HC 21);

9. who teach that there is a separate and final justification grounded partly upon righteousness or sanctity inherent in the Christian (HC 52; BC 37).