What's Really At Stake
BY MICHAEL S. HORTON
URC minister, professor, Westminster Theological Seminary, California
In step with the Reformation churches, John Murray wrote, "If there is one thing the Church needs today it is the republication with faith and passion of the presuppositions of the doctrine of justification and the reapplication of this, the article of a standing or falling Church" (Collected Writings, 2:203). Is justification a matter of receiving through faith alone an alien righteousness? Or is it a matter of a judicial verdict based on an actual change in the believer? "It is the basic religious question" (ibid). The purpose of this article will be to briefly illumine the relationship of the Law-Gospel motif to the covenant of works-grace scheme, with particular attention to the issues before us.
Law and Gospel in the Rise of Covenant Theology
As early as the first page of his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (P & R Publishing, from the 1852 Second American Edition), Ursinus states, "The doctrine of the church is the entire and uncorrupted doctrine of the law and gospel concerning the true God, together with his will, works, and worship"1.
The doctrine of the church consists of two parts: the Law, and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures... Therefore, the law and gospel are the chief and general divisions of holy scriptures, and comprise the entire doctrine comprehended therein ...for the law is our schoolmaster, to bring us to Christ, constraining us to fly to him, and showing us what that righteousness is, which he has wrought out, and now offers unto us. But the gospel, professedly, treats of the person, office, and benefits of Christ. Therefore we have, in the law and gospel, the whole of the Scriptures comprehending the doctrine revealed from heaven for our salvation ...The law prescribes and enjoins what is to be done, and forbids what ought to be avoided: whilst the gospel announces the free remission of sin, through and for the sake of Christ ...The law is known from nature; the gospel is divinely revealed ...The law promises life upon the condition of perfect obedience; the gospel, on the condition of faith in Christ and the commencement of new obedience (23). It is clear that for Ursinus the "law/gospel" categories formed the hermeneutical structure for the Reformed.
Calvin's successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, made precisely the same point in his Confession - in fact, employing nearly the same terms and order of discussion, only adding the warning that "ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principle sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity" (tr. James Clark, The Christian Faith, by Theodore Beza [Focus Christian Ministries Trust, 1992).
William Perkins, "father of Elizabethan Puritanism," taught practical theology to generations of students through his Art of Prophesying (1592;1606). In that work he asserts, "The basic principle in application is to know whether the passage is a statement of the law or of the gospel. For when the Word is preached, the law and the gospel operate differently. The law exposes the disease of sin, and as a sideeffect stimulates and stirs it up. But it provides no remedy for it ...The law is, therefore, first in-the order of teaching; then comes the gospel" (54). We must be attentive, he says, to the ways in which even inspired Old Testament, expressions of law are made in the New Testament inspired expressions of gospel. He cites Deuteronomy 20:11, 14: "For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off ...But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it."
"This same sentence which is legal in character in Moses," Perkins points out, "is evangelical in character in Paul (Rom. 10:8)" (55). Even believers need to hear the Bible preached and applied with a clear view of this distinction. "Our sanctification is partial as yet. In order that the remnants of sin may be destroyed we must always begin with meditation on the law, and with a sense of our sin, in order to be brought to rest in the gospel" (60).
Petrus Dathenus, author of the Dutch Reformed liturgy adopted at the Convent of Wessels, wrote a winsome little dialogue with an English noblewoman suffering from a lack of assurance due to an emphasis on the human side of the covenant. His Pearl of Christian Comfort (republished by Reformation Heritage Press) takes as its main thesis that its interlocutor did not know how to properly Distinguish law and gospel because of the preaching that she was having to endure.
Even those who found themselves on opposite sides in many debates, like Cocceius and Voetius, emphasized the absolute and unconditional nature of the covenant from God's perspective and saw the law-gospel distinction as integral for its preservation. Herman Witsius' widely influential Economy of the Covenants (1677) reflects the emerging consensus in organizing scripture according to its own internal covenantal principle by recognizing the covenant of works (law) and the covenant of grace (gospel).
A confusion at this point would mean a confusion of law and gospelthe veryconfusion that Paul lamented in Romans 10 concerning his fellow-Jews and criticized with such vehemence in his letter to the Galatians.
As we will see in brief summary, this lawgospel/covenant of workscovenant of grace structure is hardly idiosyncratic, but represents the organic development of Reformed, covenant theology. This pattern of rendering "law-gospel" and "covenant of works-covenant of grace" interchangeable continues all the way up to Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology, under the heading "The Two Parts of the Word of God Considered as a Means of Grace":
The Law and the Gospel in the Word of God. The Churches of the Reformation from the very beginning distinguished between the law and the gospel as the two parts of the Word of God as a means of grace. This distinction was not understood to be identical with that between the Old and the New Testament, but was regarded as a distinction that applies to both Testaments.
There is law and gospel in the Old Testament and there is law and gospel in the New. The law comprises everything in Scripture which is a revelation of God's will in the form of command or prohibition, while the gospel embraces everything, whether it be in the Old Testament or the New, that pertains to the work of reconciliation and that proclaims the seeking and redeeming love of God in Jesus Christ. And each one of these two parts has its own proper function in the economy of grace (612).
Van Bruggen is even clearer on this score: "The Catechism, thus, mentions the gospel and deliberately does not speak of the Word of God,' because the Law does not work faith. The Law (Law and gospel are the two parts of the Word which may be distinguished) judges; it does not call a person to God and does not work trust in him. The gospel does that" (Annotations on the Heidelberg Catechism, 170).
Law (Covenant of Works) and Gospel (Covenant
of Grace) in
the Old Covenant
A definition of terms may be in order. I take it as settled in Reformed theology before the nineteenth century that there are three over-arching covenants in scripture. First, the covenant of redemption ("council of peace," pactum salutis) is the intratrinitarian covenant made in eternity.
The parties were the members of the Godhead. Distinguished from this is the covenant of works (a.k.a. "creation," "nature"). This covenant, made with Adam as the federal head of humanity, demanded perfect personal obedience to attain everlasting felicity for himself and his posterity. (Many, but not all, federal theologians included the Sinaitic covenant as a republication of this covenant as to its external, typological and earthly-transitory character.)
As the second Adam, ,Iesus Christ fulfilled the covenant of works by his personal obedience, thereby becoming the federal representative of the elect. As a result, the covenant of grace is made with believers and their children on the basis of both the covenant of redemption (unconditional election) and the surety's fulfillment of the covenant of works (active/passive obedience). As a result, the covenant of grace is not an expression of divine clemency, but of divine satisfaction of justice and the legal propriety of his consequent exercise of mercy to sinners. The personal fulfillment of the law by the mediator is imputed to sinners through faith alone.
If one were to pick up a typical manual of doctrine from any writer in our tradition before World War II, this scheme would have been elucidated. As Berkhof notes, this consensus drew together as divergent figures as Cocceius and Voetius: "Ypeij and Dermout point out that in those days a denial of the covenant of works was regarded as a heresy" (S.T., 212).
Many critics of federal theology misunderstand the tradition to be saying that the entire theocratic period as a works arrangement (i.e., that Old Testament believers were justified by their personal obedience). But this fails to recognize the nuances in classic covenant theology at this point; namely, that national Israel, with Moses as its mediator, is not the equivalent to the covenant of grace, with Christ as its mediator in both testaments. The two exist side by side throughout the theocratic era, one operating as a typological earthly kingdom on a works principle; the other operating as a spiritual kingdom on the grace principle. Meredeth Kline is a masterful exegete, but he is hardly the first to articulate these views.
As Paul makes clear in Galatians (especially chapter 3), there was the heavenly Zion and its way of salvation (grace alone through faith alone) and a typological earthly Zion and its way of national preservation (conditioned upon her obedience). The inheritance of the typological land was based on law, while the heavenly rest was based on promise, Paul insists. It is not an either/or here, but two distinct operations: the typological land promises indicating in a shadowy, figurative way what was to come when the true Israel would come and perfectly fulfill God's commands and the spiritual promises in which individual Israelites rested just as we do today (Heb. 4:1-5).
Scripture itself assumes a distinction between the typological land-promises for a transitory administration (national Israel) and the perpetuity of the Abrahamic covenant (of grace) for the salvation of believing Israelites. It is upon this logic that Paul's arguments in Romans 9-11 depend. We do not thereby hold that the Old Testament is equivalent to a "covenant of works," but that during the Mosaic "tutelage," the status of national Israel as the typological-theocratic kingdom of God on earth was transitory and conditional. Belonging to the nation (law) was not equivalent to being a child of Abraham (promise). Charles Hodge expresses it well:
Besides this evangelical character which unquestionably belongs to the Mosaic covenant ["belongs to," not "is equivalent to"], it is presented in two other aspects in the Word of God. First, it was a national covenant with the Hebrew people. In this view the parties were God and the people of Israel; the promise was national security and land prosperity; the condition was the obedience of the people as a nation to the Mosaic law; and the mediator was Moses. In this aspect it was a legal covenant. It said 'Do this and live.' Secondly, it contained, as does also the New Testament, a renewed proclamation of the covenant of works" ("Covenant of Grace," ed. Michael Bremmer, Sola Scriptura web page; cf. C. Hodge, Systematic Theology [Eerdmans, 1946], 117-122).
No Jewish person found justification in obedience under the Mosaic economy, but the servant-nation-like Adam, typological of Christ, could only be justified on those terms, as the exile and, finally, Jesus' "woes" (including the cursing of the fig tree) demonstrate. The nation is not justified and is not a type of the kingdom of God today, but Jewish people are still coming to saving faith just as their father Abraham.
The covenant of works motif did not originate in the sixteenth century, but was affirmed in various ways by a number of ancient church fathers. On the western side, Augustine said, "The first covenant was this, unto Adam: 'Whensoever thou eatest thereof thou shalt die the death,'" and this is why all his children "are breakers of God's covenant made with Adam in paradise" (City of God, Bk. XVI, ch. 28).
The covenant of works is exegetically defensible on at least two grounds: first, inferential. Unlike biblicism, Reformed exegesis approves "good and necessary inferences" from scripture as scriptural conclusions. This is how we justify exegetically our belief in the trinity and kindred doctrines. Similarly, we have to ask what constitutes a covenant. Every such arrangement involves a historical prologue ("I am the Lord who brought you out..."), and stipulations (command/promise) with sanctions (curse/blessing). Each of these elements is present in Genesis 1-3. The historical prologue begins with God as the self-existing Creator and the creation of man and woman in his image, followed by a command and promise, with attendant sanctions. Murray is willing to call it a "probation," in fact, and to conclude that indefectible holiness and justification was held out to Adam as a reward for obedience (C.W., 2:47-59). If it walks like a covenant, talks like a covenant, looks like a covenant, it must be a covenant. Second, subsequent scripture treats this Adamic arrangement as a covenant. In fact, in Hosea God directly identifies the covenant that Israel broke with this Adamic covenant (Hos. 6:7) and the Adam-Christ argument in Romans 5 depends upon it.
Grace before the fall is entailed by the denial of the covenant of works. Many interpreters think that they observe a contradiction in the federalism of the Westminster Standards on this point, where the divines speak of God's relationship to Adam in terms of "voluntary condescension." However, this is not the same as grace; a term that would have been used if that is what was intended. The divines knew exactly what they were doing (and Ursinus defended every one of their points before the Assembly ever met). "Voluntary condescension" is hardly grace. Why is that so? In the first place, the former simply means that God was not compelled by any necessity to create: it was a free act. Second, by pronouncing his benediction ("It is very good," not just "good"), God was approving Adam's standing. But upon what basis was Adam currently acceptable before God? On precisely that basis indicated by the benediction: his intrinsic worthiness as a loyal son and servant.
Third, to conflate "voluntary condescension" and "grace" is to empty grace of its most precious scriptural meaning. Scripture nowhere speaks of this relationship as gracious, and with good reason: grace happens to sinners. Friendship, condescension, familiarity, goodness: these in no way entail graciousness on God's part, since the relationship was not yet marred by sin. Grace is not treated in scripture as merely unmerited favor, but as demerited favor, God's favor toward sinners despite their having deserved the very opposite. In that sense, grace and mercy are interchangeable terms, just as the "covenant of grace" has sometimes been called the "covenant of mercy." God cannot be regarded as gracious or merciful to creatures who as yet do not deserve otherwise,. "Goodness" and "condescension" are not equivalent to grace and mercy.
Whatever could be said in response to Murray's difficulty with the classic construction of the covenant of works, he is certainly not confused on the relation of justification and sanctification or on the instrument of justification. He is certain that "justification is the foundation of sanctification" and that "The death and resurrection are therefore the meritorious and procuring cause of sanctification as well as justification..." (2:286, emphasis added). "We are not justified on the ground that we are made inherently righteous," (2:185), which puts Murray at odds with any notion of a nonmeritorious active obedience or a view of justification as conditional upon faith and obedience (or "faithfulness"). "And we scarcely need to be reminded of the prominence given in later Reformed theology to the active and passive obedience of Christ in the formulation of the doctrine of the atonement" (2:152). Murray clearly understood the lawgospel distinction: "In the degree to which error is entertained at this point, in the same degree is our conception of the gospel perverted ...What was the question that aroused the apostle to such passionate. zeal and holy indignation, indignation that has its kinship with the impreccatory utterances of the Old Testament? In a word it was the relation of law and gospel" (Principles of Conduct, 181).
Murray even challenges the tendency of modern theology to pit judicial categories against relational ones. "Justification is always foren sic" (C.W., 2:205). The righteousness that is imputed to believers is such that "not only does it warrant the justifying act but it demands the same" (2:213, emphasis added). This is true merit that makes us acceptable before God. "According to the Remonstrants, faith joined with evangelical obedience is the ground of justification. Though not perfect yet it is reckoned for righteousness by the grace of God" (216). However, according to the Reformed understanding this is a weak worksrighteousness. Though "joined with repentance, love, and hope," faith itself is a passive instrument. "This is clearly brought out by the fact that, in the Scriptures, justification is never said to be dia pistin (on account of faith)" (217). Next, Murray stresses that faith is ideally suited to justification because
It is this resting, confiding, entrusting quality of faith that makes it appropriate to and indeed exhibitive of the nature of justification ...Faith terminates upon Christ and his righteousness and it makes mention of his righteousness only ...This is both the stumbling block and the irresistible appeal of the gospel.:. (217).
Merit, "Obedient Faith" & Covenant Theology
Given Murray's insistence on the notion of merit as the basis for justification, what are we to say of the tradition more broadly? Is this too an extraconfessional matter about which Reformed people have and should be allowed to disagree agreeably?
Recent correspondence on this matter may help focus this point. When one brother says, for instance, "Adam could not have praised himself but only glorified God if he had stood the test," the question immediately arises, What then of the Second Adam? Was he not fulfilling the terms of the legal probation that our first head broke? If it was blasphemy for the first Man to claim the consummation as his meritorious reward, is it not as blasphemous.for the second Man to claim, "I have completed the work you gave me to do"? "I have done everything"? "I have fulfilled the law"? "It is finished"? How dare he command God, as if he had earned a reward, "Now glorify the Son with the glory he had before the creation of the world"! Jesus Christ claims his reward on the basis of having merited it according to the strictest judgment. The Father must give it to him and the Father is delighted to do so.
One brother insists that the denial of the covenant of works does not "jeopardize Christ's substitutionary atonement, nor even his `active obedience' (Ro. 5), provided the latter is defined as non-meritorious law-keeping (there was never any other kind), which highlights faith and resultant obedience." But that is precisely what is meant by the "active obedience" which we find in Romans 5 and elsewhere. This is like saying that we can affirm original sin provided that it is not defined as the imputation of Adam's guilt and corruption. In fact, the two are related, as Romans 5 makes clear. What does "double-imputation" even mean if Adam's de-merit (sin) and Christ's merit (righteousness) are not imputed? What is imputed in justification if not Christ's meritorious lawkeeping? Calvin writes,
By his obedience, however, Christ truly acquired and merited grace for us with his Father. Many passages of Scripture surely and firmly attest this. l take it to be commonplace that if Christ made satisfaction for sins, if he paid the penalty owed by us, if he appeased God by his obedience... then he acquired salvation for us by his righteousness, which is tantamount to deserving it...
Hence it is absurd to set Christ's merit against God's mercy (Inst., 2.17.1, 3, emphasis added).
Whatever latitude may be honored in our formulation of the covenant of works, our Confession is clear on this matter of being justified by the imputation of Christ's meritorious law-keeping. The Belgic Confession says that Adam "transgressed the commandment of life" (Art. 14), terminology that was used in the emerging covenant theology (especially by Bullinger and Martyr) as interchangeable with "covenant of works." I do not conclude, however, that this is so explicit as to require subscription to the classic "covenant of works" formulation. However, dispensing with the notion of merit is in clear - violation of our Confession. In Article 22,
We believe that for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him... And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified `by faith alone' or by faith `apart from works.' However, we do not mean, properly speaking, that it is faith itself that justifies us-for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness. But Jesus Christ is our righteousness in making available to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place (Art. 23, emphasis added).
It is Christ's merits, not our obedience-not even our faith, that is the ground of our salvation. "In fact, if we had to appear before God relying-no matter how little-on ourselves or some other creature, then, alas, we would be swallowed up" (Art. 23).
Under "sanctification," the Confession affirms the reality of the new birth and good works: "Yet they do not count toward our justification - for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works" (Art. 24, emphasis added). Do we all agree that justification is a purely forensic declaration that occurs without any reference to evangelical obedience? That is indeed our common confession. Although Christ has merited his crown, believers' works are acceptable only by grace. Otherwise, "we would always be tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior" (ibid., emphasis added).
The Canons of Dort condemns the view that "the imperfect obedience of faith" is "a condition of salvation," or "worthy of the reward of eternal life. For by this pernicious error the good pleasure of God and the merit of Christ are robbed of their effectiveness and people are drawn away, by unprofitable inquiries, from the truth of undeserved justification and the simplicity of Scripture" (First Head, Rejection III, emphasis added).
Rejected under the second head are those "who teach that Christ, by the satisfaction which he gave, did not certain ly merit for anyone salvation itself and the faith by which this satisfaction of Christ is effectively applied to salvation, but only acquired for the Father the authority or plenary will to relate in a new way with men and to impose such new conditions as he chose .... For they have too low an opinion of the death of Christ, do not at all acknowledge the foremost fruit or benefit which it brings forth, and summon back from hell the Pelagian error" (Second Head, Rejection III, emphasis added).
Rejection IV is especially pertinent in rejecting those Who teach that what is involved in the new covenant of grace which God the Father made with men through the intervening of Christ's death is not that we are justified before God and saved through faith, insofar as it accepts
Christ's merit, but rather that God, having withdrawn his demand for perfect obedience to the law, counts faith itself, and the imperfect obedience of faith, as perfect obedience to the law, and graciously looks upon these as worthy of the reward of eternal life ...And along with the ungodly Socinus, they introduce a new and foreign justification of man before God, against the consensus of the whole church (emphasis added).
Another brother writes of the covenant with Adam, "It was a covenant in which God would reward Adam's faith-filled obedience with a great inheritance." Is this what a covenant of grace means; namely, that instead of being justified by obedience, we are justified by "faith-filled" obedience? And this is good news? Curiously similar to scores of expressions one may find in medieval and modern Roman Catholicism, this writer adds, "Merit does not mean `earned wages' but worthiness of reward." This is nothing more or less than the Roman distinction between condign (pure) and congruent (accepted-as) merit. Regardless of what one wants to call it, "worthiness of reward" is merit of some sort. Why should it be regarded as "legalistic" to recognize Christ as having merited this inheritance for us, but "gracious" to regard believers as needing to attain it as a "worthiness of reward"?
A Covenant with Two Sides: Justification and Response
Critics of classic Reformation theology have, despite their disagreements, agreed that it really does not take James seriously,. in deference to Paul. The reformers were constantly inundated with this criticism that they rightly emphasized God's gracious initiative, but in their zeal denied the importance of obedience. (Paul anticipated just this criticism, of course, in Romans 6:1).
But no one who has actually read the reformers or the Reformation confessions, postReformation dogmatics, etc., could ever conclude that the third use of the Law or the importance of sanctification was in any way subverted. (Even the Lutheran Book of Concord clearly affirms the third use in its condemnation of antinomianism.) The reformers and their heirs were affirming the necessity of good works while denying that obedience or faithfulness in any way served as either ground or instrument of justification. Their critics (Roman, Socinian and Arminian) would quote verses that clearly warned against falling away and that called for obedience in the Christian life as if these teats somehow cancelled out the biblical understanding of justification. Only if justification is regarded as the only truth about sinful Christians can it be opposed to good works. By insisting that justification was by faith alone, apart from human obedience, they were not also saying that one could be saved in the end who did not have works.
To be sure, the covenant of grace involves two parties, as every covenant does. Rome regarded this "covenant" as essentially conditional, while the reformers and their successors recognized that there is a sense in which the covenant is unconditional (from God's side) and conditional (from the human side). God promises to provide the righteousness that sinners cannot offer, meets those conditions himself in his Son, and merits for us eternal life. Furthermore, he gives us the repentance and faith that we could never generate ourselves. This grace preserves us in repentance and faith until the very end. What could be more unconditional? Surely readers are familiar with this triumphant indicative note that is sounded again and again in our Catechism. The unconditional "good news" of God's work in Christ is the basis even for our obedient response.
And yet, who among us has ever said that one need not repent and believe the gospel in order to be saved? Further, who among us has denied that perseverance in faith and good works is a sine qua non of glorification? The covenant of grace is not made with the elect, but with believers and their children-and "not all who are Israel are Israel." Falling away from the covenant blessings is a real, not a hypothetical, danger. But it is only a danger for those who reject the means of grace and reject the promises to which they are entitled by covenantal incorporation.
The problem comes when the covenant of grace is described as a conditional covenant without qualification and is preached this way to congregations that inevitably become defined by despair and selfrighteousness. "I will be your God and you will be my people," God promises. "I will give you a new heart and write my law on your heart." "I will preserve you in faith until the very end," God tells his new covenant people through word and sacrament each Lord's Day. Even if one holds all the right doctrines (viz., justification, lawgospel) in theory, the emphasis on the conditional has always marked regress in the Reformed tradition-a legalistic falling away from the glorious gospel of Christ. One can see this in the later Puritan period, in the lengthy diatribes of John Owen and Thomas Goodwin against Richard Baxter and the "neonomians"; in the debate between John Cotton and Thomas Shepherd in New England, and in the "Marrow Controversy" in 18th-century Scotland. Conditionalist preaching keeps believers from looking outside of themselves for both faith and assurance.
The Achilles heel of Reformed (covenant) theology is the duality of the covenant: though resting on God's absolute and unconditional promises, it calls for repentance and faith from sinnersand not just once, but throughout the Christian life, as Luther's first of his NinetyFive Theses reminds us. As John von Rohr has argued so cogently in The Covenant of Grace in Puritan Thought (Scholars Press, 1986), this "di-polar" character of the covenant is always open to extremes--on one hand, denying conditionality (antinomianism), while on the other denying unconditionality (legalism). It is a risk we have to take, since scripture is thoroughly covenantal from Genesis to Revelation. But it does mean that we have to be ever vigilant against both tendencies. Faithfulness in the
Christian life is in no way a condition of justification. Sinners are justified "apart from works," without any reference whatsoever to their regeneration or new life. But if they are not regenerated and therefore bear fruit, they have not been justified. Justifying faith receives what is already done, rather than doing what needs to be done. But that faith which justifies never remains passive, but is, as Luther said, already looking around to see what good works it can perform.
What happens when we collapse the covenant of works into the covenant of grace? We end up invariably with "Law" that is not really law and "Gospel" that is not really gospel, but a confusion of the two (what a friend of mine calls "go-law-spel," typical of much of the preaching, including "Reformed" preaching in our day). If Adam was sustained by his faithfulness and Jesus was justified by his faithfulness, and all of this transpires in one covenant of grace, the implication is that we are justified on the same terms. This is not good news, but the worse possible news - unless Christians are different than Paul's description in Romans 7 and the Catechism's description in Q. 62.
The very notion of merit is a "Roman error," say some of our brethren. Yet what are the implications of this denial for essential articles of our faith? Since God's character demands perfect fulfillment of the Law (and not mere "faithfulness-in-general") as the condition of salvation, somehow merit is necessary. To quote verses about sinners after the fall (viz., "After we have done all, we can but say, 'We are but unprofitable servants"') in denial of the principle of merit is to place Adam before the fall and our sinless Savior on the same level with us. As we have seen, Calvin and the entire Reformed tradition, including the Three Forms, insist upon the principle of merit. The question is not-whether merit, but whose?
What is a Roman error is the suggestion that believers are justified on the basis of their faithfulness (congruent merit) rather than on the basis of strict merit (condign merit). This is to make the basis of Jesus' justification and our own the same. This is surely not the intention of our dissenting brethren, but it is an implication of their position. We must resist the temptation to reduce every doctrine to "covenant," although we should view every doctrine in a covenantal light. When one brother says, for instance, that faith and obedience are demanded in the covenant by God, how can we disagree? But "covenant" is a broader concept than "justification." Just as Rome failed to distinguish justification from sanctification, I fear that some of us are failing to distinguish justification from covenant.
Another Roman error is to pit forensic categories against relational ones. In my experience debating with Roman Catholics, this has been a typical tack. It has also been typical of Protestant liberalism since Harnack (contrasting a "legal" Hellenistic paradigm against a so-called Hebrew "relational" and "moral" one) and has become trade-in-stock with the therapeutic evangelicals. (See Christianity Today's 1991 cover story, "Evangelical Megashift," and the many volumes from Clark Pinnock and his circle.) They are using the same tired arguments of liberalism just at the time when biblical scholars like James Barr have exploded the Hebrew-Hellenistic business on exegetical grounds. It was intriguing to find, in a recent issue of Books and Culture, a strong reaction of a mainline Presbyterian scholar against the "forencisism" and "legalism" of a classical evangelicalism apparently too much indebted to Reformed theology answered by Thomas Oden, a mainline Methodist theologian,, who demonstrated that even Wesley shared this belief in Christ's having merited salvation by his active obedience.
I am not implying that some of our brethren are Roman Catholics or, worse yet, liberals. What I am saying is that the assumptions we use are never neutral and should never be taken for granted. Whatever light from God's word they have brought forth, Barth, Schilder, Hoeksema, Torrance, Fuller and Shepherd depart significantly on these matters from the broad consensus of Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Dispensationalism has rejected the covenant of worksgrace scheme as well. In fact, Charles Ryrie (a student of T. F. Torrance) once told me that I was a "legalist" for holding that we were justified by works-even if they were those of Jesus Christ! How can one be regarded as a legalist for affirming Christ's satisfaction of the Law? "God requires his justice to be satisfied" (HC 12), but we cannot perform sufficient obedience (HC 13), so we need the GodMan: "So that, by the power of his divinity, he might bear the weight of God's anger in his humanity and earn for us and restore to us righteousness and life"(HC. 17). Legalistic or not, this is the confession of our church. When some of our brethren speak of the "LawGospel" contrast as "Lutheran rather than Reformed" and call for a distinctly "Reformed" doctrine of justification, they show their dissatisfaction with the great truth that Calvin called "the sum of all true piety" and "the hinge upon which religion turns." I do wonder if that is how we view justification today. Are we agreed that justification is not just one doctrine among many, but the center of Christian proclamation?
A denial of the covenant of works need not lead to a denial of the evangelical doctrine of justification and slippery-slope arguments are notoriously weak, as we have seen in the creationdays controversy. However, in some of the exchanges that I have seen in recent days, confusion on justification has appeared. Whatever the confessional status of covenant formulations, there can be no doubt that our Three Forms are clear on a meritorious justification and that they unequivocally deny that justification is in any sense conditioned on human obedienceor that faith can;
in justification, be regarded as synonymous with human faithfulness. In fact, "It is not because of any value my faith has that God is pleased with me. Only Christ's satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me right with God. And I can receive this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than by faith alone" (HC 61). "Why can't the good we do ["obedient faith"] make us right with God, or at least help make us right with him? A. Because the righteousness which can pass God's scrutiny must be entirely perfect and must in every way measure up to the divine law. Even the very best we do in this life is imperfect and stained with sin ...But doesn't this teaching make people indifferent and wicked? A. No. It is impossible for those grafted into Christ by true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude" (HC 62, 64).
The covenant of works is explicitly affirmed by the Reformed tradition and stressed by the authors of the Catechism and is confessed by our Presbyterian brothers and sisters. More recent idiosyncratic views have challenged this consensus. Nevertheless, I will defend the freedom of anyone in our federation to reject this formulation. While we must be careful to confess the spirit and not just the letter of our faith (which requires some understanding of what the authors meant in their catechism's expressions), we must allow latitude even where we think that differences logically imply departures that have not actually been made.
But in our estimation, those departures about which we are worried have in fact been made and the dissent from classical formulations has in fact opened cracks well inside confessional territory. To include the definition of justification in the realm of extra-confessional latitude sets a far more egregious precedent even than requiring agreement on non-binding formulations. This is not a question of "differing views" among the Reformed. Indeed, it is not only a Reformed confession but an apostolic confession that is at stake here. The question before us is actually more serious than those over which we separated from the Christian Reformed Church and, as touching directly upon the first mark, is even more determinative of whether our young federation will remain a true Christian church. Let us come to Escondido confident that God will give us the grace to reach agreement in brotherly concord concerning the best news that God has for us and for a world that so desperately needs to hear the triumphant note of God's victory in Christ for sinners - even Christian ones.
MICHAEL S. HORTON