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Book Review

The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation & Evangelism

by Norman Shepherd

Reviewer: Mark Horne

See also “Justifying Faith: A Prima Facie Vindication of Norman Shepherd According to Reformed Orthodoxy” (PDF)

Copyright © 2002

The Call of Grace is an excellent manual to put in the hands of laymen to teach them how to rest in God’s grace while taking seriously the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. It is the only book written at a popular level that explains covenant theology. This is an odd situation, but before Shepherd wrote his book it was even stranger.

Here is the mystery: “Covenant” is perhaps the most popular name for churches in the PCA. Its name adorns both our seminary and our college. All of this is a result of the importance of Covenant theology. Yet when one looks at Reformed propaganda used widely in the PCA one encounters a never-ending stream of books and booklets about TULIP and about infant baptism. The covenant only gets mentioned in passing as a rationale for infant baptism. Other than providing support for that rite, one would think from looking at our literature that the covenant is of no importance to us at all. It is certainly undeniable that our literature designed to introduce and convince others of PCA distinctives tells a vastly different story than a glance at the names in our church directory.

Norman Shepherd in a short and easily understandable work (a mere 105 pages plus three for the preface). Introduces the concept of the covenant and analyses it by surveying the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and New Covenants. Then in Part Two he shows some practical consequences of understanding the covenant by addressing Evangelism and the basis for identifying others (or oneself) as Christians.

Shepherd’s basic thesis is that the Biblical and Reformed doctrine of the Covenant cuts the Gordian knot between legalism and antinomianism, between salvation by works and salvation by grace such that no human response is mandated. On the one hand, some have taught to one degree or the other that one is saved by earning favor from God by one’s own works while, on the other hand, others have taught that salvation is unconditional so that one may continue in sin or even renounce Christ and yet still be saved from the wrath to come. (Of course, this latter view is inconsistent if it embraces a “faith-only” antinomianism on the basis that conditions are antithetical to grace. If conditions are contrary to grace then the requirement to believe the Gospel is itself simply a legalistic heresy and another form of “works-righteousness.” As Shepherd points out, if Abraham was saved by faith, then that fact alone proves that the Abrahamic Covenant was a conditional covenant [p. 15].)

Sometimes while reading this work I thought that it is a pity it was published by P&R and contains so many references to Reformed and Presbyterian issues. The subject matter could easily be presented as a generic Evangelical teaching designed to reach many who don’t know who John Calvin is (a growing number I fear). Of course, in doing so, one would also have to bulk it up somehow with a persuasive presentation of the doctrine of the decrees, prevenient and invincible grace, and justification by faith alone. Writing to his audience, Shepherd can and does work from the assumption that his reader already knows and embraces these things, just as he does himself.

It is quite obvious from reading this work that Shepherd is greatly concerned, as his title indicates, with emphasizing and assuring his readers that God’s grace is upon them. This is a constant theme in Part Two.

The gospel would hardly appear to be good news to the reprobate, and since no one knows for sure who the elect are, no word of encouragement, comfort, or assurance can be addressed directly to them as such. As a result, we tend to proclaim the gospel in the third person, talking in terms of what Christ has done for “his own.” But the question remains: What good news can a pastor give to this or than particular person? (p. 68)

Because the Calvinist has an accomplished redemption that is particular in scope though always effective for the elect, he cannot apply it to particular persons… That is why Reformed sermons on “the doctrines of sovereign grace” are often in the third person, expressed in terms of what Christ has done “for his own,” or for those who “truly believe.” The exception is the exploration of human sin, which can be, and often is, very specific and in the second person, because of the universality of sin and depravity. It is now understandable why Calvinists tend to be more successful at preaching sin, condemnation and death than at preaching the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (p. 85).

…even those works that provide evidence of new life may themselves be deceptive. Therefore, it becomes necessary to monitor one’s assumed regeneration constantly. The anxiety of the believer under this kind of instruction bears a marked resemblance to the anxiety of Martin Luther that caused him so much grief prior to his discovery of the grace of God. Now the problem is not salvation by works, but reassurance by works.

This is only a smattering of overwhelming evidence. To claim, as some have, that Shepherd’s work smacks of legalism (and some have shown much greater temerity) is a statement as much lacking in evidence as it is overflowing with libel.

It is a sorry thing that what should be simply a recommendation of a popularly written book on practical Christianity has to be defended from doctrinaire attacks, and thus raise all sorts of unnecessary worries. It is hard to see how one can avoid this trap. While there will be those like myself who find in Shepherd’s book a great study tool for the people of the congregation, many others who might be profit from the work are being scared off by shrill slanders.

The crux of the criticism of Shepherd’s view is that he seems to say that obedience is necessary to final salvation. Before I point out that his views are completely in accord with our doctrinal standards (and even to disagree with him in this way would put one in contradiction to our standards), it might be good to point out why Shepherd’s work demand that he emphasizes this fact that salvation is conditional.

It should be obvious from what we have already said. Shepherd wants pastors to be able to assure their congregations that they are members of Christ and heirs of eternal life. He wants them to be able to address people as Paul addressed the Corinthian church:

I thank my God always concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (First Corinthians 1.4-9).

Indeed, Paul later writes of each individual in that Church, “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (First Corinthians 12.27). Yet he also has to warn them about being destroyed by Jesus’ jealousy (First Corinthians 10.14-22), and caution them not to have “believed in vain” (First Corinthians 15.2b).

How could it be otherwise? If we are instructed to regard all who name the name of Christ and who live accordingly as members of Christ, then we must acknowledge that, according to God’s inscrutable decree, not all persevere in this relationship and escape the wrath to come. Thus, the Westminster Larger Catechism asks: “What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us by reason of the transgression of the law?” (Question #153). The answer involves three elements.

That we may escape the wrath and curse of God due to us by reason of the transgression of the law, he requireth of us [1] repentance toward God, and [1] faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and [3] the diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation.

The last item on the list of three unfolds into many more in the next question and answer:

What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation?

The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation.

The Westminster Standards give us two witnesses here, since the Shorter Catechism covers the same ground in questions 85 and 88.

The Confession also demonstrates this same perspective. God, we are told,

justifies those He calls by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God (11.1).

And of “Repentance unto life” we are told

By it, a sinner, . . . so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments” (15.2).

Furthermore, we are also told that repentance is required for justification.

Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God’s free grace in Christ; yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it” (15.3).

So here are all the elements staring us in the face: Repentance is not meritorious—nor even instrumental as faith is—but it is necessary (“of such necessity”) for one who wishes to be justified (for if one is not pardoned then one is not justified), and it involves continually following God (“endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments”).

It would be easy to show more from our Standards that vindicate Shepherd, but this is more than enough. Who would want it any other way? Do I actually have to sit here at my keyboard and try to convince members and elders of an Evangelical and Protestant denominations that people must trust and follow Jesus if they would be saved from the wrath to come? Surely not!

Of course, the first Gospel sermon of the Church somehow neglects to explicitly demand that hearers trust or believe (though no doubt that is assumed). Rather, Peter demands that his listeners “repent and … be baptized” (Acts 2.38). Thus I’m disappointed that some of those who claim to believe the Bible alone is the word of God find Shepherd’s statements about baptism rather scandalous.

Since regeneration is one of the secret things that belong to God, the evangelists in Scripture do not presume to have access to knowledge of it in individual cases. They govern the church in terms of what is open and obvious to all. Christians are those who have been baptized. Unbelievers are those who have not been baptized (p. 101).

And also:

In contrast to regeneration-evangelism, a methodology oriented to the covenant structure of Scripture and to the Great Commission presents baptism as the transition point from death to life.

Again, this is a perspective deeply embedded in our doctrinal standards. For example, consider question 167 of The Larger Catechism:

How is our Baptism to be improved by us?

The needful but much neglected duty of improving our Baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body” (emphasis added).

Notice here that baptism is considered the definitive beginning of one’s Christian life and even uses language from Romans 6.3ff (which is listed as a proof text for this passage). It is not uncommon now to hear Presbyterian ministers preach that Paul is referring to some kind of dry “spiritual” baptism in that passage, but the Westminster Divines had a different idea.

To conclude then: Why should you read, or recommend to your congregation, this book?

  1. To teach your people that they can engage in whole-hearted sincere evangelism. They do not need to constantly be hampered by the “if your elect then this is good” clause that can haunt Presbyterian efforts.
  2. To reinforce to your people that they can have assurance that God loves them and that they are heirs of eternal life. They do not need to wait and see if their good works outnumber their bad. They do not need to live in doubt as to whether their “fruit” is genuine.
  3. On the other hand, to instill a godly and salutary fear in those who are being turned aside by the lure of cyberporn or the prospect of divorcing a spouse without Biblical grounds, that they will not inherit eternal life if they abandon the Faith, and that no past conversion experience can be used to trump the warning against faithlessness.
  4. To teach your congregation, especially those who are perceived as more spiritual or wiser or more righteous, that everyone in the church is to be regarded as members of God’s family whom he loves and with whom he is working.

Don’t be swayed by the controversy. The book is too helpful and too Biblical for you to be scared away from it.

Copyright © 2002

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