[ theologia ]
Theologia Cross Logo
Apologetics Bible Church History Miscellaneous Sacraments Soteriology Sermons Worship



Copyright © 2004

The ultimate condemnation of a position in Reformed circles is to show that it “leads back to Rome.” Indeed, one gets the feeling that Rome is a worse destination for a Presbyterian than even hell itself. The accusation of Rome stings deeply, of course, because it means that all the glorious gains of the Reformation are being undone and overthrown.

I am acutely aware of Rome’s deep theological, ecclesiological, and liturgical errors. While Rome can be commended for preserving (at least in principle) the core of the apostolic faith (in the ecumenical creeds; cf. Charles Hodge’s assessment in “Is the Church of Rome a Part of the Visible Church? available at http://new.hornes.org/theologia/content/cat_church.htm; for a collection of Reformed texts on the validity of Roman baptism, see http://www.perumission.org/romanbaptism.title.htm) and maintaining a firm moral stance on crucial cultural issues (e.g., abortion and the ordination of women to the priesthood), Rome holds no allure for me. I can easily and sharply distinguish my own position on key theological topics from Rome’s perspective. Thus, it is deeply distressing when I find myself accused of heading in a Romeward direction. I have no such desire or inclination (nor do any other people I know associated with the so-called “Auburn Avenue Theology” or AAT). The purpose of this essay, however, is the show that even if I wanted to go to Rome, Rome wouldn’t take me.

Much Ado about Merit

In his addendum to his essay “The Biblical Plan of Salvation,” in the book, The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons, edited by Calvin Beisner, Morton Smith suggests that my understanding of justification “rejects the classic idea of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to believers,” because I hold “that imputation is not based on the merits of Christ but on our union with him.” Further, he lays down his trump card in tagging me with the dreaded Romish “infusion” label: “Though he [Lusk] insists he holds to the imputation and not the infusion of grace, to identify our union with Christ as the basis of imputation at least suggests the idea of the infusion of grace” (page 117). In a recent article in Modern Reformation magazine (“Déjà vu All Over Again,” July/August, 2004 issue), Michael Horton accuses my theology of “having strong parallels” with Rome’s soteriology, set forth in classic form at the Council of Trent (page 23). Horton admits that I affirm “Jesus’ sinlessness, substitutionary atonement, and ‘the infinite value of his obedience’” (page 24). While I do not embrace the “’merit’ aspect of that system [of Trent],” nevertheless, my claim that obedience is necessary for salvation translates right back into Trent’s category of “congruent merit” (page 25). Both Smith and Horton are replying to my essay in colloquium book The Auburn Avenue Theology, entitled “A Response to ‘The Biblical Plan of Salvation,’” found on pages 118-148.

It is interesting that both my critics have to assert that either I do not really believe something I affirm, or I really do believe something I deny. In Smith’s case, even though I affirm imputation, because I ground imputation in union with Christ, I really believe in infusion. In Horton’s case, even though I have denied the possibility of creatures meriting their Creator’s favor, I really believe final justification is a matter of congruous merit. Apparently these men know my heart and mind better than I do. It is very difficult to win a debate – or even have a cordial discussion – when those on the “other side” put words in your mouth in this way. It’s bad enough to have one’s words twisted; it’s far worse to simply have words made up out of whole cloth and then treated as one’s own. This is precisely what these men on the “other side” have done, however unintentionally. (I put “other side” in scare quotes because I believe these men are faithful brothers in Christ, fighting on the same “side” as me in the ultimate war of history. It’s unfortunate how uncharitable attitudes have been allowed to turn what should have been a mutually profitable discussion into a sour debate. We share too much common ground to treat one another in this way. We are not “opponents.”)

The charges that I am headed to Rome simply don’t stick. Any Tridentine theologian worth his salt, upon reading my colloquium essay, would see that I have clearly rejected the most fundamental tenets of Rome’s doctrine of justification. In that essay, as already noted, I offer a barrage of arguments against merit. Roman theology requires merit; I reject it categorically. Hence, my theology and Rome’s theology mix about as well as fire and water. Last time I checked, Rome didn’t accept theologians who reject merit all the way down the line. It doesn’t work to say, with Horton, that I’ve jettisoned the term merit, while keeping the concept, unless Horton can show that I simply don’t believe my own arguments made on pages 118-131, 136-8, and 144-6. Horton thinks by finding formal parallels between my view and the theology of Trent (e.g., we both believe in final judgment according to works) that he has shown we teach substantially the same thing. That simply isn’t the case. I could just as easily (and accurately!) accuse Horton on being “on the road to Rome” since he makes Christ the meritorious cause of salvation (page 25) – just like the Council of Trent’s tenth canon on the topic!

That being said, one thing I’ve learned from this sordid affair now known as the “Auburn Avenue controversy” is that there are almost as many definitions of “merit” as there are theologians who want to talk about it. Reformed theologians have no agreed upon “merit theology.” In editing my essay for the colloquium, I actually cut out a rather large discussion I had written on problems with the condign/congruent merit distinction because I did not think it would be germane. In interacting with other Reformed theologians over the issue of merit in the aftermath of the colloquium, I have found a wide variety of views on merit, some of which I could easily live with (I don’t just want to fight over words, after all). Some of the illustrations I’ve heard used to argue for “merit” as a valid theological concept are the very illustrations I’ve used at times to argue against it (e.g., a father paying a child an allowance; the child performs duties, and yet the payment is not earned, strictly speaking). So there is a lot of confusion on this point. Cal Beisner, in his assessment of the controversy at the conclusion of the colloquium book, acknowledges (with me) that strict merit is not possible, even for Christ. But then he creates a category called “covenantal merit” which he defines as “fulfilling a condition the Creator condescends to establish” (page 325). This definition is so broad it’s virtually inescapable; on this meaning, everyone believes in merit (except perhaps universalists). But at the same time this condition-fulfilling can only be called “merit” in the most improper sense, as Francis Turretin acknowledged (see Institutes 17.5.5). Why bother with such a confusing, qualified use of the term “merit”? Why insist on an extra-biblical term, used “improperly” at that? Why not just speak of “non-meritorious covenant conditions,” or “non-contributory means,” like Sinclair Ferguson and a host of other Reformed theologians? This option seems all the more preferable when we remember that the key condition the Creator has established, the one condition which ultimately fulfills all the other conditions, is faith. Surely, we don’t want to be stuck talking about the “merits” of “faith”!

Justification and Merit: A Short History of Merit

A little more background on merit may be helpful here. The notion of merit was introduced into Christian discourse in a rather unsophisticated way by Tertullian. Obviously, since “merit” is not found in the canonical Scriptures, it had to be imported from elsewhere. Tertullian borrowed the concept from the Roman judicial system. From, there it took on a life of its own.

Philosophical realists suggested that merit had to be “real,” that is, according to strict justice. But even then, it presupposed grace, which made the meritorious act possible. So even “strict justice” was not strict in every sense; it was qualified and softened, despite the rhetoric that was often used. Insofar as Meredith Kline and his followers have insisted on strict merit in the absolute sense (e.g. a covenant of works or “works principle” totally devoid of grace), they have created a theological novelty. Augustine, Aquinas, Turretin, many Puritans, and others recognized that human merit is actually improper “merit” since it always arises from grace ultimately (even if only the grace of creation, as would have been the case in the Adamic covenant; cf. WCF 7 on God’s “voluntary condescension” and WCF 19 on God’s “enduing” Adam with ability). Yet, for realists, human obedience was regarded as “meritorious,” nonetheless, in a qualified way, since it was a real righteousness before God, e.g., it was righteousness at the creaturely level, analogous to God’s own righteousness.

Philosophical nominalists, or voluntarists, on the other hand, insisted God is free to consider any act meritorious according to his good pleasure. It’s as though God’s will was detachable from his character. Thus, merit had to do not with the intrinsic worth of an act but with its value in the covenant (that is, merit was in the eye of the beholder). The relationship between a moral act and its meritorious value to God was made contingent upon God’s free choice, not necessitated by the nature of the act itself. But the precise relation of God’s sovereignty to his revealed covenant was always a matter of uncertainty in nominalism, producing a host of pastoral problems. The covenant was only defined in terms of God’s raw power, rather than his entire being and character.

The Reformers, of course, rejected the possibility of humans attaining merit in any “realist” sense; rather, they tended to regard the covenant as a kind of voluntarist relationship (see again, e.g., WCF 7.1: “ . . . by some voluntary condescension on God’s part . . .”), though they worked hard to avoid the problems inherent in the earlier forms of nominalism. The Reformational shift may be traced back at least to Thomas Bradwardine and John Wycliffe. Wycliffe previewed the Reformation by rejecting the concept of condign merit altogether (since man could do nothing pleasing to God apart from grace), and by drastically minimizing congruous merit to God’s gracious reward of his own work in man (ala Augustine).

The Reformers further refined these notions, though there were always a variety of views floating around. In the case of Calvin, merit was almost qualified out of existence, as he radically subordinated merit to God’s free mercy (Institutes 2.17). Interestingly, according to Anthony Lane’s Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue, page 69, Calvin never referred to a “meritorious cause” of salvation, the way Trent did, showing his commitment to a merit-based soteriology was tenuous at best. In Calvin’s view “merit” is “an unscriptural and dangerous word” (Institutes 3.15.2, editor’s section heading). Calvin explains:

I must first make these prefatory remarks concerning the term “merit”: whoever first applied it to men’s works over against God’s judgment provided very badly for sincere faith. Of course, I would like to avoid verbal battles, but I wish that Christian writers had always exercised such restraint as not to take it into their heads needlessly to use such terms foreign to Scripture that would produce great offense and very little fruit. Why, I ask, was there need to drag in the term “merit” when the value of good works could without offense have been meaningfully explained by another term? How much offense this term contains is clear from the great damage it has done to the world. Surely, as it is a most prideful term, it can do nothing but obscure God’s favor and imbue men with perverse haughtiness.

I admit that the ancient writers of the church commonly used it, and would that they had not given posterity occasion for error by their misuse of one little word (Institutes 3.15.2).

Calvin is expressing my sentiments exactly. He goes on to explain that the better ancient theologians who used the term qualified it severely (e.g., Augustine, Chrysostom, Bernard), such that it was really unnecessary.

Calvin also that maintained that, while our good works did not have “merit” in their own right, they did have “value” or “worth,” because God looked upon them in light of Christ’s work on our behalf and evaluated them in terms of his fatherly kindness. This merit/worth (or merit/value) distinction is critical to Calvin’s discussion of good works in Institutes 3.15-18. For example, in one place Calvin writes, “Of his own fatherly generosity and loving-kindness, and without considering their worth [used here in the sense of ‘merit’], he raises works to this place of honor, so that he attributes some value to them” (3.17.3). Thus when Horton accuses my own merit/value distinction of being Romish (page 25; see my colloquium essay, page 146), I must beg to differ. It’s pure Calvinism, not Tridentine theology, and Calvin himself draws this sharp distinction:

Finally, while they [the Roman teachers] repeatedly inculcate good works, they in the meantime so instruct consciences as to discourage all their confidence that God remains kindly disposed and favorable to their works. But we, on the other hand, without reference to merit, still remarkably cheer and comfort the hearts of believers by our teaching, when we tell them they please God in their works and are without doubt acceptable to him . . . (3.15.7).

Peter Wallace’s “Covenant and Inhertiance” essay (available at http://www.nd.edu/~pwallace/inheritance.htm) sums up Turretin’s view of merit quite nicely (based on Turretin’s Institutes, 17.5.5, 7):

Indeed, Turretin admits that if you define merit in the patristic sense as “a work imputable to praise,” then we can all admit that not only Christ’s works, but even our own works are meritorious, because, as Augustine put it, “he crowns his own gifts.” But Turretin calls this the broad and improper sense of merit. He insists that the proper definition of merit must remain within the realm of strict justice, and therefore he declares that “Adam himself, if he had persevered, would not have merited life in strict justice, although (through a certain condescension) God promised him by a covenant life under the condition of perfect obedience (which is called meritorious from that covenant in a broader sense . . . ).”

Of course, Wallace also notes that this “improper” use of “merit” leaves us with some rather odd concepts, such as sons who “merit” inheritances.

Many of the Puritans also rejected any kind of “hard merit” theology and qualified God’s justice with reference to his covenantal promise. According to Ernest Kevan, “Nearly all the Puritans concurred in the view that whatever good Adam would have received by his obedience was of grace . . . There was no real merit involved in Adam’s relation to God, although because of the covenant it would have been ‘in justice’ that God would have rewarded him” (Grace of Law, 112). In other words, the Puritans viewed God’s justice through the lens of the covenantal grace; justice was regarded not as an abstraction, but as a covenantal category.

The Westminster Standards do not overtly teach the covenant with Adam was meritorious; in fact, as already mentioned, they speak of God’s “voluntary condescension” (or grace) as the basis of that covenant. They do ascribe merit to Christ, of course, though they leave the term itself undefined. In context (WCF 17.2), “merit” simply seems to be a way of describing Christ’s work on our behalf. This is not really problematic; no particular philosophy of merit is espoused.

Though these issues are complex and beg for further discussion, we will restrain ourselves. For more on this conversation in contemporary Reformed theology, see Ralph Smith, Eternal Covenant: How the Trinity Reshapes Covenant Theology, 62ff and Lee Irons, “Redefining Merit: An Examination of Medieval Presuppositions in Covenant Theology” available at http://www.upper-register.com/ct_gospel/redefining_merit.html. Smith points out that Iron’s Klinean reformulation of condign and congruous merit into covenantal merit is a case of special pleading. The term “merit” is rescued only by means of radical redefinition. In such a scheme, “merit” really means nothing other than “covenant faithfulness,” though at least the latter term preserves the biblical language. If “merit” is simply fulfillment of the covenant conditions, then “merit” isn’t meritorious at all. Irons must either admit merit isn’t a matter of strict justice (because it is qualified by the covenant) or he must admit that condign merit and abstract justice really do exist.

James Jordan drives the point home, showing that merit is really a dispensable theological category:

“Merit” is an unhappy term. Once a non-Biblical term gets into theological discourse, theologians work over its definition to try and get it to square with Biblical teaching. Sometimes a new term is most felicitous, such as the term “trinity,” which is really just a synonym for “God.” The term “merit,” however, is much more problematic [e.g., it is not a mere synonym for “obedience” or “righteousness”]. What are “merits”? Are they “brownie points” that we present to God as a bribe? Surely not. When a sophisticated Reformed theologian refines the term “merit” thoroughly enough, it comes out meaning “sustained faithfulness.” I suggest we throw out the confusing word “merit” and speak only of faithfulness. It would greatly simplify and Biblicize our theological discourse” (from “Observations on the Covenant of Works Doctrine,” available at http://www.biblicalhorizons.com/bh/bh052.htm).

Thus, I continue to stand tentatively by my earlier assessment: A significant weakness in the Reformation was its failure to completely eradicate the notion of merit altogether. Considering that some version of merit stood at the foundation of the corrupt medieval practices of indulgences, the treasury of merits, prayers to the saints, penance, and so forth, it is clear that the concept has wrought great havoc. It obscures the true (non-meritorious) nature of covenant conditionality and tends to confuse evangelical “obedience of faith” with legalistic “works of the law.” “Merit,” as a category, can be rescued, no doubt, but the project doesn’t seem to be worth the effort. I agree with Peter Wallace’s wise assessment, “Whether you wish to use the language of merit depends entirely on which of its many definitions you choose” (from “Covenant and Inheritance”). But given the inherent problems, I think it best we wipe the slate clean.

Justification and Sola Fide

Rome wouldn’t have me because I insist that justification is fully forensic and is received by faith alone. With the Reformers, and against Trent, I view justification as a law court term, not a process of moral renewal. Justification is the divine verdict, pronounced over us once and for all, when we are united to Christ by faith. This does not preclude a future dimension to our justification, but it does mean whatever justification is yet to come, when we are “openly acquitted” at the last day, will simply be a renewal and reapplication of the verdict already received at conversion (WSC 38). Even when God continually forgives our sin (cf. 1 Jn. 1:8-9; see also Calvin’s Institutes 3.14.10: “[God] by continual forgiveness of sins repeatedly acquits us”), we are receiving nothing more than a reapplication of his prior justification. My colloquium essay does not even hint that I believe in infusion (a term I never use), as Smith claims. In no way do I believe that our works produce or cause our justification. In no way do I suggest our works satisfy God’s justice or form the ground of the favorable verdict we receive. These things shouldn’t even come up for discussion; they’re not on the table with the AAT as far as I can tell.

As I argue in my colloquium essay, we are justified solely in Christ. Smith may not like the way I ground justification in union with Christ, but he does not demonstrate the problem with this formulation. To do so, he’d have to tangle with Calvin and Dick Gaffin (both are quoted on page 143 of my colloquium essay).

Smith sidesteps this issue of the relation of justification to union with Christ, leaving his charges against me hanging in mid-air. This is all the more strange, given the fact that he writes in his own colloquium essay, “The ground for the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity lies in the union that we have with him” (page 106). I agree with this view of “original sin,” and see it as common ground between us. More surprisingly, Smith later says, “[S]pecifically it is in Christ that we are justified” (page 112). If my appeal to union with Christ “suggests the idea of infusion” (page 117) surely his does as well! What gives?

In the most controversial section of my paper (pages 141-2, which have been selectively quoted against me, e.g., on page 9 of the July/August, 2004 issue of Modern Reformation) I am not even describing my own view! I’m laying out the views of some contemporary theologians (namely, Tom Wright and Don Garlington; see page 141) who (on my interpretation) tie justification into union with Christ and therefore see a doctrine of imputation as redundant. It’s not that they deny imputation as such; it’s just that they already see imputation as bound up in Paul’s doctrine of union with Christ, and see no need to create a stand-alone doctrine of imputation in addition to union with Christ. While sympathizing with them on exegetical grounds (see my two illustrations on page 142; no critic has explained why my assessment of the superiority of illustration #2 is wrong), I have no problem speaking of imputation, provided it is kept in the context of our in-Christness. This citation from Gaffin’s Resurrection and Redemption (page 132 in Gaffin’s book; page 143 in my colloquium paper) should have made that point clear:

Paul does not view the justification of the sinner (the imputation of Christ’s righteousness) as an act having a discrete structure of its own. Rather, as with Christ’s resurrection, the act of being raised with Christ in its constitutive, transforming character is at the same time judicially declarative; that is, the act of being joined to Christ is conceived of imputatively. In this sense the enlivening action of resurrection (incorporation) is itself a forensically constitutive declaration.

Do I Believe in the Imputation of Christ’s Active Obedience?

Christ’s active obedience is integral to the gospel. My point in the colloquium essay was not to deny the imputation of Christ’s active obedience (see page 140: “First, there is no question the perfect obedience of Jesus played a vital role in his salvific work on our behalf . . . So his active obedience is necessary to guarantee the efficacy and worth of his death and guarantee his resurrection on the other side”) but to situate that doctrine within a broader, eschatological framework. How does the active obedience of Christ fit within the broader sweep of the biblical metanarrative? Jesus did more than merely keep the law. In fact, the NT says very little about Jesus’ law-(Torah)-keeping as such (but cf. Mt. 5:17-20 and Gal. 4:4-5). It focuses more generically on his obedience (e.g., Phil 2:8) and his faithfulness (e.g., Gal 2:16). This is because Jesus came not only as the New Israel, but as the New Adam, the one through whom God’s plan not only for the chosen nation but for all of humanity would come to fulfillment. When Paul speaks of Jesus’ “righteous act” (Rom. 5:18) he isn’t so much focusing on Jesus’ Torah-keeping (though that is certainly included); rather, he has in view Jesus’ obedience to his Father’s whole saving plan for the cosmos, which, of course, transcends the law and is culminated at the cross. Jesus fulfilled his vocation in living as the faithful one (in place of Adam’s and Israel’s faithlessness) and in dying on the cross under the double curse of Adam’s fall and Israel’s broken law. To complete his plan of salvation, the Father raised him up on the third day.

The resurrection is the key to the new status we receive in Christ. In my colloquium essay, I homed in on Rom. 4:25. Despite Gaffin’s best efforts (see again his wonderful Resurrection and Redemption), I think we have still significantly underplayed the role of Christ’s resurrection in our justification in contemporary Reformed theology. It’s not enough to talk about how Jesus lived a sinless life (his active obedience) and died on the cross for our sins (his passive obedience). We have to press on through to talk about the resurrection as well. The gospel includes Christmas and Good Friday, but it doesn’t stop there; it also includes Easter. And yet my exegetical appeal to Rom. 4:25 has been ignored. Exactly why broadening out our understanding of the doctrine of justification to include the resurrection should prove to be controversial is hard to figure. But nevertheless, that’s where things stand right now.

In my colloquium essay, I said,

The resurrection is the real centerpiece of the gospel since it is the new thing God has done. This seems to be the thrust of Rom. 4:25. It is not Christ’s life-long obedience per se that is credited to us. Rather, it is his right-standing before the Father, manifested in his resurrection. His resurrection justifies us because it justified him . . . Christ shares his legal status in God’s court with as the One who propitiated God’s wrath on the cross and was resurrected into a vindicated, glorified form of life (141).

Later on, I wrote, on pages 142-143,

If I am in Christ, he is my substitute and representative. All he suffered and accomplished was for me. All he has belongs to me.

With regards to justification, this means my right standing before the Father is grounded in Christ’s own right standing before the Father. So long as I abide in Christ, I can no more come under the Father’s negative judgment than Jesus himself can!

I have this assurance because Jesus died in my stead, taking the penalty my sins deserved to secure my forgiveness. On the third day, he was raised to life for my justification. His resurrection was his own justification, as the Father reversed the Jewish and Gentile death sentences passed against him. But it was the justification of all those who are in him as well. He was raised up on the basis of his flawless obedience to the Father. Death could not hold him because he was a righteous man. His status is now my status . . .

We may conceive of union with Christ imputatively, if we wish, but the key is to affirm that if we are in Christ we share in his right standing before the Father (cf. 1 Cor. 1:30).

In the addendum, I summarized the matter:

Interestingly, critics of my essay have generally ignored Romans 4:25 and the function of the resurrection in our justification. It was suggested to me that by denying a place for Christ’s active obedience in my doctrine of justification, my view leaves us in Adam’s probationary state. But I would argue the reverse is the case. If all we have credited to us is Jesus’ pre-resurrection (pre-eschatological) obedience, we are still in need of eschatological justification. We are still in need of new age righteousness. We are still not glorified priest-kings, reigning over the creation from heaven. We are still in need of eschatological, resurrection life. Thankfully, such is not the case. For Paul, the resurrection justifies precisely because it takes us beyond the Adamic/Torah phase of history into something new and more mature (Gal. 3-4). We are justified because we are in Jesus and he was justified at his resurrection. The resurrection, rather than the active obedience, is the real linchpin [because it includes the active and passive obedience, but moves beyond them].

Look closely at the flow of this argument. I have fully acknowledged that at the heart of the gospel stands a crediting (or an imputation). Christ’s righteousness is our righteousness in the divine law court. His righteousness is our only hope and surety of justification. But note: it is not Christ’s righteous character as such or his thirty-plus years of obedience that get reckoned to our account. Rather, it is the verdict the Father passed over him. The Father declared Jesus righteous; that verdict took the shape of the resurrection (cf. 1 Timothy 3:16). Now (by faith alone, of course) that verdict belongs to us. He shares his legal righteousness and vindication with us. This is a forensic, external, and gracious justification.

Surely, it is plainly obvious that nothing from the typical “imputation of Christ’s active obedience” formulation has been lost – only nuanced. Everything found in that wonderful answer to WSC 33 is preserved. Indeed, the imputation of Christ’s active obedience is tightly included in my view, since the verdict the Father passes over the Son in the form of the resurrection is grounded upon his perfect obedience. The imputed verdict brings with it the perfect record of obedience upon which the verdict was based. Thus, my view makes the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience, as well as the resurrection, internal to the doctrine of justification.

This doctrine is not new, even if it has been obscured and overshadowed. For example, Henrich Heppe paraphrases the view of Caspar Olevianus in this way in Reformed Dogmatics, 498-499:

[T]his first exaltation of Christ (i.e., the resurrection) . . . is itself a practical declaring righteous of all those who are aroused to faith in Christ. Just as by giving the Son to death the Father actually condemned all our sins in him, the Father also by raising Christ up from the dead, acquitted Christ of our sin-guilt and us in Christ (Olevian, pp. 76-77). So Christ’s resurrection is our righteousness, because God further regards us in the perfection in which Christ rose. Whereas the Father regarded us previously in the dying Son as sinners, He sees us now in the resurrected Son as righteous; or rather; whereas previously He regarded the Son in our sins as sinner, He regards Him now, and us in Him, as the person which He is, and which He is not for Himself [only] but for us [as well] (Olevian, p. 80).

In other words, Olvianus viewed the cross and resurrection as forensic events. In the cross, Christ is condemned as a sinner in our stead; in the resurrection, he enters into a state of vindication for us. It should be easy enough to see how Olvianus’ view arises from exegesis of passages like Rom. 4:25 and 1 Tim. 3:16. Further evidence of Olevianus’ single-minded preoccupation with the death and resurrection of Christ as the basis of our justification may be found in consulting his book, A Firm Foundation: An Aid to Interpreting the Heidelberg Catechism, translated and edited by Lyle Bierma, pages 111-112.

While some may not think this view well-founded exegetically, it is hard for me to see why anyone would accuse me of denying the gospel as such, or subverting the Reformed confessions. This view is only ever so slightly different from what is now regarded as the standard view (and has deep affinities with the views of many early Reformers and Puritans). It is nothing more than a refinement, hopefully well-informed by the best Reformed biblical theology. It certainly isn’t Rome’s view – not even close!

The Faithfulness of Christ

We can come at the active obedience issue from another angle. I follow a host of contemporary Pauline scholars who take pistis christou as a subjective genitive, that is, as a reference to Christ’s own faith. (See especially Richard Hays’ work The Faith of Christ and D. W. B. Robinson’s article “Justification and the Faith of Jesus,” available at http://www.presenttruthmag.com/archive/XLIV/44-3.htm. I won’t enter into the arguments here since that would be tangential to my main point.) But if we are justified by Christ’s own faithfulness (e.g., Rom. 3:22; Gal 2:16), such that his faithfulness is ours, surely this is no different than saying that his active obedience has been credited to us. Christ’s obedience is his faithfulness and vice versa. He obeyed because he believed. Thus, we get both: the root and fruit of his life of sacrificial love.

To say we’re justified by the faithfulness of Christ, in a sense, even “out-Luthers” Luther (and the other Reformers), since it makes it absolutely clear that the ground of our justification lies outside of us. Even our faith (the sole instrument of our justification) is simply a sharing in Christ’s own life of faith. His story – his life of sustained faithfulness – is now my story because his faith has become mine.

So Christ was the perfectly faithful man. He lived a life of total faith in his Father. While his faith obviously has significant discontinuities with our faith, we must see our faith is simply the result of our being swept up into union with him. Our life of faith derives from and depends upon and gets its efficacy from his life of faith. Everything needed for salvation – even faith itself – is located in Christ. We need look nowhere else. Calvin said it best:

We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ [Acts 4:12]. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is “of him” [1 Cor. 1:30]. If we seek any other gift of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity in his conception; if gentleness; it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects [Heb. 2:17] that he might learn to feel our pain [cf. Heb. 5:12]. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross [Gal. 3:13]; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other (Institutes 2.14.19).

I would only add: if we seek faith, we find it in his life of faithfulness. If we seek justification, we find it in his own justification on Easter Sunday. Everything is in Christ. Again, Calvin: “Our righteousness is not in us but in Christ, . . . we possess it only because we are partakers of Christ” (Institutes 3.11.23).

This focus on Christ’s faithfulness (and our participation therein) is crucial, because it also allows us to carefully distinguish faith and works (the fruit of faith). While faith and obedience are inseparably and organically related (as Christ’s own life shows), nevertheless, only faith can unite us to Christ. Works cannot play that function. And so whatever role works play, they cannot be the ground of our justification, or even the instrument of our justification in the same way that faith is instrumental. Works are necessary, to be sure, but they are not parallel or analogous to faith; they flow out of faith. By faith, and by faith alone, we receive all that Christ possesses on our behalf, including justification.

Thus, I have no bone to pick with the doctrine of imputation. I think it makes good sense in terms of our union-with-Christ theology. Indeed, as I said in the colloquium essay, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is simply a “corollary of union with Christ” (page 143). Reformed heavy weights such as Calvin, Gaffin, and Anthony Hoekema have felt no tension between union with Christ and a forensic, imputed justification. But insofar as Rome’s doctrine of justification is transformational and infusion-oriented, rather than forensic and imputation-oriented, Rome won’t have me. Going to Rome would require a wholesale recasting of my entire theology of the covenant and justification, a move I’m not willing to make.

A Theology of Conditions and the Way of Salvation: Faith, Works, and Final Judgment

AAT advocates have been accused of formalism/antinomianism by some critics because some of us teach “baptism saves” (more on that below; the slogan is biblical enough, 1 Pt. 3:21, but needs unpacking and qualification). Sometimes, the same critics accuse us of legalism because we insist that faithful obedience is necessary for final salvation. While such contradictory criticisms reveal that many on the “other side” still do not understand our paradigm, it might be helpful to make a few quick remarks on the relationship of faith and works to justification and salvation.

As already stated, faith and works can be distinguished. Faith alone is the instrument of justification because faith alone unites us to Christ. At the same time, faith and works must be put on a continuum because, as the Reformers insisted, “the faith that alone justifies is never alone.” Faith is not dead, but living, vibrant, obedient, penitent, loving, and so forth. Faith brings within it and with it all the other virtues (or, to put it another way, faith is not mere assent). Obedience is not something tacked onto faith, but something that grows organically out of faith, expressive of faith. In that sense, faith is unique; in an ultimate sense it is the only condition for salvation.

Nevertheless, there are other conditions in a subordinate sense. WCF 14.2 describes the various functions of faith, including obedience. WCF 10-18 show conclusively that sanctification, repentance, good works, and perseverance are all necessary elements of salvation, arising out of our faith-union with Christ. Of course, all of this is by God’s sovereign grace; we make no contribution to our salvation, other than “working out” what God “works in” (Phil. 2:12-13). All conditions for salvation are both gifts of grace and human acts. But the priority always rests with God’s work, not ours.

God has most fully revealed himself in the humanity of Jesus; as we are swept up into union with him by faith, we come to participate in his life of faith-filled obedience, and indeed, in the glorious life of the Trinity, a life of self-giving, self-sacrificial love. Thus, union with Christ is the root of everything. Any and all covenant conditions must be understood within this wider framework of union with Christ, the One who has already kept the covenant in full on our behalf, and who shares that covenant keeping (as both status and life) with us. All covenant conditions are intrinsic to our union with Christ, not extrinsic (as though they had to be met from outside of union with Christ). The conditions are not so much, “Do this and live,” (however true that is; Lev. 18:5), but “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).

Covenantal conditions should be distinguished from legal, or contractual, conditions. Conditions, after all, function somewhat differently in familial contexts, compared to economic or business contexts. For example, I may have certain blessings in store for my son (e.g., getting his driver’s license when he turns 16; receiving an inheritance; etc.) that are contingent upon a certain level of maturation and obedience. But if he meets the conditions, he hasn’t “merited” the blessings (except perhaps in an extremely mitigated sense – which I am fully aware some theologians want to preserve in their theological vocabularies). He has simply moved along the pathway towards which the blessings come to realization. The relationship between the conditions and the blessings is organic. The conditions function within the wider sphere of a familial bond of love and promise, not a (more impersonal) employer/employee relationship (and, yes, I realize some employee/employer relationships are quite familial, but for illustrative purposes I draw the contrast).

The conditions are ultimately eschatological. In other words, they serve to answer questions about final judgment, about what God requires of us that we may escape his wrath and be vindicated at the last day (cf. WSC 85). Our “final justification” before God will not be an event that changes our status – after all, that is already settled, as we have already received full acquittal in our “initial justification.” (Thus, in an ultimate sense, there is one and only one justification. It is a forensic declaration, so it cannot be a progressive process.) But there are also passages of Scripture (e.g., Rom. 2:1-6; Rev. 22:12) which highlight the role of works at the last judgment. This is because what is for now only a matter of faith (our acquittal) will be openly revealed at the last day. This judgment will be according to works (2 Cor. 5:10). God will publicly pass judgment in our favor, simultaneously condemning the wicked. And the public evidence on which that positive judgment will be based will be the faith-wrought good works we have done in Christ (Mt. 25:31ff; note the validity of our faith is especially measured by our care for the poor). These works are not the ground of our justification or glorification, but they will serve as evidence that we belong to Christ. Of course, in rewarding us for our works with salvation, God will only be crowning his own gifts.

Obedience, then, as we’ve seen, can never earn anything; our salvation is constantly described as a gift and an inheritance in Scripture for just this reason (even in those contexts where works come into view; see again Mt. 25:31ff, especially verse 34). At the same time, obedience is the way we must travel into that final inheritance. (The “way” theme is rather prominent in Scripture, e.g., Proverbs, Mark, and Acts.) We aren’t saved by works, but neither are we saved without them. God accepts us as we are, but doesn’t let us stay that way. This was just the teaching of the Reformers.

Calvin addresses this point when he says, “Those whom the Lord has destined by his mercy for the inheritance of eternal life he leads into possession of it, according to his ordinary dispensation, by means of good works” (Institutes 3.14.21; emphasis added). Calvin distinguished the “way” of obedience, leading into the promised inheritance, from meritorious works (including congruous merit; cf. our earlier discussion of the merit/value distinction). Calvin insisted on obedience, without getting entangled in merit, because he understood the covenantal context of salvation.

Calvin says works are inferior causes of salvation in the same section. I wouldn’t want to put it that way myself; causality is a notoriously confusing philosophical category. However, Calvin’s language does reveal the stress he put upon obedience as a necessary feature of salvation. With reference to God’s judgment, Calvin says in 3.15.4 (emphasis added):

Yet because he examines our works according to his tenderness, not his supreme right, he therefore accepts them as if they were perfectly pure; and for this reason, although unmerited, they are rewarded with infinite benefits, both of the present life and also of the life to come. For I do not accept the distinction made by learned and otherwise godly men that good works deserve the graces that are conferred upon us in this life, while everlasting salvation is the reward of faith alone. On the other hand, so to attribute to the merit of works the fact that we are showered with grace upon grace as to take it away from grace is contrary to the teaching of Scripture . . . Whatever, therefore, is now given to the godly as an aid to salvation, even blessedness itself, is purely God’s beneficence. Yet both in this blessedness and in those godly persons, he takes works into account. For in order to testify to the greatness of his love towards us, he makes not only us but the gift he has given us worthy of such honor.

Turretin says the same thing in his Institutes when he writes good works are “required as the means and way for possessing salvation . . . [A]lthough works may be said to contribute nothing to the acquisition of salvation, still they should be considered necessary to the obtainment of it, so that no one can be saved without them” (17.3.3-4; emphasis added). He goes on in 17.3.12:

This very thing is no less expressly delivered concerning future glory. For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (Jn. 3:5, 16; Mt. 5:8); of the ‘way’ to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil 3:14); of the ‘sowing’ to the harvest (Gal. 6:7,8); of the ‘firstfruits’ to the mass (Rom. 8:23); of ‘labor’ to the reward (Mt. 20:1); of the ‘contest’ to the crown (2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27).

John Ball, a representative Puritan, wrote in his treatise on faith (emphasis added)

The commandments of God are laid before believers, not as the cause for obtaining of eternal life, but as the way to walk in unto eternal life, assured unto us by the free promise and gift of God . . . Our Savior Christ said to the young man in the Gospel [in Mt. 19], ‘If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.’ . . . We grant, the Law to which our Savior referred that young man, to be the rule of obedience according to which people in covenant ought to walk, building their works of righteousness upon faith as the foundation; and obedience, issuing from faith unfeigned, to be the way to eternal bliss.

Jonathan Edwards, whose thought marks the culmination of Puritan theological development, insisted that God rewards good works with salvation not because of merit but because of the covenant of grace. While Christ alone has performed all the conditions necessary for salvation on behalf of his people, there are subordinate conditions that must be met in Christ’s people, including faith, love, obedience, and perseverance. The fulfillment of these various conditions on our part only have worth because of our relation to Christ, established by faith alone. Edwards wrote, “Faith, when spoken of as compared with works, or an universal and persevering obedience, it may be said alone to be the condition of salvation, if by ‘condition’ we mean that which of itself, without the actual performance of the others, will, according to the tenor of the divine promise, give a man a certainty of life” (Misecllany 518; emphasis added). In other words, we are saved through faith alone; no other virtue can supplant the place of faith. Again: “God don’t justify us . . . upon the account of any act of ours . . . but only upon the account of what the Savior did” (Miscellany 416). So Edwards maintained the uniqueness of faith and the foundational role of Christ’s work. Nevertheless, “The actual possession of eternal benefits is suspended on a condition yet to be fulfilled: perseverance in good works” (Miscellany 689). In other words, those who are in Christ for justification must also come to share in his life in a practical, persevering way.

In his treatise on justification, Edwards writes, “God in the act of justification, which is passed on a sinner’s first believing, has respect to perseverance, as being virtually contained in that first act of faith; and ‘tis looked upon and taken by him that justifies, as being as it were a property in that faith that then is.” Edwards believed in an eschatological justification. Miscellany 847 makes the same point: “Even after conversion, the sentence of justification in a sense remains still to be passed, and the man remains still in a state of probation for heaven.” Saving faith is not separable from love; indeed, “love is of the essence of faith, yea, is the very life and soul of it . . . [T]he operative or practical nature of it [faith] is the life and soul of it” (Miscellany 820, 868). Thus faith cannot be minimized to intellectual assent; faith involves not just the mind, but the whole person: “Our act of closing with and accepting Christ is not in all respects completed by our accepting him with our hearts till we have done it practically too, and so have accepted him with the whole man: soul, spirit, and body” (Miscellany 951). It has been well said that Edwards represents experiential Christianity at its best. The AAT wants to carry on that tradition, not promote barren formalism.

Thus, we have seen that Calvin, Turretin, and the Puritans insist that works are a means to the end of final salvation. They viewed eternal life as an organic reward for obedience. Good works are the son’s way into his final inheritance. All of this is enveloped in a larger doctrine of union with Christ by faith alone, of course. Works, at most, are not causal, but instrumental (in a way secondary and subordinate to faith) and evidential. Works are necessary for final acquittal and glorification (Mt. 25:31ff; cf. WSC 38; WCF 33), but do not procure those blessings in any sense. The teaching of AAT on this point should not be controversial: we believe the way of salvation is faith and obedience, or, as Paul puts it, “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; cf. Rom. 5-8). This is nothing new to Reformed circles; careful readers will note that it’s quite distinct from Rome’s scheme of unformed/formed faith, congruous merit, and synergism. While formulations may vary among Reformed theologians (and we do not claim to have perfected our forms of expression), the only real substantial alternative to the AAT’s approach is antinomianism.

Law/Gospel and “Monocovenantalism”: Elementary Mistakes

Further confusion has been created over differing approaches to law/gospel and covenant theology. Again, there is a good deal of talking past one another, and the AAT is not a monolith. The charge has been made that AAT is “monocovenantal”; that is to say, it fails to distinguish various covenant epochs from another (especially pre-fall/post-fall and Abrahamic/Mosiac administrations). By squashing everything together, we end up denying the gospel. We’ve collapsed the “covenant of works” into the “covenant of grace.” For example, Rick Phillips, on the tape “Q and A Session 1” at the 2004 Greenville Theology Conference says

One of the things you see with Auburn Avenue, and that kind of general approach that they’re a part of, is just a phenomenon to mush all the covenants into one so you don’t have distinct redemptive covenants working progressively, but you have covenant as a phenomenon . . . Their tendency is to argue that there is no significant difference between any covenants in the Bible, and so you are just to be a covenant keeper and you’ll be saved.

The problem here is partly terminological, partly theological, partly exegetical. On the one hand, the terms “law” and “gospel” can be used in different ways. In some theological contexts, “law” and “gospel” refer to different ages within God’s program of redemptive history. On this scheme, the tension (or contrast) between law and gospel is eschatological; law and gospel are placed on a continuum as successive eras within history (Gal. 3:21). In other theological contexts, “law” means bare command (a “covenant of works”) and “gospel” means God’s free work of salvation in Christ. Law = imperatives; gospel = indicatives (for those in Christ). On this view, law and gospel are set side by side and represent two antithetical modes of salvation.

AAT advocates believe the former use of terms squares more accurately with biblical exegesis (that is to say, with the Bible’s own use of the terms and concepts; cf. my colloquium essay, pages 127-135). Thus, AAT advocates are accused of denying the famed law/gospel antithesis. But of course, we concede in theory that if “law” means “bare command” rather than the “Mosaic covenant” as such (which is part of the covenant of grace, per WCF 7.5, 6; 19.3, 7), then there is an absolute law/gospel antithesis. If the law is taken out of the context of the covenant (e.g., Ex. 20:1-2), it becomes a moralistic program of self-salvation. But this is where we differ: We do not believe that God offered Israel a hypothetical program of works righteousness at Sinai. While some within the Reformed tradition have argued for a “works principle” within the Mosaic covenant, this has not been the only Reformed view or even the majority view (see, e.g., Samuel Bolton’s True Bounds of Christian Liberty and Ernest F. Kevan’s The Grace of Law). Our understanding of the Mosaic law as an administration of grace is well within the parameters of historic Reformed thought (see John Frame’s “Law and Gospel” for a contemporary expression, available at http://www.chalcedon.edu/articles/0201/020104frame.shtml).

The law/gospel antithesis is bound up with the notion of covenant as contract (legal relationship). But this is one sided; it over-privileges God’s justice vis-à-vis his other attributes. It should be noted that Reformed covenant theology arose out of a medieval and early modern context in which “covenant” was used primarily in legal, political, and economic contexts, rather than theological and exegetical contexts. While the Reformed tradition never embraced a straight contractual notion of covenant (cf., e.g., the language of “inheritance” in WCF 7.4), sometimes the filial/familial dimension of the covenant relationship was not stressed as it ought to have been. This is especially true in the theology of Meredith Kline and his followers. Our doctrine of the covenant should integrate the full orbed revelation of God’s being and character, including his Triunity, as well as his grace, justice, and love.

We’re accused of “monocovenantalism” because we focus on faith as the ultimate covenant condition in every age. That is to say, faith is part and parcel of the Creator/creature relationship (see, e.g., my colloquium essay, pages 124-5, 129; see also Tim Gallant’s essay “Monocovenantalis? Multiple Covenants, No Adamic Merit,” available at http://www.timgallant.org/monocovenantalism.htm). Of course, this is just the view found in the best of the Reformed tradition, e.g., Zacharias Ursinus’s Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, page 99: “There is but one covenant because the principal conditions, which are called the substance of the covenant, are the same before and since the incarnation of Christ; for in each testament God promises to those that repent and believe, the remission of sins; whilst men bind themselves, on the other hand, to exercise faith in God, and to repent of their sins.” Faith has always been central in the God-man relationship.

Aside from the fact that “monocovenantalism” sounds like a contagious disease, the label doesn’t quite fit the facts. While it is true that we believe man’s relationship to the Creator is always based on faith, this is no more “monocovenantal” than Hebrews 11, which focuses on the faith of the godly in every old covenant era. WLC 101 makes the same point with regard to the Mosaic law: Israel at Sinai was to take God as her Redeemer and Lord, something which can only be done by faith. (On faith before the fall, see my colloquium essay, pages 124-5. It is rather obvious from Gen. 3:1-5 that the serpent sought to undermine Eve’s faith in the Word of God.)

Likewise, critics seem to have taken our view that Scripture is one story (a grand, overarching metanarrative) and turned that into “monocovenantalism,” when in fact the very notion of “story” suggests a developing drama rather than a static unity. A unified narrative does not necessarily mean there is only one covenant. Indeed, the various covenants may be thought of as distinct chapters within the story of God’s great work of salvation. This progressive continuity of the covenants (I like to think of biblical history in terms of a spiral: repetitive advancement, or eschatological recapitulation) is described on pages 122-3 and 125 of the colloquium book.

Stressing faith as the core covenantal requirement does not mean we have flattened out the contours of covenant history. While different AAT theologians have slightly different views, for my part, I certainly see maturation and progression as history unfolds. Indeed, my colloquium paper has a section on Gal. 3-4 in which I sharply distinguish the Abrahamic promise from the Mosaic law (pages 132-5). While faith and faith-wrought good works are necessary in every era (with the important caveat that faith alone is the instrument of justification for fallen sinners, though faithfulness is certainly required by the covenant taken as a whole), the nature of the covenant relationship does change in history. The basic movement is from promise to fulfillment, from childhood to maturity.

Calvin captured this dynamic well in Institutes 2.10.20:

For the method and economy which God observed in administering the covenant of his mercy was, that the nearer the period of its full exhibition approached, the greater the additions which were daily made to the light of revelation. Accordingly, at the beginning, when the first promise of salvation was given to Adam, (Gen. 3: 15,) only a few slender sparks beamed forth: additions being afterwards made, a greater degree of light began to be displayed, and continued gradually to increase and shine with greater brightness, until at length all the clouds being dispersed, Christ the Sun of righteousness arose, and with full refulgence illumined all the earth, (Mal. 4.)

The old age was prepatory and typological of the coming Messiah and his kingdom.

Consider also Calvin’s unpacking of Gal. 3:23ff in Institutes II.11.13:

God ought not to be considered changeable merely because he accommodated diverse forms to different ages, as he knew would be expedient for each…[I]f a householder instructs, rules, and guides his children one way in infancy, another way in youth, and still another in young manhood, we shall not on this account call, him fickle and say that he abandons his purpose. Why, then, do we brand God with the mark of inconstancy because he has with apt and fitting marks distinguished a diversity of times? The latter comparison ought to satisfy us fully. Paul likens the Jews to children, Christians to young men (Gal. 4:1ff). What was irregular about the fact that God confined them to rudimentary teaching commensurate with their age, but has trained us through a firmer and, so to speak, more manly discipline? . . . [Through the course of redemptive history, he] has accommodated himself to men’s capacity, which is varied and changeable.

Thus, the church has now entered into her majority and is no longer under the tutelage of the law. Paul likens Israel to a child, and the church (the new, mature Israel) to a full-grown man. God governed his people one way in their infancy and youth, another way in their adulthood. The old covenant was the covenant of childhood; the new is that of maturity. Just as a parent will alter his way of raising his child, appropriate with the child’s maturing nature, so did God with his chosen people. Now, we have been set free from the childish restraints of the law; we have entered into our adulthood in the new era inaugurated by Christ and the Spirit. But this does not mean the church been set free to do as she pleases in good antinomian fashion. In Christ, we have died to the old dominion of sin and have been made alive to the new sphere of grace and righteousness. The principles learned under the law (cf. “general equity” in WCF 19) are still authoritative. The eschatological meaning of the law, refracted through the prism of Christ’s finished work, is still binding.

Calvin’s biographical illustration (following Paul) indicates that the unity between the covenants is organic. Rather than speaking of continuity and discontinuity, it forces us to speak of transformation and maturation. That indeed seems to be the point of Paul’s illustrations in Gal. 3-4 and Eph. 4:11ff: God is maturing humanity into a bride for his Son. In the church, humanity grows up into mature sonship/brideship. Again, for Calvin, the old covenant was a period of humanity’s immaturity (think of the Torah as grade school), while the new covenant represents the period of maturity (with a corresponding expansion of freedoms and privileges). In Christ, humanity has come of age.

Not every AAT theologian works things out just this way, but it’s the view I argued for (admittedly, in compressed form) in my colloquium essay and is set forth more fully by Jim Jordan in his “Merit vs. Maturity: What Did Jesus Do For Us?” pages 151-200 in The Federal Vision, edited by Duane Garner and Steve Wilkins. If Tim Keller is right in his claim that ministering to “post-everythings” requires a narrative approach (and I think he is), the AAT philosophy of ministry is cutting edge (see his fine essay “Post-Everythings” available at http://www.wts.edu/publications/articles/keller-posteverythings.html). Keller writes:

[R]emember that post-everything people like narrative and story. They tend not to like the older kind of preaching that simply enunciated doctrinal principles. Neither are they excited about the newer user-friendly sermons of seeker-churches on “How to Handle Fear,” “How to Balance Your Life,” etc. So, do we throw overboard everything we have done? Absolutely not. We turn to Geerhardus Vos who says that every single part of the Bible is really about Jesus. If you know how to do Christ-centered preaching, then you turn every single sermon into a kind of story. The plot of the human dilemma thickens, and the hero that comes to the rescue is Jesus. Christ-centered preaching converts doctrinal lectures or little how-to talks into true sermons. Post-everythings who are interested in narrative are reached by such preaching that is deeply Reformed.

While I would say that Vos is not necessarily the best “narrative theologian” we could appeal to, the basic point is exactly right. The law/gospel antithesis is problematic because it says there is actually a part of the Bible that is not about Jesus, not about the story (cf. Lk. 24:27, 44; Jn. 5:46; Rom. 3:21; Heb. 10:1). On the AAT reading, the entire Bible is a narrative about the Savior and his bride; every individual passage is contextualized by its place in that particular, overarching story.

Thus the “monocovenantal” charge doesn’t stick. How we count the number of covenants in the Bible is largely a matter of perspective. Several views can be fully compatible with one another, though useful for different purposes. For example, in an ultimate sense, we really can say that there is just one covenant: the (ontological) covenant of love and fellowship between Father, Son, and Spirit. (On this point, one should still consult Ralph Smith’s The Eternal Covenant, despite the misguided criticisms of Rick Phillips at the 2004 Greenville Theology Conference. See also Peter Wallace’s fine essay “Covenant and Inheritance,” already cited above, which takes up the intersection points between Trinitarian theology and covenant theology: “God’s covenant is the historical analogue of the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son, in which man is brought into an inheritance through conformity to the image of God . . . Note here [in WCF 8.5] that the Confession insists upon a Trinitarian account of the covenant . . . [quoting Rowland Ward:] ‘[W]hat God does in history reveals what he is in himself, [thus] it is proper to say that the trinitarian relationships are covenantal quite apart from the provision of redemption’ . . . God’s covenant is the historical analogue of the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son, in which man is brought into an inheritance through conformity to the image of God.”)

This inter-Trinitarian covenant is the paradigm and analogue for all other covenant relationships. The Trinity reveals God as a relational being within himself; his inner-being is characterized by self-giving love. This inter-Trinitarian fellowship is the ontological and eternal basis and model for all temporal covenants. God’s redeemed people have been woven into the fellowship of this Triune covenant (cf. Jn. 17; some theologians have also helpfully singled out another Trinitarian covenant, a distinct, special “covenant of redemption” amongst the persons of the Trinity, serving as the basis of the covenant of grace). But this is not the only way to frame covenant theology.

We can also speak in terms of two covenants: God’s eternal covenant within himself, and God’s temporal covenant with the creation, external to himself. Creation itself is a covenantal act. That covenant with creation itself can be subdivided several ways: first, into the Adamic and Christic covenants (since Adam and Christ are the principle heads by which the human race is divided; cf. Rom 5:12-21).

The Christic covenant can be further subdivided into the old covenant (promissory) and the new covenant (fulfillment). The old covenant itself includes a variety of covenantal administrations, each with its own integrity: the post-fall Adamic (Gen. 3:15), Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and Restoration (post-exilic) covenants, though we should note all these covenants are tethered to the promise of the coming Savior (cf. Eph. 2:12, which speaks of a plurality of covenants and a singular promise). Thus we can speak of one covenant or a plurality of covenants; it’s all a matter of perspective and purpose.

I admit to a subtle recasting of covenant theology; I’m not hiding that fact. I took exception to “covenant of works” language when I was ordained and I had originally entitled my colloquium essay “Reworking the Covenant of Works.” But this is hardly atypical. If Reformed theologians had anything in common in the twentieth century, it’s that almost all of them seemed to want to reshape covenant theology in some form or fashion. This was every bit as true of Meredith Kline and his school (see my colloquium essay, footnote 7 on page 120), as of John Murray and his followers (Murray openly admitted to his revisions). Perhaps this is due to the fact that there are inherent ambiguities within traditional covenant theology. Or perhaps it’s because traditional covenant theology already contained this sort of variety in a latent or even explicit way. Or maybe it’s due to the fact that the biblical theology movement has made us more conscious of eschatology than our Reformed forebears were. Whatever the reason, I think at the very least this truth ought to temper our criticisms of those who take another approach to covenant theology than our own. Family resemblances remain, even if we differ in some of the main details.

At any rate, none of what we have set forth may be regarded as a Romish view of the law/gospel distinction rather than a Reformed view. Our approach comports fully with Reformed biblical theology and Calvinian covenantalism. It’s also links up with denominational standards (cf. WCF 7.5; PCA Book of Church Order 2-1).

“Sacramental Hermeneutics”

In his 2004 Greenville Theology Conference lecture, “Covenant Confusion,” Rick Phillips sought to correct perceived errors in the AAT view of the sacraments, specifically baptism. Since I’ve always enjoyed interacting with Phillips in person and via email, his uncharitable and inaccurate rhetoric on this occasion disappointed me.

Phillips said that on the AAT view, “I am no longer to rest my salvation on such a slippery thing as faith. Instead I trust in baptism and I know objectively that I am a covenant child of God.” But this is simply the grossest caricature imaginable. No one has suggested that we actually trust in baptism for salvation. Such a claim is absurd! We trust in God alone for salvation. We trust in Christ and in his work for us. The question AAT takes up is of a different order: Where has Christ promised to make himself available? Where is Christ to be found? We don’t put faith in the rite of baptism; rather we receive Christ by faith through baptism – just as we receive him by faith in the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the Lord’s Supper. Faith and baptism are not in competition with one another any more than faith and preaching. This is just the teaching of the Westminster Standards. Baptism is an “effectual means of salvation” (WSC 89). Through baptism, Christ and his benefits are “applied” (WSC 92), “communicated” (WSC 88), and “conferred” (WCF 28.6) to believers. No one associated with AAT has suggested that baptism saves automatically apart from faith, anymore than preaching or the Supper save apart from faith. Most of Phillips grand arguments are spent beating up straw men.

Phillips goes on to say that this bare formalism is just the thing that Jeremiah warned about in chapter 7 of his prophecy, when he rebuked the ungodly Israelites for trusting in the temple and just the sort of thing Paul warns about in his discussion of circumcion in Romans 2. But of course, the AAT guards against formalism as well, and has a stout doctrine of apostasy to back up Jeremiah-like and Paul-like threats against covenant hypocrisy (see, e.g., my “New Life and Apostasy: Hebrews 6:4-8 as Test Case,” pages 271-299 in The Federal Vision, edited by Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner). We would warn the baptized in just the way Jeremiah warned the Israelites. Baptism alone is not sufficient for salvation anymore than circumcision. Phillips’ charge that we are comfortable as “sons of Hagar” is simply false and borders on outright slander. He has mangled our teaching beyond recognition. At no point in Phillips’ entire lecture did I recognize my own views in those positions he critiqued.

Specifically related to me, Phillips criticizes my view that baptism is the sacrament of union with Christ. After quoting my view that baptism is the “instrumental means of union with Christ” (from “Some Thoughts on the Means of Grace,” found at http://new.hornes.org/theologia/content/rich_lusk/some_thoughts_on_the_means_of_grace.htm), he says I confuse the sign and thing signified. But I certainly think the sign and thing signified are distinguishable; indeed, that’s something I’ve maintained going back long before the eruption of this controversy. There is no magic involved in sacramental efficacy (as seen in propositions 8 and 9 of my above mentioned paper). Philips also overlooked my statement that “The sacraments are incomplete and insufficient on their own. They are part of a system which includes the teaching of God’s Word.” In that same essay, I show very clearly that the Word is every bit as essential as the sacraments:

The sacraments are contextualized by the Word. Apart from the Word of promise and the Triune name, there is no baptism, only a little water sprinkled on the head . . .

Calvin, following Augustine, asserted in the Institutes, ‘Let the Word be added to the element and it will become a sacrament.’ Thus, there is an inseparable bond between Word and sacrament.

But it seems to me, on the other hand, that Phillips is guilty of separating the sign and the thing signified, that is, of breaking apart the sacramental union between the outward element and the promised blessing (WCF 27.1-2). If Phillips does not believe baptism is the sign and seal of union with Christ to the person baptized, he is out of step with the Confession (WCF 28.1).

Interestingly, Phillips’ good friend, Michael Horton, has made some statements on baptism that sound like they could have come straight out of the AAT. For example, Horton has written,

Surely the Sacraments can remind us of grace, help us to appreciate grace, and exhort us to walk in grace, but do they actually give us the grace promised in the Gospel? The Reformed and Presbyterian confessions answer “yes” without hesitation. A Sacrament not only consists of the signs (water, bread and wine), but of the things signified (new birth, forgiveness, life everlasting). And yet, the experience of Reformed and Presbyterians churches in the odd world of American revivalism has challenged the confessional perspective.

The fact that Phillips butchers our view of the sacraments and gives Horton a free pass shows once again that this “controversy” is largely fabricated out of personalities and politics rather than anything of theological substance. There are differences, of course, but these differences are not of the nature or magnitude that some have portrayed. This should be viewed an intramural debate amongst Reformed brethren.

Phillips then says I’ve created a hermeneutic to make this theology of baptism work. Phillips says I posit that

even when Paul neglects to mention baptism it must be presupposed, I quote, “since baptism is the foundation of this union.” He asserts that baptism is the one principle by which we enter into the blessings of God’s covenant in Christ. He says, “It may appear at first glance that the New Testament has relatively little to say about baptism. But when we employ a ‘sacramental hermeneutics,’ references to baptism become fairly ubiquitous. The New Testament writers are always swimming in the waters of baptismal theology.” Now that kind of eisegesis is hard to argue against, but is in keeping with these writers’ practices of assuming rather than demonstrating their premisses . . . Unless you make an apriori commitment to see baptism even where it’s not mentioned at all, and we have it in their own words that they do . . .

Obviously Phillips is driving at a charge of Romish sacerdotalism. He wants to paint the AAT as a revived form of Romanism. But, again, the charges just don’t stick, once we untwist what Phillips has said about my views. My view of baptism rejects both the “empty symbol” view of modern evangelicals as well as the mechanical, ex opere operato view of Rome.

By a “sacramental hermeneutic,” I don’t mean we simply find baptism wherever we want to in the text. Rather, I’m suggesting that we pay attention to the broader theological context of Paul’s “in Christ language.” Baptism after all, has to do with Christian identity. A fuller quotation than the select fragments Phillips cited bears this out. In context, this is what I wrote, with emphasis added:

Even when baptism is not mentioned in “union with Christ” contexts, it is presupposed. For Paul, baptism is the foundation of this union. When he uses “in Christ” or “with Christ” language, baptism looms large in the background. Thus, it may appear at first glance that the New Testament has relatively little to say about baptism. But when we employ a “sacramental hermeneutics,” references to baptism become fairly ubiquitous. The New Testament writers are always swimming in the waters of baptismal theology.

Philips managed to not mention my reference to Paul’s “in Christ” language as the specific indicator of baptism as an underlying presupposition in the text. Admittedly, I could have developed this point further, but a more careful reading of my paper would have shown that I was not advocating finding the sacraments anywhere we please.

By “sacramental hermeneutics” I had in mind precisely the same kind of hermeneutic advocated by that most exacting Pauline exegete, Herman Ridderbos. In his magisterial work Paul: An Outline of His Theology, page 396, he writes, “Moreover, in addition to the passages where Paul explicitly mentions baptism there are others where this is not the case, but where even so one has good reason to inquire whether he does not implicitly intend baptism.” Throughout the chapter, Ridderbos goes on to view Paul’s ubiquitous “in Christ” language as implicitly baptismal (stemming from Rom. 6:1ff).

I would add that Paul’s passages which speak of us being “sealed” (e.g., 2 Cor. 1:21, 22; Eph. 1:13, 14; 4:30) should most likely be read as baptismal texts, as many church fathers, Reformers, and Puritans noted. There are also typological references to the baptism in various “water” passages in Scripture. The church’s best exegetes have always taken note of such things, paying attention to the Bible’s organic web of images, symbols, and metaphors (see, e.g., Peter Leithart’s The Priesthood of the Plebs and Oscar Cullmann’s Early Christian Worship).

Phillips also makes the wild claim that I teach, “Unless we uphold the principle that salvation flows by birth, then we’re rejecting the idea of the way the union of a man and a woman creates salvation . . . They are positing that salvation comes through birth.” But I’ve never said anything to that effect, in the colloquium book or elsewhere, and in fact, such a position doesn’t even make sense to me! I’ve argued directly against it. Besides, it certainly militates against my view of baptism, which Phillip’s also wants to criticize! I do not believe in salvation by birth; I do believe baptism is among the “outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of his redemption” (WSC 88). I think Phillips must have simply confused my view with Steve Schlissel’s, though not even he would put things as crassly as Phillips does. Such reckless charges cast a shadow over Phillips entire presentation. It is all the more problematic since Phillips’ audience was not always notified as to when he was giving direct quotations and when he provided his own (badly slanted) summaries of what he thinks we teach. Phillips lecture was simply a travesty from beginning to end and did nothing to further discussion or mutual understanding.

Phillips seems unaware of any difference between my own views and those of Rome. In reality, there is a deep divide. To be sure, like Rome, I see the sacraments as efficacious and instrumental. But as I learned from Turretin, in the Reformed debate with Rome, the issue was not the efficacy of the sacraments as such; rather, it was the mode and manner of their efficacy (Institutes, 19.8.6). Whereas for Rome, the sacraments operate mechanically, and even quasi-physically, I insist with the Westminster Standards that they derive their power solely from Christ and the Spirit (WSC 91). Moreover, whereas for Rome, the sacraments function ex opere operato (that is, automatically, unless hindered by some mortal sin), in my view, the grace offered in the sacraments must be received by faith (WCF 27.3). There are other differences as well (e.g., grace as relational disposition in Reformed theology vs. grace as metaphysical substance in Rome’s theology, explored in proposition 10 of my “Some Thoughts” paper), but that should be enough to make the point: on the issue of sacraments, as on the issue of justification, Rome wouldn’t have me. The charge that I am on the road to Rome because of my high views of sacramental efficacy is just as accurate as saying the men on the “other side” are on their way to Pennsylvania (Quaker country) because of their low views of the sacraments! For more, see my essay, “Do I Believe in Baptismal Regeneration?,” forthcoming, and my Federal Vision chapter, “Paedobaptism and Baptismal Efficacy: Historic Trends and Current Controversies,” pages 71-125.

Getting the Facts Straight

Discussions over the so-called “Auburn Avenue Theology” (a terrible name, and one we didn’t create or ask for, by the way) are making very little progress because of a colossal failure to actually deal with the substantive issues. Interactions between advocates on either side end up stalemated because people are talking past one another. For my part, I’ve spent a lot more time trying to straighten out “he said/she said” kinds of issues than actually engaging the real differences. We’ve got to get our facts straight. We’ve got to listen carefully. We’ve got to read sympathetically and charitably. We’ve got to put quotations in context. We’ve got to guard against the temptation to slander.

At most, the AAT should be seen as a minor refinement or adjustment within the Reformed tradition, seeking to better incorporate pastoral theology and biblical theology into Reformed theology as a whole. It’s more about recovery than being reactionary – namely, recovering certain aspects of our Reformed heritage that have been lost through the centuries. While we want to be loyal to the confessions (and understand them in their original historical context, rather than later contexts), we also want to engage the text of Scripture in a fresh way. God continues to break forth new light from his word, giving us treasures both old and new. The Reformation continues.

To this point, the controversy over the AAT has been virtually worthless as far as serving the peace and purity of the church. If the AAT has anything to offer the church (and I think it does), it’s getting buried under mountains of misinformation, misrepresentation, and over-heated rhetoric. As of now, critics have rarely dealt head on with the most basic teachings AAT men have put on offer. Instead of dealing with our Calvinian understanding of the instrumental efficacy of the sacraments, we’re accused of telling people to trust in a ritual. Instead of engaging the argument for the resurrection of Christ as the ground of our justification, we’re told we’ve embraced Rome’s paradigm of justification by infusion. Instead of dealing with our historical claims for the variety of Reformed belief on matters such as merit and the nature of the Adamic covenant, we’re told we’re denying the gospel by even raising these issues. And so on.

A major problem with participating in the current ordeal is due to the nature of the way things have unfolded. Given the scattershot, organic fashion in which the “AAT” controversy has come about (if there is in fact an “AAT” — something I am dubious about myself, though the name appears to be sticking), it’s mostly ad hoc and unsystematic at this point. That lends itself to unqualified and unbalanced presentations, on both sides. It makes it easy to miss the wider context, the larger framework, in which theological assertions and positions are situated. Again, that’s why a fair amount of time is required to make a worthwhile contribution to the topics at hand. Many critics, I would suggest, have not invested adequate time in study in order to arrive at carefully measured judgments.

Another major problem with getting a handle on this whole controversy, of course, is that AAT men have a wide variety of views amongst themselves on the topics being discussed (e.g., the efficacy of baptism, the precise nature of faith, etc.). It’s almost as if we’re being penalized for getting along so well together, despite our differences! The variations serve as proof that no one ever set out to create a special theological movement. The one thing the AAT leaders have in common is being attacked! And, of course, circumstances have required us to defend one another. Critics would do us all a favor if they dealt with us individually, on a person-by-person basis, since any other approach will only foster further miscommunication.

Critics have likewise come from all over the board, often contradicting one another or canceling one another out. Again, this is why patient discussion rather than hasty denunciation the needed. Some have tried to subsume the AAT controversy into broader Reformed conversations (e.g., over theonomy, paedocommunion, eschatology, or the Kline/Murray/Shepherd debates), but that simply doesn’t work. The issues are different (even if overlapping at times), the personalities are different (for the most part), and the times are different (both inside and outside the church). We must learn to police ourselves in a more mature way. We must learn to discuss and converse and ponder and reflect.

Could things be said better on the AAT side? Absolutely. As someone associated with the AAT (I am the assistant pastor at Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church, after all), we plead for patience on the part of the critics. We’re working towards better formulations. We want to be “catholic” in the best sense of the term, and so we long to find common ground and build upon it. No one thinks they’ve said the final word on anything; we remain open to discussion, and, yes, correction. But at the same time, it seems to me the critics could do their homework a little better, so we wouldn’t waste so much time dealing with mischaracterizations.

Breaking the Code of Silence

Until very recently, I had basically observed a policy of not responding directly to critics of AAT in any public forum. My desire has always been to preserve the peace and purity of the church, and I did not think taking on critics by name would accomplish that. I wanted to avoid as much as possible being regarded simply as a “polemicist” or “controversialist;” dealing with these issues in this way, after all, is far from the center of my ministry. However, recent public attacks on the AAT were so misleading and inaccurate, that I felt it would be irresponsible to not respond. Thus, I have done so. But I must confess, the whole controversy is an embarrassment to me, not only because I’ve been so misrepresented, but because it’s a blot on the Reformed world. The entire mess could have been avoided had charity and patience prevailed. My hope is that, like Reformed controversies in the past (see John Frame’s excellent but depressing “Machen’s Warrior Children,” available at http://www.christiancounterculture.com/40615/machen.html), it will blow over soon enough.

It is very difficult to defend yourself without sounding shrill or arrogant. My hope is that this paper, and another recent response to a critic, “Blurring the Federal Vision: A Response to Michael Horton,” available at http://www.auburnavenue.org/Articles/BLURRING%20THE%20FV.htm, avoid those tones. It has been my desire to be firm, yet catholic and charitable. I think the critics really mean well. I’m sure they have the best of intentions, but they are badly mistaken. They’re mistaken not only because they overlook so much common ground, but because they have still failed to carefully engage the arguments and positions coming from the AAT circles. Their treatment of our work appears irresponsible and unsympathetic (in some cases, admittedly so; cf. my short post “Sympathy for the Devil” at http://www.reformedcatholicism.com/archives/000188.html). It’s my hope that these recent responses I’ve written will clarify for the critics just where the areas of disagreement are to be found, and help put those areas into perspective. Of course, it’s also my hope to clear my name and defend the good name of other men.

Copyright © 2004

1 Comment »

  1. I have read your section on merit. You make a clear distinction between strict merit and ‘not-really-merit.’ What I don’t see is how this means that Rome would not have you. It seems that after making a clear line in the sand against strict merit, you decided to project this ‘strict merit’ onto Rome as if it were ‘Rome’s teaching.’ But the truth of the matter is that strict merit is not what Rome teaches.

    You acknowledge that the Augustine and Aquinas did not teach strict merit, and put them in good company with many Reform teachers. Your basic point is that if ‘merit’ is understood the way Augustine and Aquinas understood it, then this is valid – because this is not really ‘merit’ in the properly defined sense. So you quote: “Indeed, Turretin admits that if you define merit in the patristic sense as ‘a work imputable to praise,’ then we can all admit that not only Christ’s works, but even our own works are meritorious, because, as Augustine put it, “he crowns his own gifts.” But Turretin calls this the broad and improper sense of merit.” So it seems to me that if Augustine or Aquinas say that something is ‘meritorious’ this is an unfortunate choice of words but acceptable, because they explained themselves in a way that takes away the ‘strict merit.’

    But apparently if Trent uses the term ‘merit’ this is no longer acceptable because Trent surely must have meant strict merit! Even though they placed Aquinas’ Summa next to the bible during Trent (so they say) to emphasize what a later Pope made explicit: that all terms used in Catholic dogma are to be understood as defined by Aquinas (thus, to look up the meaning of ‘merit’ at Trent you’d go to Aquinas to find the definition). You may also not be aware that the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) quotes Augustine’s use of ‘merit’ to explain what Rome means by merit:


    You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts.59

    2007 With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator.

    2011 The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.

    Comment by Richard — November 10, 2009 @ 9:53 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment