Pope Apologizes for Persecution, Still Opposed to True Reformation

This article in Christianity Today reports that Pope Francis apologized for the Roman Catholic Church’s persecution of the Waldensians during the Middle Ages. Here is an excerpt from the report that includes the apology:

“On the part of the Catholic Church, I ask your forgiveness, I ask it for the non-Christian and even inhuman attitudes and behavior that we have showed you,” Francis said during the first-ever visit by a pope to a Waldensian church. “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us!”

The report explains that the persecution of the Waldensians (“massacre, rape, and pillaging”) took place under the orders of Pope Alexander III in the 12th century. According to a scholar quoted in the report Alexander III was unenlightened and therefore unable to recognize that the Waldensians were good Christians. This scholar contends that Pope Innocent III was more enlightened, appreciating the monastic lifestyle of Waldo and his followers. Innocent III’s response (in 1210) to the Waldensians’ success was to authorize the organization of a new religious order under St. Francis, the current pope’s name’s sake. Pope Francis, the scholar claims, could very well be Pope Waldo if only Alexander III had been more “enlightened” and appreciated the Waldensians. The current Pope, Francis, is “enlightened” and supposedly views the Waldensians as “very much Christians after his own heart.” Francis appreciates the way the Waldensians provide “service to humanity which suffers, to the poor, the sick, the migrants.”

Unfortunately the report doesn’t explain any of the doctrinal reforms the Waldensians implemented. The Waldensians believed in the supreme authority of Scripture and that the preaching of the gospel is more important than the sacraments. The Roman Catholic Church has grown to appreciate the “monastic lifestyle” and “service to humanity” of the Waldensians, but continues to despise their view of Scripture and the preaching. Pope Francis is trying to present the Roman Catholic Church as more friendly than it was in the past. But he and the Roman Catholic Church remain opposed to doctrinal reforms.


The Church is Not Small

The title above is one of the points of today’s Breakpoint, which showed up in my inbox a few mornings ago.  The speaker today, Eric Metaxas, discusses the UN Human Rights Council’s vote to adopt “The Protection of the Family” resolution.  The family here refers to the traditional family of a husband and wife and their children.  The resolution describes the family as “the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children.”

Metaxas notes that US media is not covering this story.  So I encourage you to read the article for the full story for yourself.  You will find that the US and other Western nations vehemently fought against the adoption of this resolution.  Metaxas notes that major support came from “China and Russia-major powers that spent the latter half of the century trying to eradicate the natural family … learn[ing] the hard way how destructive anti-family policies are.”  He says, “And maybe it’s just coincidence, but both countries have seen a rapid growth of Christianity in recent years.”  I doubt that the growth of Christianity shapes Russian or Chinese policies.  But I think Metaxas is right when he says, “It’s easy to feel outnumbered and outgunned right now.  I get it.  But if we want to see God at work, taking a global perspective makes a world of difference.”

The Belgic Confession also encourages us to take a global perspective in Article 27 stating, “this holy Church (the one, universal Church) is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and yet it is joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same spirit.”  And the Belgic Confession states in this article that this “Church hath been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof.”  So when the church seems small in the particular place and time in which we live, we may be encouraged when we think of all the Christians around the world and of all the Christians who lived before us—we stand with them!  A multitude no man can number!


Taking Scripture Seriously

‘Both sides take the Bible seriously.’ This is a common claim heard in the debates about women-in-office and homosexuality. Christians who favor the approval of women-in-office and of homosexuality make this statement in order to establish their views as legitimate interpretations of the Bible. So they make it appear that they and their opponents are the same in that both take Bible seriously. But even if those who approve of women-in-office and homosexuality do take the Bible seriously, whatever that may mean, their view and approach to Scripture must be recognized as radically different from those who believe the Bible prohibits women-in-office and condemns homosexuality.

In 2002 JI Packer walked out of an ecclesiastical assembly in protest over a decision by that assembly that gave approval to homosexual unions. In this 2003 article in Christianity Today Packer explained why he walked out of the assembly. I only share with you his explanation of how the two sides have radically different views of Scripture. After reading the second paragraph I immediately thought of Rob Bell. Here is what Packer wrote about the two views of Scripture,

One is the historic Christian belief that through the prophets, the incarnate Son, the apostles, and the writers of canonical Scripture as a body, God has used human language to tell us definitively and transculturally about his ways, his works, his will, and his worship. Furthermore, this revealed truth is grasped by letting the Bible interpret itself to us from within, in the knowledge that the way into God's mind is through that of the writers. Through them, the Holy Spirit who inspired them teaches the church. Finally, one mark of sound biblical insights is that they do not run counter to anything else in the canon.

The second view applies to Christianity the Enlightenment's trust in human reason, along with the fashionable evolutionary assumption that the present is wiser than the past. It concludes that the world has the wisdom, and the church must play intellectual catch-up in each generation in order to survive. From this standpoint, everything in the Bible becomes relative to the church's evolving insights, which themselves are relative to society's continuing development (nothing stands still), and the Holy Spirit's teaching ministry is to help the faithful see where Bible doctrine shows the cultural limitations of the ancient world and needs adjustment in light of latter-day experience (encounters, interactions, perplexities, states of mind and emotion, and so on). Same-sex unions are one example. This view is scarcely 50 years old, though its antecedents go back much further. I call it the subjectivist position.


The Bob De Moor Plan for the CRC’s Acceptance of Homosexuality

Editor of the Banner, Bob De Moor expresses concern in this Banner article about the likelihood of conflict in the CRC over the denomination’s official position that “homosexual practice is always sinful.” He reports that the discussion about “whether or not to make declarations related to same sex relationships” revealed that “many no longer agree with the position of the Christian Reformed Church that homosexual practice is always wrong or that such practice always requires church discipline.” De Moor is concerned that this may lead to years of contentious debate in the CRC writing,

If we are unwise, we face years of conflict in which, as with the women’s ordination dispute, we oscillate between two extremes from year to year, based on who has more votes at synod. That will restart the hemorrhage of membership on both “sides.”

De Moor has a plan that he speaks of as a “local option.” This plan calls for giving each council the authority to determine what is sinful and then determine the best pastoral approach for each situation.

This plan is actually quite clever if the goal is to keep people in the CRC even though they have different beliefs (De Moor’s specious idea of unity). By its experience with the women-in-office issue, in which it allows local congregations to choose whether or not to ordain women, the CRC has learned that a “local option” plan effectively placates those who are on both sides of the issue. Many who are opposed to women’s ordination have stayed in the denomination for two decades (the CRC approved women’s ordination in 1995) and in many cases have even willingly served with women “officebearers” from other congregations at classical and synodical assemblies. If the CRC decides to allow each council to determine whether homosexual practice is sinful, which will undoubtedly lead to some councils approving of homosexual practice, some members will likely leave the denomination. But it is possible many who believe homosexual practice is sinful will stay as long as their own council’s do not approve of it.

The De Moor plan is also devilishly clever because it will settle the issue that is now in dispute immediately. De Moor wants homosexual practice to be accepted. He knows that it may take years for synod to approve of homosexual practice. But if synod takes the route of leaving it up to local councils De Moor knows that synod will have actually approved homosexuality without an explicit declaration. By approving the local option synod would declare, “homosexuality is ok, but we will let you decide as councils when you are ready to recognize this for yourselves.”

But of course the De Moor plan is foolish. It is the plan of a man who is opposed to the wisdom of God revealed in scripture. The result of De Moor’s plan, and he knows it, will be further fragmentation in the CRC where unity is in name only.

There is a wise way to deal with potential strife over homosexuality in the denomination. That way is to affirm the biblical teaching that homosexuality is a sin and discipline those who contradict the Bible’s teaching. De Moor himself ought to be disciplined. His proposal is contrary to Scripture. It also happens to be contrary to the settled and binding position of the CRC. His article promotes schism in the CRC.


Male and Female: What’s the Difference?

On June 26 the US Supreme Court (SC) effectively legalized homosexual marriage for the entire nation.  But this was not the first time that the SC redefined marriage (as far as US law is concerned).  In this article in the Wall Street Journal James Taranto explains that in 1981 the SC decided that male headship in marriage is a form of sexual discrimination that is unconstitutional.  Thus, in 1981 the SC did away with the traditional (and biblical) view of marriage as a union between a man and a woman in which the husband is the head of his wife. 

In place of the traditional view of marriage the SC adopted the view that in marriage the man and his wife are equal.  This view is commonly referred to as the egalitarian view of marriage.  Taranto’s argument is that having adopted the egalitarian view of marriage the SC, following the rules of good logic, must approve of homosexual marriage.  He explains that when marriage is redefined in such a way to view the sexes as equal then in marriage “husbands and wives are . . . already interchangeable.”  The logic is sound.  If a man = a woman, then it stands to reason that a man could just as well marry another man instead of a woman.  

It has become increasingly clear that homosexuality is not merely an attack on what the Bible teaches about marriage.  The homosexual movement is part of society’s full frontal assault on everything that the Bible teaches about sex and gender.  This has become increasingly clear with transgenderism (and essential part of the LGBT movement) coming to the foreground because of Bruce Jenner.  The homosexual movement denies God’s creation of the sexes and their differences.  The movement denies the need for people to identify themselves or behave according to the gender God gave them at birth.  Gender identity and behavior is a matter of an individual’s preference to be male and/or female.  For the LGBT movement there is no real difference between the sexes. 

All of this is to say that it won’t do simply for the church today to affirm what God’s word teaches about the sin of homosexuality.  But the church must also affirm what God’s word says about what it means to be male and female.  The church must know, confess, and put into practice what the Bible teaches about the roles of husbands and wives in marriage and in the family.  While we are testifying that it is wrong for men to marry men or women to marry women, are we ready also to testify that it is sinful for a man to refuse to rule over his wife?  Are we ready to testify that it is sinful for a woman to rule her husband?  Are we ready to say something about the place of mothers in the home?   

We condemn homosexuality.  But do we really know the difference between men and women? 


Faith Made Perfect - Now Available!


Order your copy today! This new title is available in hard copy format and ebook format.

The believers James is writing to faced many problems as they made the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament. James addresses these issues that the early Christians faced, including trials and temptations, true religion, wisdom, the use of the tongue, the judgment of the rich, patience, and spiritual help in trouble.

This eminently practical book gives instruction for living the Christian life in many of its aspects. A salient feature is the relation between justification and works, which James explains by the examples of Abraham and Rahab.

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Question and Answer Session Video from Common Grace Lecture Now Available!

Southwest Protestant Reformed Church invites you to view a recently completed video of Questions and Answers from the 2014 lecture “Kuyper’s Common Grace ‘Christianizing of Culture’—Reformed Calling or Ecclesiastical Suicide?”  In this video Prof. David Engelsma answers important questions that were presented by those who attended or viewed the lecture. 

This video can be found at www.commongraceandculture.com under the Questions & Answers section. 

DVDs are also available by requesting a copy at christianandculture@gmail.com.





Pray the Lord of the Harvest… (The Agenda for Synod 2015)

  • This annual preview of the PRCA's Synod of 2015 is being posted here on the RFPA Blog and the PRCA website so that our Standard Bearer subscribers can read the preview in advance to receiving their hard copy subscription.

  • This preview is also being published in the June 1 issue of the Standard Bearer 

             Click the link to read in PDF format.

      The church belongs to the Lord.  God gave His elect to Jesus Christ in eternity, who in time redeemed each member from sin and death.  God rewarded Jesus by lifting Him up to be Head over all things to the church (Eph. 1:22).  We confess that Jesus gathers, defends and preserves His church throughout history by His Word and Spirit (LD 21, Q. & A. 54).

      Thus, whenever the church meets together in her assemblies, she is careful that everything be done in harmony with the Word of Jesus Christ and His Spirit.  For the work of the church is the work of Jesus Christ.  All the delegates of the Protestant Reformed Synod who meet the week of June 8 in Faith Protestant Reformed Church (Jenison, MI) are conscious that the work is His.  This reality is driven home by the fact that the most pressing need in one of the works the Protestant Reformed Churches carry out in common, a need that is at the very heart of Jesus’ command to His church—“go ye into all the world”—only Jesus can fill.

      I speak of the need for a missionary to the Philippines.  God has called the churches to labor in these islands, given us faithful missionaries, and prospered the work, so that the FMC reports that a denomination of churches has been formed by two congregations that hold to the Reformed confessions and adhere to the same doctrine and walk as the Protestant Reformed Churches!  The reports on the work—the FMC, Doon PRC (the calling church), and the missionaries—are overwhelming.  The reader is overwhelmed by the work being done, by the opportunities the Lord gives, by the spiritual and theological progress of the believers there, and by the zeal for spreading the gospel in the Philippines.

      And, overwhelmed by the need.  The need arises because the Lord, the King of the church, has called Rev. Smit, one of the two missionaries, to be the pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church (in Grand Rapids, MI).  But the need in the Philippines is unspeakably great—the need for ongoing training of ministers; the need for seminary training; the need for guiding (four) consistories, and classis and classical committees; the need for preaching; the need for one, preferably, two more missionaries.  Some of the work must be curtailed; some stopped.  Rev. Kleyn cannot do the work of two men.  Only the Lord can fill this need.

      Pray the Lord of the harvest that He will send forth laborers into His harvest (Matt. 9:38).

      With that same conscious dependence on the Lord, may the entire agenda of synod be completed.

      The purpose of this editorial is to furnish a brief summary of the agenda (with comments).  The report on the Philippines comes from the Foreign Mission Committee, and we take note of only one other item in their report—a significant proposal to revise synodical guidelines for paying the travel cost of “the wives.”  The FMC argues convincingly that frequently it is very beneficial for the work of the churches that wives of minister/elder delegations accompany their husbands.  Currently the guidelines allow reimbursement for the wife’s travel costs only when the husband is gone for four Sundays or more.  The FMC proposes that synod authorize full reimbursement for “the expenses incurred when a wife accompanies her husband on the business of the churches, when the standing committee:

      1. Is convinced of the value of the wives accompanying for that particular trip, considering each trip on a case by case basis, and
      2. Stands ready to defend its decision before synod, if synod should so inquire.

      These benefits are real, but difficult to grasp for one who has never gone on such a trip for the churches.  The value is not “companionship.”  Surely a man can live and survive and work well enough without his wife for a few weeks.  Rather, the benefits include her observations and her balanced perspective for the man sent.  And on the other hand, as regards the people visited, the value is the encouragement and counsel for the women there.  Should synod agree with this change, the committees will need to be honest and wise in implementation.  For those worried this will produce exorbitant costs, believe me, all synodical committees are aware that they and the fellow members of their congregation pay the synodical assessments.  There is a natural caution about spending the hard-earned money of the people in the pew.

      Next, we turn to another vital work of Christ—missions in North America—the Domestic Mission Committee.  The only active field of the DMC is in Pittsburgh, PA.  Missionary W. Bruinsma reports on the joys and the sorrows of missionary labors, which, he notes, are quite similar to those in established congregations.

      Included in the agenda is a special appeal from Rev. Bruinsma for a second missionary to Pittsburgh.  He has four main grounds—well fleshed out—for his request.  These are (in skeletal form):

      1. His present labor as a pastor in our mission in his area of Pittsburgh (Forest Hills) is a full-time labor, demanding nearly all his time.
      2. There is demonstrable need for additional labors in surrounding areas which he is not able to perform.
      3. The combined efforts of two missionaries would be advantageous to the fellowship and the present missionary.
      4. It would give time to write tracts and study guides for use on the mission field.

      The DMC agreed with the principle of two missionaries on a field and with the advantages for this field.  The Council of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church, the calling church, disagreed.  And the DMC acquiesced to Southwest’s decision. 

      Admittedly, such a weighty matter must be carefully considered and good grounds provided for the decision produced.  While conceding that Southwest’s consistory is in a much better position than the editor to make a wise judgment in this field, I also have to say that the grounds for rejecting Rev. Bruinsma’s request are not overwhelming.

      And now to step back a bit, consider that the PRC has money and manpower for a second missionary.  The pulpits of all the PRC may well be filled in just a few months.  Times are relatively good in the USA, and the PRC are financially able to do more work.  Also, consider that a fairly large class is scheduled to graduate from seminary in 2017, D.V.

      With as many as nine graduates in two years, we will have a goodly number of graduates with very few openings.  What to do?  One option is to push ministers in their low to mid-sixties into early retirement.  Another far better option is to look for opportunities—that is, pray the Lord of the harvest for open doors.

      In Pittsburgh, does not opportunity stare us in the face?  We have the opportunity to do work that Rev. Bruinsma is currently not able to do.  The concrete advantages to this field are well presented.  And add this—this is the opportunity for a younger minister to learn from an experienced missionary by working alongside him for several years.  By now, all agree that God has endowed this seasoned missionary (Bruinsma) with wisdom, diligence, zeal, patience, and the ability to work well with consistory, DMC, and mission group.  Add to that, he has not only demonstrated his heartfelt commitment to all the truths that the PRC hold dear, but he knows how to teach and preach them in a mission setting.  What tremendous profit for a young missionary to learn from him!  In my judgment, this is an opportunity that ought not be passed by.  My prayer is that the Lord of the harvest will lead synod to agree with Missionary Bruinsma’s request.

      The Contact Committee reports their conviction that sister church relations with the Covenant Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore have never been better.  Since the Synod of 2014, CERC called and installed Rev. A. Lanning as her pastor.  CERC has welcomed church visitors from the PRC for the second year now, to the benefit of both.

      Our relation with Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland is likewise as firm and vibrant as ever.  A CC delegation came for official church visitation to CPRC NI in January and visited the mission fellowship in Limerick as well.  The report is true oneness and unity among these saints and steadfastness in the Reformed faith.  Another sister to be cherished in these last days.

      Both of our sister churches are committed to sending representatives to synod—Deacon Tang from CERCS, and Deacon Hall from CPRC NI.

      The CC also reports on a conference on the doctrine of God’s covenant held with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Australia in July of 2014.  The EPC and the CC propose another conference for 2017.

      The CC gives a lengthy report on our contact in Giessen, Germany—the BERG.  The CC is fulfilling the mandate of Synod 2014 to “identify in their report to next year’s synod the differences between the BERG and ourselves and what progress has been made in the discussions.”  This is a developing contact in the spiritual wasteland of the country of Martin Luther.  The report indicates the care with which the CC pursues such contact, subject to synod’s approval and direction.

      To the synod of 2014 the CC proposed that they be mandated “to study and recommend what guidelines synod would follow to determine whether and how to participate in an ecumenical council of churches, and report their study to synod.”  However, the CC reports that they were not able to complete this, and ask for another year.

      The CC requests permission for a follow-up trip to Namibia and South Africa in 2016 in response to invitations received.  Details will need to be worked out.

      The final point in the CC report is that the Free Reformed Churches and the Heritage Reformed Churches are proceeding with preliminary plans for limited Psalter revision and desire the PRC to join them in this endeavor.  Psalter revision is hardly the CC’s area of labor or expertise, and they leave this judgment to synod without recommendation.  If synod decides to participate, a more extensive report will be forthcoming.

      The Catechism Book Committee returns with a request for reformatting all the catechism material—books and workbooks.  It would be quite helpful to synod if they would bring a sample (a finished product) of what they have in mind.  They also inform synod that the confessions will soon be available in electronic format free of charge.

      The Board of Trustees, in addition to the normal financial reporting, informs synod of the desire of two faithful servants to be replaced.  They are the stated clerk, Mr. Don Doezema, and the synodical treasurer, Mr. David Ondersma.  Their importance for the smooth and efficient running of the denomination cannot be overstated.

      Peace PRC (Lansing, IL) comes with a reasonable request, namely, that if in their search for a new place to build, they find a plot “across the border” in Classis East territory, they be allowed to remain in Classis West.

      The Theological School Committee reports on various details—physical and educational—that they oversee.  The most important:  a qualified graduate is recommended for examination at synod, namely, Ryan Barnhill.  They recommend that the exam be shifted a little from the ordinary.  If Seminarian Barnhill gives his sermon specimen Tuesday morning (as per usual), then, with synod’s approval, Prof. B. Gritters will examine him in the afternoon in two areas of study.  This is recommended because Prof. Gritters is scheduled to speak in the June camp of CERC in Singapore on Monday, June 15.  Graduation is scheduled for Thursday, June 11 in Faith PRC.  All are welcome to witness the glad event and to hear Prof. R. Cammenga’s address.

      The TSC brings a significant report on retirements for the current seminary professors.  The current method for replacing professors can be found in the Constitution of the Theological School (found in the PRC’s Church Order Book).  The basic provision is that when a professor reaches the age of 65, a replacement is called; subsequently, there is a transition period of up to five years (it has not gone beyond three years to this point).  Replacements for the three current professors are scheduled to occur in 2019, 2020, and 2021.  Recognizing that such a quick transition is not wise, the TSC brings a proposal to spread out the replacements to 2017, 2019, and 2021.  In addition, they desire the transition period to be the full five years.

      And there is one appeal to synod.  The appeal concerns the church political question of whether a congregation may change the date of a special day set aside by the churches in the church order (in this case Prayer Day), and whether a congregation may do that on its own, that is, without going through classis  and synod.  Classis East decided that a congregation may.  The appeal asks synod to overturn classis’ decision.

      This appellant deserves to be heard carefully.  I suppose from a certain point of view, all appellants deserve to be heard.  But some approach the broader assemblies with rancor; some with sarcasm; some casting about unfounded charges.  This appellant wrote carefully, in a most Christian manner.  Whether one agrees with him or not, one can appreciate the genuine concern and Christian spirit that his appeal breathes.

      The appeal raises an interesting question that deserves a good discussion.  On the one hand, the PRC are death to independentism.  On the other hand, they have historically and emphatically rejected hierarchy, and the notion that the authority of the synod is higher than that of a congregation.  This issue must be worked out between those two extremes.

      And the best part is, neither side (whichever Synod adopts) is a denial of Reformed truth.  Synod will need to make a judgment as to the proper application of the principles of the church order.  But there is no reason for the discussion to be heated or rancorous—though it certainly may be spirited!

      There you have the highlights of the agenda.  If you can visit, you are most welcome, especially for the examination of Mr. Barnhill.  (You can also watch that online, since the examination will be live-streamed from Faith PRC—subject to synod’s approval.)

      The purpose of this editorial is, you understand, not to satisfy curiosity.  It is rather that you may know the work Jesus will be doing through the twenty delegates the week of June 8 in Faith Protestant Reformed Church.  And knowing that, you can pray with understanding for the work.

      Pray, then, to the Lord of the harvest.  

      Prof. Russell Dykstra



      Heretical Theology and a Lack of Love (Hewitson's Trust and Obey)


      This book critique by Professor David J. Engelsma was printed in the Appendix section of his book Federal Vision: Heresy at the Root.

       Click the PDF link to read/save in PDF format. 

      * Ian A. Hewitson, Trust and Obey: Norman Shepherd & the Justification Controversy at Westminster Theological Seminary (Minneapolis, MN: NextStep Resources, 2011).


      The full-throated defense of Norman Shepherd and his theology by Ian A. Hewitson, Trust and Obey, appeared too late for me to take it into account in this book.

      Nothing in Trust and Obey calls into question any aspect of Federal Vision: Heresy at the Root’s condemnation of Shepherd’s theology as heresy. On the contrary, Trust and Obey confirms the charge of this book that the theology of Norman Shepherd, which is essentially that of the federal vision, is heresy and that the root of the heresy is a false doctrine of the covenant of grace.

      Because Trust and Obey is an avowed and ardent defense of the teachings of Norman Shepherd, it warrants critique as an appendix in the book.

      The full title of the book is Trust and Obey: Norman Shepherd and the Justification Controversy at Westminster Theological Seminary.

      Trust and Obey is composed of two parts. The first is a meticulous, merciless account of the mishandling of Professor Shepherd by the faculty of Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia), by the Board of Trustees of the seminary, and by the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church between 1974 and 1982.

      The second part is a vigorous apology for Shepherd’s theology as orthodox.

      The author, Ian Hewitson, is a staunch defender of Shepherd and his theology. He is a critic of Shepherd’s critics. Hewitson informs the reader that his book “will endeavor to show [that suspicion of Professor Shepherd] is entirely unjustified.”1 Hewitson’s conclusion states:

      This book has sought to demonstrate that Westminster Seminary perpetrated an injustice against the Reverend Professor Norman Shepherd by inflicting upon him the severest of penalties: They removed him from his teaching position at the seminary. Part One demonstrates…that Westminster Seminary did not have adequate grounds to remove Shepherd…Part One allows for no other determination than that Shepherd was an orthodox Reformed theologian…The second part of this book demonstrates that Westminster Seminary also had no grounds theologically to remove him from his teaching post. Professor Shepherd’s theological formulations concerning justification, baptism, election, and covenant were in harmony with Scripture and confession.2

      The purpose of the book is to “remove suspicion from Shepherd and to restore to him that which is more precious to him than silver or gold—his good name, a name besmirched not by enemies of the gospel but by brothers.”3

      Hewitson’s determination to defend Shepherd and to put Shepherd’s theology in the best light possible makes this book all the more damning regarding the doctrine of Norman Shepherd. The heresy is not charged by a foe, but revealed, however unwillingly, by a friend.

      Theology of a Conditional Covenant

      Shepherd’s theology was the issue in the Shepherd “case,” although “rhubarb” would be a more fitting term, because of the failure of his adversaries ever to make and prosecute a case, church politically. “At its heart, this struggle was over theology.”4

      The theology that was the heart of the struggle was Shepherd’s doctrine of the covenant. The Commission on Allegations that was to examine Shepherd’s theology in light of criticisms of it stated that Shepherd made “the ‘covenant dynamic’ central in his theological work.”5 The first paragraph of that part of Trust and Obey dealing with Shepherd’s theology raises the issue of “covenant, election, and baptism.”6

      The distinctive covenant doctrine of Shepherd that was the heart of the struggle was a doctrine of a conditional covenant.

      Throughout the controversy Shepherd maintained that a proper understanding of the relationships of divine sovereignty and human action to justification is to be found not in a further refinement of the ordo salutis [order of salvation] but in an appreciation of the structural significance of the covenant relation between God and man as that unfolds in the course of the history of redemption for an understanding of the application of redemption. For Shepherd it is the biblical concept of covenant that breaks through, and breaks down, the tension [sic] between faith and works in the doctrine of justification and that exhibits the proper relation between sovereign grace and human responsibility in terms of the functioning of the “covenant dynamic.” The contours of Shepherd’s suggested covenant structure of the doctrine of justification permit an alternative formulation to the traditional and sacrosanct “justification by faith alone”…In short, the theological problem that provoked seven years of controversy was how to speak of conditions in the application of redemption and yet maintain the priority of grace in the use of the word faith.”7

      The quotation above is Hewitson’s analysis of the Shepherd controversy. Shepherd’s judges in the case that was never a case agreed that the heart of the struggle was Shepherd’s doctrine of a conditional covenant. Reflecting particularly on Shepherd’s teaching that all the branches of John 15:1–8 (a favorite passage of the federal vision) are alike savingly united to Jesus Christ, the Board of Trustees of Westminster Seminary said,

      The problem that is raised by the redefinition of our response in the New Covenant as essentially obedience is obvious. Coupled with Prof. Shepherd’s emphasis on the non-hypothetical nature of N. T. warnings and the two-sided character of the covenant, the conditional emphasis of the covenant dynamic is loud and clear.8

      All of Shepherd’s heretical teachings arose from his doctrine of a conditional covenant of grace with all baptized members of the church alike, especially all the baptized babies of believing parents.

      All of the teachings of Shepherd that a few of his colleagues on the faculty of Westminster called into question were rooted in his doctrine of a conditional covenant.

      This is why neither the Westminster faculty, nor the Board of Trustees, nor the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, nor the Commission on Allegations condemned Shepherd. This is the reason, to this day, none of Shepherd’s critics, whether theologian or church, with one exception, has taken hold of Shepherd’s heretical theology at the root. All share Shepherd’s fundamental theological conviction, namely, that the covenant of grace is conditional. Some reject the bitter fruit; all approve the malignant root.

      It was fitting that what finally did Shepherd in as a professor at Westminster (which was not the same as accomplishing his condemnation) was a series of lectures on “Life in Covenant with God.”9

      The failure of the authorities at Westminster Seminary and in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to judge Shepherd’s theology as false doctrine is scandalous. The failure cries to high heaven, where Jesus Christ sits on the throne of final judgment as king of his church, as dreadful dereliction of duty to defend the truth of the gospel of grace—the truth restored to the church at the Reformation and confessed in the Reformed creeds.

      Shepherd’s heresies were gross, grievous, and evident. Even though Shepherd was the typically subtle heretic and even though Hewitson exerts himself mightily to put the heresies in a good light, there is no difficulty in detecting Shepherd’s heresies in Trust and Obey.

      Justification by Works

      Shepherd denied justification by faith alone, that is, justification altogether apart from any and every good work of the believer, including the works he does by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit in his heart. Shepherd taught aspiring Presbyterian ministers at Westminster that justification is by faith and by the good works that faith performs. The struggle over Professor Shepherd commenced with the response of his students to questions at their presbytery examination concerning justification. The students responded that justification is by faith and works and that they learned this from Professor Shepherd.

      The event that placed Shepherd’s teaching before the faculty was the refusal of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to license David Cummings after he presented an understanding of justification that he believed he had been taught by Shepherd at Westminster Seminary.10

      Shepherd taught that James 2:24, which states that justification is “by works…and not by faith only,” speaks of justification in the same sense as does Paul in Romans 3:28, where the apostle affirms justification by faith, apart from works. That is, according to Shepherd, James 2:24 teaches that God’s legal verdict of righteousness, declaring the guilty sinner innocent, takes the sinner’s own good works into account. “The spark that ignited the powder keg in this controversy was Shepherd’s exegesis of James 2:14–26.”11 Shepherd “believes both Paul and James are speaking of justification in the declarative sense…Faith and works might stand in parallel relationships to justification.”12 What “avails for justification” is “faith working by love.”13

      This explanation of James 2:24 and of justification, which has always been the Roman Catholic interpretation of James 2 and of justification, demanded that Shepherd harmonize James 2:24 with Romans 3:28, which obviously refers to justification as the legal verdict by the judge. Shepherd harmonized James 2 and Romans 3:28 by explaining “deeds of the law” in Romans 3:28 not as genuine good works, but as merely the ceremonial works required by the Old Testament or as only works performed with the motive of meriting. “Works of the law [in the ‘Pauline letters’ are] an external and formal adherence to selected legal prescriptions apart from faith.”14

      Shepherd, therefore, read Romans 3:28 this way: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without obedience to the ceremonial law and without works that do not proceed from faith, but not without good works that faith performs.” This is to say, “A man is justified, in the sense of the legal verdict of God upon him, by faith and by the good works of faith.” In Romans 3:28, Shepherd’s Paul teaches that justification is by faith and by (genuine) good works.

      Eight verses later, Shepherd’s Paul, having forgotten what he had written in Romans 3:28, writes: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).

      Shepherd also denied justification by faith alone in his interpretation of Romans 2:13: “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.” Shepherd explained the text as describing what actually will, and must, be the case in the justification of the final judgment. Doers of the law will be justified, and they will be justified, not by faith alone, but by faith and by the good works of obedience to the law that faith performs. “Anything less than this [a working faith] is a dead faith and does not justify or save. That is why Paul can say that the doers of the law will be justified.”15

      Shepherd taught that “good works…are…necessary for salvation from eternal condemnation and therefore for justification.” Although the righteousness of Jesus Christ is “the exclusive ground of the believer’s justification…the personal godliness of the believer is also necessary for his justification.”16

      Shepherd’s inclusion of the works of the sinner himself in the justifying act of God is condemned by the Reformed creeds (Heid. Cat., Q&A 59–64; Bel. Conf., Articles 22–24); contradicts Scripture in John 8:11 (the adulteress had no good work by which to be justified) and in Romans 4:5 (“to him that worketh not, but believeth”); overthrows the sixteenth-century Reformation of the church (which consisted mainly of the doctrine of justification by faith alone); and denies the heart of the gospel of grace.

      Regarding this last, namely, Shepherd’s denial of the heart of the gospel, Calvin’s words to Cardinal Sadolet are applicable:

      You [Cardinal Sadolet, then, and the Rev. Shepherd, now], in the first place, touch upon justification by faith, the first and keenest subject of controversy between us. Is this a knotty and useless question? Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown.17

      Although this false doctrine, understandably, was on the foreground in the struggle at Westminster Seminary and in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church between 1974 and 1982, it was by no means the only doctrine of the gospel that Shepherd corrupted. How could it be? Justification by faith alone is, as Calvin described it, “the main hinge on which religion turns.”18 Shepherd’s bending of the hinge was the ruin of the entire Christian religion according to the Reformed understanding of it.

      Changeable Predestination

      Shepherd denied biblical predestination, as confessed by the first head of doctrine of the Canons of Dordt. He taught that election in the New Testament is not an eternal, unchangeable decree, but a temporal, mutable decision of God. Specifically, Shepherd taught that election in Ephesians 1:4 is not the “eternal decree of God.” Rather, “Paul speaks from the perspective of observable covenant reality and concludes from the visible faith and sanctity of the Ephesians that they are the elect of God.”19

      Ephesians 1:4 reads: “According as he [God] hath chosen us before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him.” Verse 5 sheds more light on the eternal election of verse 4: “In love having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.”

      In Shepherd’s theology, Ephesians 1:4 is the apostle’s conclusion concerning all the members of the Ephesian congregation, that they are the elect of God. And all of them are the elect of God, for the time being. However, according to Shepherd, “some [of the ‘elect’ of Ephesians 1:4] may fall away” and become reprobates. “Paul warns against that possibility. Were some to fall away, he would no longer speak of them as the elect of God.”20

      Judas Iscariot was an elect, in the sense of Ephesians 1:4, who later is “rejected [reprobated] as a son of perdition because of his apostasy.”21

      Accompanying the radical revision of the Reformed doctrine of election, as confessed in the Canons of Dordt, 1.7 (“Election is the unchangeable purpose of God”), was a novel doctrine of reprobation. “Reprobation” in the theology of Norman Shepherd “is not incontrovertible.”22 That is, reprobation is not the eternal, decisive, unchangeable appointment of a certain number of persons to perdition.

      Shepherd’s revision of creedal predestination was rooted in his covenant doctrine. He said so. “The election of God is reflected upon from the perspective of covenant.”23 “Reprobation from within the context of the covenant…is not incontrovertible.”24

      In the purportedly biblical and Reformed theology of Norman Shepherd, predestination is controlled by a conditional covenant. If one trusts and obeys, God elects him. If this believer fails to perform the conditions of the covenant, as is a real possibility, God changes his election of the man into a reprobation of him. If the lapsed elect repents and again performs the conditions of the covenant, he regains his status as the object of election. One can only hope that his final breath finds him performing the conditions of the covenant. This must be the wish of God as well for those in whom he has begun salvation.

      What is this wretched doctrine but the application of the conditional predestination of Arminianism to the covenant and covenant salvation?

      Election—the eternal, sovereign, gracious, unchangeable decree of God of Ephesians 1:4 and of the Canons of Dordt, 1.7—does not govern the covenant and the salvation of sinners in the covenant. Rather, Shepherd’s covenant—the conditional contract or relationship between God and every baptized person, which depends upon the sinful member of the covenant—governs God’s election.

      Shepherd’s protest that he still also acknowledges an eternal decree of God is worthless. It is mere deception and foolery. For, first, this eternal election does not amount to anything. It does not do anything. It does not govern the covenant, the covenant Christ, and covenant salvation. The only election that is involved in the covenant—the covenant of grace!—is Shepherd’s “covenant election,” and this is a weak, changeable, and pitiful thing. The eternal decree, to which Shepherd pays lip service, is, in Shepherd’s theology, inoperative. It is a dead letter.

      Second, there is no biblical basis for the eternal decree in the theology of Shepherd. If Ephesians 1:4, which explicitly states that God chose some “before the foundation of the world,” does not refer to the eternal decree, no passage of Scripture teaches it. The only basis of an eternal decree of election is the word of Norman Shepherd that, in spite of his consignment of it to the realm of the insignificant, there is such a decree. The word of Norman Shepherd is not sufficient to establish doctrine.

      Did any one of the many judges of Shepherd’s doctrine of election ever point out to him that the Canons of Dordt, 1.7 makes Ephesians 1:4–6 the biblical ground of election not as a temporal, changeable, “covenant” election, but as “the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, he hath, out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of his own will, chosen, from the whole human race…a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ…”?25

      Universal Atonement

      Such is the intimate relation both of justification and the cross and of election and the cross that error concerning justification and concerning election must also extend to the doctrine of the atonement. Shepherd taught heresy concerning the atonement of the cross of Christ.

      Shepherd criticized Calvinism for denying that the world of John 3:16 includes all humans without exception. By this denial “the Calvinist…hedges on the extent of the world [in John 3:16].” The trouble with the Calvinist is that he explains the world of John 3:16 “in terms of the doctrine of election.” Contrary to Calvinism’s limitation of the humans included in the world of John 3:16 to the elect, Shepherd declared that the word “mean[s] exactly what [it] says.” What it says in Shepherd’s thinking he made plain when he immediately added, “The Reformed evangelist can and must say on the basis of John 3:16, Christ died to save you.”26

      Shepherd meant that the Reformed evangelist may rightly say, “Christ died for you,” to every human. It is the evangelist who may say this. Evangelists address people outside the church— the unbaptized and unbelieving. That Shepherd meant that the evangelist can and must say “Christ died for you” to every human without exception, he made explicit in his book, The Call of Grace: “The Reformed evangelist can and must preach to everyone on the basis of John 3:16, ‘Christ died to save you.’”27

      Unless Shepherd thought that Reformed evangelists are liars, he taught that Christ died for all humans without exception and that he died for all, because God loved all humans with the saving love of John 3:16.

      Hewitson’s conclusion regarding Shepherd’s doctrine of the atonement defies not only logic and rationality, but also the plain meaning of words. Having quoted Shepherd as denying Calvinism’s limitation of the extent of the atonement to the elect and as declaring that an evangelist can and must say to every human “Christ died for you,” Hewitson concludes that “Shepherd affirms the doctrine of definite atonement… [Shepherd’s] teaching ‘does not challenge’ the doctrine of election or the doctrine of definite atonement.”28

      One may not insult a Presbyterian doctor of theology by attributing to him ignorance of the fact that by “definite atonement” the Reformed faith understands that Christ did not die for all humans without exception, but only for the elect. It is inconceivable that Dr. Hewitson does not know that the Reformed faith has expressed its doctrine of definite atonement in the ecumenical creed, the Canons of Dordt.

      For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation: that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father; that he should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, he purchased for them by his death.29

      No Reformed evangelist “can and must,” or may, say to every human whom he meets, whether on the streets of Philadelphia or in the wilds of Brazil, “Christ died for you.” No apostle of Christ ever conducted missions in this way, according to the book of Acts.

      Hewitson’s affirmation that Shepherd taught definite atonement, therefore, must be the deliberate use of an orthodox phrase to express an entirely different, unorthodox meaning. It plays the reader for a fool.

      Shepherd taught universal atonement. He taught an ineffectual atonement. Many to whom his evangelist said “Christ died for you,” evidently because Christ did die for them, nevertheless perish in hell.

      The Reformed faith repudiates with all its heart such a view of the cross of the eternal Son of God in human flesh. In the cross of Christ, the Reformed faith glories.

      Resistible (Saving ) Grace

      As is evident from Shepherd’s doctrine of a conditional justification, an inefficacious, changeable election, and a cross that fails to save many for whom Christ died, Shepherd denied sovereign grace. This is the necessary implication of his doctrine of a conditional covenant, which is the root of all his theology. The denial of sovereign, irresistible grace was glaringly evident in Shepherd’s doctrine of salvation—the regeneration, sanctification, and perseverance of sinners.

      Working with John 15:1–8, Jesus’ teaching about the vine, the branches, and the necessity of bearing fruit, Shepherd taught that God saves all who are baptized with water by uniting them all alike, savingly, into Jesus Christ. This is the sovereign work of grace. Whether those united to Christ, and saved, remain in Christ and enjoy everlasting salvation, however, depends upon their performing the condition of bearing fruit. Some fail to perform the condition and are separated from Christ, so that they perish everlastingly.

      Shepherd rejected the explanation of John 15:1–8 that distinguishes “between two kinds of branches” and that holds that “some branches are not really in Christ in a saving way.” He criticized the concern that the passage be “squared with the doctrines of election and the perseverance of the saints.”30

      Thus Shepherd rejected the explanation and criticized the concern of John Calvin. Commenting on John 15:1–8, Calvin wrote, “Can any one who is ingrafted into Christ be without fruit? I answer, many are supposed to be in the vine, according to the opinion of men, who actually have no root in the vine.” Calvin added, “Not that it ever happens that any one of the elect is dried up, but because there are many hypocrites who, in outward appearance, flourish and are green for a time, but who afterwards, when they ought to yield fruit, show the very opposite of that which the Lord expects and demands from his people.”31

      Hewitson defends Shepherd’s explanation of the passage:

      Shepherd contends for grace sovereignly bestowed (the first part of the covenant) [the uniting of all the baptized into Christ] and for the necessity of faith and repentance (the second part of the covenant) [the dependence of remaining in Christ and obtaining everlasting life upon the performance of conditions].32

      This is not a doctrine of sovereign grace. Sovereign grace not only begins the work of salvation in the sinner, but also maintains and perfects it. Sovereign grace not only unites the dead sinner to Christ, but also causes the now living sinner to produce fruit and in this way to persevere in Christ unto everlasting life.

      Grace that begins the work of salvation, but fails to perfect this work—fails to bring it to its end in the resurrection of the body—because the saved sinner fails to perform the condition upon which the perfection of grace depends, is resistible grace.

      Shepherd’s covenant grace is the resistible and losable grace of Arminian theology that the Canons of Dordt reject as an aspect of the Arminian heresy, when the Canons reject the error of those “who teach that the true believers and regenerate not only can fall from justifying faith and likewise from grace and salvation wholly and to the end, but indeed often do fall from this and are lost forever. For this conception makes powerless the grace, justification, regeneration, and continued keeping by Christ, contrary to” many passages of Scripture, which the Canons then quote.33

      Hewitson, like Shepherd himself, muddies the waters by denying that Shepherd’s conditions, upon which grace and salvation depend, are “meritorious.” “Shepherd teaches that there are conditions of the covenant and…he teaches these conditions are not meritorious.”34

      It makes not a particle of difference whether the conditions are meritorious or nonmeritorious. What is heretical is the teaching that God’s saving grace in Christ is ineffectual, fails to accomplish the final salvation of one in whom it began salvation, and is dependent upon conditions that sinners must perform. Both Rome’s meritorious conditions and Shepherd’s nonmeritorious conditions rob God of his glory in salvation and give the glory to the sinner who performs the conditions.

      A Theology of Doubt

      Inherent in a doctrine of salvation that denies the sovereignty of grace is the real possibility of the falling away of saints and, therefore, also the loss of assurance of salvation. Shepherd’s theology is a theology of doubt and fear. Some who are united to Christ and begin to enjoy the blessings of salvation, including justification and eternal life, and, therefore, who possess faith, for justification is by faith, can and do fall away from Christ and perish eternally. Some branches, which are as savingly united to the vine as those that bear fruit and abide in the vine, fail to perform the condition of bearing fruit, are cut off from the vine, and are burned.

      No one, therefore, who believes in Jesus Christ and begins to enjoy eternal life is, or can be, certain of abiding in Christ and inheriting eternal life in the day of Christ.

      All believers must live in the supreme terror that they might fall away from Christ and go lost forever.

      The theology of Norman Shepherd gives assurance to those who believe and practice this theology that they are saved at the present moment. Because this assurance is based on their own performing of conditions rather than on the eternal, gracious, unchangeable election of God through faith in Christ crucified, this assurance is a false assurance.

      In the theology of Norman Shepherd, one may have the assurance that he will be saved in the future, even everlastingly, if he continues to perform the conditions. But he does not have the assurance that he will believe and obey to the end. For in the covenant theology of Shepherd, believing and obeying are conditions that the sinner must perform. They are not the working of sovereign grace in the sinner, flowing to him from the gracious election of God, merited for him by the cross of Christ, and irresistibly maintained in him by the Spirit.

      Assurance in Shepherd’s theology is the conditional and, therefore, highly uncertain assurance of Roman Catholic and of Arminian theologies. It is not the assurance of the Reformed faith, as expressed in the fifth head of the Canons of Dordt.

      Of this preservation of the elect to salvation, and of their perseverance in the faith, true believers for themselves may and do obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith, whereby they arrive at the certain persuasion that they ever will continue true and living members of the Church; and that they experience forgiveness of sins, and will at last inherit eternal life.35

      The alleged assurance of the theology of Shepherd is, in reality, doubt.

      Shepherd and Dordt

      The theology of Norman Shepherd is heresy.

      It is the heresy exposed and condemned by the Canons of Dordt.

      Shepherd and Hewitson do not rescue Shepherd’s theology from Dordt’s condemnation by calling it a “covenant theology”: temporal, changeable covenant election; universal, ineffectual covenant atonement; resistible, losable covenant grace; the falling away of covenant saints; lifelong, terrifying covenant doubt.

      Dordt’s doctrines refer to and describe the covenant gospel— covenant election, a covenant cross, covenant grace, covenant preservation, and covenant assurance.

      How did the pernicious notion ever gain entrance into Reformed and Presbyterian churches that the Canons of Dordt apply to some saving work of God other than his covenant of grace? Where did the evil idea originate that Dordt is describing some gospel other than the gospel of the covenant of grace? Who gave currency to the foolish thought that Dordt condemned all theologies of a universal, resistible, saving grace of God—a grace that does not have its source in and is not governed by election—except such a theology of the covenant?

      There is no other gospel than the gospel of the covenant of grace.

      There is no other salvation than the salvation of the covenant Jesus Christ.

      Everything Dordt teaches, it teaches about the covenant. The theology of Dordt is covenant theology.

      And the theology that Dordt condemned in 1618–19 was a false, heretical theology of the covenant. Arminian theology was covenant theology, as Arminius and his disciples declared, loudly and clearly.

      A Reformed or Presbyterian theologian, or layman, for that matter, would have to be blind not to see that the theology of Norman Shepherd is, essentially, in all respects, from a conditional predestination to the falling away of elected saints, the same conditional covenant theology that the Synod of Dordt condemned. He would have to be blind not to see that Shepherd’s theology opposes the same gospel of sovereign, particular grace that the Arminians fought so fiercely in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

      But the majority of the faculty at Westminster Seminary, the majority of the Board of Trustees of the seminary, a blueribbon Commission on Allegations, and the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church could not see this. “Professor Shepherd was exonerated three times by the Westminster faculty, twice by the Board of Trustees, and by his own presbytery—exonerations that have never been rescinded.”36 “In the end, the Commission [on Allegations] exonerated Shepherd…(even though no charges were extant).”37 Not one of these bodies—the judges in the quasi-case—ever condemned Shepherd’s theology during all the seven years of the Shepherd controversy at Westminster.

      Lack of Love

      This brings up part one of Ian Hewitson’s important defense of Norman Shepherd—the handling of the Shepherd controversy between 1974 and 1982.

      The treatment of Shepherd and his teachings by adversaries and supporters alike was appalling.

      On the part of Shepherd’s adversaries, their dealing with a colleague, one whom they were called to view and treat as a brother in Christ, was a travesty of justice and a trampling upon the basic rules of Reformed church order. They called into question Shepherd’s orthodoxy, in the fundamental matter of justification, without ever making a formal charge of false doctrine, complete with grounds, and then processing this charge before the appropriate church assemblies.

      The result was seven years of high-level theological debate and bitter doctrinal wrangling, as though the issue were merely academic, and, in the end, the dismissal from his teaching position of a man who, not only had never been condemned for heresy, but also had never been charged.

      But there is far more to the result than only this, bad as this is. The result was also that Shepherd’s theology has never been condemned at Westminster Seminary or in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. On the contrary, on every occasion that his theology came to the attention of some body of judges at Westminster or in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Shepherd’s teachings were approved. His defenders on the faculty and in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, of whom there were many, were perfectly within their rights to continue teaching the theology of Norman Shepherd. And they did. Shepherd was gone; his theology remained.

      In addition, the result of the failure to deal with a suspected heretic according to the Reformed church order, which in this aspect is the rule of Christ in Matthew 18:15–18, was that Shepherd and his theology were loosed upon the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America, indeed upon the Reformed churches worldwide. He left Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church with “clean papers,” as the Dutch Reformed say, that is, as an orthodox theologian and as a good Christian man, indeed a good Christian man much abused by foes. This good reputation enabled him to spread his theology abroad as the federal vision. Those who did not charge him with heresy, and then press the charge, if necessary to the general assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, bear responsibility.

      There is also a personal side to the mishandling of Shepherd. Christian discipline always has as its purpose the repentance and salvation of the sinner. This purpose applies also to the discipline of theologians and professors of theology. Heresy is a sin. The heretic is a sinner. The Church Order of Dordt mentions heresy first in its list of “gross sins” that render a minister worthy of deposition from office and excommunication.38 Shepherd’s adversaries, who correctly saw that he was guilty of heresy regarding justification, were duty-bound to exercise church discipline in order, if God willed it, to bring Professor Shepherd, their brother, to repentance and salvation. The keys of the kingdom have this power. Theological fighting for seven years does not.

      No one ever brought a charge against Professor Shepherd, according to Hewitson’s careful account of all the proceedings in the Shepherd controversy. The adversaries only raised questions, deadly serious questions, about the orthodoxy of Shepherd’s teachings, over a period of seven years. The Board of Trustees, as well as the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, allowed this to continue. And then the board of Westminster Seminary permitted this disorderly conduct to be successful in the ouster of Professor Shepherd from the seminary.

      Appalling as this aspect of the handling of the Shepherd case is, there is another aspect that is still more appalling. In the providence of God, despite the absence of any formal charge, the theology of Shepherd came to the attention of the faculty of Westminster Seminary, to the attention of the Board of Trustees, to the attention of the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and to the attention of a high-powered panel of Reformed and Presbyterian theologians and churchmen—the Commission on Allegations.

      Shepherd’s theology came to the attention of all these bodies and men for judgment.

      They examined Shepherd’s theology thoroughly, under the heavy pressure of trouble in the seminary and in the church.

      They tested Shepherd’s theology, in a way, for seven years.

      These were some of the most learned and respected men in all of Presbyterian Christendom.

      All the bodies and a majority of the men approved Shepherd’s theology as Reformed orthodoxy and “exonerated” Shepherd.

      This was a theology that taught justification by faith and by works; the election of Ephesians 1:4 as conditional and, therefore, changeable; the atonement of Christ for all men without exception; saving (covenant) grace that is resistible and losable, not infallibly bringing to glory; and the falling away from Christ, grace, and salvation of (covenant) saints.

      Hewitson implicitly accuses Shepherd’s adversaries of a lack of love for Norman Shepherd. That was reprehensible.

      Far worse was the lack of love for the truth of the gospel on the part of Shepherd’s defenders. Lack of love for the truth of the gospel of grace is the fast track of apostasy in these last days (2 Thess. 2:10).


      1 Ian A. Hewitson, Trust and Obey: Norman Shepherd & the Justification Controversy at Westminster Theological Seminary (Minneapolis, MN: NextStep Resources, 2011), 16.

      2 Ibid., 225.

      3 Ibid., 226.

      4 Ibid., 220.

      5 Ibid., 157.

      6 Ibid., 105.

      7 Ibid., 32; emphasis added.

      8 Ibid., 180; emphasis added.

      9 Ibid., 82.

      10 Ibid., 39.

      11 Ibid., 221.

      12 Ibid., 119.

      13 Ibid., 124.

      14 Ibid., 124.

      15 Ibid., 153

      16 Ibid., 156.

      17 John Calvin, “Reply by John Calvin to Letter by Cardinal Sadolet to the Senate and People of Geneva,” in Tracts Relating to the Reformation, trans. Henry Beveridge, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1844), 1:41.

      18 Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.1, 1:726.

      19 Hewitson, Trust and Obey, 185.

      20 Ibid., 185.

      21 Ibid., 183.

      22 Ibid., 181.

      23 Ibid., 184–85.

      24 Ibid., 181.

      25 Canons of Dordt, 1.7, in Creeds of Christendom, 3:582.

      26 Hewitson, Trust and Obey, 208.

      27 Shepherd, Call of Grace, 84–85.

      28 Ibid., 208.

      29 Canons of Dordt, 2.8, in Creeds of Christendom, 3:587.

      30 Hewitson, Trust and Obey, 178.

      31 John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, trans. William Pringle, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), 2:108, 110.

      32 Ibid., 196.

      33 Canons of Dordt, 5, Rejection of Errors 3, in Confessions and Church Order, 177.

      34 Hewitson, Trust and Obey, 195.

      35 Canons of Dordt, 5.9, in Creeds of Christendom, 3:594.

      36 Hewitson, Trust and Obey, 16.

      37 Ibid., 222.

      38 Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, Art. 80, in Confessions and Church Order, 402.


      The Reason(s) for Preaching the Gospel to All

      This post is a response to Dr. R. Scott Clark’s recent essay entitled The Gospel is not Common. This is a provocative title since Clark is devoted to the doctrines of common grace and the well-meant offer of the gospel. Clark knows and explains in the article that the Christian Reformed Church affirmed the well-meant offer of the gospel in connection with the first of the three points of common grace adopted and declared by the CRC Synod of 1924. Clark believes and ardently defends the notion that in the preaching of the gospel God bestows common grace on every listener (elect and reprobate). But the gospel, he writes, is “not common.”

      Clark explains the uncommonness of the gospel this way:

      However many things that believers have in common with unbelievers the gospel is not one of them. The gospel declares that God loves sinners so much that he gave his only and eternally begotten Son (John 3:16) but the way to God is narrow. “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt 7:13–14; ESV). Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The gospel is that there is a Savior, that he has come, that he has accomplished redemption for his people and that he is efficaciously applying that salvation to every one of his people. The gospel, however, is particular. Believers and unbelievers do not have the gospel in common. It separates us. It distinguishes between belief and unbelief. In that way the gospel is not like the falling rain or the shining sun. Those are general blessings and mercies. The gospel is not a general blessing. The gospel does not say, “I have done my part, now you do yours.” The law says: “you do.” The gospel says, “Christ has done. It is finished.”

      Although Clark’s identification of “the falling rain” and “the shining sun” as “general blessings or mercies” is wrong, he seems to be on the right track in this paragraph in one respect. Clark seems to recognize that, if there is a common grace in distinction from saving grace, the gospel falls into the category of saving grace. Clark’s language could be sharper but is clear nonetheless. He does not speak of the gospel as grace to the elect as opposed to the reprobate, but this is his meaning when he writes that the gospel is “particular” and declares that Jesus came to redeem and apply salvation to “his people.”

      This ought to lead Clark to conclude that the 1924 CRC Synod of Kalamazoo erred when it spoke of a “general offer of the gospel” as proof of a non-saving, common grace of God in the 1st point of common grace. After the paragraph above one could reasonably expect Clark to criticize this act of the CRC Synod proclaiming—‘the gospel is particular, saving grace for the elect! Therefore, the saving grace of the gospel is not proof of a common grace of God.’

      However, Clark does not continue with such clarity of thought. Instead he continues by writing,

      Because the gospel is not general, because it is not common, it must be proclaimed to all universally, seriously, and freely. The first of Synod Kalamazoo’s Three Points was the free or well-meant offer of the gospel. God reveals himself as willing that none should perish. So, despite the protestations of a noisy minority, the Reformed have widely taught the doctrine of the free or well-meant offer of the good news. We offer Christ and his grace to all because we do not presume to know whom God, from all eternity, in Christ, has elected. Just as we who believe are the unworthy recipients of favor earned for us by Christ, we offer that grace to all.

      In his explanation of why the gospel should be preached promiscuously Clark combines an uncommon gospel of saving grace with the common (non-saving) grace of the well-meant offer of the gospel. It would be logical to conclude, having established that the gospel is not common, that the grace of God in both the gospel itself and the preaching of the gospel is particular. But Clark’s position is that God’s grace in the gospel is not common while it is common in the preaching of the gospel.  In fact he seems to argue that a gospel of uncommon grace necessitates the bestowal of a common grace of God in the preaching of the gospel.

      I have to admit that I am not exactly sure what Clark means when he says that the gospel must be preached to all because it is not common. My best guess is that he means that the gospel must be preached because there are unsaved people in the world, and the gospel is the means by which they can be saved, so the gospel must be preached to them. If this is what Clark means here, his thinking is not wrong but incomplete. The presence of unsaved people in the world does not necessarily mean that God wants the gospel to be preached to them. God could have commanded the church to keep the gospel to itself. So to say that the gospel must be preached to all just because not all are saved is insufficient.

      But this may be why Clark brings up the well-meant offer as a reason why the gospel must be preached to all. The well-meant offer supposes that God loves and desires the salvation of all men. Thus the thinking is that because God desires all men to be saved the church must preach the gospel to all who are unsaved as she has opportunity. Seems logical.

      However, things are not as simple as they may seem on the surface. Clark’s argument is based on a premise that is both unstated and unproven. That premise is that the only reason God would want the church to preach the gospel to unsaved people is that he desires the salvation of all people. Clark has not stated that this is his belief in so many words in anything I have read of him. But he has written in another place that the doctrine of the well-meant offer that he learned from John Murray and Bob Strimple “provided a clear biblical, exegetical, and theological rationale for the proclamation of the gospel[1].” Clark’s position is that the well-meant gospel offer provides the “rationale” for preaching the gospel to all. If God does not desire to save all in the preaching of the gospel, what rationale would there be for preaching to the lost? Clark’s answer seems to be that there would be none. Thus it is not a misrepresentation of Clark’s position to state that he believes the only reason for preaching the gospel to everyone is that God loves everyone (presumably with a common, non-saving love).

      But the premise that the only rationale for preaching the gospel to lost sinners is that God desires the salvation of all who hear the preaching is false. God does not have to love every lost sinner to desire that the gospel be preached universally, seriously, and freely. It is enough that God loves His elect who are lost. Surely the church has ample reason to preach the gospel to everyone she can because she knows God has determined to use the preaching as the means to gather his eternally beloved elect from among the unconverted in the world.

      Clark gives a good reason for why the church does not limit the preaching only to the elect when he writes, “we do not presume to know whom God, from all eternity, in Christ, has elected.” Hopefully Clark understands that this is the position of those who reject the well-meant offer. We do not presume to know who the elect are because we don’t know who they are! The logic of our position is very clear and consistent. The elect have not all been converted and brought to the knowledge of salvation. God desires their salvation. The means that God has instituted to convert the elect is the preaching of the gospel by the church. God has not revealed to the church who among the unconverted are elect. Therefore, for the sake of the salvation of the elect, who are known to God but unknown to the church, the church must preach the gospel to all. This is both logical and more importantly in complete harmony with scripture and the Reformed creeds.

      And yes, the members of the church do know they are unworthy recipients of God’s sovereign particular grace. Humble gratitude for the amazing grace of God impels the church to preach the gospel to lost sinners wherever she has opportunity—confident that this amazing grace will shine to the glory of God in the salvation of all his elect.


      [1] This is from Clark’s essay entitled Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel, and Westminster Theology found in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine. Edited by David VanDrunen (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), 149. 


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