Gospel Truth of Justification (6): Polemical and Necessary


Ending last time with the fact that the author of Gospel Truth of Justification both necessarily and properly engages in polemics, we now briefly consider the heresies refuted and contradicted.

God used the sixteenth-century Reformation to deliver his church from the deadly heresy of justification partly by faith in Christ and partly by the good works of the sinner. This heresy Rome vigorously maintains to this day. Not many years after the Reformation, the doctrine of justification by faith alone again came under attack by James Arminius and his followers. Originating within the Reformed churches and more subtle than the Romish corruption of justification, the Arminian position is “justification by work. The work is faith” (p. 10). Even worse,

“works of obedience to the law are not excluded from the Arminian doctrine of justification. As the Canons remark, the Arminian doctrine of justification is that God “regards faith itself and the obedience of faith” as the sinner’s righteousness. The “obedience of faith” is the good works that faith performs.

Therefore, justification for Arminianism is by works, with a vengeance. Arminianism’s doctrine is worse than Rome’s (p. 10).

The current threat to the doctrine of justification by faith alone in “conservative” Reformed churches is the federal vision, which bears the marks of both the Romish and Arminian subversion of justification. Federal vision theologians profess a “concern” for holiness. Their fear is antinomianism. Engelsma explains leading federal vision proponent Norman Shepherd’s solution:

Already in the preface of his book [The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism], Shepherd is wondering “where and how,” in light of the Reformed faith’s confession of salvation by grace, “does human responsibility enter in?” “Human responsibility” for Shepherd is conditions that humans must perform and upon which the covenant of God and its promises of salvation depend: “conditions were, indeed, attached to the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham.” Only a conditional covenant with a conditional salvation can ward off the threatening evil of antinomianism. Only the preaching of a conditional covenant enables the Reformed preacher to “preach grace without being antinomian” (p. 431).

A conditional covenant means conditional justification. Writes Shepherd, “Faith, repentance, obedience, and perseverance are indispensable to the enjoyment of these blessings [of the new covenant]. They are conditions” (The Call of Grace, p. 50). Explaining Shepherd’s position, Engelsma writes,

Faith and its works are the condition fulfilled by the sinner in order to receive and retain his justification, because faith and its good works are the “condition to be met for the fulfillment of [the] promise [of the covenant]" (p. 277).

Engelsma views the federal vision as “the most serious assault on the gospel of justification probably since the time of the Reformation.” Adding to the seriousness of this threat is the fact that “the enemy is within. It appears, launches its attack, and is protected and defended within the Reformed and Presbyterian churches that have a reputation for orthodoxy, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America among others” (p. xiv). Elsewhere in the book, Engelsma identifies the United Reformed Churches who “have had advocates of the federal vision arise in their bosom without disciplining the heretics, indeed in at least one instance exonerating the federal visionist” (pp. 480, 481).

Engelsma also lists the names of prominent federal vision theologians on pages 106 and 342. They include Norman Shepherd, James B. Jordan, Rich Lusk, Peter Leithart, John Barach, Douglas Wilson, Richard Gaffin Jr., John O. Kinnaird, Theo Hoekstra, and Steve Wilkins.

One may ask, “Why do I have to know where this heresy is found and who is teaching it? We have the gospel preached in our church. What does it matter?” Allow the author of Gospel Truth of Justification to answer these questions.

...these churches [the OPC, PCA, and URC] are the main players in the ecumenical movement called North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) that is popular with any number of conservative denominations, including the Protestant Reformed Churches. Churches that tolerate, refuse to condemn, and even approve the federal vision and its heretical proponents at their broadest assemblies are not conservative but churches that take on the mark of the false church (p. xv).

The danger is complacency. And one aspect of complacency is unsound ecumenicity. In another work of the author, The Necessity of Membership in a True Church, Engelsma bluntly states the real danger of unsound ecumenicity in five paragraphs which are well worth taking to heart.

Unsound ecumenicity is close relations, whether official or unofficial, with churches with whom the Protestant Reformed Churches are not one in the truth on the basis of genuine oneness of confession of the three forms of unity. Invariably, this unsound ecumenicity proceeds further without resolving the fundamental differences or even seriously discussing them.

The justification of these relations is that the Protestant Reformed Churches will be able to influence the churches that have corrupted the pure Reformed doctrines of the creeds, for example, the sovereign particularity of grace by all those who hold to the well-meant offer; the gracious, unconditional covenant by all those who hold to a conditional covenant with all the baptized infants of believers alike; and the gospel truth of justification by faith alone by all those churches that promote or tolerate the federal vision.

What this defense of unsound ecumenical relations forgets, to the peril of the Protestant Reformed Churches, is that ecumenical relations are a two-way street. The churches that embrace heresies are as liable to influence the Protestant Reformed Churches as the Protestant Reformed Churches are to influence them. To ignore this is complacency.

Two considerations ought to give pause to the ecumenical appeal to the possibility of influencing unsound churches. First, the proper way to deal with churches that espouse false doctrine is not ecumenicity, but polemics. Only when and if polemics has been effective in delivering a church from its errors does ecumenicity have its proper place. By definition ecumenicity is relations between churches that are one in the faith. Ecumenicity is not a means to convert churches; ecumenicity expresses the oneness of churches.

Second, the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches ought to be a warning against complacent, unsound ecumenicity. In the early 1950s unsound ecumenicity with the liberated Reformed churches came close to destroying the Protestant Reformed Churches (p. 44).[i]

Hence, the value and necessity of the Reformed Free Publishing Association’s publication of Gospel Truth of Justification. Read this book and be shaken from the sleep of complacency. Read this book and be sharpened in your understanding of the heart of the gospel so that, in knowing and loving the truth, you are not deceived.  Read this book and be comforted and edified. Read this book and be encouraged in a life of gratitude and obedience to the God who has freely justified us.

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[i] The Necessity of Membership in a True Church is a 2017 publication of the Reformed Witness Committee of Hope Protestant Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI. As stated in an earlier blog post, I highly recommend this publication. Copies can be obtained by emailing the Reformed Witness Committee at hoperwc@gmail.com. I am sure they would love to send you a copy free of charge.

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This article was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.

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Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (1): Timely

Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (2): Comforting

Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (3): Comforting and Confessional

Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (4): Instructive

Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (5): Polemical

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