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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).

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