The Charge of Antinomianism (5): Denying Justification by Faith Alone

The present-day attack on the truth of the unconditional covenant and salvation, consisting in the slanderous smear of that doctrine as antinomian, has a definite source. That source is the current ascendency and near total victory of the federal vision heresy in virtually every Reformed and Presbyterian denomination and seminary in the United States and elsewhere in the world. This heresy teaches that the covenant of God is made and union with Christ is established with every baptized child. Salvation in that covenant and union with Christ are conditioned on the child’s faith and obedience of faith. The single greatest threat to Reformed churches is this pestilential heresy of the federal vision. This false doctrine is a threat to their very existence as churches of Christ in the world. This is because as part of its doctrine of the conditional covenant, the federal vision denies the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Justification by faith alone is the truth that God forgives the sins of all those who believe in Jesus Christ and imputes to them Christ’s righteousness by faith alone and declares the believing sinner worthy of eternal life. To corrupt this doctrine is to corrupt the heart of the gospel. The false teacher that corrupts this doctrine is anathema. The church that corrupts this doctrine has become false.

The federal vision denies that the justification of the sinner is by faith only without any works. It teaches that the sinner’s justification in the final judgment will be by works. The way the men of the federal vision promote this is devilishly clever. While paying lip-service to justification by faith, even justification by faith alone, they teach that the faith that justifies is a working faith that justifies with its works. Men like Norman Shepherd, Richard Lusk, Peter Leithart, Douglas Wilson, and James Jordan have introduced this false doctrine into Reformed and Presbyterian churches. This doctrine has overwhelmed these churches. It is the current, popular understanding of salvation.

It is crucial to understand and to be convinced of the fact that the federal vision’s starting point for its denial of justification by faith alone is the doctrine of the conditional covenant. The conditional covenant has had widespread—almost universal—acceptance in Reformed churches. The federal vision has aggressively developed this idea. The covenant is made with both elect and reprobate alike—with Jacob and Esau—so that God promises to be the God of Jacob as well as of Esau. In the covenant, God gives grace to everyone. The continuation of this covenant on earth and perfection of this covenant in heaven depend on the faith and faithful obedience of the covenant-member. For this reason the federal vision teaches that the covenant-member can, and often does, fall out of the covenant and perish. Furthermore, the final judgment will be based partly on the work of Christ and partly on the covenant-member’s faith and obedience by grace: what one does in the covenant by grace will be part of the basis for his salvation. For the federal vision, salvation must be based on the covenant-member’s works by grace, because the covenant is conditional.

In the face of this heresy, there has been no acknowledgment of the cause of the heresy in the doctrine of the conditional covenant, but only a deaf and stubborn defense of the conditional covenant, even while many impotently wring their hands about the federal vision’s denial of justification by faith alone.

The widespread acceptance of this false doctrine, chiefly its doctrinal foundation of the conditional covenant, is the source of the false charge of antinomianism raised against the unconditional covenant and unconditional salvation. The proponents of the federal vision are busy redefining the term antinomian. Not content to introduce false doctrine, they must also damn the truth as antinomian.

Mark Jones’ book Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? is playing its part in this deadly conflict. His attack is couched as a question, but he makes clear in his book that he does not believe it is an open question whether antinomians, defined as he has defined them, are unwelcome guests. By suspect theology and by associating it with the names of some reputed antinomians from former ages, Jones seeks to render the whole doctrine suspect and therefore its teaching and those who teach it dangerous to the church and the church’s holiness as insipient antinomianism.

Mark Jones has written a glowing foreward to the book By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, written by federal vision defender and theologian Richard Gaffin. Jones approvingly quotes from this book in his book Antinomianism. In his book Richard Gaffin vigorously defends the idea that justification is by faith and works. He does so in typical federal vision fashion, insisting that the faith that justifies, in that justification is never alone, is a faith that works. He does not merely insist that faith is never alone, so that the Abraham of Romans 4, “ungodly” in his justification, is also the Abraham of James 2, who shows his faith by his works, but rather that the Abraham of Romans 4 is the Abraham of James 2 who works for his justification. In Gaffin’s words:

In this regard, it is hardly gratuitous to suggest that the Abraham of James 2:21–24, as well as anyone, exemplifies the response of Romans 1:5 to the gospel promise of the covenant that was eventually fulfilled in Christ (vv. 2–4), the response of “the obedience of faith.” This Abraham, the Abraham of the obedience of faith, implicitly brackets and so qualifies everything Paul says about him and his faith elsewhere in Romans. In fact we may say, in Romans we in effect meet the Abraham of James both in [Romans] 1:5, before Abraham is introduced explicitly in chapter 4, and also after that in [Romans] 16:26. These two are not somehow different persons, nor does each function as a theological construct in tension with the other. They are one and the same, and we can never properly understand one without the other.[1]

Thus for Gaffin, Rome was right. James and Paul speak of justification in the same sense. The faith by which Abraham was justified in Romans 4 was the obedient faith of the Abraham of James 2, and he was justified by that obedient faith. Justification is after all by faith and the works of faith, because the faith that justifies is never alone in that justification, but works. For Gaffin, it not that faith, being justified, also works, but that in the matter of justification faith works.

Gaffin’s reference to Abraham is preposterous on the plainest reading of the Bible. The Abraham of Romans 4 and the Abraham of James 2 are indeed very different according to the doctrine under consideration in each passage. In Romans 4 the doctrine of justification is under consideration, as Gaffin readily admits, and there the apostle does not call Abraham obedient, but “ungodly.” The Abraham of Romans 4 was an “ungodly” Abraham. There is not a more thorough way to exclude the works of the believer from his justification than to call him “ungodly” in his justification. So far are his works excluded that in his justification he has only evil works, not only because he sinned but also because he corrupted all the good works that God gave him. Abraham was that because that is who God justifies, and that is what Abraham confessed about himself by faith before the judgment seat of God. God will not justify the righteous or the good. He will only justify the ungodly. He justifies and by that justification takes into his fellowship ungodly people, not obedient people. In James 2 the inevitability and necessity of works as the fruits and justification of faith are under discussion. The Abraham of James 2 is obedient, because that is what the justified believer is by faith, because the faith that justifies without its works is also a faith that works by love.

Defending his obvious corruption of the texts, Gaffin says further,

Paul does not teach a “faith alone” position, as I have sometimes heard it put. Rather, his is a “by faith alone” position. This is not just a verbal quibble; the “by” is all-important here. The faith by which sinners are justified, as it unites them to Christ and so secures for them all the benefits of salvation that there are in him, perseveres to the end and in persevering is never alone.[2]

Gaffin puts himself out here as one who is scrupulous about grammar, but he uses his grammatical point to deny the truth. His point would be well taken if he were speaking merely about all the benefits that come to a believer in Christ. By faith the believer receives both Christ’s righteousness by imputation and his holiness worked in the believer by the Spirit. After all, according to 1 Corinthians 1:30, Christ is made both righteousness and sanctification to us. But Gaffin speaks about justification, which he indicates when he refers to the Reformation’s classic phrase about justification, “by faith alone.”

When the Reformation theologians said faith alone, they spoke about justification. Their position was, and that of the entire scripture and all the Reformed creeds is, that the believer is justified by faith alone, faith all by itself, so that without any of its works faith justifies. The Reformed creeds are crystal clear. For instance, article 24 of the Belgic Confession says, “It is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works.” “Howbeit [these works] are of no account towards our justification.”

They said that on the basis of scripture. Paul’s position regarding justification—and that of the Holy Ghost and the creeds—is exactly a “faith alone” position. Faith alone justifies, that is, believers are justified by faith alone without any of faith’s works. This position Gaffin is intent on overthrowing by his grammatical quibble, so that with the word “by” he can still make faith the only instrument of justification and appear orthodox, all the while including in faith all of faith’s obedience and perseverance as part of the faith that justifies, the ground of justification, and without which faith cannot justify.

In the foreward to Gaffin’s book, Mark Jones endorsed the book as “deeply influential” for his own theology.[3] By his endorsement of By Faith, Not by Sight as “deeply influential” for his own theology, Jones shows that he dwells comfortably among the men of the federal vision camp.

Gaffin’s book Jones also connects with his own views on antinomianism. Jones views By Faith, Not by Sight as important and necessary as an “implicit critique of a sort of antinomianism current in the church today, whereby the gospel (or salvation) is understood—practically, if not theoretically—almost exclusively in terms of justification.”[4]

This minimization of justification is also present throughout Jones’ book Antinomianism, when he says repeatedly about antinomians, “The gospel was, in their view, synonymous with justification.” He criticizes as indicative of such a view the statement, “Yea let us know for certainty, that free justification is the very head, heart, and soul of all Christian religion and true worship of God.”[5] If saying this is indicative of antinomian tendencies, both Luther and Calvin had antinomian leanings, because Luther called justification the article of the standing church and Calvin called it the main hinge on which all religion turns.

Such a denigration of justification and a minimization of the reality that it is salvation and that the whole doctrine of the sinner’s gracious salvation turns on it as on a hinge are not Reformed at all. The Belgic Confession teaches in article 23: “We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied.” The Reformed have no problem equating salvation and justification and summarizing the whole doctrine of salvation by that single truth. The problem with real antinomians is not that they view salvation in terms of justification, but that they do not have a clue what justification is because they are careless and profane men and not believers at all. It is impossible that this doctrine, preached and emphasized to the hilt in the churches, will ever make any believer careless or profane.

By his endorsement of Gaffin’s book and its heretical theology of justification, Mark Jones shows himself no friend, but an enemy, of the Reformed doctrines of grace. He pays lip-service to the doctrine that by association and words he denies. It also shows that his book on antinomianism stands in the service of that false doctrine by taking up the old tactic of the enemies of the doctrines of grace against the truth. The Reformed faith, churches, and believers do not need a proponent of works’ righteousness telling them who their enemies are or what constitutes an antinomian, any more than Paul needed the Judaizers to teach him about works.

In his war on the truth, specifically justification by faith alone, Jones also speaks about the role of works in the believer’s salvation.

To that I will turn next time.

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[1] Richard B. Gaffin, By Faith, Not By Sight, 2nd ed. (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 118–19.

[2] Ibid., 119.

[3] Jones, in ibid., vii.

[4] Ibid., xii.

[5] Jones, Antinomianism, 40.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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The Charge of Antinomianism (1): A False Charge

The Charge of Antinomianism (2): A Novel Definition

The Charge of Antinomianism (3): Against an Unconditional Covenant

The Charge of Antinomianism (4): Hyper-Calvinism?

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Next article in the series: Works, the Way to Salvation

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Why the PCA is a Safe-Haven for the Federal Vision Heresy

Dewey Roberts provides an explanation for why the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has failed to discipline Peter Leithart. Roberts is convinced that the Federal Vision is a heretical movement. Peter Leithart, a pastor in the PCA, publicly identifies himself with the Federal Vision movement. Therefore Roberts openly charges Leithart with “departure from the Westminster Confession of Faith (The PCA’s main confessional standard).” For the sake of God’s glory, the purity of the PCA, and the soul of Peter Leithart, Roberts involved himself in taking the proper ecclesiastical steps to attempt to correct Leithart and to condemn the Federal Vision. Roberts served as a prosecutor against Leithart in a 2013 in a case known as “Hedman vs. Pacific Northwest Presbytery.”

The trial did not end the way Roberts thought it should. The decision of the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), the PCA’s highest ecclesiastical court, writes Roberts, “had the effect of exonerating Leithart and his views regarding Federal Vision…” So Peter Leithart and other adherents to the Federal Vision enjoy safe-haven in the PCA. Not that all is peaceful and tranquil in the PCA ocean. On the contrary the waves of controversy and schism are raging. Officially Peter Leithart and others with him in the Federal Vision camp are in good standing in the PCA. But many of their colleagues believe Leithart and his clan are heretics and openly identify them as such. What a deplorable situation! Open warfare is taking place in the PCA!

Roberts believes that the PCA is losing the war because, at least in the Leithart case, the denomination has chosen to play politics rather than to address the un-Reformed teachings of the Federal Vision. Or as Roberts puts it, “Polity Trumped Theology.”

The SJC refused to enter into the content and arguments of the Leithart case.  According to Roberts the SJC took the position that higher courts must “defer to the decisions of lower courts where the right procedure has been used.” The SJC made a ruling about the polity of the lower courts, but it refused to enter into the theology involved in the case. This is why Roberts says polity trumped theology.

But this doesn’t mean Roberts believes that the SJC did in fact properly follow the PCA’s Church Order. He pointed the SJC to an article in the PCA’s Church Order that ascribes to the “higher court…the power and obligation of judicial review, which cannot be satisfied by always deferring to the findings of a lower court.” The article requires the SJC to “interpret and apply the Constitution of the Church according to its best abilities and understanding regardless of the opinion of the lower court.” The Westminster Confession of Faith is part of the PCA’s Constitution. According to Roberts, the Church Order placed a twofold duty on the SJC in the Leithart case, (1) to make sure the lower courts followed proper procedures and (2) to “review and [make] confessional determinations.” The SJC fulfilled the first requirement and ignored the second. Roberts writes, “In the Leithart case, either FV is in accord with the Westminster Confession of Faith or it is not.” But the SJC made no ruling about Leithart’s teachings in comparison to the WCF. In other words the “polity police” pretended that there is no church orderly way to deal with false doctrine.

I find no fault with Roberts’ conclusion that polity trumped theology in the Leithart case. After the decision was announced, I read lengthy discussions online where those who supported the decision steadfastly refused to discuss Leithart’s teachings and insisted on focusing on “the process.” It was obvious to me that they were more interested in polity than in doctrine.

However I do not believe that an overemphasis on polity and an underemphasis on doctrine is really at the root of why the PCA is providing safe-haven for the Federal Vision. The reality is that in the PCA there is either an appalling lack of concern about the Federal Vision or an even more appalling mass of silent supporters for the movement (or a combination of both).

Those who openly supported the decision of the SJC that used procedural grounds to uphold the decisions of lower courts to exonerate Peter Leithart do not want anyone to think that they approve of his theology. But when questioned about their judgment of Leithart’s theology they respond with deafening silence. That silence was heard on the internet in the immediate aftermath of the decision. They defended the decision on procedural grounds. They argued the decision did not exonerate the theology of Leithart and the Federal Vision. So it was almost expected that they would voice their condemnation of the Federal Vision but…they never did. Their silence is even more deafening in the ecclesiastical courts. Where are these experts on proper procedure? If they know how to do things properly to ensure that the Federal Vision will be condemned, why do they not bring charges against Leithart and the others in the PCA who share his heretical views? They have not lacked for time and opportunity. Leithart and his party of heretics have walked in the open in the PCA with their views for years now. The only plausible conclusion is that they lack the conviction needed to root the Federal Vision out of the denomination.

That the PCA’s problems are deeper than a focus on polity in the Leithart case has not escaped Roberts’ attention. He writes, “it is my contention that . . . Hedman’s complaint was not really lost in March, 2013; it was lost long before then. It was lost in 2007.” Roberts’ mention of 2007 is intriguing. It is the year that the General Assembly treated a controversial report on the Federal Vision. Roberts indeed has that report in mind when he speaks of 2007. He writes,

On the day the General Assembly was scheduled to vote on the Report of the Ad-Interim Study Committee on Federal Vision, New Perspective, and Auburn Avenue Theologies, a fellow minister told me that the GA would not decide the issue that day. He said that there were a lot of “big guns” that were going to oppose the report and it would not be settled at or by that Assembly. Well, the Ad-Interim Report was adopted, but those “big guns” had been maneuvering behind the scenes for several years to make the Federal Vision a non-issue.

I am not sure that Roberts meant to offer a devastating criticism of the adoption of the 2007 report. He seems to be focusing only on the fact that there was a movement to protect the Federal Vision going back to 2007 and even before. Nevertheless, his statement exposes the PCA’s folly in adopting the report. The statement demonstrates that the hope of many that adopting the report would give the PCA the tool it needed to exterminate the Federal Vision was nothing but a vain wish. It also demonstrates that the critics were right who contended that the adopting an anti-Federal Vision report was the wrong thing to do when there were Federal Vision heretics who needed to be disciplined. In 2007 the PCA acted like a farmer who determines that instead of taking steps to kill the dangerous weeds in his field that he will write a paper that identifies and condemns them. And if six years later (when the Leithart case was tried) the farmer still has not taken the steps to eradicate the weeds the only conclusion to be drawn is that he is a foolish farmer who wants the weeds to stay in his fields.

The PCA’s fixation on polity is indeed a serious problem. But it is only a symptom of the deeper problem that many of the “guns” in the PCA, big and little, lack the commitment to the Reformed Confessions that is required for warfare against the Federal Vision. This does not mean that they are cowards who won’t fight and fire their guns. They are fighting. Viciously and tenaciously. By wicked means. To keep the Federal Vision in the PCA. And to silence those who oppose the heresy. Men of courage and boldness are needed to wage warfare against such enemies. Sadly, it may be too late for the PCA.

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This post was written by Rev. Clayton Spronk, pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan.

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The PCA Has Failed to be Meaningfully Confessional

The title of this post is a quotation from this article by Pastor Tony Phelps in which he explains why he left the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America). This is an important article because it exposes the ways the PCA has departed from the Reformed faith, and by doing so, highlights the issues that pose a serious threat to the confessional integrity of every Reformed denomination today. I encourage you to read the article to see what all of these significant issues are. My focus in today’s post, and the one I intend to write tomorrow, is on the one issue that is probably the single biggest threat to the Reformed church world today—the Federal Vision (FV). Not much is written about the FV these days. But it is alive and well. And it is more than a mere threat to infect Reformed denominations. In some cases, such as the PCA, the infection has become septic.

Throughout its history the PCA has had some status as a confessional denomination (committed to the Westminster Standards). Phelps writes, “On paper the PCA is Reformed.” An indication of the PCA’s status as a “conservative” denomination is that it is a member of the North American Alliance of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches (NAPARC). Phelps left the PCA because he is convinced the PCA “as a whole is no longer meaningfully confessional (emphasis mine).”

The Federal Vision and the PCA’s response to it looms large in Phelps’ conclusion that the denomination as a whole has departed from the Reformed Faith. Phelps’ explanation of the status of the FV in the PCA is helpful. It is well known that the PCA adopted a study committee report that condemns the FV. It is also well known that prominent ministers in the PCA such as Peter Leithart and Jeff Meyers openly identify themselves with the FV, and various ecclesiastical bodies have approved of their views by refusing to place them under censure.[1] But there is some question (in fact I was asked about this last week) about whether the FV has the official approval of the PCA as a whole. Or is it the case that some rogue men are teaching this heresy, but sooner or later one of the ecclesiastical bodies will likely catch up to them and take steps to squash the FV movement in the PCA. Phelps answers that question, convincingly making the case that the FV already enjoys the official stamp of denominational approval. He emphasizes the seriousness of the FV writing, “the Gospel itself is directly undermined by the FV.” Then he explains why the FV must be viewed as having the approval of the PCA:

Leithart’s formulation would be more at home in Rome than Westminster. And yet Leithart and Meyers remain ministers in good standing in the PCA. If either of them should leave to more honestly align themselves with a like-minded body (CREC comes to mind), that would hardly be a victory for confessional fidelity in the PCA. The fact remains: the PCA refused to discipline ministers who clearly contradict the Standards to which they subscribe. As a result, the PCA has tolerated their corruption of “the doctrine of the standing or falling church,” justification by faith alone. I say the “PCA” has done this, because it is a connectional denomination. According to PCA polity, the actions of one court of the PCA are the actions of the whole church (cf. BCO 11-4). Make no mistake, the PCA exonerated Meyers and Leithart—not “that” presbytery, or “that” SJC [Standing Judicial Commission]. And this grieves my conscience. If the PCA can flex Westminster to accommodate not only non-Reformed practice, but now the anti-Reformed, Gospel-corrupting doctrines of the FV, then the PCA as a whole is no longer meaningfully confessional.

There are two key points that Phelps makes here. One is that Leithart and Meyers have been declared to be ministers in good standing by minor (narrower) assemblies of the PCA. The second key point is that in the PCA these decisions are considered to be binding for the whole denomination. In addition to these two points there is a third that is the clincher, in my estimation, for concluding that the FV has the approval of the PCA as a denomination. Phelps mentions this third point earlier in the article. The PCA’s broadest assembly had opportunity to overturn the decisions of the narrower assemblies through its SJC. Instead the SJC (representing the General Assembly) upheld the decisions to exonerate Leithart and Meyers.[2] This means that the decisions to exonerate these men, having been challenged and upheld, must even more be viewed “as actions of the whole church.”

The FV is not a threat lurking outside the walls of the city. Nor is it merely in the city lurking in the shadows. The FV is in the palace and spread throughout the city. It won’t be long, if it hasn’t already happened, that it will take over the palace and rule the entire city of the PCA. Let every Reformed denomination take heed!

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[1] Phelps’ analysis is that “where the rubber (a solid study committee report) meets the road (actually holding errant ministers accountable to Westminster), the tires blew out.”

[2] The SJC did not treat the teachings of Leithart and Meyers, but on the basis of legal technicalities decided to uphold the decisions to exonerate them.  The SJC’s attempt not to take a position failed because by supporting the decisions to exonerate Leithart and Meyers the SJC gave approval for the FV to exist in the PCA. 

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