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Justification by Faith Alone or by Faith and Works? An Examination of the Views of Dr. Norman Shepherd (Part 1)

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
The Gospel of justification through faith alone is the central doctrine of Scripture, as Paul makes clear in his letters to the Romans and Galatians. The key verse here is Romans 3:28, where Paul writes: ÒTherefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.Ó This liberating truth was rediscovered by Luther and others in the sixteenth century and boldly and joyfully proclaimed to multitudes that had been exposed to RomeÕs false teachings on that subject. Luther called justification by faith alone the article by which the church stands or falls, while Calvin referred to it as the hinge on which all Bible truth turns. All Reformers and their successors, the Puritans, as well as most evangelicals, were of one mind on this and, following the apostle Paul, they did not hesitate to pronounce their solemn anathemas on all who defected from that doctrine.

Sad to say, there have been many such defections throughout church history. Every deviation from this key doctrine stems from objections against the word Òalone.Ó One theologian who has a problem with this word is Dr. Norman Shepherd, formerly a professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia, PA) and presently a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church. He was dismissed from this Seminary in 1982 on charges of teaching views on justification that were judged to be in conflict with Scripture and the Reformed (Westminster) Standards. This dismissal was not the end of the controversy, however. Although a majority of the SeminaryÕs Board opposed Shepherd, a minority supported him and continues to do so to this day. While the Seminary Board removed Shepherd from its faculty, his views continued to be taught at Westminster by others, with the result that for the last twenty years hundreds of students who are now pastors, missionaries, and teachers in Presbyterian and Reformed churches, schools, and seminaries are teaching and preaching a view on justification that, at least in some ways, departs from the classic formulation of this doctrine by the Reformers and Puritans.

The Beginning Of The Controversy
The Òjustification issueÓ first came to the attention of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary in 1975, when it was reported that during ecclesiastical examinations several candidates for the ministry held to the view that justification was by faith and by works. This view was traced to Dr. Shepherd who admitted that he believed that faith and works are both instruments of justification. This admission drew a vigorous response from various members of the faculty, since it seemed to challenge directly statements in the doctrinal standards of the Seminary. For the Westminster Confession of Faith affirms that, ÒFaith É is the alone instrument of justificationÓ (WCF 11.2).

When challenged by the faculty, Shepherd explained that although faith has a unique role in justification, works also serve an important role in that they serve as Òthe wayÓ of justification. Justification presupposes faith. Although faith is not the ground of justification, it is the instrument of justification. In parallel fashion, justification presupposes good works; and, although they are not the ground of justification, they are, like faith, the instrument or way of justification.

Shepherd believed his teaching was in accord with the Westminster Confession of Faith and catechisms, although he admitted that his formulation did go beyond these standards at certain points.

While ShepherdÕs assertion about faithÕs ÒuniquenessÓ allayed the fears of some, others remained skeptical because of his insistence that works be included as the ÒwayÓ of justification. According to Shepherd, faith and works are organically related in justification. Although justification is Òby faith alone,Ó it is also by faith and works because--and this is another key element in his thinking--the ÒfaithÓ that justifies is itself a work of obedience, which is an integral aspect of the larger covenantal response of the obedience believers owe to God for salvation. In other words, the expression Òjustification by faith aloneÓ in ShepherdÕs view means that justification is by faith and by works, since for him the ÒfaithÓ that justifies cannot be separated from good works that serve as the way of justification.

ShepherdÕs Fear Of Easy-Believism
In fairness to Shepherd, it should be pointed out that his motive for presenting justification this way is to build a defense against what he sees as the errors of easy-believism. Following the apostle James, he insists that a faith that does not work cannot justify. But in the process he has left himself open to the charge that he no longer believes in justification by faith alone, and that somehow Òworks of faithÓ contribute to justification.

But is his appeal to James legitimate? True, the apostle does state that Òa man is justified by works and not by faith onlyÓ (Jas.2:24). This statement has often been seen as contradicting the apostle Paul, but without any basis. Especially Rome has latched on to James in support of her Òsalvation by worksÓ teaching, and so have many others who disagreed with LutherÕs doctrine of justification by faith alone. But, as Calvin says in his commentary on James:

That we may not then fall into that false reasoning which has
deceived the Sophists [the Romanists], we must take notice of the
two-fold meaning of the word justified. Paul means by it the
gratuitous imputation of righteousness before the tribunal of
God; and James, the manifestation of righteousness by the
conduct, and that before men, as we may gather from the preceding
words, ÒShow me thy faith,Ó etc. (Commentaries on the Catholic
Epistles, 314ff.).

According to the Reformers, James does not say that ÒworksÓ must be added to ÒfaithÓ or included in faith as the way by which men receive GodÕs judicial declaration that their sins are forgiven. In their understanding, James is not even discussing the way to pardon from guilt, as is Paul. To the contrary, James is describing how a man may ÒshowÓ his faith to be genuine (Jas.2:18), and how faith inevitably will Òcome to fullnessÓ or ÒfruitionÓ in good works (2:22).

In other words, we are justified by faith alone, but faith does not remain alone; it always results in the production of works. This is very well expressed by LordÕs Day 24 of our Heidelberg Catechism. When the question is raised whether this doctrine (justification by faith alone) will not make men careless and profane, the catechism answers: ÒBy no means: for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.Ó (Q. &A. 64). Here clearly, good works are viewed as resulting from the faith that justifies rather than a constituent part of the ground of justification.

Shepherd does not think this formulation is adequate. He firmly believes that good works do not just follow faith, but are an integral part of faith and that God justifies us on the basis of both faith and works, although he prefers to speak of obedient faith.

The Logic in ShepherdÕs Argument
It cannot be denied that there is a certain logic to his reasoning. That shows especially when he brings regeneration into the discussion. Commenting on chapter 13 of the Westminster Confession, he points out that the confession there clearly teaches that regeneration precedes faith and repentance and that it in fact initiates sanctification. From this Shepherd concludes that since faith and repentance (which according to the Westminster Confession includes Òa turning from sin with a purpose and endeavour to walk with the Lord in all ways of his commandmentsÓ are fruits of regeneration, they together constitute justification because it is impossible to separate them. Faith without repentance is not true faith; and repentance without faith is not true repentance. Faith, therefore, is never alone but is always accompanied by repentance. Not that repentance is the cause of pardon or justification, no more than that faith is, but repentance is Òof such necessity to all sinners that none may expect pardon without itÓ (W.C., Art.14, Section 2). The confession does not simply see repentance as evidence of pardon, but as essential to it. Therefore, Shepherd reasons, since justification includes forgiveness and repentance is necessary for forgiveness, repentance is necessary for justification.

The Fatal Flaw In His Argument
Yet as logical as this argumentation may seem, there is something seriously wrong with it. By saying that faith and repentance together constitute the basis for justification, he comes dangerously close to Rome, although he denies this charge emphatically. He insists that Rome is wrong because it views works as meritorious, whereas he views works as fruits of grace. He rejects the notion of infused righteousness as the basis of justification and holds with the Reformers to imputed righteousness. Nevertheless, he maintains that this imputed righteousness is not received by faith alone, as Luther taught, but by faith Òworking through loveÓ as he claims Scripture and Reformed theology teaches. In the Reformed view, he says, there is no faith without the prior transformation of regeneration, and without faith there is no justification.

I believe that Shepherd draws a fatally wrong conclusion here. It is true that the Reformers (and I include Luther here), taught that regeneration is the fountain from which all other saving graces spring, but they did not teach that the changes resulting from the new birth form the basis or even part of the basis upon which God justifies sinners (see H.C., LordÕs Day 24, Q. &A. 62). Not even faith constitutes the basis for justification. God does not justify us because of our faith, as if it were a work, but through faith as the instrument or the hand by which we receive the imputed righteousness of Christ.

Shepherd here makes the mistake of treating the ordo salutis (order of salvation) as a chronological sequence, so first regeneration, then faith and repentance (sanctification), followed by justification. The basic error here is that by making these fruits of the new birth part of the basis on which God justifies the sinner he is in essence substituting the work of the Holy Spirit for the work of Christ. As James Buchanan writes in his classic book on Justification:

There is perhaps, no more subtle or plausible error, on the
subject of Justification, than that which makes it to rest on the
indwelling presence, and the gracious work, of the Holy Spirit in
the heartÉ Nothing can be more unscriptural in itself, or more
pernicious to the souls of men, than the substitution of the
gracious work of the Spirit in us, for the vicarious work of
Christ for us, as the ground of our pardon and acceptance with
God; for if we are justified solely on account of what Christ did
and suffered for us, while He was yet on the earth, we may rest,
with entire confidence, on a work which has been
already ÔfinishedÕ--on a righteousness which has been already
wrought out, and already accepted of God on behalf of all who
believe in His nameÉ Whereas, if we are justified on the ground
of the work of the Holy Spirit in us, we are called to rest on a
work, which, so far from being finished and accepted, is not even
begun in the case of any unrenewed sinner; and which, when it is
begun in the case of a believer, is incipient only--often
interrupted in its progress by declension and backsliding-marred
and defiled by remaining sin--obscured and enveloped in doubt by
clouds and thick darkness--and never perfected in this life
(pp.387-388).

One wonders whether Dr. Shepherd has really thought through the implications of his views. Some have charged him with heresy. I will not go that far. One has to be extremely careful with such labels. But I do believe he is on the wrong track. ShepherdÕs disciples are referring to their masterÕs views as Òa new paradigm.Ó A paradigm is a concept or theory that governs our thinking on a whole range of subjects. Thus ShepherdÕs view on justification is supposed to represent a new way of understanding of how or on what basis God declares us righteous in His sight. But if this means that I need more than faith in ChristÕs perfect righteousness, there is no hope for me. If I have to rely on any good works that I must perform, even with GodÕs help, for acceptance with Him, I tremble. Then I agree with Klaas Kuipinga, one of Hendrik De CockÕs catechism students, who said to his pastor: ÒIf I had to add one sigh to my salvation I would be lost forever.Ó

Dr. ShepherdÕs view may seem new, but it isnÕt really. His is just another form of neo-nomism or a new legalism. Its effect on troubled consciences is always the same: devastating. How right Luther was when he called this system of salvation Òthe slaughterhouse of the conscience!Ó

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