Covenant Confusion

By Richard Phillips

Thus says the Lord, "Stand by the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. Jeremiah 6:16

There is a fine line between the use and the overuse of a word. The same is true with public figures. When someone is getting exposure, we are excited for them. But when they are over-exposed we are embarrassed for them. In my view, the word covenant has crossed that line in Christian circles. As such, one often hears it applied in dubious ways. We have gone from covenant people and covenant children to covenant schools and covenant businesses. I recently was given a bag of covenant coffee beans, which, by the way, I received as an effectual means of grace. Today, if you want to express a zeal to be distinctively Christian, and especially if you are Reformed-leaning, you are very likely to apply the word covenant to your activity or group or product. In the process, the word has begun to lose definition and take on little more than a vague nimbus.

I believe, however, that we are faced today with more than the over-exposure of the word and idea of covenant. Perhaps aided by its ill-defined usage, new definitions are being given to covenant and with the new definitions comes a new theology. There is an increasing confusion over what covenants are and how covenants shape our relationship with God. I believe the result is the propagation of a new and different gospel from the one taught in the great Reformed confessions and in the Bible.

In this seminar, I intend to present the main points that I believe are shaping this new covenant approach to salvation. The Bible says that we are to "stand at the crossroads" and select the good way, the way that leads to life. I believe that at certain key crossroads, many figures within the Reformed movement are taking wrong turns, and they are leading increasing numbers of people down false paths and into a false assurance of salvation. The thing to do, then, is to retrace our steps, go back to the crossroads, biblically assess our choices, and take the good road that leads to life.


First, we need to consider a proposal that is relatively recent, but which rapidly has come to play a vital role in the reworking of covenant theology. Its main exponent is Ralph Smith, in two books published by Canon Press, Paradox and Truth: Rethinking Van Til on the Trinity (2002), and Eternal Covenant: How the Trinity Reshapes Covenant Theology (2003). In the first of these, Smith posits covenant as the basis of unity among the three eternal and divine Persons of the Godhead. He writes, "The persons of the Trinity are eternally united in a covenantal bond of love."1 He cites James Jordan as describing the covenant as "a personal-structural bond which joins the three persons of God in a community of life, and in which man was created to participate." 2

The purpose of the second book is to defend this assertion and work out some of its implications. Smith begins with a tour of Reformed Theology's view of what is generally called the covenant of redemption, that is, the eternal pact among the members of the Trinity to accomplish the work needed for the redemption of God's elect. Smith provides a fairly conventional history in support of this teaching, culminating with the observation that Reformed Theology has accepted the biblical evidence in support of this eternal covenant and, moreover, has consistently considered this covenant, as all covenants, as an agreement or pact. Smith thus concludes, "Perhaps without exception they [Reformed theologians] have viewed the Trinitarian covenant as a mere agreement entered into in order to respond to the situation of sin."

The exception to this is Abraham Kuyper, who insinuates that the economic covenant relations of the Trinity for redemption must signal an ontological covenant relationship between the divine persons. Smith argues that this is indeed the case, that on an ontological level, the relationship within the Trinity is covenant. This views covenant not as an agreement, as is by his own reckoning the overwhelming consensus of the Reformed tradition, but as a "form of life," or "a community of life." According to Smith, Trinity must therefore serve as the paradigmatic covenant in the place of God's covenant with Adam, which classically has been understood as providing the paradigm for all other covenants.

Smith gives three arguments in support of this assertion, only one of which is at all to the point.3 This is the rule provided by theologian Karl Rahner, that "the economic Trinity reveals the ontological Trinity." Smith points out that from the time of Adam onward, God dealt with mankind exclusively in terms of covenant. Therefore, he argues, "If history reveals truth about who God is in Himself, then it reveals that the covenant is something essential to the eternal reality of God. It is precisely this conclusion that is required by the overwhelming predominance of covenant as the one and only manner of God relating to man and the creation." 4 He then states that this puts the burden of proof on his opponents. Unless we can offer some better explanation for the fact that God relates with his creatures via covenant, we must conclude that covenant is something ontologically inherent to the Trinity.

A couple of observations are worth making at this point. The first is that Smith intends a wholesale recasting of covenant theology, not on the basis of any clear teaching of Scripture, nor on the basis of good and necessary consequences from Scripture, but on the basis of an argument from silence involving abstract reflections on the doctrine of the Trinity. He thus concludes 47 pages of argument by doing nothing more than asserting his original premise, that covenant is the basis of the ontological union within the Trinity, then demanding that unless we can prove it wrong we must accept this assertion, for which even Smith has provided no demonstration.

Second, Smith's analogical reasoning is without control. If God does something in history, he says, history must reveal something about the essence of God. So far, so good. But in this case he argues that the structure of God's relations with his creation in history must be assumed as the basis for the ontological inner-Trinitarian relations, unless proved otherwise. The problem with this is that the two situations in view are not comparable. The differences between the inner-Trinitarian relations and the relation between God and the creation must be accounted for before Smith can simply demand that a direct analogy be assumed.

With this in mind, I would like to suggest that there are in fact better explanations for the preponderance of covenant in history than that the Trinity must involve an essential covenant relationship. The first is that the Creator-creature relationship necessarily involves lordship and lordship expresses itself through covenant, a point Smith himself labors to make. But this situation does not pertain ontologically to the Trinity. Covenant is the outflowing of God's lordship as manifested in commands, sanctions, and promises of blessing. But as the Council of Nicea insisted so long ago, there is no ontological subordination within the Godhead, hence no lordship, and hence no covenant, which is, by Smith's own reckoning, a function of lordship. 6

Furthermore, the covenants we see in the Bible do inform us about the ontological Trinity, as Rahner demands. What they reveal are the attributes of God that dictate how these covenants work. God is just, and so his covenants have conditions and sanctions. God is good, so he offers blessings through covenant with his creatures. God is true, as his faithfulness to his covenants demonstrates. Moreover, the biblical evidence regarding the fellowship between the persons of the Trinity shows forth qualities such as love, truth, and honor. That these same attributes find expression in God's historic covenants with man shows how the historic covenants reveal truth about the ontological character of the Triune God. But this revelation of attributes does not give us warrant to read back covenant into the Trinity itself. 7

Here, then, are two explanations to satisfy Smith's demand that the history of covenants reveal truth about the being of God: the Creator-creation relationship which prompts covenant and that attributes of God which find their expression in the character of the covenants God has made. These adequately explain the preponderance of covenant in history, without recourse covenantal union in that one community that does not involve ontological lordship, namely, the Trinity.

Apart from its intended recasting of covenant theology, Smith's teaching does grave damage to the doctrine of the Trinity. Smith, following James Jordan, argues that the form of unity within the Trinity is covenant. This is a serious departure from orthodox Trinitarian theology, falling into a tacit tri-theism. Instead of the classic view that the Trinity is three persons united in one being, this view argues that the Trinity is three divine persons united by a social bond. Smith's presents his final conclusion in strikingly tri-theistic terms: "God is three persons united in covenantal love." 8

As Smith proceeds from this thesis, he seems to be aware of the tri-theistic leanings of his argument. Thus he tries to temper it by advancing perichoreisis, that is, mutual indwelling, as the basis of Trinitarian union -- in which case there is no need for covenant as the basis of union. Later still, he tries to distinguish covenantal union from ontological union, noting vaguely that "in God covenant and ontology intersect or share common ground." 9 But the damage is done: if the three divine persons of the Trinity have an ontological union of essence -- one based on a shared being and mutual indwelling -- then it is hard to see how one being is joined together by covenant, unless we totally redefine the meaning of the word covenant, which is the whole point of Smith's exercise.

The only way for Smith to sustain any idea of an inner-Trinitarian covenant is simply to assume a different definition for covenant. Indeed, here is the function of Smith's argument, to redefine covenant so that it no longer is understood to mean a pact or agreement but simply as a form of relationship and life. Covenant is no longer the way God brings us into a saving relationship, but it is that to which God saves us, defined vaguely as a union in love.

In his classic study of covenant theology, published in 1677, Herman Witsius wrote, "A covenant of God with man, is an agreement between God and man, about the way of obtaining consummate happiness." 10 This definition has stood through the centuries on the basis of the Bible's testimony. J.I. Packer emphasizes that covenants provide "a basis for a life with God of friendship, peace, and communicated love." 11 Covenant is the means by which two parties are bound in relationship; it is a basis for relationship and not the relationship itself. Covenants provide the terms of agreement that structure a relationship, setting forth the means of entry, the obligations, and the privileges that the relationship will entail, along with the penalties for breaking the stipulated conditions. But now, based on abstract speculation, we are expected to understand covenant to be simply God's gift of love in the form of relationship. 12

Following this revisionist approach in which the biblical structures of covenant are removed, Smith proceeds throughout Eternal Covenant to apply covenant to practically everything with little definition. Covenant is relationship, and so it becomes hard to know what it is about a relationship that makes it a covenant, except that it becomes whatever Smith wants to make of it at any given time. As such, covenant serves as an ideal vehicle for Smith and his cohorts' purpose, which, it becomes clear, is a way of defining salvation in such a way as to remove the forensic theory of justification as classically understood in Reformed thought.

This redefinition of covenant as relationship is especially important to the Auburn Avenue theology. 13 Steve Schlissel asserts, "A covenant is a relationship." 14 Douglas Wilson makes the same assertion, writing in the title article of Credenda/Agenda, Vol. 15, Issue 1, "A covenant is a relationship between two parties... a relation between persons." In the place of what is evidenced in every single covenant depicted in the Bible, namely, a pact or agreement for the attainment of blessing, we are to accept Smith's speculations on the Trinity in order to redefine covenant as a simple gift of love. 15

This amounts to a collapsing of the structure of covenants as long identified in God's covenants with man, starting with Adam but proceeding throughout the biblical record. Instead of the classically identified elements of a covenant - the parties involved, the condition, the promised blessing, and the threatened sanction - all that now is involved is a mutual commitment to relationship. As a result, everything in salvation becomes synonymous with everything else. What is election? Smith says it is "the gift of covenant." Similarly, God's commands are the same as God's covenant. Smith says, "Keeping the commands is keeping the covenant." Likewise, love equals obedience equals covenant equals election. The same is true of law and of righteousness. They are covenant, which is love, which is election, which is holiness.16

I do not want unfairly to overstate this situation, for Smith and others try to assert some sense of distinct meaning for these terms. But the inter-relatedness is so overly stressed that the biblical structure provided by covenant is demolished. In this new paradigm, God gives the covenant and with covenant comes everything else. The problem is that with no differentiation in the function of things like faith and works, the biblical structure of salvation is up for grabs. What this view of covenant gives in its purported emphasis on grace (since covenant is a mere gift of relationship), it takes away with its teaching that we retain those blessings only by covenant-keeping works, as we shall see.


This new definition of covenant, grounded in unsound Trinitarian speculation, serves to advance three features notable in the current debate. The first is the supplanting of traditional soteriology with a re-charged ecclesiology. Indeed, this seems to be one of the main motives for this new theology of covenant. The argument goes like this (here I am following Peter Leithart): none of us exist on our own, so being is being-in-relationship; I only am what I am with respect to the community in which I relate to others. For instance, I am named Phillips not because of something essential about me, but because of my relationship with other people named Phillips. Thus what makes me a Christian is being in the church. Leithart writes, "Entry into the church is always a soteriological fact for the person who enters... If the church is the 'house of God' (WCF 25.2), then membership in the church makes the person a member of that household." 17 Note the word makes. Membership in the church is not correlative with becoming a child of God; it makes a person a child of God.

This is what I mean by the supplanting of soteriology with ecclesiology. Instead of realizing that our relationship with God is primary, so that salvation is primarily a spiritual reality in which our relationship one with another in the church is derivative from our relationship with God, this revamped covenant theology puts it precisely backward. Under this view, our relationship with the church is primary, so that salvation is primarily a social and cultural reality, and our relationship with God is derivative from our relationship in the church.

A second and related feature of this approach is its emphasis on the external and the objective over the internal and subjective. This is touted as its main attraction. Douglas Wilson boasts of "recovering the objectivity of the covenant," the subtitle of his book Reformed Is Not Enough. This means I can know objectively I am right with God because I am in the church. He exults, "Covenants of God have a physical aspect, like an oak tree." 18 Presumably, the point is that we can physically climb into it.

This is supposed to deliver us from the so-called plague of "morbid introspection" - that is, from ascertaining the presence of a real and personal faith that brings me into relationship with God through Jesus Christ. I am freed from all this simply by noting that I am physically in the church and therefore in covenant with God. This emphasis would not be so dangerous if its proponents, such as the Auburn Avenue theologians, allowed for the distinction between the visible and the invisible church that is so essential to the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards. But since they insist that there is no other church than the one that is visible and physical, their emphasis on ecclesiology over soteriology and the external over the internal is all the more alarming.

Both of these first two features come together in the great importance assigned to baptism, which in this system exerts a controlling influence over the assurance of salvation. Since they believe that we enter into a saving relationship with God through entry into the church (rather than vice versa), then since baptism is the rite of entry into the church it is also the route of entry into all of salvation's blessings. Instead of serving as a visible sign and seal of the covenant promise, baptism becomes the way the promise is made real to the recipient. As an example, Rich Lusk writes, "Baptism is the means through which the Spirit unites us to Christ. No other means is said to have this function; it is the peculiar grace attached to baptism... Since baptism is the instrumental means of union with Christ, it is sometimes said to be the instrument of forgiveness and regeneration (Acts 2:38, 22:16; Tit. 3:5). These are the chief blessings of union with Christ; they are offered in baptism and received by faith. In other words, baptism is simply the gospel in aqueous form." 19

The problem with this is that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9) and, according to the Westminster Confession, baptismal grace does not create faith but strengthens existing faith (see WCF XIV.1). That is true even for infants who come to faith sometime after their baptisms. "The grace of faith," says the Confession, "is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened." Therefore, we must distinguish between the respective ministries of the Word and of the sacraments: the former both creates and strengthens saving faith, whereas the latter does not create saving faith but does strengthen it. The point is that salvation's blessings, such as forgiveness, come via faith, which faith is wrought by the Holy Spirit through the ministry of the Word. Baptism does not grant those blessings but confirms them, just as it does not create but strengthens faith.

What this means is that we should not look to the rite of baptism as the ground of our assurance, for the simple reasons that we may be baptized without believing and that if we believe it is because of God's Word and not because of baptism. Here, too, we have a confusion of the sign for the thing signified. Baptism is a sign of Christ's cleansing blood and the Spirit's cleansing renewal. We should look to the reality - to the thing signified - and not to the sign for our assurance. This is the error against which the New Testament constantly warns us - presuming salvation because of external association with the gospel. Michael Horton observes, "This is what Paul and the writer to the Hebrews especially labor to make plain to Jewish Christians: You who have received the sign beware lest you fall short of trusting in Christ and all his benefits (the thing signified)." 20 Just as Paul and the Book of Hebrews warn their Jewish readers against presuming salvation simply because they possessed circumcision (see Romans 9:6-8 and Hebrews 4:1-2), the last thing we need to tell Christian children is to rest assured on their possession of baptism, apart from a credible profession of faith in God's Word.

We may ask, "Why this fixation on baptism?" The answer we are given is that we need to ground our assurance of salvation on something objective and concrete rather than in "morbid introspection" of our inner spiritual state. Steve Wilkins argues that this "enables us to assure Christians of their acceptance with God without needlessly undermining their confidence in God's promises by forcing them to ask questions of themselves they cannot answer with certainty." 21 He makes clear in a footnote that these needless inquiries have to do with the credibility of their profession of faith.

Another proponent argues that baptism is necessary to rescue us from "the quicksand of subjectivity: experiences of conversion, feelings of spirituality, good works, holy living, an internal sense of forgiveness, signs and traces of some immediate work of the Spirit in our souls, and so on." 22 The problem is that it is to these very things, rightly defined, that the Bible tells us to look for our assurance. 23

Instead of the biblically-defined marks of true and saving faith, followers of the Auburn Avenue theology are told to rely upon the fact that they were baptized, which allows them to presume their salvation until such time as they completely apostasy. But what this propounds is not an objective covenant but an externalism and formalism in religion in the place of the personal, inner spirituality of faith.

I have no doubt that this approach resonates with many people today who crave a community with substance, who want to see and touch and smell their Christianity. These are worthy ends, but this false covenant theology is the wrong means. I say this because the Bible actively discourages such an approach to one's relationship with God. Jeremiah, who spoke eloquently about taking the right turn at the crossroads, preached in the very next chapter his most potent sermon on just this theme. Jeremiah stood before not just any church but before Solomon's temple in Jerusalem. He urgently warned them against relying on any external affiliation with even that great temple apart from true and saving faith. He cried, "Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord'" (Jer. 7:4).

God never tells us to believe that we are right with him simply because we are in the church. The community of the church is not the covenant; it is a product of the covenant. The covenant is not something we can climb into by walking up a certain set of stairs. Rather, it is the way of salvation by which God invites us into relationship with himself through Jesus Christ and only in consequence into relationship with one another.

The third feature of this new covenant theology is its redefinition of faith in such a way that faith and works are inclusive one of another. One of their mottos is that faith and obedience are the same thing. In this formula, faith is not how we enter into the covenant but the way we stay in the covenant; faith means not resting on and receiving Christ's work for us but faithfully keeping covenant with God by our own works. A consideration of this third feature will form the concluding section of this seminar.

Before moving on, let us observe again the foundation on which these revisions rest, namely, the speculative theory that covenant is defined by the inner relationship of the Trinity. This comes not from the direct teaching of Scripture, nor from good and necessary consequences, but from an argument from silence emanating from the greatest mystery of all, the inner relationship of the Trinity. On this unsound foundation we are called to recast covenant theology and redefine practically every soteriological term.

To what end are we to do this? To assert a reliance on external rites of entry into God's blessing and covenant-keeping works as the mode of maintaining eternal life. This is, for all the soaring rhetoric of its champions, a high order of covenant confusion indeed.


Along this path of ecclesiology over soteriology, ritual over reality, and covenant-keeping works over covenant-receiving faith, the authors of covenant confusion have one theological fortress they must overthrow. This is the classic Reformed understanding of God's dealings with Adam as the covenant of works. Here is one point of uniformity among all those seeking to recast covenant theology and with it our doctrines of salvation: for their new ideas to be ushered in, the covenant of works must be ushered out. There is absolutely no room in their mono-covenantal scheme in which the law and gospel, along with faith and works, are no longer held in contrast but are meshed together in continuum. In the place of the classic view of redemptive history as overseen by two covenants in the history of God's dealing with man - the covenant of works and the covenant of grace - the two covenants to which Paul makes explicit reference in Galatians 4:24-26, the covenant of works as proclaimed from Mt. Sinai and the covenant of grace from the spiritual Mt. Zion - they posit a monolithic covenant by the keeping of which God's people may be saved. According to this view, we may only be justified in the same manner offered to our first parent Adam before sin entered into the world, and in the same manner by which Jesus himself was acclaimed righteous before God. Under this scheme, our righteousness comes not by receiving Christ's righteousness but by following his example as empowered by his grace.

An example of this approach to justification comes from N.T. Wright in his commentary on Romans 2:13, which presents the law principle, "the doers of the law will be justified." Wright sees in this not a contrast with the gospel, as Paul so vehemently insists throughout that epistle when it comes to justification (see Romans 3:10, which tells us that no one qualifies by this standard, and Romans 3:20-28, especially verse 28 which pointedly makes the very contrast that Wright denies, "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law").

Directly contrary to Paul, Wright sees a continuity in which law and gospel are all wrapped into one. He writes, speaking not merely of the New Covenant or the Old, but of all covenants in general, "Justification, at the last, will be on the basis of performance." 24 This aligns with the teaching of Norman Shepherd in The Call of Grace, which sees our justification taking place in a manner parallel to Christ's own. Shepherd writes, "Just as Jesus was faithful in order to guarantee the blessing, so his followers must be faithful in order to inherit the blessing." 25 It is difficult to avoid the inference that we are justified by being like Jesus, by our faithfulness which is just as Jesus' faithfulness, instead of, as Paul puts it in Romans 5:19, being made righteous by the one man's obedience, namely, Christ, who lived and died not merely as our example but first as our federal head and our substitute. Both Wright's and Shepherd's view of justification require a mono-covenantal view of redemptive history and permit no place for the covenant of works.

It is often objected that the bi-covenantal structure of the covenant of works/covenant of grace scheme should not be made an ultimate litmus test of evangelical orthodoxy. It is pointed out that many people who affirm justification by faith alone say nothing of the covenant of works, most notably, the Lutherans. Conceding that point may help us to avoid an excessive stress on the covenant of works, but it is hardly germane to the argument at hand within the Reformed community. It is one thing not to have worked out any explicit covenant theology, while holding law and gospel in proper biblical contrast. But it is quite another to construct a divergent form of covenant theology precisely in order to merge faith and works, law and gospel. In this case, which is the situation before us, there is indeed a direct connection between our attitude toward the covenant of works and our commitment to the evangelical gospel, in which justification is, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:8-9, "through faith... not as a result of works.

What is the covenant of works? The Westminster Confession of Faith says, reflecting on Genesis 2:16-17, "The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience" (VII.2). According to classic covenant theology, following the clear teaching of Scripture, Adam's failure under this covenant brought all of mankind under the curse of death (see Genesis 2:17 and Romans 5:12-14). In response, "The Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved" (WCF VII.3). Under this bi-covenantal scheme that is foundational to the whole system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards, when Adam failed to fulfill the covenant of works God sent his Son to fulfill it in our place, offering Christ's merit to us in the covenant of grace, which we receive by faith alone.

Numerous objections are made to this teaching, surprisingly from many who vow to uphold the Westminster Confession, to which clear biblical answers may be and have been presented. But the most important one, in my view, follows from a hotly contested word I used above, that is, merit. Some critics consider it unseemly that man could ever stand before God on the basis of earned merit. This objection takes many forms. First, is the rejection of merit as the basis for divine-human relationships on the grounds that God is Father and fathers receive their children on the basis of fatherly love rather than on earned merit. Second, it is said that man cannot add to God's glory, nor can a creature ever put God in his debt. Third, the idea of earned merit objected to for depicting the divine-human relationship as that between an employer and an employee. 26

Fourth, it is objected that God's dealing with Adam was, in fact, gracious. This is so because God was not obligated to offer any covenant to man and especially because the promised reward offered to Adam - eternal life - was far out of proportion to the value of his obedience, which Adam already owed to God apart from reward. This complaint is made famous by John Murray, although it is advanced today by many. Murray also complains that the word covenant is not used in the Bible for God's dealings with Adam. 27

Last are objections leveled by Norman Shepherd, on top of the above objections. He complains that the covenant of works stands in direct opposition to the idea of salvation by grace alone. That God accepts us by the grace/faith principle rules out the merit/works principle. Furthermore, he protests that until we reject the idea of earned merit, "we feel threatened by passages of Scripture that speak of repentance and obedience as conditions for entering eternal life," and are forced to use "exegetical and dogmatic devices of dubious validity" to avoid legalism. 28

The name most prominently associated with the defense of the covenant of works today is Meredith G. Kline. In his article, Covenant Theology Under Attack, Kline dismantles these objections to the covenant of works. First, he challenges the authority of an a priori objection against merit, and especially the idea that the rewarding of obedience is alien to the father-child relationship. To the idea that God's glory cannot be increased by our actions and thus no debt can be imposed on God, Kline responds that man was created to reflect God's glory, that God is pleased by this and that his pleasure expresses itself in blessing. All of this fits safely under the rubric of reward and merit. Against the complaint that earned merit puts man in relation to God as an employee is to his employer, Kline replies that this is not necessarily the case. Fathers grant rewards to children, just as kings do to subjects. And, by the way, our Lord Jesus describes our relationship to God in terms of servants who receive rewards from their master.

Most telling of all the objections to the covenant of works is the one that argues that God's pre-fall dealings with Adam entailed a good deal of grace. That this was raised by a stalwart of Reformed theology, John Murray, has made this point all the more significant. Murray writes, "The term [covenant of works] is not felicitous, for the reason that the elements of grace entering into the administration are not properly provided for by the term 'works'." 29 The question must be asked, however, if grace is the proper term for God's favor shown to Adam in the Garden. Cornelius P. Venema argues for a distinction between God's kindness to Adam prior to his sin and the grace shown to him after the Fall. He writes, "There is a real difference between undeserved favor shown a sinless, obedient creature, and the undeserved grace granted the disobedient covenant breaker." 30

Meredith Kline's response here is particularly significant, and our reception of it is likely definitive as to our acceptance of the covenant of works. Kline writes,

Properly defined, grace is not merely the bestowal of unmerited blessings but God's blessing of man in spite of his demerits, in spite of his forfeiture of divine blessings. Clearly, we ought not apply this term grace to the pre-Fall situation, for neither the bestowal of blessings on Adam in the very process of creation nor the proposal to grant him additional blessings contemplated him as in a guilty state of demerit... Only by this double-talk of using the term grace (obviously in a different sense) for the pre-Fall covenant can they becloud the big, plain contrast that actually exists between the two covenants [covenant of works and covenant of grace]. 31

Furthermore, Kline shows that most objectors to the idea of merit are responding to medieval Roman Catholic notions rather than biblical ones. This is confirmed in the case of Norman Shepherd. 32 Medieval Rome taught that merit must normally be based on the intrinsic value of an act (condign merit, associated with Thomas Aquinas), though God has assigned to certain acts a merit they do not otherwise possess, but which God has sovereignly and graciously decided to give them (congruent merit, associated with Duns Scotus). Condign merit seeks to approach God's justice, which is impossible for sinners whose works are never perfect, while congruent merit approaches God through works made meritorious by God's grace.

Kline shows that merit in the covenant of works was based on neither of these suppositions: not on the supposed intrinsic value of obedience, nor by some sacramental formula, but on the basis of God's covenant stipulation. It was merit under the stipulations of the covenant of works. We operate this way all the time. My 7-year old daughter has no instrinsic right to come to me demanding an allowance. But if I freely stipulate that she will receive an allowance on the condition of cleaning her room to a certain standard, no one raises abstract objections. Once it has been established that I have the right to impose such a covenant on my daughter and that I have made the stipulation, then her fulfillment of it merits the promised reward. Nor is there an objection based on this appeal to my sense of justice; the covenant is necessarily a revelation of my standards and expectations and generosity. Some might think I am paying her too much; others might thing I am paying her too little. None of that matters once the covenant of works has been made: her fulfillment merits the promised reward. In God's case, the stipulation of his covenant with Adam was determined by and was a revelation of the perfections of all his attributes, and we should all be cautioned against standing in judgment over them. Cornelius Venema summarizes the main point: "The fact is that God has, by entering into covenant with man, bound himself by the promises and as well the demands/obligations of that covenant... In the covenant itself, God bound himself to grant as in some sense a reward well-deserved, the fullness of covenant fellowship into which Adam was called." 33

As for Shepherd's complaint that merit makes the idea of grace impossible, the answer is found in the covenant of grace, which precisely offers us the meritorious obedience of Jesus Christ, the second Adam, who fulfilled the covenant of works in Adam's and our place and imputes his righteousness to us by grace and through faith (see Romans 5:12-21). Without the covenant of works, there is nothing for Christ to offer us in the covenant of grace. Kline puts it this way: "All the arguments employed... to prove that Adam could not do anything meritorious would apply equally to the case of Jesus, the Second Adam... The parallel which Scripture tells us exists between the two Adams would require the conclusion that if the first Adam could not earn anything, neither could the second. But, if the obedience of Jesus has no meritorious value, the foundation of the gospel is gone... There is thus no justification-glorification for us to receive as a gift of grace by faith alone." 34 Some respond that justification involves nothing more than forgiveness. But, in fact, the verbs "to forgive" and "to justify" are not the same thing. The former is necessary to the latter, but the latter means "to declare righteous," something that happens as we stand before the bar of God's perfect justice. We must therefore have a perfect righteousness before God, and it comes as his gift through Jesus Christ as he imputes his righteousness achieved under the covenant of works to us via the covenant of grace (2 Cor. 5:21).

Finally, Shepherd complains that the idea of merit means that we are trying to justify ourselves by our works or, if not, that sanctification has no value. But we do not argue that justification by works is impossible in the abstract, only that Adam by his sin failed to do so and now it is impossible to us. Furthermore, the covenant of works/covenant of grace bi-covenantal scheme does not dig a chasm between justification and sanctification; instead, it protects us from confusing them as takes place under Shepherd's own scheme.

In the end, we must let Scripture decide. So clear is the biblical testimony as to creation and fall, involving a covenant of works between God and Adam, that Neo-Orthodox objectors like Karl Barth and James B. Torrance simply rejected the testimony of Genesis chapters 2 and 3 as mythological. They realized that they could not object to the covenant of works and still accept the teaching of those chapters. While those within the Reformed community today who object to the covenant of works certainly have a stronger view of Scripture than Barth and his followers, nonetheless their treatment of God's covenant with Adam fails to do justice to the plain teaching of the Bible. To see no difference between God's pre-Fall dealings with Adam in the Garden and his post-Fall dealings with Adam and Eve, with Abraham, and with New Covenant believers in Christ is to miss both the forest and the trees of the biblical testimony regarding creation, fall, and redemption.

As classic covenant theology has recognized, God's dealings with Adam possessed all the elements of a covenant. Furthermore, John Murray's complaints aside, the Bible does refer to it as a covenant (Hosea 6:7). 35 Moreover, it is indisputable that God's covenant with Adam was based on the condition of the recipient's obedience, and in this it differs from all the post-fall redemptive covenants that follow. 36 The logic of God's covenant with Adam was that obedience produced righteousness, righteousness received justification, and justification received life. Apart from our desire to note God's goodness in the Garden (which Kline helpfully reminds us to keep distinct from God's grace towards sinners), this covenant appealed to God's justice, not his grace. Complaints against non-biblical, medieval vows of merit do not change the fact that the pre-Fall covenant was conditioned on Adam's obedient works and that acting as our federal head he failed to meet the stipulated condition. As Paul so meticulously works out in Romans 5:12-21, Adam's disobedience produced guilt, guilt received condemnation, and condemnation yielded the bitter curse of death. Likewise, we can see that Jesus achieved our righteousness by fulfilling the covenant of works. Paul points out this very progression as accounting for our justification through faith in Christ. Romans 5:18-19 clearly spells out that Jesus' obedience produced righteousness, righteousness gained justification, and justification receives the blessing of life.

It is noteworthy that John Murray, though rejecting the terminology covenant of works, treats what he calls the Adamic administration as possessing all the features of a covenant. His discussion is organized around the headings the condition, promise, and threatening, the very features common to biblical covenants. In this, he affirms one of the strongest arguments for calling God's dealings with Adam a "covenant", namely that it contains all the features found in all other covenants identified as such in the Bible. This is why Murray's soteriology was safeguarded from the debilitating effects commonly resulting from a denial of the covenant of works. While objecting semantically, he retains all its important features, thus safeguarding the doctrine of justification in his thinking. Writing of God's dealings with Adam, Murray lays out the very progression I noted above, saying, "Righteousness, justification, life is an invariable combination in the government and judgment of God. There would be a relation that we may call perfect legal reciprocity." 37 Therefore, Murray is able to observe that in the covenant of grace God does not set aside his justice, but rather satisfies it through the substitutionary atonement and the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, offered to us by faith alone.

Again, it is one thing to overlook the covenant of works, while retaining justification by faith alone. It is quite another deliberately to reject the covenant of works in order to reject the contrast between faith and works, the gospel and the law. Lutherans do not have, properly speaking, a covenant theology. But when one deliberately jettisons the covenant of works, the only possible result is a gospel different from that which proclaims justification by faith alone.

Only the classic bi-covenantal structure of redemptive history provides a proper place for both faith and works in our justification. We are justified by works before God's justice - not works we performed or that Adam performed but works Jesus performed in our place under the covenant of works, credited to us in the covenant of grace and received by faith alone. In the mono-covenant scheme proposed in place of this, we receive God's covenant by grace but keep it by faith/works in combination. In so doing, those who deny the covenant of works end up turning the covenant of grace into an implicit covenant of works that Adam did not keep in the state of his mutable perfection and by which none of his corrupted offspring can ever hope to be justified before a holy God.


When you ask those who are trying to rewrite covenant theology what concerns are driving them, as I have had the opportunity to do first-hand with some of them, you will inevitably hear them address the subject of covenant children. This is where many of us will most resonate with them, because of our shared concern for non-covenantal views of children that seemingly dominate today. For many evangelicals, until a child has had a dramatic conversion experience they are considered pagans within their own Christian homes. Some Christian children are taught not to say the Lord's prayer and not to call God "our Father." In many churches, children are not allowed in the worship service until they "come of age."

It is in response to this that many turn to covenant theology to take a vastly more positive view of children growing up in Christian homes and in the church. Douglas Wilson writes, "In a very real way, this debate is a debate over the theology of children. This is important because in the American church our theology of children is overwhelmingly baptistic, even in paedo-baptist communions." He cites the attitude of 19th century Southern Presbyterian theologian, Henry Thornwell, who said the Church must treat her children "precisely as she treats all other impenitent and unbelieving men - she is to exercise the power of the keys, and shut them out from the communion of the saints." 38

To this attitude, the response is made that children are members of God's covenant and are holy, that is, are saints, by virtue of their parents (1 Cor. 7:14). To this we should agree, although we need to be careful of the sense in which we mean this. Rightly, it means that children are part of the community of God's people and have been given God's Word. In their baptism they have God's mark of ownership placed upon them and are called to faith. The prayers of the church belong to them and they have the privilege of oversight from the church's shepherds. These things we must insist upon as the right of our children by birth. What we must not do, however, is presume regeneration or salvation. While the children of believers are blessed with great privileges, salvation itself is not by heredity; saving grace does not pass on, as some have suggested, through the sperm and ovum of parents.

When it comes to covenant succession, we should not presume regeneration in our children, but instead hold a trusting confidence in God combined with a prayerful attention to duty as Christian parents. Here, the emphasis varies. Douglas Wilson writes, "When we have faith that works its way out in love, which is the only thing that genuine faith can do, then the condition that God set for the fulfillment of His promises has been met. Can we fulfill our covenant responsibilities (by believing) and yet have God fail to fulfill His promises? It is not possible." 39 The problem with this is an automaticity that does not square with lived experience or with the whole biblical picture. Children can be raised in the church by faithful parents, yet they turn away from faith in Christ. Wilson considers this a disbelieving of God's promises on account of the testimony of men. In fact, his position is an example of standing on a few select and favored promises in such a way that fails to account for the whole counsel of God. Wilson's teaching wrongfully accuses already grieving parents of damning their children by being not faithful enough. This is just one place in which the new covenant theology turns biblical decretal theology on its head. Instead of God's election controlling the covenant, Wilson and others have the covenant controlling God's election. But, as Paul points out in Romans 9:10-12, "Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad - in order that God's purpose of election might continue," God said, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." It was not God's sovereign purpose either for Ishmael, the first son of Abraham, or Esau, the son of Isaac, to enter into eternal life. The reason is not the faithlessness of these fathers but the plan of God, whose promises all are "Yes" only in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).

Wilson's is a moderate view among those trying to recast covenant theology. For many, the concern to account for the salvation of infants who die becomes the controlling issue in their entire doctrine of salvation. Unwilling to rest upon the silence with which Scripture treats the exceptional issue of how elect infants are saved (in contrast with that they are saved, of which Scripture is clear), they concoct a theology of salvation that recasts the normal situation of children of who do not die in infancy. Some insist that infants of Christian parents must be presumed regenerate on the basis of their possessing faith - the example of John the Baptist leaping in the womb is given to prove that infants can believe. Asserting that infants can believe, while granting that infants cannot understand biblical teaching, some go so far as to redefine faith in such a way that biblical understanding plays no necessary part. For others, John the Baptist's proof that an unborn infant can believe is combined with a presumption of regeneration in the case of all covenant infants. Others yet over-exegete passages like Matthew 18:14, where Jesus said of the covenant children that were brought to him, "for to such belongs the kingdom of God." This is taken as a blanket declaration that all covenant children are saved until such time as they should apostasy.

On these grounds, objection is made to the idea that we must lead our children to Christ and evangelize them with the aim of a credible profession of faith. This is not treating them as pagans, as though they have no standing or privilege in the church until such time as they show faith. It does not mean trying to engineer some revivalistic crisis so that our children can be converted, as has been charged. Yet another over-reaction is so to emphasize the significance of infant baptism that it practically supplants the place of personal faith. Baptism is indeed more than a wet dedication of our children, yet it grants no grace apart from our children's personal embrace of the gospel in saving faith; for all our gratitude for what baptism means for our children, it is only on credible evidence of faith in Christ that we should rest our own and our children's assurance of salvation. As Charles Hodge wrote, we receive God's promised salvation "not by birth, nor by any outward rite, nor by union with any external body, but by the gospel, received and appropriated by faith." 40

Overall, the confidence with which advocates of this recast covenant theology approach the status of our children before God is the most attractive feature of their writings. It has involved for many a potent corrective to the effects of revivalism within their homes, which has had so many look upon their children as utter pagans until they have had a crisis conversion to Christ, the engineering of which can dominate whole childhoods. The problem, however, is that many writers simply go to far in their zeal for the status of covenant children, failing to be rightly balanced by the whole counsel of God. We have no reason to presume regeneration - a dangerous conception if there ever was one - nor should we fail to note the difference between covenant children who have not made profession of faith and those who have. I am speaking in the latter case of the growing practice of paedo-communion, which on the basis of presumed regeneration admits little children to the Lord's Table, totally neglecting the apostle Paul's warnings in 1 Corinthians 11:28-31 against those who partake of Communion without personal faith in that which it signifies.

In other words, from the excesses of the revivalistic mentality, we may return to a more biblically balanced position regarding our children without the excesses of hyper-covenantalism. We may prayerfully aspire for our children to what David wrote in Psalm 22:9-10, without presuming that this happens in an automatic fashion: "You made me trust you at my mother's breasts… From my mother's womb you have been my God." That should not be read as a technical statement by the great Psalmist, but as a poetic expression of God's life-long faithfulness to him. We can and should have a very high view of the spiritual situation of Christian children without an unbalanced view of their covenant position that warps our whole doctrine of salvation.41 One example of this comes from G. Campbell Morgan, hardly an advocate of overblown covenant theology, who taught his congregation:

Our first business is to bring the child into a recognition of its actual relationship to Christ, and a personal yielding thereto. Let it be done easily and naturally. Do not be anxious, if indeed your home is a Christian home, that your child should pass through any volcanic experience; but as soon as possible the little one should be able to say, Yes, I love Him and I will be His. It is as simple as the kiss of morning upon the brow of the hill, as the distilling of the moisture in the dew, or it ought to be. Thank God for men who, having wandered far away, have come back by volcanic methods, but thank God for the little ones who have been led to the point of yielding and finding their Lord before any other lord has had dominion over them. 42


In concluding our assessment of the covenant confusion about us today, we must consider the distinction between faith and works. This is of vital important because the previous forks in the road have all led here, to a view of faith that cannot meaningfully be described as faith alone. I said earlier that the prominent features of this recast covenant theology are the replacing of soteriology with ecclesiology, the emphasis on the external rite of baptism, and, finally, the merging of faith and works in what amounts to a new legalism. This is what happens when one deliberately rejects the bi-covenantal structure taught in the Bible - covenant of works and covenant of grace - in order to escape the contrast between law and gospel in salvation. The result is that faith no longer consists of believing and trusting on Jesus Christ and his saving works. Instead, our obedient works are included in the very definition of faith, so that faith and obedience are considered as the same thing.

The problem with this is that the apostle Paul deliberately contrasts faith with works, writing in Romans 3:28, "We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law." The same is seen in Ephesians 2:8-9, where faith and works are not in continuum but in opposition: "By grace you have been saved, through faith... not by works." It is on this reasoning that the Westminster Confession defines the principle acts of saving faith as "accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone" (XIV.2).

It is clear from the writings of this new view of the covenant that a major concern they share is to combat the easy-believism that grips the evangelical movement today and which has resulted in such ridiculous controversies as the so-called "Lordship Salvation" uproar of several years ago. They find it troubling in the extreme that Christians could believe and proclaim that one can have Jesus as Savior without having him as Lord. I whole-heartedly agree in this concern. The difference is that these hyper-covenantal writers blame not superficial Christians and pragmatic church-growth models but the Bible's own doctrine of justification for this situation, because in their view it promotes faith without works.

For this reason, those of us who emphasize faith alone in justification must strongly assert the absolute necessity of works to salvation. Let me say that again: works are absolutely necessary to salvation, the term "salvation" being understood here more broadly than simply the matter of justification. You cannot be saved without works. Similarly, we must stress that sanctification is neither optional nor is it an add-on that may come some time after justification. You cannot be justified without also being sanctified, just as Christ himself cannot be split but must be accepted whole.

While we must insist upon the necessity of sanctification to follow justification, and for faith to produce good works if it is true and living faith, we must also give works their proper place and function in salvation. One way I put it is that works are necessary to salvation not as a condition but as a consequence. We are not saved by works but we are most definitely saved to works, which includes repentance from sin and active obedience to the Lord's commands. Without these no one can consider himself to be saved, just as the writer of Hebrews assures that "without holiness no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14). Paul says we were "chosen in Christ to be holy and blameless before [the Lord]" (Eph. 1:4). Therefore, without any signs of holiness no one should be convinced of his or her election.

To emphasize the necessary relationship between faith and works is to stand squarely within the Reformed tradition. The problem is that many today are going much further, merging faith and works so that they are one and the same, and in that way smuggling the idea of works into the definition of justifying faith. Most prominent in this is Norman Shepherd. One of his stated goals is to rescue the Book of James from the supposed ghetto into which it has been exiled by the fans of Paul. To this end, Shepherd defines justifying faith as believing, penitent, and obedient faith, thus merging faith, repentance, and subsequent obedience all into one. He points to James' teaching, "Was not Abraham our father was justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness'... You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (Ja. 2:21-24). Shepherd sees this as advocating a faith/works combination in justification.

Shepherd connects this to Paul via passages like Galatians 5:6, which says, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love." On this basis, he writes, "Justifying faith is obedient faith, that is, 'faith working through love' (Gal. 5:6), and therefore faith that yields obedience to the commands of Scripture." 43 Were the distinction between faith and works maintained, even while their necessary relationship is emphasized, Shepherd would not be altering the Reformed understanding of faith. But he goes on to say, "The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, 'the doers of the Law will be justified,' is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are not persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified." 44

The problem here is not an ambiguity of terminology, as has often been said in Shepherd's defense, but a clear refutation of a definition of faith that is distinct from works. He is asserting that justifying faith is not merely "shown" by its works, as James 2:18 says and as the whole flow of James' argument indicates, but that justifying faith and its works are one and the same thing. For this reason, Shepherd has been able to say simultaneously that we are justified by faith alone and that we are justified by works. Faith, repentance, and the new works of obedience that follow are not merely joined in salvation, but are meshed together in what Shepherd calls "the obedience of faith," wrongly applying Paul's use of that expression in Romans 1:5. Furthermore, Shepherd's scheme becomes clear when he adds that justification ultimately takes place at the final judgment and that the obedient believer may lose his or her justification by failing to continue in faithful obedience. 45

Shepherd's definition of faith has us looking to and relying upon not Christ and his work but ourselves and our work. In the circles in where his teaching is followed and where these new views of covenant flourish, one often hears that we are saved "by our faithfulness to the covenant." This is a far cry from the Reformed understanding of faith alone as the condition of the covenant of grace, that is, faith as trusting in what Jesus Christ has done for us. Instead, in the interest of grace, Shepherd has us looking to our repentance and our obedience not to assess our sanctification but as the instrument of our justification. This is what Meredith Kline meant when he warned against the merging of law/gospel and works/faith: "The irony of all this is that a position that asserts a continuum of 'grace' everywhere ends up with no genuine gospel grace anywhere. An approach that starts out claiming that a works principle operates nowhere ends up with a kind of works principle everywhere. What this amounts to is a retreat from the Reformation and a return to Rome." 46

Kline's assertion bears out with particular clarity in the case of Ralph Smith, with whose book Eternal Covenant I began this study of covenant confusion. Smith's book follows essentially the same outline as I have in this seminar, only with far different conclusions. Starting with his speculations on covenant as the ontological basis of Trinitarian union, he moved forward to redefine covenant not as a pact but as a gift of relationship. As I have done, he then moved forward to consider the covenant of works, which he assailed, making God's covenant with Adam no different from any other redemptive covenant presented in the Bible.

Where does this lead him? Smith posits, without qualification or embarrassment, that God's covenant with Adam in the Garden is the same covenant God offers to sinners today for their salvation, without modification since the Fall. This is the mono-covenantal scheme in full bloom. Where Adam failed, despite his sinless state, we sinners are now to succeed if we are to be declared just by God. Like Adam we have received God's covenant favor and must simply maintain it "by being faithful, living out his faith in God by doing works that correspond to with it… The basic situation is still similar. We are required to be faithful to the covenant by having a living faith in God, one that works by love." 47 As Kline foretold, having removed the covenant of works what Smith really has abolished is the covenant of grace.

What about Christ's saving blood? Smith allows that we need to be forgiven through Christ "when we sin," which one gains the impression is not likely to be very often for a faithful covenant-keeper. But we are justified by works, that is, by our works, at least so long as we continue to do them. One wonders what impact was made by the Fall; it must have been very slight if the view of Smith and Shepherd and others in their camp is correct. Perhaps here more than anywhere else, in its low view of the Fall, this new theology of covenant intersects with Roman Catholicism, along with sharing an approach to justification which depends on the grace of God working in us rather than the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to us by grace and through faith alone. What Cornelius Venema wrote about the Barthian rejection of the covenant of works fits here equally well, and is worthy of quoting at some length:

The difference between man's situation before the face of God before and after the fall into sin is flattened out, even obliterated... In this revision there is no place any longer for a historical fall from favor with God through the sin and disobedience of our first parent and covenant representative, Adam. Nor is there any place for a subsequent covenanting between God and his people in the covenant of grace, by means of which fallen man is restored to renewed covenant fellowship with God in Christ, the second Adam. 48

What, then, are we to make of James chapter 2, to which Smith, like Shepherd makes appeal? First of all, we should observe that while James certainly emphasizes that only a living faith justifies, a faith that goes on to perform works and is proved only by works, he also clearly distinguishes between the two: "I will show you my faith by my works," he says (2:18). Works show and prove faith. Furthermore, the best handling of this book in the Reformation tradition is not Luther's dismissal of James from the canon, which Shepherd sets forth as practically the only alternative to his own position. Instead, Reformed teachers have rightly understood the different purposes to which Paul and James were addressing themselves. William Premble put it well in his 1635 treatise on justification:

[Paul] speaks of that faith which is true and living, working by charity... [James] disputes against that faith which is false and dead, without power to bring forth any good works. So that the apostles speak no contradiction, because Paul teaches that we are justified by a true faith and James affirms that we are not justified by a false faith... Paul severs works from our justification, but not from our faith. James joins works to our faith, but not to our justification. 49

Paul's view of faith and works is made explicit in Romans 4:4-5, in the heart of his teaching on justification in that great epistle: "Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness." The faith that is counted as righteousness is distinct from works, though it goes on to do good works. Such a faith does indeed justify us by works, only works that are not our own but Christ's perfect obedience imputed to us for what Paul describes in Philippians 3:9 as "not a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith." One fears for those who seek to stand justified before God on the basis of their own covenant-keeping faithfulness. Indeed, I fear that the words once written by Paul to speak of works-conscious Jews might be said of many today, that they did not achieve righteousness "because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works... For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness" (Rom. 9:2, 10:3).

In a recent article on this topic, Stefan Lindblad writes words that I find a fitting conclusion to our discussion of saving faith as faith alone:

Justifying faith is inseparable from the other graces of salvation, and yet faith is the alone instrument of justification. There is no other way, no other instrument whereby a sinner receives Christ for justification. Repentance does not justify. Our good works do not justify. Our obedience does not justify… God declares a sinner righteous by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. The church must gain a renewed appreciation and affection for this truth. For here is the heart of the gospel. If we lose it, or, worse, renounce it, then we will bring ruin to our churches and destruction to our own souls. May Christ grant us mercy to guard this truth against error, boldness to proclaim this truth in its fullness, and, most of all, grace for sinners to believe this truth unto justification and life. 50


What, then, are we to make of this redefined covenant theology? One response that is essential is that critics take the time and make the effort to understand what really is being said. I have endeavored to do that, having prepared this seminar after extensive personal interactions with many significant figures on the other side and having read the opposing materials with a sincere desire for charity and understanding. When people are exploring new avenues of theological configuration, it often takes a good deal of time just to figure out what they really are saying. No doubt, this is a factor in the current debate over covenant theology. What may strike our ear as heretical may turn out to be, on more clear understanding, something less threatening and closer to biblical orthodoxy than we thought at first hearing.

But there is one aspect of this recasting of salvation by covenant that causes only greater alarm the more it is understood. This is the compromising of the doctrine of justification through faith alone. In surveying this recast covenant theology, which first redefines covenant so as no longer to contain the elements of a pact or agreement, and then wipes out the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, the overall effect is to offer a gospel in which works are so intrinsic to faith that we are justified by works and not by faith alone. That is a different gospel than that taught in the Continental Reformed Confessions and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

More significantly, it is the apostle Paul who tells us in Galatians that a gospel of faith plus works in justification is no small error but is "a gospel contrary to the one you received" (Gal. 1:9). There, Paul makes explicit that faith excludes "works of the law" (see chapter 3). Despite claims of the so-called New Perspective on Paul that seek to blunt the force of Paul's words, the overwhelming testimony of Scripture and increasingly of scholarly opinion today is that Paul does in fact intend to exclude from our definition of justifying faith the very kinds of works trying to be smuggled in by this recast covenant theology. 51 To this false teaching it is Paul who assigns his apostolic anathema precisely to the denial of justification by faith alone.

That being the case, it is urgent that all teachers in Christ's church turn back from a view of justification that relies on a combination of faith and works, or on our supposed "faithfulness to the covenant." I pray that each of us will heed Paul's warning, as well as Jeremiah's exhortation, and that as needed we will retrace our steps back to the crossroads where the gospel has been compromised, finding there and taking anew the good road that leads to life. "Ask for the ancient paths," the prophet implores us, "where the good way is, and walk in it" (Jer. 6:16).


1) Ralph Smith, Paradox and Truth (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2002), 73.
2) James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), 5.
3) His second two arguments consist of defending the traditional covenant of redemption and then asserting that this economic covenant demands an ontological covenant, which amounts to a repetition of the first argument.
4) Ibid., 33
5) Ibid., 37
6) See Smith's argument about creation, lordship, and covenant, in Eternal Covenant, 33-37.
7) J.I. Packer's treatment of this is notable in that he makes much of the correspondence between the nature of inner-Trinitarian fellowship and God's covenant dealings with mankind, while explicitly insisting that we must not go beyond this observation in postulating the nature of the inner-Trinitarian relationship. See J.I. Packer, "Introduction: On Covenant Theology" in Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (Kingsburg, CA: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1990).
8) Ibid., 47
9) Ibid., 56. Smith perhaps forgets that his whole thesis rests upon the argument that the economic covenants of history reveal an ontological Trinitarian covenant via Rahner's rule. That argument requires covenant to operate at the level of ontology. The indication that Smith himself cannot stomach the implications of this formula is fatal to his whole thesis.
10) Herman Witsius: The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (Kingsburg, CA: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1990), I.1.9.
11) J.I. Packer, "Introduction: On Covenant Theology" in Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man.
12) Smith is not the first to argue against covenant as a pact or agreement. This is a standard of Barthian theology, as exemplified in James B. Torrance, "Covenant or Contract? A Study of the Theological Background for Worship in Seventeenth-Century Scotland," Scottish Journal of Theology 23 (1970): 51-76. Torrance wrote, "The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is a Covenant-God and not a contract-God", p. 66.
13) See my critique of this, "Covenant and Salvation," in The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision ed. E. Calvin Beisner (Ft. Lauderdale: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004).
14) Steve M. Schlissel, What Does God Require? 1.
15) Smith, Eternal Covenant, 49-53.
16) Ibid., 50.
17) Peter J. Leithart, "Trinitarian Anthropology: Toward a Trinitarian Re-casting of Reformed Theology" in The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision ed. E. Calvin Beisner (Ft. Lauderdale: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), lines 437, 464-465, pp. 69-70.
18) Douglas Wilson, Reformed Is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the Covenant (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003), 64.
19) Rich Lusk, "Some Thoughts on the Means of Grace: A Few Proposals" Theologia, 2003, accessed at
20) Michael Horton, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 105.
21) Steve Wilkins, "Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation," in The Auburn Avenue Theology, Pros and Cons: Debating the Federal Vision ed. E. Calvin Beisner (Ft. Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2003), Lines 542-544, p. 268.
22) S. Joel Garver, Sacraments and the Solas,`garver/solas.htm, accessed 2/18/04.
23) See, for instance, 2 Peter 5:11, which says that we should "make your calling and election sure" by cultivating the qualities of "virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love"; 1 John, which grounds assurance of salvation in the three tests of doctrine, holiness, and love; and Jesus' teaching that "a tree is known by its fruit" (Mt. 7:16-2), just to cite a few prominent examples.
24) N.T. Wright, The Letter to the Romans in The New Interpreter's Bible, 12 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 10:440. A key to understanding Wright's view of justification is to realize that he down-plays the significance of "present justification" in favor of the final judgment of God at the end of history. For Wright, present justification is merely a proleptic statement that has no ultimate significance in itself apart from the future works that it assumes. We are justified by faith in the present, but justification "occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict, which is according to works" (author's italics). In his 2003 Rutherford House lecture titled New Perspectives on Paul, from which the prior quote is taken (, Wright frankly said, "God's final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led - in accordance, in other words, with works." His primary support for this is Romans 2:1-16, employing the New Perspective understanding that faith and works operate in continuum in justification rather than in contrast, while present justification and final vindication work in contrast rather than in continuum. In both cases, he is at odds with the classic teaching of Reformed covenant theology.
25) Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000), 19.
26) These arguments are made in Daniel P. Fuller, Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum: The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 18-64.
27) John Murray, "The Adamic Administration," in Collected Writings of John Murray, 4 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 2:47-59.
28) Shepherd, The Call of Grace, 61-62.
29) Murray, 2:49.
30) Cornelius P. Venema, "Recent Criticisms of the 'Covenant of Works'" Mid-America Journal of Theology Vol. 9 (1993), 3.
31) Meredith G. Kline, Covenant Theology Under Attack New Horizons, Feb. 1994. Published without abridgement at p. 2.
32) See Shepherd, 59-61.
33) Venema, 195. Author's italics.
34) Kline, 3-4.
35) Venema sagely points out that Murray's concern for biblical terminology does not keep him from coining his own non-biblical term, the Adamic Administration. He considers Murray's language decidedly inferior, writing, "This terminology is not only alien to the biblical descriptions of the pre-fall state but also to the biblical descriptions of God's communion with man in general." Venema, 193.
36) Except as the covenant of works is re-published in the Mosaic covenant, which itself is an administration of the covenant of grace.
37) Murray, 2:47.
38) Douglas Wilson, Reformed Is Not Enough, 183.
39) Ibid., 187.
40) Charles Hodge, A Commentary on Ephesians (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1964), 114.
41) For a fuller treatment of this subject, see my "Jesus and the Little Children" in Richard D. Phillips, Encounters with Jesus: When Ordinary People Met the Savior (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002).
42) G. Campbell Morgan, The Westminster Pulpit, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 2:120-121.
43) Norman Shepherd, "Thirty-four Theses on Justification in Relation to Faith, Repentance, and Good Works," presented to the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Nov. 18, 1978. Thesis 11.
44) Ibid., Thesis, 20.
45) Ibid., Thesis 19. Here is where Shepherd's thought on justification and that of N.T. Wright intersect so clearly. See earlier discussion of Wright's view of justification.
46) Kline, 4
47) Smith, Eternal Covenant, 70.
48) Venema, 187.
49) William Premble, The Justification of a Sinner: A Treatise on Justification by Faith Alone, Reprint of 1635 edition (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 2002), 200-203.
50) Stefan T. Lindblad, "Justifying Faith and the Application of Salvation" The Banner of Truth, issue 479-80, Aug-Sept. 2003, 20.
51) For scholarly refutations of the New Perspective on Paul's understanding of "works of the law" in Galatians and Romans, see A. Andrew Das, Paul, the Law, and the Covenant (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2001); Simon J. Gathercole, Where Is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul's Response in Romans 1-5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 91-111; Colin G. Kruse, Paul, the Law, and Justification (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1996); and Mark A. Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul's Theology of Justification (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2000).