COVENANT LIGHT ON THE REFORMATION - Dr. Norman Shepherd
In 1997 I had asked my friend and ministerial colleague, Norman Shepherd,to speak about the covenant and the Protestant Reformation. I knew that if I asked him to speak on the doctrine of the covenant, he wouldn't refuse my offer. His lecture touches upon a number of issues which provoked a great deal of controversy about 20 years ago, but I think you'll find his treatment balanced and pastoral. Anyone familiar with Norm Shepherd would expect nothing less.
COVENANT LIGHT ON THE REFORMATION
Oak Glen United Reformed Church
October 26, 1997
We have come together this evening to remember and to celebrate the Protestant Reformation. 480 years ago Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. This act once again unleashed the power of the Holy Spirit in the church in a new and powerful way.
The Protestant Reformation was a gift from God for which we continue to be profoundly grateful. It was a course correction that was sorely needed in the church. It was concrete evidence that Jesus was still at work in the world to build his church. Jesus was present with his church in the sixteenth century, and we believe he is present with us today.
Jesus is building his church and he has called us to labor with him as his faithful witnesses. My prayer is that our time together this evening will help to equip us for that task.
The Protestant Reformation impacted a number of aspects of the life and teaching of the church. We are all familiar with two of the most important of these.
There is first of all the return to the absolute authority of the written word of God. Controversies must be resolved and doctrine must be established—not by an appeal to tradition, not by an appeal to the teaching office of the church, but by an appeal to the written word of God. The Reformers did not think of themselves as starting a new denomination or a new church. They thought of themselves as members of the holy Catholic church; but now this holy catholic church was being reformed according to the word of God.
Secondly, the Reformation had a tremendous impact on our understanding of the way of salvation. Over the course of the centuries, salvation from sin and hell came to be seen as a reward for good works. With help from the church and the sacraments, a sinner could become a righteous person and so merit eternal life. It was this teaching that caused Martin Luther so much grief and anxiety. He could never be sure that he was good enough to inherit eternal life. His sins condemned him; and he faced death with no assurance of salvation.
Through his reading and study of God's word Luther came to see thatsalvation was by grace. Because of what Jesus had done both in his life and in his death on the cross, sinners could be saved. We are justified by grace through faith; we are not justified by good works through merit.This doctrine of justification by faith has brought great comfort to God’s people. It is a doctrine that points us to grace that is greater than all our sin. What we could never do for ourselves because of our sinful natures, Christ has done for us.
We are profoundly grateful for the progress that was made by the Reformation in leading us to an understanding of the way of salvation,but we should not think that all of the questions and issues were resolved at that time. The Reformation left us with very serious questions about the way of salvation. These continue to be debated to this day. We are thinking not only of the on going controversy with the church of Rome, but also of the differences that exist among the children of the Reformation, differences that exist between the historic Lutheran and Reformed confessions, and differences that exist among evangelical Protestants as evidenced by the lordship salvation controversy.
Let me try to describe what I mean. First of all there are children of the Reformation, who insist that salvation is by grace alone. There is nothing that you can do or should try to do to save yourself. Salvation by grace means that you make a decision for Christ. You believe in him and are saved. Of course the commandments are important and Christians should be concerned about holy living. After all, Jesus says, "If you love me, you will obey what I command." (John 14:15)
But all of that has nothing to do with your salvation or with your eternal security. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. You receive Jesus as your Savior; but whether you receive him as Lord of your life is another matter. You ought to do that; but whether you do that will not affect your eternal destiny. Your eternal destiny has nothing to do with how you live your life because you are not saved by works. If you have accepted Jesus as your Savior, that is all that matters as far as salvation is concerned.
There are evangelical brothers and sisters who preach and teach this way. We call this way of thinking "antinomian," because it is "against legalism." That's what the word "antinomian" means. "Legalism" is the teaching that we are saved by the merit of our works. The strength of antinomianism is its appeal to what is at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. Salvation is by grace though faith, not by merit through works.
Over against the antinomians we have people who point out that it isn't quite that simple. They point out that according to the teaching of James, faith 'without works is dead.' James reflects the teaching of Jesus who called sinners to repentance. Repentance is not only sorrow for sin, but a turning away from sin.
Jesus taught his disciples to preach repentance unto the forgiveness of sins to all the nations. That is why Peter preached repentance on the Day of Pentecost. That is why Paul preached repentance on Mars Hill in Athens. When he defended himself before King Agrippa Paul made the point that he preached repentance to both Jews and Gentiles. "I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds" (Acts 26:20). Paul wrote to the Galatians that "God can not bemocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life" (Galatians6:7, 8).
Most of us who belong to Reformed churches would probably be more comfortable with this way of speaking. It is obviously biblical. After all, this is what we confess in the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord's Day 32. "Can those be saved who do not turn to God from their ungrateful and impenitent ways? By no means. Scripture tells us that no unchaste person, no idolater, adulterer, thief, no covetous person, drunkard,slanderer, robber, or the like is going to inherit the kingdom of God. "This Lord's Day introduces the section of the Catechism that deals with gratitude. We are obedient to the Lord and keep his commandments out of thankfulness for salvation. The adulterer gives up an adulterous lifestyle when be is converted, because he is thankful that his sins havebeen forgiven. But there is more. If he persists in his adultery he is not forgiven, and he will not enter the kingdom. It remains true that adulterers do not inherit the kingdom. God is not mocked; the adulterer must repent. God wills to save his people from sin, not just from the penalty for sin!
This is a way of speaking that Reformed people accept; but many evangelicals are horrified. Their claim is that we are not being true to the Reformation. If you preach repentance and the necessity for obedience, you are preaching legalism. Then you are on your way back to the church of Rome and salvation by good works.
Historically the Lutherans have always had a problem with the way the Reformed used the law of God. The Reformed have always said that the Commandments are a rule for Christians today. They not only reveal the depth of our sin, but they guide us in our Christian living. The Lutherans have argued that this confuses law and gospel. It confuses faith and works, and it confuses grace and merit. The Lutherans insist that the law serves only to reveal the depth of our sin. Christians today do not need laws and commandments because they have the Holy Spirit. If we make the commandments a rule for Christian living, we are in danger of reintroducing a doctrine of salvation by good works. We are in danger of going back to the church of Rome.
Many other evangelicals also use this same argument. The sentiment is embodied in a well-known hymn:
Free from the law - 0 happy condition!.
Jesus hath bled, and there is remission;
Cursed by the law and bruised by the fall,,
Grace hath redeemed us once and for all.
Many understand this to mean freedom not only from the curse of the law, but also from its demands. We are always being reminded that believers are not under law but under grace!
What we have been looking at is the legacy of the Reformation on its downside. It is the controversy between antinomianism and legalism. It is the controversy between Rome and Reformation. It is the historic difference between the Lutherans and the Reformed. Many would even see it as the difference between the Old Testament with its focus on law, and the New Testament with its focus on grace. Within the Old Testament, it is construed as the difference between the covenant with Abraham and the covenant with Moses. It is the difference between promise and command, between promise and obligation.
The issue is a serious one with serious practical consequences for ministry and evangelism. How do you preach grace without suggesting that it makes no difference what your lifestyle is like? How do you preach repentance without calling into question salvation by grace apart from works?
My message this evening is that we can resolve this dilemma and get beyond it by looking at the biblical doctrine of the covenant, and more specifically at the covenant the Lord made with Abraham. The language of the Bible does not leave us stranded on the horns of a dilemma. Divine grace and human responsibility are not mutually exclusive polar opposites. They are the two parts of the covenant that God has made with us and with our children.
The Book of Genesis testifies that God made a covenant with Abraham and his children. Genesis 12:2, 3 tell us of the promise God made to Abraham to make of him a great nation. Abraham will be a blessing, and through him all peoples on the earth will be blessed. The word "covenant" is not used in chapter 12, but it is used in Genesis 15:18. "On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, 'To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.’"
It is especially in chapter 17, however, that we see the full scope of covenantal language. Verse 2 says, "I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers." Verses 7, 8, "I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan,where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God." We read about this covenant not only in the Old Testament , but also in the New.
The establishment of this covenant is one of the major epochal events of revelation history.
Of immediate significance is the fact that in this covenant the promises God makes to Abraham are in the foreground. In Genesis 12:3 the promise is that in and through Abraham all the peoples on earth will be blessed. In Genesis 15:5 God promises children to Abraham in spite of the fact that he and his wife have grown old. God said to Abraham, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be."
Not only did God promise children, he also promised a place for these children to live. Verses 18-20, "On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land:, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—the the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgasliites and Jebusites.’" God promises both a people and a land.
Genesis 15 lays out the commitment God makes to fulfill this promise by describing a mysterious ceremony. The Lord God passed between the bleeding halves of animals that had been cut in two. In this way God called down a curse upon himself if he should fail to keep the promiseshe had made. This is an oath-bound promise; and Hebrews 6:13,14 remind us of the divine oath. "When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself,saying, ‘I will surely bless you and give you many descendants’" (Genesis22:16). The heart of the promises made to Abraham is found in those verses already quoted from Genesis 17. Verse 7, "I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you." God promises to be Abraham's God and the God of his children forever.
Frequently the point is made that these promises to Abraham are made unconditionally. They are promises that God has committed himself to fulfill irrespective of Abraham's response. There are no conditions attached to these promises that have to be met before they are realized. For example, in commenting on Genesis 22, John Stek, formerly Professor of Old Testament at Calvin Seminary, writes, "[The Lord] now pledges himself on oath, and unconditionally, to do for Abraham all that he had originally promised." ("'Covenant' Overload In Reformed Theology," Calvin Theological Journal, 29:1, April 19941 p. 31) Because the fulfillment of the promise is unconditional, the Abrahamic covenant is seen as a model for the method of gospel grace. There is nothing that you have to do to he saved, you are saved by grace alone.
The Abrahamic covenant is then set over against the Mosaic covenant. The Mosaic covenant is thought of as legalistic. You are saved by keeping this republished covenant of works perfectly, without any exception. The Mosaic covenant serves as a proof text for legalism; and the Abrahamic covenant serves as a proof text for antinomianism.
But now the question arises whether this covenant with Abraham really is, in fact, unconditional. Will the promises be fulfilled irrespective of any response on the part of Abraham and his children? I believe the biblical record shows that there are, indeed, conditions attached to the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham. Let me offer a series of six considerations that serve to demonstrate this observation.
First, there is the requirement of circumcision.
God requires Abraham and his children to keep the covenant by practicing circumcision. (Genesis 17) If this is not done, the covenant is broken and the uncircumcised male is to be cut off from his people. Such a one does not inherit what is promised.
The old Form for the Baptism of Infants in use in the Christian Reformed Church has these words, "Whereas in all covenants there are contained two parts,therefore are we by God, through baptism, admonished of and obliged unto new obedience." Our baptism calls us to be obedient to Jesus. It obliges us to be covenantally loyal to him. Baptism has come in the place of circumcision. Just as baptism obliges us to obedience under the New Covenant, so also circumcision under the Old Covenant.
When God required circumcision as a condition in the Abrahamic covenant, the concern was not merely for an outward ceremony. That is why Paul can write in Romans 2:28, "A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly' nor is circumcision merely outward and physical." God was requiring the full scope of covenantal loyalty and obedience all along the line. That is the significance of circumcision in the Abrahamic covenant, and of baptism in the New.
Second, the Abrahamic covenant required faith.
It belongs to the very nature of promises that they cry out to be believed. So also these promises made to Abraham had to be believed if they were to be fulfilled. We must not discount faith as a condition to be met for the fulfillment of promise. In fact, Genesis 15:6 says that Abraham's faith is so significant that it was credited to him as righteousness! If so, then righteousness is a condition to be met; and faith meets that condition.
Third, the faith that is credited to Abraham as righteousness is a living and obedient faith.
Hebrews 11 describes Abraham as a man of faith, but his faith was, not a purely mental act. By faith Abraham obeyed the voice of God and left his homeland in order to inherit a promised land. By faith he offered Isaac as a sacrifice, confident that God would nevertheless fulfill his promise.
James 2 is even more explicit. Verse 21 says that Abraham was considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar. His faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. Verse 23, "And the scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,' and he was called God's friend."
James goes on to say that faith without deeds is dead. For that reason he can also say in v. 24 that "a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone." The faith credited to Abraham as righteousness is a living and active faith.
Fourth, Abraham is commanded to walk before the Lord and to be blameless. Genesis 17:1,2 says, "When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, 'I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.’" What is significant is the way that walking before the Lord blamelessly is connected with confirmation of the covenant. 'The covenant with its promises is confirmed to Abraham who demonstrates covenant faith and loyalty. He fulfills the obligations of the covenant.
This connection between a blameless walk and confirmation of the covenant is no artificial connection, as is evident from Genesis 26:3-5. The Lord says to Abraham, "Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your fattier Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations onearth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws."
Here we have a repetition of the promises that are at the heart of the Abrahamic covenant. We have the promise of children, the land, and the presence of God himself. God confirms these oath-bound promises; and notice the reason why he does this: "because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws," The promises are renewed and will be fulfilled because Abraham trusts God and walks in righteousness according to the word of the Lord.
Fifth, the history of Israel demonstrates that the promises made to Abraham are fulfilled only as the conditions of the covenant are met. In Exodus 2 we read about the enslavement of Israel in Egypt. The Israelites groaned and cried out to God for relief. Verse 24 says that God remembered the covenant that he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
It was a covenant made with Abraham and his children. Moses makes the same point as he speaks to the children of Israel about to cross the Jordan. Deuteronomy 7:8, "It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to, your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt." It was in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant that God took Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land.
But the generation of Israelites that actually left Egypt never made it to the Promised Land. The reason is unbelief and disobedience. Hebrews3:18,19, "And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were not able to enter because of their unbelief."
If the promises of the Abrahamic covenant were unconditional, the Israelites would have been able to march right in regardless of their behavior. That did not happen. It was a new and different generation that inherited what was promised. It was a generation that believed God and moved ahead at his command.
Sixth and finally, the ultimate proof of the conditional character of the Abrahamic covenant resides in Jesus Christ.
What was it that motivated Paul in his mission outreach to the world above everything else? It was the realization that the promises made to Abraham were being fulfilled before his very eyes. They had been realized on one level in the Old Covenant when Israel entered the Promised Land. But now the promises were being fulfilled in their full scope. The nations were being discipled! The promise was that all nations on earth would be blessed through Abraham. Paul could see that happening in his day as we see it happening in our day.
All of this is made possible through the covenantal righteousness of Jesus Christ. His was a living, active and obedient faith that took him all the way to the cross. This faith is credited to him as righteousness. In Romans 5:18 his death on the cross is called the "one act of righteousness" that resulted in justification and life for all men.
Galatians 3:16 says that "The-promises were spoken to Abraham and his seed." That seed is Jesus Christ. Because Jesus was obedient unto death,even death on the cross, the promises are now being fulfilled. Galatians3:14 says that the blessing given to Abraham comes to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus.
Nothing demonstrates the conditional character of the Abrahamic covenant more clearly than the way in which the promises of that covenant are ultimately fulfilled. They are fulfilled through the covenantal loyalty and obedience of Jesus Christ.
But just as Jesus was faithful in order to guarantee the blessing, so his followers must be faithful in order to appropriate the blessing. According to the Great Commission, to be a follower of Jesus we must learn to obey everything that he has commanded. We must not only become believers, but disciples! We must obey by seeking to disciple others to Christ. This is the way that the blessing promised to the nations in the Abrahamic covenant will come to realization!
What we have seen to this point is that in the Abrahamic covenant the promises God makes to Abraham and his children are in the foreground. But as "in all covenants there are contained two parts," so also in the Abrahamic covenant. Abraham and his seed are obliged to new obedience. They must walk with the Lord and before the Lord in the paths of faith, repentance and obedience. In this way the promises of the covenant are fulfilled.
For this reason the Abrahamic covenant offers no comfort to antinomians. It is not as though the promises are made unconditionally. It is not as though the promises will be fulfilled irrespective of any response on the part of Abraham, or his children, or the one seed who is Christ. The Abrahamic covenant, like every other covenant, has two parts: promise and obligation.
But now, does this mean that the Abrahamic covenant is really just another example of Old Testament legalism? Are the promises really promises? Or do they describe the reward for the merit of good works? Not at all! The fulfillment of the obligations of the Abrahamic covenant are never represented as meritorious achievement. The Abrahamic covenant gives no comfort to the antinomians and it gives no comfort to the legalists. There are at least two ways in which that point can be demonstrated.
First, we have the attempt on the part of Abraham to inherit the promise of children by sleeping with an Egyptian maid servant named Hagar.The result of that union was the birth of Ishmael. Ishmael comes to represent the inheritance of promise by means of human effort and achievement. Hagar and Ishmael are symbols for legalism. The effort fails miserably.
Hagar and Ishmael are symbolic of human effort to achieve blessing. They are symbolic of the merit of works. This is not how the promises are realized. When God therefore calls for faith that is living and active,and for a blameless walk through life, he is not asking for what Abraham tried to accomplish with Hagar and Ishmael. The obedience that leads to the fulfillment of promise is of a totally different kind. It is the expression of faith and trust, not the confidence of human achievement.
Second, we have the actual entrance of Israel into the Promised Land. We have seen that this triumphal entry is in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. But the fulfillment takes place in the way of faith and obedience. The Israelites must march in and take possession at the command of the Lord.
It is fascinating to see the warning that Moses gives to Israel just as they are about to enter. Deuteronomy 9:4, "After the LORD your God has driven the Canaanites out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you." Verse 6,"Understand then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff -necked peoples."
Moses is saying in the clearest possible way that the inheritance does not come because of human achievement or merit. Israel has not made herself worthy of receiving what was promised to Abraham. The land is a free gift of God's grace; but it can be received only by a living and active faith.
To summarize, the Abrahamic covenant cannot give comfort to the antinomians. But neither can this covenant give comfort to the legalists. The Abrahamic covenant is not unconditional; but at the same time, the conditions are not meritorious. This is the light that is shed on the Reformation by the biblical doctrine of the covenant.
Roman Catholic theologians have made great strides in recent years. They have sought to give much more attention to grace in describing the way of salvation. But the idea that God rewards the merit of good works is still at the heart of Romanist doctrine. It is embedded in the so-called infallible teaching of the church. There is still a controversy that must be waged against the legalism of the Romanist system.
But we must not minimize the significance of the controversy on the other side. Evangelical Protestants very often come close to antinomianism; and sometimes cross the line. For example, often sinners are not told to repent; they are told that God accepts them just as they are. It is true that God accepts us just as we are if we mean by that that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves by our works or merits. We come to God as sinners deserving of his wrath. But if we mean that there is salvation without repentance, then we are not preaching gospel.
Legalism and antinomianism are polar opposites they are the horns of a dilemma. But the Bible does not leave us stranded on the horns of that dilemma. The Bible shows us that in the covenant the Lord has made with us salvation is by grace and it is through faith. Yes, both things are true: by grace and through faith. Grace and faith, promise and obligation: these are the two parts of the covenant.
Covenant Light on the Reformation!
If we could get our Roman Catholic neighbors to see that the Bible talks about covenantal love and loyalty, and not about the merit of good works, and if we could get our evangelical Protestant neighbors to see that the Bible talks about covenantal love and loyalty, and not about cheap grace, then at least one major obstacle would be removed preventing us from seeing that the true church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. We would have a catholic church that is reformed according to the word of God. This is the church that Jesus is building today.
Pastor Norman Shepherd
Cottage Grove Christian Reformed Church
South Holland, Illinois