Covenant and Justification #2 (Some modern views)


Rowland S. Ward


The Presbyterian Banner – April 2002

In the previous issue I outlined the concept of a covenant with Adam requiring obedience to the obtaining of eternal life. Adam’s failure in this covenant plunged the race into ruin, but through the obedience of the Last Adam, Jesus Christ, salvation is achieved. In justification we are not simply treated as if we had never sinned but as if Adam had fully obeyed.

The Adamic covenant and merit
It is common to describe Christ, the last Adam, as ‘meriting’ our salvation by his obedience. The parallel suggests to some that Adam would likewise have merited eternal life if he had obeyed in the covenant. Indeed, it might be said that if Adam could not have merited eternal life then neither could Jesus, in which event the foundation of salvation is destroyed.

The term ‘merit’ as used in Christian theology has more than one meaning. In particular, it can mean ‘gain’ or it can mean ‘earn’ (see this distinction well made in the 17th century by Turretin, Institutes, Vol 2, p.710). All human words can be misapplied, but the term ‘covenant of works’ in useful as conveying the correct idea that life was promised to obedience and therefore it was a just reward even if, with the generality of Reformed theologians, we think it a reward not deserved in justice as if man could demand over against God (cf. Luke 17:8), but a reward by reason of God’s covenant promise.

Pretty well the entire Reformed tradition avoided a merit-as-earning construction for Adam. Thus Robert Rollock, one of the early covenant theologians writes:
“It is a question here, whether in the first creation, good works in the covenant of works, were required of man as meritorious for the promised life? I answer, not so. But they were due in the creation as pledges of thankfulness in man to his creator, for that excellent work of his creation, and to glorify God his creator.” [Treatise on Effectual Calling, London, 1597]

The Torrance School
Accordingly, (1) when the Torrance school of neo-Barthians argues that the Adamic covenant as historically understood is one that gives priority to law rather than grace, it seems to forget that grace only has its proper meaning in the context of disobedience. (2) When this school claims that merit is not an appropriate category in the Adamic relationship it misconstrues the historic position in reformed theology. (3) When it stigmatises the traditional formulation as a mere contract, it forgets that the contract idea is inherently involved in a covenant, which is an agreement with mutual obligations, even if it cannot exhaust the nature of the covenant as a bond between friends and lovers.
Stam and The Covenant of Love
Clarence Stam of the Canadian Reformed Churches produced a simply written and pastorally sensitive treatment of covenant theology entitled The Covenant of Love in 1999 which is now in its second printing (Premier, 2001, 197pp). I have had the book for review for some time, and could wish that I was not in the position of expressing my disappointment with it. Stam acknowledges God’s covenant with Adam but he rejects the notion of a covenant of works. He seems to suppose that such a covenant would involve eternal life as something earned by man (p. 48), whereas, as noted above, virtually the entire covenant tradition, from Robert Rollock in 1597 to Herman Bavinck in 1897, stresses the reward was a gift not earned as wages but promised by covenant. [The great Charles Hodge is the lone, relatively undogmatic, advocate of the merit-as-earning viewpoint as far as I can see (Systematic Theology, 3:364-5).] Stam is not unfamiliar with the literature (the book has an extensive bibliography) but it appears he has not represented it well at this point.

Stam also rejects the idea of probation or testing (pp. 49-50). He has no concept of the covenant as a means of advancing humanity to greater blessing, and actually rejects such an idea. There is no reference in his book to such a crucial passage as 1 Cor 15:40-49, and Stam supposes Adam was perfect in an ideal sense, not needing advancement.

Also, very strikingly, Stam does not explain the results of Adam’s sin in terms of imputation. Indeed, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the central truth of justification by his perfect obedience to God’s law are not given quite the emphasis one would expect either. There is no reference to Romans 5:12ff. Rather, we have a single covenant of love made with Adam, fulfilled by Jesus, the formal distinction of covenant of works and covenant of grace being discarded.

We broke God’s law and stood under its condemnation; Christ fulfilled God’s law for us and bore our condemnation. I know Stam believes that, yet his presentation does, I think, lead easily to thinking of acceptance with God in terms of our faithfulness to the covenant rather than in term of Christ’s obedience as our representative head.

Shepherd and The Call of Grace
A somewhat similar problem seems to lurk in Norman Shepherd’s recent volume The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism (P & R Publishing, 2000, pbk 110pp). Shepherd taught theology at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia from 1963-81 but in the aftermath of controversy over his views of justification his position was terminated and he continued ministry with the Christian Reformed Church of North America until his recent retirement. Cornelius Van Til supported Shepherd (which may explain in part why the strident Trinity Foundation, which promotes the work of Gordon Clark, does not), as did Dr J. Faber of the Canadian Reformed Churches, and Dr Richard Gaffin, senior professor at Westminster, Philadelphia. It would be a mistake to suppose these men supported every aspect of Shepherd’s thought but they considered Shepherd was within tolerable boundaries, and perhaps in general he was and is. However, Dr Robert Godfrey, currently President of Westminster Seminary in California, was a strong opponent, as was Dr Meredith Kline of the same Seminary. So there’s a bit of family polemics involved, Dr Mark Karlberg being an active participant.

Shepherd comes from an American Presbyterian tradition which has been modified by general evangelical thinking. It too often focuses merely on the five points of the Calvinist understanding of salvation rather than having an adequately balanced theology. Shepherd wants to bring Presbyterianism back to its Reformed covenantal roots, so that she recovers a proper preaching focus and evangelistic thrust, and so that godly obedience is not cut of from saving faith. So far so good.

In Reformed theology we speak of being justified by Christ meritoriously, by faith instrumentally and by works evidentially. (I well remember the late Rev W.R.McEwen making this analysis in his Irish brogue over 30 years ago.) Some seem to forget that the faith which alone justifies is never alone but is accompanied by all other saving graces (cf. WCF 11:2). Thus good works are necessary but they are fruits of the new relationship, not means of establishing it. There is no doubt that in an earlier period Shepherd used language that was particularly unfortunate in this area. Some who claim to be logically following out his presentation now reject the traditional formulation of justification by faith alone, which doesn’t help in a dispassionate review of Shepherd’s own position.

Shepherd’s book only covers part of the field. He is undoubtedly saying some important things but needs to say some other things too. This is the more so given the increasing lack of clarity on justification seen in the Joint Roman Catholic-Lutheran Declaration, as well as the ‘new perspective’ on Paul associated with writers like James D.G. Dunn and N.T.Wright. One of our younger adult readers asked me about the ‘new perspective’ recently. It is popularised in Wright’s book, What St Paul Really Said (Oxford 1997), currently circulating widely in Sydney Anglican circles. Perhaps next time I can offer an assessment.

The times call for more careful discrimination in the statement of the covenant and justification/sanctification. Polarised positions and personalities must not become the interpretative grid through which we read Scripture. There needs to be much more care to speak with clarity. A recovery of the law/gospel distinction in the framework of the covenants of works and of grace is greatly needed if the churches of the Reformation are not to lose their way, and if the comfort and assurance of the Gospel is not to be replaced by either legalism or antinomianism.