Law and Righteousness in Scripture and Confession

Law and Righteousness in Scripture and Confession

Address as Incoming Moderator of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia
7 May 2007 by Rev Dr Rowland S. Ward

1. Consensus
It is obvious but often overlooked that the Westminster Standards, intended for the Christian Church in England, Scotland and Ireland, are very much consensus statements. That is, they endeavour to avoid deciding between different schools of thought which fall within the acceptable bounds of the Reformed faith, and they are often content to agree in practical conclusions even if there are different theoretical underpinnings.

Let me give you some examples:
(1) In framing the Form of Presbyterial Church Government it was not found possible to agree about the theory of eldership since most of the English had no experience of eldership. Passages we think are a biblical basis for eldership were applied exclusively to the pastors. Consequently, the compromise was reached which gave a place to elders without requiring that they be regarded, as they were by the Scots, as true presbyters.
(2) When preparing the Directory for the Public Worship of God the longest and most difficult debate was over whether it was essential to the observance of the Lord’s Supper to be seated at a table. The Scots insisted on this, the English thought sitting in the pews was in order, and neither gave way. So, after more than two weeks debate (!), they agreed a compromise. The relevant section of the Directory reads: “…the table being before decently covered, and so conveniently placed, that the congregation may orderly sit about it, or at it, the minister is to begin the action…” The words ‘about it’ allowed for reception in the pew, and the words ‘at it’ for reception at the table.
(3) In framing the Confession the approach appears to reflect the infra-lapsarian order of decrees, that is, God’s election logically follows the decree to permit the fall. However, the supra-lapsarian position of some members, which viewed election as logically prior to the decree to permit the fall, and thus emphasised God’s sovereignty but ran the risk of suggesting God created men in order to damn them, is not condemned. [In fact, as Derek Thomas has shown, the language is deliberately framed so as to allow each party to have its own sense.]
(4) Similarly, while justification has two parts – the non-imputation of sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness – the phrasing of WCF 11.1 allows for some difference of view on imputation since the Reformed did not always express this in terms of the imputation of Christ’s life of law keeping (active obedience). Among other ways of stating it was the view that we are counted righteous by virtue of union with Christ in his sacrificial death and justifying resurrection without reference to Christ’s own perfect life (although of course that  qualified him to be the perfect sacrifice for us).1
(5) In the basic structure of the covenant theology enshrined in the Confession there is some variation. WCF 7.1 seems to suggest man was created in an uncovenanted state and after his creation received the covenant of works/life, but WCF 19.1 appears to conflate the law written on the heart and the covenant arrangement of Genesis 2 as if he was created in covenant. Similarly, WLC 93 suggests a promise of life is attached to the keeping of the law written on the heart, but WCF 7.1 suggests the reward could only come by God condescending to enter into a post-creation covenant.  Even the question of the covenant of redemption distinct from the covenant of grace is left undecided by the WCF.  These studied ambiguities reflect the fact that a developed covenant theology was only 50 years old and would need another 30 years to reach a greater clarity on some points. It was sufficient for the purpose of a consensus creed in the 1640s to maintain the basic contours. Richard Muller puts it this way: ‘…the brief definition found in the Westminster Standards represents not a strict finalization of a dogma rigidly propounded, but a historical marker in an ongoing development. The formulators of the doctrine allowed for a significant flexibility in terms and definitions…’ 2
(6) Incidentally, while the precise nature of the creation days was not under any discussion in the 1640s, and no challenge from wider knowledge had arisen to give cause for it, one can note the careful lack of definition of the length of the days beyond the language of Scripture.

These remarks are useful I think as they serve to keep us from a kind of approach that treats the Confession as the final word or the always adequate word. The Confession is not Scripture. Nevertheless, we confess that its doctrine is Biblical.

2. Commitment
However, just because the Confession is a consensus creed does not mean that we can take bypaths off the highway it represents. It hardly accords with belief in a consensus creed to be magnifying issues not in it, something I hope our experience a generation ago with versions of Scripture has taught us. By the same token, what is in a Confession is what is important, and we need to be much in the main things it sets forth. If we affirm doctrines as Scriptural we need to maintain them. This is not to anathematise those Christians who differ from us, or even to regard as not Reformed those who have a different viewpoint on some matters which we hold, but it is to uphold the integrity of those who have taken vows before the Lord.

To ensure this we must train our students well, not simply in systematic doctrine but in historical context. Our Confession and Catechisms must not be museum pieces, reverenced but not used. Some 50 years ago the late Rev Arthur Allen of Sydney PCEA did much to contribute to recovering our self-conscious Reformed character by importing copies of our Standards which were not then readily available in Australia. We had slipped a bit and it can happen again.

If the passing of time can also result in various traditions about the Confession’s meaning arising, it is also important to be aware of how people can use some perfectly proper lack of definition to bring in, inadvertently or deliberately, revisions of the doctrines we confess.

In the conservative Presbyterian churches in the United States there has been considerable ferment on the subject of justification and related doctrines. The controversy is complicated by a lack of adequate understanding of the Confession and of Reformed orthodoxy from the classic period. You have a man like Dr Meredith Kline seeking to uphold the Confession’s teaching of a covenant of works yet explaining that covenant in terms of a merit based legal scheme foreign to the Westminster Divines. You have Norman Shepherd rightly wanting to emphasise the filial relationship between God and Adam yet denying the legal and a covenant of works. In some respects they divide the truth between them. Add into the mix the debate over the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), and the recent prominence of Federal Vision teaching, and you can see how confusing things can get. Discussion is made no easier by those who are motivated by a bitter hostility to the OPC for other issues and see the current issues an easy target for more of the same. Again, ordinary believers may be easily alarmed either because they do not adequately grasp that the faith that alone justifies is never alone, or because they see that there is indeed a very real threat to the stability of a crucial Christian doctrine.

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has published a Report on Justification received by its 2006 General Assembly, while the Presbyterian Church in America has prepared a Report for their General Assembly later this year. In Australia the influence of N.T.Wright’s advocacy of a new perspective on Paul, particularly in Anglican circles, is evident. In Hobart one Presbyterian congregation recently lost several families who among other things have been influenced by the Federal Vision. It is probable that the impact will be less in rural areas, but we can expect some impact even in our own circles. The Presbyterian Church of Victoria discussed the New Perspective at its Commission last week. We can expect to hear more of it in coming days.

I thought therefore to try and outline some of the issues connected with the present ferment, with a view to gaining some benefit from the challenge to long established doctrine. It does not hurt us to think through our doctrines in the light of challenges which come from other believers, however mistaken we may consider them. In this way we may extract some advantage from controversy, even though in most respects the challenges were raised centuries ago and refuted then.

3. Contendings
Particularly over the last 30 years there have been voices raised suggesting a new look at Paul’s theology which has resulted in the school of thought known as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) although there are variations so we might more accurately speak of new perspectives. The more relevant formulation of the NPP for us is that advanced by N.T.Wright, currently the Anglican Bishop of Durham, and a man who far from being a liberal actually has definite evangelical and Reformed credentials and is surely on the side of the angels, even if we think him muddled or plain wrong on some matters.

The main features of the NPP may be summarised the following way.

Luther read Paul in the light of his controversy with Rome’s teaching on merit and his own troubled conscience, and the Protestant church has tended to read Paul through Luther ever since. But Paul was not concerned with teaching on merit, since Judaism was not a merit-based religion, nor was Paul troubled by an introspective conscience.

Reading the NT against his understanding of Judaism in that period, Wright claims that the big question was, ‘How would God vindicate the covenant people of God seeing that they lived as it were in exile under Roman rule rather than ruling over the nations as God had promised Abraham?’ Justification for such a person carried the meaning of ‘being vindicated’ or ‘in the right’, and God’s ‘righteousness’ meant his ‘covenant faithfulness’ and ‘righteousness’ in regard to a human being means ‘membership in the covenant.’

For Wright, God had showed his faithfulness in Jesus who fulfilled the covenant promise God made to Abraham and took the curses of the covenant due to Israel. Jesus was the faithful representative Israelite who dealt with sin by paying the price for it. Before Jesus’ resurrection loyalty to God’s covenant was seen in faithful observance of boundary markers such as circumcision, food laws and Sabbath, not in a legalistic self-righteous way. Now it is seen in faith in the risen Jesus, thus opening the way for the inclusion of Gentiles. Those with such faith are among the people of God who will be vindicated before the world at the climax of history. The problem Paul confronted was not self-righteous legalism on the part of the Jews but their insistence that Gentiles observe the Jewish boundary markers of the ceremonial law.

For Paul justification was not about one’s position before the bar of God’s justice but about one’s inclusion among the people of God. The judge was addressing the question ‘Who are God’s people?’ not, ‘Who is righteous in God’s sight?’  It was an ecclesiastical issue not a matter of declaring a person righteous before God. Further, in the law court the judge does not acquit a guilty person by reckoning someone else’s righteousness to him. If he is in the right he is declared to be so. Thus, if he is among the covenant people he is in the right and will be vindicated on the basis of his entire life at the end. This vindication is not a declaration of moral uprightness but that the person is a true member of the covenant.

So far Wright and the New Perspective.

4. Critique
There are some things we can agree with right away.

(1) Judaism was/is not a merit based religion in the teaching of the OT. God set his love on Israel according to his gracious election and not according to what Israel deserved. The law was given to a redeemed people.3 Jews did not doubt they were God’s people. The chief issue in their eyes was remaining in his covenant with him – staying saved, if you will.

(2) We readily acknowledge the great significance of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God without the necessity of observing Jewish distinctives. The true Israel is not replaced but expanded by the inclusion of believing Gentiles. This was indeed the mystery hidden in earlier times (Eph 3:6).

(3) We need to recover an emphasis on the significance of the resurrection of Jesus for Christian faith and life and not treat it as a mere appendage to the atoning death of Jesus.

(4) We should not underestimate the excessive individualism in much of evangelicalism today which discounts the importance of the church as the people of God and fosters an inner-personal religious experience neglecting the call to loving communal service here and now. (Indeed, without denying the element of truth in the terms the NT does not call on people to receive Christ as ‘personal Saviour’, but calls on us to turn from our own sinful ways and acknowledge Jesus is now Ruler of the world, the only source of life and salvation.)

But on certain key issues we reject Wright’s formulation.

(1) Although the OT faith of Israel was not merit based but rooted in the electing grace of God, the practical reality of law-keeping for salvation can easily be present, as we know in our personal experience and also from the NT. Roman Catholicism is not a religion of merit either, but emphasises the necessity of God’s grace, yet in effect human merit was very much to the fore in Luther’s day as it is in our own.  Neither Paul or Luther were combating those who held to a crass version of salvation exclusively by works. We need to be careful of caricatures, yet the NT is first hand evidence of attitudes, and much was clearly in the category of self-righteousness.

(2) The NT shows that Judaism was heavily influenced by the idea that law keeping was necessary to secure God’s intervention for the nation’s restoration. In this light, Paul’s quite opposite emphasis – that God has acted already in Jesus Christ so that the life of real obedience flows from the crucified and exalted Jesus – is naturally set in the sharpest contrast to law keeping as the means of salvation.4

(3) While understanding NT Judaism correctly is important, discussing justification in the context of vindication before the world rather than before the bar of God’s justice – which is the overall context of Scripture – is fundamentally flawed. Paul’s views are formed by Scripture and in fact there are no references to rabbinical sources from the Second Temple period is his writing. Thus Paul’s teaching of the pervasive depravity of humanity is not typical of NT Judaism or of Judaism today either. Further, neither the later Augustine or Luther or the other magisterial Reformers regarded Romans 7 as the struggle of a person with an introspective conscience seeking justification, but as expressive of the conflict in the already justified.5

(4) Ordinarily, ‘righteousness’ is what one ought to do, and is set over against sin, which is what one ought not to do. The one who does righteousness is righteous (1 Jn 3:7). The good spelled out in the law is what Jews and non-Jews alike must do and all will be judged accordingly (Rom 1:18-3:20). Understanding righteousness as covenant faithfulness just does not fit in many contexts.

(5) There is also a righteousness which is extraordinary. It is ‘from God’ (Rom 3:21; 1 Cor 1:30; Phil 3:9), it is a ‘gift’ (Rom 5:17) and enables God ‘to be just and yet the justifier of whoever believes in Jesus’ (Rom 3:25-26) since it is through the obedience of Christ that sinners are made righteous (Rom 5:19). Wright may say, as he does say, ‘Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas that can be passed around the courtroom.’6 Yet there we have it in Scripture as God’s gift grounded on Christ’s obedience, and all the cries of ‘legal fiction’ cannot remove it. Consequently, the reality of imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, however absurd it may seem, is not an unbiblical category although there may be different ways of stating it, some more adequate than others.

(6) In Scripture justify/justification is mostly law court language, a declaration one is righteous and thus it is the opposite of condemnation (Prov 17:15; Rom 5:16; 8:34). In salvation contexts it is not a declaration of righteousness at the end of a process of moral renovation, but it is the declaration of righteousness before the bar of God’s justice here and now. It is a once-for-all-time declaration of a right standing with God so that peace with God is enjoyed now (Rom 5:1), and the wrath of God will not be experienced in the future (Rom 5:9).

(7) If we speak, as we may, of a future justification, then it is only the public recognition of what is granted in God’s grace in this life now when we come to faith in Jesus Christ. Wright’s view appears to be that Christ’s death and resurrection sets his people free from the guilt and power of sin, and the work of the Spirit enables them to conform to the God’s law so that in the end a favourable verdict is secured and they are vindicated in the Judgement. While Wright rejects the merit of the believer’s life since his good deeds are wrought through the Spirit, yet it is hard to escape the view that in the last analysis the focus is on our own covenant keeping.7

In reviewing the NPP Michael F. Bird’s summary is very much to the point: ‘Paul’s entire conception of Christ, the law, and salvation is mystifying apart from the assumption that he also attacked a form of grace-works synergism that was implicit in the attempt to force Gentiles to adopt a Jewish lifestyle.’ 8

It is also helpful in discussing these issues to recognise the value of biblical theology so that we do not tend to treat the benefits received from Christ as successive links in a chain, as we sometimes seem to do in our systematic analysis.9 Rather, the union and communion the believer has with Christ is manifested in many benefits, as the Larger Catechism puts it. These are not links in a chain accessed one after the other but are complementary – distinct from each other yet inseparable, since Christ cannot be divided and those united to him share in all his benefits.10 To the same effect is Calvin’s comment concerning union with Christ: ‘We do not’, he says, ‘contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body – in short because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.’11

This approach enables us to more convincingly say that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer is not a legal fiction but a benefit of union with Christ, and that justification by faith does not render sanctification unnecessary, since both justification, including imputation of righteousness, and sanctification are each among the benefits that are ours by virtue of our union with the crucified and risen Saviour. Thus, John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan rightly states: ‘Justification by faith is the meeting-point of many doctrines, a rallying centre of theology; but it is not the foundation doctrine.’12 That it is the meeting point of many doctrines makes the NPP so significant in its potential impact. Duncan also says that the Person of Christ is fundamental, and we might add, that union with Christ is at the heart of any Biblical doctrine of salvation. We ever need to remember that we are not saved by believing in justification by grace through faith, but we are saved by believing in a Person.

Norman Shepherd
Another part of the current confusion relates to the teaching of Norman Shepherd who was groomed as the successor to Professor John Murray at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and taught there 1962-81. Shepherd noted that Murray had not dealt with the statements about being justified by works found in the Epistle of James. His own endeavour to deal fairly with this material led to a significant reworking of the traditional understanding of covenant and justification.13 I think it rather clear that the influence of Berkouwer, under whom Shepherd did some post-graduate studies, is evident, since Shepherd came up with the idea, that is found in some Dutch Reformed theology, that the covenant of works is wholly gracious and that any concept of work or merit in the covenant relationship, whether with Adam, Christ, or believers is alien to Scripture. Like the Torrance brothers he stressed the filial and the obligation of love and faithfulness on the part of both God and man in the covenant. He rejected a covenant of works and posited a covenant of grace. The life Adam received and the life he was promised are not clearly connected with an obedient probation. The obligation in the covenant today is the same obligation Adam pre-fall. In short Christ has achieved forgiveness by his death, but it is easy to suppose we are put in the situation where our covenant faithfulness is the way to salvation. Shepherd does not affirm the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, while his faith/faithfulness language makes it east to suppose a dual instrumentality of faith and works for salvation. It’s not a very satisfactory formulation.

Federal Vision
The Federal Vision (also known as the Auburn Avenue theology from the church in Louisiana where it came to prominence at a pastors’ conference in January 2002) has many similarities with NPP and with Norman Shepherd. Leading persons include Steve Wilkins, Doug Wilson, Rich Lusk, James B. Jordan and Ralph A. Smith. It is not a monolithic group, but generally shares an interest in the Trinity as the pattern for the divine-human relationship. As with Shepherd there is one covenant of grace beginning pre-fall with Adam. There is a high church emphasis, including in liturgy and sacramental practice, which deviates in some measure from Presbyterian principles.14

5. Conclusion
Looking now to a review of these teachings it is easy to see that one’s view of the God’s relationship with Adam pre-fall impacts on our understanding of justification. That some have rejected a covenant of works altogether may in part be attributed to reaction from poor formulations. While our Confession is not full it does give the major contours. In regard to the first covenant with man, we affirm that it was one arising from the divine benevolence and required the obedience of Adam as the pathway to life. We should not represent that relationship as one in which Adam was a servant who could attain sonship by obedience,15 any more than we should represent it as working for wages.16 Rather, Adam was the created son of God (Luke 3.38) who would receive his inheritance of life in the pathway of obedience, not because he deserved it but because God is good and desires to crown his son’s life with abiding blessing.

Adam’s disobedience plunges the race into misery. To bring redemption both full satisfaction for sin and the accomplishment of perfect obedience will be necessary. We cannot do this but Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God in our nature, can and does, so that we may receive in him the promised inheritance as a free gift. Our sins are not counted against us but are imputed to the sinless Christ and he pays the price for them, while his righteousness is imputed to believers.

We may locate this imputed righteousness in the obedient law-keeping of Jesus Christ (what has been called his active obedience) rather than in his obedience in his death (what has been called the passive righteousness since it involved suffering). This is the traditional form enabling us to say that justification is not simply God treating us “just as if I’d” never sinned but also “just as if I’d” fully obeyed, which, in Jesus, is true. We may speak of this as an alien righteousness, wrought outside of us by Christ, so long as we also remember that this alien righteousness is ours along with all other saving benefits by virtue of union with Christ.17 Theologically we are on the mark but biblically we should locate Christ’s righteousness in the vindication he received in his resurrection. The crediting of righteousness is intimately lined with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead in Rom 4:24 and so we immediately go on to read that ‘he was handed over to death because of our offences and raised to life for our justification’ (Rom 4:25). If Adam brought condemnation for all through his one act of disobedience, Jesus by his one act of righteousness/obedience – his obedience to the command to die which summed up the whole course of his life – has gained justifying life (Rom 5:18-19). Rejected of men, but accepted by the Father, he is now the Righteous One.   ‘God made him who had no sin was made sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor 5:21).

This is our faith. Here is our confidence.


1 The omission of the word ‘whole’ before ‘obedience’ when the Assembly was revising the Thirty-nine Articles in 1643 was regarded as leaving room for such views. While not accepted at that point, the word is omitted in the corresponding section (11.1) of the Confession in 1646.  Note Chad B. Van Dixhoorn’s (reluctant) conclusion that the consensus was intended in his PhD noted in J.R.Daniel Kirk, ‘The Sufficiency of the Cross’ SBET 24.1 (2006) 35-39; also in Justification: A Report from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Willow Grove, 2007) 141-145, in which, while recognising Van Dixhoorn’s conclusion, reliance is also placed on the customary sense given in the OPC as determining that the imputation of Christ’s active obedience is required in the OPC. (J. Gresham Machen’s famous dying words, ‘Thank God for the active obedience of Christ, no hope without it’ are relevant, as he was the key leader of those who founded the OPC.) Note the interesting debate on justification in September 1643 outlined in Chad B. Van Dixhoorn, A Day at the Westminster Assembly (London: Congregational Memorial Hall Trust (1978) Ltd, 2005), especially p. 23. In the Independents’ revision of the WCF called the Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order (1658) one sees a very explicit insistence on the imputation of Christ’s entire life of obedience as well as his death.
2 Richard A. Muller in R.A.Muller & R.S.Ward, Scripture and Worship (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2007) 70.
3 Cf. the answer to Shorter Catechism 44: ‘What does the preface to the ten commandments teach us?’
4 This point is well made by a former supporter of the NPP in Francis Watson, “Not the New Perspective” – an unpublished paper delivered at the British New Testament Conference, Manchester, September 2001. accessed 5 Jan 2004.
5 One might note the essentially similar positions on justification in Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Wesley outlined in Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 3-87.
6 N.T.Wright, What St Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1997) 98.
7 Notice the comment of Herman Ridderbos: ‘Every attempt to make certain reductions from the absolutely unanalytical character of this justification of the ungodly, whether understanding justification as an anticipatory pronouncement on the ground of the subsequent ethical transformation of the ungodly, or by looking on the judicial aspect of the work of God in justification in unity with the ethical aspect of the work of God in sanctification, indwelling, etc., must be rejected as a violation or obscuring of the specific significance of Paul’s pronouncement.’ Paul: An Outline of his Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 174-175:
8 Michael F. Bird, The Saving Righteousness of God (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007) 112.
9 Hugh Martin (1821-85) sagely observes: ‘Now it is surely injudicious and impolitic for defenders of the faith to discuss any scriptural doctrine, and particularly to profess to do so fully and exhaustively, outside of any greater category to which the doctrine properly and natively belongs. For by doing so they place it in a position of unnecessary danger, and assign to themselves a greater difficulty in defending it than Scripture assigns to them. The Atonement in its Relation to the Covenant, the Priesthood, the Intercession of our Lord (Edinburgh: Knox Press, 1976) 9-10.
10 So Richard. B. Gaffin, Jr, ‘Biblical Theology and the Westminster Standards’ in WTJ 65 (2003) 173ff.; also Robert Letham, The Work of Christ (Downers Grove 1993) 177ff
11 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion [trans F.L.Battles] (Philadelphia: Westminster 1960) 3.11.10.
12 John M. Brentnall, ‘Just a Talker’ Sayings of John (‘Rabbi’) Duncan (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1997) 102.
13 In a letter to Allan M. Harman 19 December 1980 Shepherd so explains the origin of the controversy that began in 1975.
14 On true Presbyterian principles of baptism see my review of L.B.Schenck’s The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant in The Confessional Presbyterian 2 (2006) 181-184. On worship see my essays on The Directory for the Public Worship of God in R.A.Muller & R.S.Ward, Scripture and Worship (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2007) 85-140.
15 As in the theologies of J.H.Thornwell and of  R.L.Dabney.
16 As in Charles Hodge and Abraham Kuyper.
17 R.B.Gaffin, op. cit., 178