By Faith Alone, part 2

I am not, in this total review, going to “give away” all the great discoveries that are in here, lest people be discouraged from buying the book from a too-thorough review. With that said, I proceed.

Guy Waters writes the introduction to the book. The title of the intro is “Whatever Happened to Sola Fide?” In this introductory essay, Guy Waters sets the scope of the book:

The renewed assault upon the doctrines of grace is coming from within the evangelical church itself. In what follows, we want to trace the background and development of two seemingly disparate movements that have surfaced within the evangelical and Reformed church- the New Perspective(s) on Paul and the Federal Vision. (pg. 21)

Of course, the scope is not limited to a demolition of these aberrant views. The scope of the book is really about setting forth the positive doctrine of sola fide, in elenctic dialog with the aforesaid aberrant views. This can be clearly seen from the way in which Waters goes about answering this question: “How have the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision challenged sola fide?” (pg. 22). His answer immediately goes back to what the Bible teaches positively about justification by faith. What follows is a helpful summary of the entire Gospel message that focuses on justification. Two paragraphs on page 23 are especially important: Waters says that it is in faith-union with Christ that believers receive by imputation our Lord’s obedience and satisfaction in justification (pg. 23). This is thorougly in line with what his teacher Dr. Gaffin says at WTS: union with Christ makes imputation in justification something that is not a legal fiction but the reality of the case. He further argues that mere forgiveness of sins is not sufficient: we must also have eternal life, which means that we need Christ’s merits. Christ’s merits exclude our merits, and thus we come to SOLA fide. Works play zero part in justification, ever. Period.

What follows then is a brief synopsis of the NPP and the FV. He notes that the “best-known proponents of the NPP do not identify with the creeds and confessions of the Reformation” (pg. 24). I might have a question for him here: does not N.T. Wright “hold” to the Thirty-Nine Articles, being Anglican? I would certainly grant that N.T. Wright does not hold to them in the same way that a PCA minister holds to the WS. However, it might seem necessary to grant that small point, at least. This is not really a quibble, since what I think Waters means is that NPP authors explicitly repudiate Reformed teaching as held in the great magisterial confessions.

Waters gives an admirably condensed account of the major players in the debate, starting with Krister Stendahl and ending with N.T. Wright. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the debate, this is actually a great place to start. One footnote I especially appreciated was note 5 on page 25: “We should note that many biblical scholars do not properly distinguish biblical religion, which is thoroughly gracious, from post-Old Testament Judaism, much of which was not. In this sense, much of first-century Judaism represents a declension from the Old Testament.” Waters destroys Sanders’s thesis in a single blow: “Sanders, however, is mistaken in concluding that just because Judaism made room for grace it was a thoroughly gracious religion” (pg. 26). I would definitely concur: getting in by grace and staying in by works is not a gracious religion. Otherwise, the OT Israelites should never have stayed in: they were always being disobedient, not obedient! See Duguid’s excellent article in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. So, in asserting these conclusions, NPP advocates are attacking sola fide.

In the section on Federal Vision, Waters notes what is perhaps the major difference between the NPP and FV: the NPP originated in historical critical scholarship, while the FV originated from within the Reformed world itself. Waters is carefully nuanced on the relationship of the NPP and the FV, a hotly debated point. While noting that some authors have some affinities with some NPP emphases, he notes that “Federal Vision proponents are not all entirely agreed on which aspects of the New Perspective merit some degree of approval.” But one aspect in which they do often agree is in recasting justification in an ecclesiological context rather than in a soteriological context.

Waters attacks Federal Vision recasting of covenant theology on pp. 29ff. Waters defends the Covenant of Works by saying that “the covenant of grace is a covenant of grace to the elect because it is a covenant of works to Jesus Christ” (pg. 29, emphasis original). In effect, then, Waters asserts that the FV proponents take works out of the covenant of works and grace out of the covenant of grace. They do this by asserting so much grace in the Adamic administration that it can no longer be called Adam inheriting eternal life on condition of perfect and personal obedience. And then, in the covenant of grace, we have to stay in by our works. He says that “some Federal Vision proponents wrongly create a place for what is said to be the believers’s non-meritorious obedience in justification” (pp. 30-31).

So both the NPP and the FV “tell us ‘do this (with God’s help) and you will live'” (pg. 31). This constitutes a fundamental attack on sola fide.  

By Faith Alone, part 1

Rev. Dr. Gary Johnson kindly asked me if I would like to review a pre-publication copy of the book By Faith Alone. It is being published by Crossway later this month, cost $17.99 list. I had initially thought to review the book in one post, the book being only about 208 pages of material (not including the indices). However, there is way too much meat here to do that. So I will post an entire entry on each article. Dr. Gary Johnson and Dr. Guy Waters are the editors. My summing up of the book is that it is one of two recent knock-out punches by orthodoxy for the sake of truth regarding the NPP/NS/FV (the other is the one edited by R. Scott Clark entitled Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry). What is so great about this book (the one under review) is that it does not merely destroy the aberrant theologies (the same can be said about the Clark book). It also puts in its place a well-balanced confessional alternative (which just happens to be historic Reformed orthodoxy). After all, one cannot merely say that one ought to avoid heresy. One can only really dispute error by telling the truth. And that is precisely what the contributors to this volume have done. I commend the authors and the editors for their very fine work.

The forword is by David F. Wells, a well-known analyst of modern culture, evangelicalism, postmodernism, etc. At first I was puzzled by the analysis of modern evangelicalism presented in this foreword. It is an excellent and thought-provoking piece. However, I wondered what it had to do with defending sola fide. I didn’t get my question answered until I read the afterword by Al Mohler: the audience needs to be defined. When the audience for this doctrine is defined, then we discover that it is a different audience. That has ramifications for how we present our case, as well as the material presented in the case itself. One preaches to an emergent church the doctrines of grace in a different way than one presents it to an historic Reformed congregation.

Wells divides “evangelicalism” into three groups: historic, Reformation orthodoxy (which is in the minority), reaction to historic, Reformed orthodoxy (baby-boomer pragmatists, who live like parasites off the first group; see pg. 16), and reaction to both of the previous groups (the emergent phenomenon). The basic question, then, is the one raised by D.G. Hart: should the Reformation descendents retain their position under the great tent of modern evangelicalism, or should we repudiate it? We hitched up the evangelicals in the modernist debate associated with Machen, and the forming of WTS and the OPC. However, do we still belong with them? Does it mean anything to say that one is evangelical? If modern pragmatists and emergent phenomena are selling the Gospel short, then the conclusion seems obvious: we should abandon the term evangelical as a term that describes the Reformation descendents. Here is a great quotation on this:

When all is said and done, Christianity is about truth and at the heart of that truth is the gospel, sola gratia, sola fide, in solo Christo. If Christianity is not about what is enduringly, eternally true, in all places of the world, in every culture, in the same way, in every time, then there is no reason to strive to find the most accurate ways of stating what it is, nor in other parts of the world would there be any reason to face persecution for it. But across time people have struggled to know it, because in knowing it they have come to know the God whose truth it is and some have had to die for it.

One last point that Wells makes that is worth noting is that the church, while often dealing with aberrant views in her past, has not often had to deal with aberrant views that are defined as being part of the evangelical world as some would define it. Here are his words, “What is different, when compared with our more recent history, is that these aberrant views on matters so central and fundamental are not outside the evangelical church but inside it.” Indeed.