The Denial of the Imputation of Christ’s Active Obedience: Piscator on Justification

This post (I deem) is a bombshell dropped on the playground of Reformed theologians. It is a paper intended to shift the entire debate about Shepherdism away from the (still important) point of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, and toward the place of works in the ordo salutis. It is also intended to prove that Shepherdism is out of accord with the Westminster Standards. This paper was written by TE Rev. Wes White.


The recent controversy over the so-called Federal Vision and the views of Rev. Norman Shepherd has focused our attention on many issues, including the denial of the active obedience of Christ. On the one side, Norman Shepherd claims that the classic Reformed theologians such as Calvin and Ursinus did not hold to the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.1 On the other side, Shepherd’s opponents have countered that Calvin and Ursinus did hold to the active obedience and that the denial of the active obedience of Christ must be soundly condemned, pointing particularly to the French synods of Privatensian (1612) and Tonneinsian (1614).2 What are we to make of this issue? Should a denial of the active obedience of Christ be tolerated in the Reformed Church? Was it tolerated historically? If Shepherd or the proponents of the so-called federal vision do deny it, should they be driven from the ministry?

Historical Orientation

To begin with, even though this denial was condemned by the French Reformed Churches (though this view was later tolerated even there), a great part of the Reformed Churches did not reject as ministers those who denied active obedience, let alone count them as heretics. For example, clearly Gataker, Twisse, and Vines denied the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, but they and their views were tolerated by the Westminster Assembly. Second, there were various ministers throughout the Reformed Churches who held this viewpoint, such as John Jacob Alting who taught at Groningen in the Netherlands.3 Third, the theologians of Saumur also denied the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Of course, the Swiss Reformed Churches condemned this viewpoint and other Salmurian views in the Formula Consensus Helvetica, but other Churches did not. Fourth, this denial was extremely common amongst the German Reformed Churches including theologians such as Piscator, Ursinus, Pareus, Crocius, Marinius, Wendelin, and Scultetus (among others!). Consequently, we can see that a significant minority did deny the imputation of the active obedience of Christ often with toleration.

Some have particularly objected to the view that Ursinus denied the active obedience of Christ because his views have implications for the Heidelberg Catechism, which the continental Reformed Churches hold as a secondary authority. We believe that Shepherd is probably right (though we do not believe that he himself has offered convincing evidence of this) that Ursinus did deny the active obedience of Christ. There are three prominent authorities that say that he did. First, Heinrich Heppe, the great historian of German Reformed history, claims this in his Reformed Dogmatics.4 Second, Johann Gerhard, the great Lutheran scholastic, placed him alongside Piscator as one who denied the active obedience of Christ. He simply lists him along with several other German Reformed theologians.5 The great theologian of the 18th century, Bernhardin de Moor in his Commentarius Perpetuus, dealt at length with this issue, citing rare (to us!) sources shedding light on this issue. De Moor was an ardent opponent of this view, but he admitted that Ursinus held to it. De Moor cited John Jacob Schultens who demonstrated at length that Ursinus held to this position;6 however, Schultens also added that Ursinus did not hold to this position before 1566. Ursinus wrote the Heidelberg Catechism in 1562/3.7 This seems likely from the fact the Heidelberg says that three things were imputed to us: his satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness.8 This follows Beza’s viewpoint, and Ursinus had studied in Switzerland in 1558 under Calvin and in 1660-1 in Zürich. What happened after 1566? Ursinus was in Germany and probably came under the influence of Piscator.9 His denial of the active obedience is further confirmed from the fact that Ursinus’ great pupil, David Pareus, also denied the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. So, we agree that Ursinus held to the imputation of the passive obedience only, but we deny that this is found in the Heidelberg, as Shepherd suggests.

Shepherd’s implicit claim that Calvin held to this opinion is dubious at best and for the same reasons listed above. Whether it is Heppe, De Moor, or Gerhard, none of them speak of Calvin as holding to this position, even though Heppe and Gerhard had no reason to refrain from mentioning it, had such been the case. Moreover, this is true of other works as well. When this issue is brought up, writers refer to Piscator, not Calvin, following the Lutheran George Cargius. Finally, Turretin provided quotations demonstrating that Calvin held to the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.10

In order to understand this better, we would like to look briefly at Piscator’s view. He is the patriarch of this view among the Reformed, and he sets forth his views in his A Learned and Profitable Treatise on Man’s Justification.11 It is a polemical work against the famous Papist apologist, Robert Bellarmine.

Piscator’s View

First, in the matter of the justification of a sinner, Piscator says “Man by himself and his own nature unjust is accounted for just.”12 Piscator emphasizes that man is accounted just or righteous not because of anything in man, even faith. “For to speak properly, that which is in a man, is not said to be imputed to him, but that which is without a man. And faith is in a man, but Christ’s satisfaction which faith apprehends is outside a man.”13 Furthermore, even the works that we do by faith and grace are not the ground of our justification, as Piscator says that Paul excludes all of our works from justification “whether they be done by the strength of free will or by grace.”14 Consequently, Piscator could readily agree with the Westminster Confession of Faith XI.1 that says that God does not justify sinners “for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness.”

What, then, is the source of man’s righteousness? It is Christ’s satisfaction imputed to the believer. “[God] accepts Christ’s satisfaction for the elect…imputes the same unto them; and thereupon receives them into favor, and adopts them for sons and heirs of eternal life.”15 Many objected to Piscator’s view that to have forgiveness of sins is not the same as being accounted righteous. If Christ’s active obedience is not accounted as our righteousness, then how can Christ be our righteousness? Piscator responds that when sins are forgiven, someone is counted not only as not having done any sins but also as having done all things required. In other words, as he says, “The reason of which thing is this, that remission of sins, wherein man’s justification consists is remission of all sins: and therefore not only of sins of committing, but also of sins of omitting.”16 Thus, Christ is our righteousness “by a metonymy of the effect,” that is, once Christ’s satisfaction is imputed to us, we are counted as being righteous, even though we ourselves remain inherently unrighteous. Piscator would not agree that if only Christ’s passive obedience is imputed to us, then we ourselves must supply positive righteousness. Rather, once Christ’s satisfaction is imputed to us, we are in a state of having done everything required because our sins of omission are forgiven. Thus, for Piscator, the source of our righteousness in justification is only Christ’s satisfaction imputed to us.

This becomes even clearer when we examine Piscator’s view of faith. Faith is simply the instrument by which a sinner applies to himself Christ’s righteousness. He writes:

And therefore that man is justified by faith only because he is counted just, and by consequence pronounced just, for Christ’s satisfaction only which is imputed to him by faith only: for that He does not apprehend and apply it to himself but by faith.17

He emphasizes that even faith itself is excluded as a part of our righteousness before God.18 Moreover, “There is no other instrumental cause whereby Christ’s satisfaction is apprehended.”19 Piscator clearly teaches that faith is the alone instrument of justification and insists upon it over and over again throughout this work. This is, of course, one of the central disputes between Bellarmine and himself.

The consequence is that all of our works are excluded from our justification. While Christ’s satisfaction imputed to us is the sole source of our righteousness, we are by nature unrighteous. Further, even the righteous acts that we do after grace and faith are excluded from our justification, which, according to Piscator, continues to rest solely in the satisfaction of Christ imputed to us. He argues against Bellarmine that all of our works are excluded from our justification before God. He argues from the fact that Paul “speaks of works in general, whether they be done by the strength of free will or by grace, [because] he entreats [in Romans 4] of Abraham’s works, those which he had done of grace and faith, as that he was obedient to God’s commandment.”20 Piscator holds strongly to the sola in sola fidei. He does not say that we are forgiven of our sins and then become righteous people who are justified. Even those works that flow out of faith are clearly excluded from our justification. Even our final justification at the judgment day will simply be a repetition of the same justification that occurred in time in our consciences by the Holy Spirit, as Piscator says,

And in that day of judgment, Christ being appointed of the Father Judge of all, will with His mouth openly before all angels and men, pronounce just, and crown with life eternal the reward of justice, all those that before were justified in this life, both by imputation of justice, and by that secret testimony of the Holy Ghost.21

The same pronunciation that gave us comfort in this life that we have a righteous standing before God will then be pronounced openly by the Lord Jesus Christ: “You are righteous on the basis of My satisfaction imputed to you.”

Finally, what are the results of this justification? For Piscator, we are not only forgiven of our sins, but when we receive Christ, we also have a right to eternal life, for when someone is justified, God “receives them into favor, and adopts them for sons and heirs of eternal life.”22 The reason why this can occur, according to Pisactor, is because God has said, “Do this, and you will live” (Lev. 18:5, Mt. 19:17, Gal. 3:12).23 Once our sins are forgiven, “it comes [about] that he to whom God forgives sins, is so accounted, as if he had not only committed nothing which God has forbidden in his law, but also omitted nothing of that which he has commanded: and therefore, as if he had perfectly fulfilled the law of God.”24 Consequently, Piscator goes on to say, “God gives eternal life as a reward to those unto whom He has promised it, to wit, unto those that keep His law, such as He accounts all those whose sins He has forgiven.”25

In Piscator’s view, we are not righteous because God sees us as having done all that Christ did. Rather, we are considered righteous because our sins of commission and omission are forgiven on the basis of Christ’s satisfaction. Thus, we are still dealing with a view that causes men to look wholly outside of themselves and to Christ for their righteousness. We agree with the conclusion of De Moor who said, “However much these learned men may be deceived on this point, it must be confessed that they place our right to eternal life in Christ alone without any of our works.”26

Norman Shepherd and Piscator

Does this mean that Shepherd’s viewpoint should be tolerated in Reformed Churches? We should not draw this conclusion because Shepherd’s viewpoint deviates radically not only from the majority position but also from Piscator’s. We shall illustrate this from a few comparisons.

First, they have a very different exegesis of the key passages on justification. Romans 4:5 says that for the one who believes his faith is credited as righteousness, following Gen. 15:6. Piscator interprets this as teaching “that man is justified by faith inasmuch as he lays hold on, and applies to himself Christ’s satisfaction.”27 On the contrary, Norman Shepherd does not believe that these and other texts refer to the justification of a sinner alone. Norman Shepherd believes that this text refers to the way that any creature would be justified by God. Thus, Shepherd says that Jesus Christ’s “faith was credited to him as righteousness.”28 When Shepherd writes of Adam he says, “The method of justification for Adam before the fall is exactly what it is for Paul after the fall: ‘The righteous will live by faith’ (Rom. 1:17).”29 Piscator would say that these texts refer only to the justification of a sinner. Shepherd says that they refer to the only justification possible whether for sinners or Christ or Adam before the fall.

There is also a difference in the texts that refer to the law. Piscator takes the “Do this and live” passages as referring to the perfect obedience to which God promises eternal life. Piscator says that when God forgives our sins on the basis of Christ’s satisfaction, this includes our sins of omission and so we are reckoned as having obeyed the law perfectly. Shepherd says that this statement in Leviticus was meant not to show that perfect obedience was necessary for eternal life but rather that it “was designed to nurture the righteousness of faith,” which means, for Shepherd, that “Israel’s welfare depended upon her faithfulness to the Lord.”30 According to Shepherd, if this verse is taken out of context, it might mean that there is salvation by works. However, rightly understood, this passage teaches that salvation is by faith and grace. In other words, Shepherd is saying that in their proper context, “Do this and live,” means the same thing as “The just shall live by faith.” This is something with which Piscator would have certainly disagreed.

We also see the difference between Piscator and Shepherd in their exegesis of James 2.31 Shepherd describes the attempts to say that James and Paul are speaking of justification in different senses are “various exegetical and dogmatic devices of dubious validity…used to defuse and tame these texts so that they…fit.”32 On the other hand, Piscator concurs with the classic Protestant exegetical tradition in affirming that Paul and James are speaking of faith and justification in different senses. He comments on James 2:

But it is to be diligently noted before all things that the question of this place is not over how a man is justified, which Paul treats in Romans and Galatians. Rather, after it is established that a man is justified by faith alone, he inquires what sort of faith it is or with what sort of faith man is justified.33

Piscator emphatically distinguishes the questions treated in James and Romans. Shepherd says they are the same.

The second difference is in their definition of justification. First, for Piscator, the righteousness of faith is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, that is, His satisfaction credited to our account by faith. For Shepherd, the righteousness of faith is the result of obedience to the law. “The righteousness of those who obey the law is not the righteousness of meritorious achievement, but the righteousness of faith.”34 For Shepherd, faith itself is the righteousness by which we are justified, and this is why he can say that Jesus’ “faith was credited to Him as righteousness.” On the contrary, Piscator says that faith is credited as righteousness because of what is connected to faith, namely, Christ. He then goes on to say, “For to speak properly, that which is in a man is not said to be imputed to him, but that which is without a man. And faith is in a man, but Christ’s satisfaction which faith apprehends is without a man.”35 Thus, the difference between Piscator and Shepherd is that Piscator says that Christ’s satisfaction is our righteousness before God, whereas Shepherd says that faith itself is our righteousness before God.

It hardly needs to be said here that Piscator and Shepherd disagree on the instrumentality of faith. Piscator believes that faith is an instrument taking hold of the righteousness of another. Shepherd does not. Shepherd believes that faith itself is our righteousness. He says that for pre-fall Adam and for us, the method of justification is the same, “The just shall live by faith.”36 Since faith in pre-fall Adam cannot be understood as an instrument, the faith that justifies sinners cannot be understood as an instrument either. For Shepherd, faith is our righteousness, not an instrument taking hold of the righteousness of another. For Piscator, faith is not our righteousness before God.

Finally, they differ significantly on what works are excluded from our justification. Shepherd rightly says, “We have to ask what are the works of the law that Paul sets over against this faith and excludes from justification.”37 But Shepherd wrongly answers, “By works of the law Paul means obedience to a limited selection of laws found in the Scripture.”38 In contrast, Piscator says, “He speaks of works in general, whether they be done by the strength of free will or by grace.”39 Shepherd says, “These works of the law were not good works; they were not the obedience of faith wrought by the power of God (emphasis mine).”40 Piscator says otherwise, “He entreats there of Abraham’s works, those which he had done of grace and faith,” and “Moreover, it is false that the Apostle understands those works only which are done according to God’s law by the strength of free will.”41 Here is the major difference. Piscator excludes all of our works from our justification, and Shepherd only excludes some. In other words, Piscator says we are justified by faith alone, and Shepherd says that we are justified by faith and works.


There were certainly theologians amongst the Reformed who denied the active obedience of Christ, and they were tolerated in many places. The reason for this is, as De Moor says, “However much these learned men may be deceived on this point, it must be confessed that they place our right to eternal life in Christ alone without any of our works.”42 But neither De Moor nor we can say the same about Shepherd. Shepherd views the righteousness of a sinner as his own righteousness by the help of Jesus Christ. Piscator says that we have everything for justification in Christ. Piscator’s view still points people to Christ alone. Shepherd points people to Christ and then back to themselves. This is a radical difference. Perhaps we can tolerate Piscator’s views, but we cannot tolerate Shepherd’s or any other view that mingles faith and works in our justification.

1. See Norman Shepherd, “Justification by Works in Reformed Theology” in Backbone of the Bible, ed. by Andrew Sandlin (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2004), pp. 103-120.

2. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 2, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), XIV.xiii.33.

3. Bernhardinus De Moor, Commentarius perpetuus in Joh. Marckii compendium theologiae christianae didactico-elencticum, vol. 3 (Ludgdunum Batavia, 1765), p. 968.

4. Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, trans. G.T. Thomson, rev. & ed. Ernst Bizer (London: Wakeman Great Reprints), p. 460.

5. See Johann Gerhard, Loci Theologici, Vol. 3 (Berlin: Gust. Schlawitz), XVI.57.

6. De Moor, Commentarius, p. 969. The work is called Omstandigen Brief aan den hr. Nic. Holtius over de zaak van A.v.d. Os, pp. 117-360.

7. Ibid. De Moor refers his reader to pp. 158 and 213-219.

8. Note in Heidelberg.

9. Q/A 60.

10. Turretin, Institutes, XIV.xiii.32.

11. London, 1599.

12. Ibid., p. 5.

13. Ibid., p. 30.

14. Ibid., p. 32.

15. Ibid., pp. 5-6.

16. Ibid. p. 106.

17. Ibid. p. 5.

18. See fn. 3 above.

19. Ibid., p. 91.

20. Ibid., p. 32.

21. Ibid., p. 4.

22. Ibid., p. 6.

23. He says this on p. 107.

24. Ibid., p. 106.

25. Ibid., p. 108.

26. De Moor, Commentarius Perpetuus, p. 968.

27. Piscator, p. 29.

28. Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2000), p. 19. “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 was credited to him as righteousness.”

29. Norman Shepherd, “Law and Gospel in Covenantal Perspective,” Reformation and Revival Journal 14/1 (2005): 76.

30. Shepherd, The Call of Grace, p. 33.

31. Norman Shepherd, “The Grace of Justification.”

32. Shepherd, The Call of Grace, p. 62.

33. John Piscator, Analysis logica Septarum Epistolarum Apostolurm que Catholicae appellari solent (London: John Wolf, 1593), p. 15.

34. Norman Shepherd, “Justification by Faith in Pauline Theology” in Backbone of the Bible, p. 94.

35. Piscator, On Justification, pp. 29-30.

36. Shepherd, “Law and Gospel in Covenant Perspective,” p. 76.

37. Shepherd, “Justification by Faith in Pauline Theology,” p. 95.

38. Ibid., p. 97.

39. Piscator, p. 32.

40. Shepherd, Ibid., p. 99.

41. Piscator, p. 34.

42. De Moor, Commentarius, p. 968.



  1. theologian said,

    March 28, 2007 at 11:03 am

    Here’s a good article that is pro-active obedience…

  2. greenbaggins said,

    March 28, 2007 at 11:16 am

    I hope people are not reading this article thinking that either Wes or myself have denied the active obedience of Christ imputed to the believer. No, we affirm this, and we think it is important. However, we also think that it is not the most important aspect of the debate swirling around Shepherdism.

  3. theologian said,

    March 28, 2007 at 11:38 am

    I just thought it was a good article to link to under this topic.

  4. greenbaggins said,

    March 28, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Thanks for the link, Larry.

  5. Steven W said,

    March 28, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    Hmm… I appreciate the bombshell concession that one does not have to hold to the imputation of the active obedience of Christ to be within the Reformed tradition. This is a nice step forward that many critics have been inconsistent on at best.

    As for the Shepherd critique, I don’t know that it brings anything particulary new to the table. The charge is still that Shepherd bases some aspect of justification on the faith rather than the object of the faith. Shepherd himself rejects this in writing, “Faith alone justifies, that is Paul’s doctrine. Faith looks neither to itself nor to its own working for justification. Faith lays hold of Jesus Christ and his righteousness and the righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to the one who believes. This is the distinctive function of faith in justification, which it shares with no other grace or virtue. The righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to the sinner the moment he believes. He believes and is justified.”

    The point that keeps getting missed is the resurrection. However we formulate it, it is the resurrection that Shepherd puts in place of “active obedience.”

  6. greenbaggins said,

    March 28, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    Where is this quotation, Steven?

  7. greenbaggins said,

    March 28, 2007 at 12:57 pm

    What’s new is the detailed interaction with Piscator, who is sometimes used to defend Shepherd’s views.

  8. tim prussic said,

    March 28, 2007 at 1:00 pm

    Steven W., is not your resurrection comment applicable to folks like Richard Gaffin and possibly also to Peter Leithart? Is the point here that the Son is “justified” in his resurrection and we share in that declaration via union with him?

    Also, is there a way to print this post? That is, is there a printer-friendly way to view it?

  9. pdugi said,

    March 28, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    Ok, now I see that you’re making Piscator to be a bit of a foil, not advocating his view. I thought Piscator sounded pretty good.

    1) is it ok if there are modern Picscators in the reformed world?

    2) You have to back up all the things you say Shepherd says for this article to be a bombshell. I’m not convinsed you have.

    3) ok, Piscator and Shep disagree on the interpretation of “do this and live”. a) so who is right? b) Is DTAL ONLY hearable as law, not gospel? When I read it , should I run screaming in terror for the solace of the gospel, or rather let “the promises of it show me God’s approbation of obedience,and what blessings I may expect upon the performance thereof”

    “Since faith in pre-fall Adam cannot be understood as an instrument, the faith that justifies sinners cannot be understood as an instrument either.”

    Says who? Faith can have instrumental causailty in many different contexts, whether it’s an instrument of laying hold of the righteousness of another or not.

    Why should we not be suprised that Piscator, arguing with a romanist, would attempt to deny anything an everything that might push him in a direction were he would have no ready answer to a Romanist argument. I rather think thats the dynamic at work when Pisctaor asserts that Abraham’s righteous works are included in Paul’s argument.

    ““He entreats there of Abraham’s works, those which he had done of grace and faith,” and “Moreover, it is false that the Apostle understands those works only which are done according to God’s law by the strength of free will.””

    if this were the case 1) why does Paul go on to talk about God justfying the “ungodly” if Abe was already regenerate and had a heart turned to do that which is right. 2) why does Paul go on to speak about circumcision as the SIGNAL example of Abe being justified without works. Pauls’ argument rests on Abes *lack of circumcision*, not Abe’s lack of any and all works whatsoever, since he actually HAD good works, as piscator admits.

  10. greenbaggins said,

    March 28, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    Tim, there is no other way to view it. However, one could copy and paste it into a word document, and then print it.

  11. pdugi said,

    March 28, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    “Piscator would not agree that if only Christ’s passive obedience is imputed to us, then we ourselves must supply positive righteousness.”

    So who says that?

    also, the Shepherd quote is from here

  12. Wes White said,

    March 28, 2007 at 1:16 pm


    This is a rebuttal to Shepherd’s identification of himself with the denial of active obedience amongst historic Reformed theologians. My point is that this fact doesn’t save him because his views are very different than Piscator’s (and others) who denied the active obedience.

    As for that quotation, even if Shepherd did say that in 1979, he specifically repudiated the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in his lectures in California. Even if Shepherd is affirming the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in the classic Reformed sense, this does not make him immune to opposition for the things that he has said in the 28 years since then and especially in recent times when he specifcally has said that our good works are not excluded from our justification and that we are justified by faith in the same sense as pre-fall Adam and Christ and thus, for Shepherd, faith itself is our righteousness before God.

    What is missed here is all the statements of Shepherd that flatly contradict even those within the Reformed community who held to the imputatin of passive obedience only.

  13. markhorne said,

    March 28, 2007 at 1:25 pm

    “Shepherd views the righteousness of a sinner as his own righteousness by the help of Jesus Christ.” = flaming lie.

  14. Wes White said,

    March 28, 2007 at 1:27 pm


    Reply # 1 – That’s not the point here, but it is a good question.

    Reply # 2. Asserted not proved.

    Reply # 3. Not the point at issue – I note only the distinction between the two men.

    Instrumentality – Granted. I’m using instrument in the classic sense of an instrument taking hold of the righteousness of another. If faith is our righteousness, it would only mean instrumentality in a looser sense.

    Exclusion – Paul contrasts the one “working” versus the one “doing.” Even James Dunn admits this is an absolute exclusion. Why should the Reformed not do so?

    Reply to post 11 – some say that if someone denies the active obedience, then they must necessarily gain positive righeousness from somewhere else. I’m saying that Piscator does not do that, even though he denies imputation of AO.

  15. Wes White said,

    March 28, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    Reply # 13 – No, it’s not. See my critque in the MJT 17 (2006), pp. 239-265.

  16. John said,

    March 28, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    Wow! The Wes White I knew, back when he was in seminary, wasn’t hostile to Shepherd at all. I still remember the conversations I had with him. Wonder what happened?

  17. Wes White said,

    March 28, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    Yes. Indeed, by the grace of God I have changed. Here’s what happened. I was very much into the Federal Vision and Norman Shepherd for several years. I even met with Shepherd and other pastors to discuss all these issues over the course of that time.

    Coming out of Wesleyanism (my full name’s John Wesley White), I thought Shepherd’s theology (along with others) was the way to bring Arminianism and Calvinism together. I thought we could all come together in Canterbury with a moderate Calvinism and a strong institutional Church with bishops, high Church liturgy, and sacramentalism.

    Then, the Lord hit me over the head with the idolatry of high Church Anglicanism. I was ready to join the Reformed Episcopal Church in seminary. I visited one of their affiliate Churches, and they had incense burning to crucifixes, prayers to and for the dead, idols of Mary, the mass, etc. It sickened my soul. In that moment, I understood the whole point of the Reformation. They were contending that the Gospel itself and hence Christ had priority over the institutional Church. In the over-exaltation of sacraments, the liturgy, the robes, the purportedly apostolically-descended bishops, something was lost, and what was lost was Christ and the Gospel.

    After that rude awakening, I began to think that these old reformers had a point. So, I thought I might actually read them instead of looking in them for snippets to prove my point. I read Francis Turretin, Heinrich Heppe, Wollebius, Francis Pieper (to understand the Lutherans), and others. I found that these people actually understood both the errors of modern evangelicalism and the papacy and steared a Biblical course right down the middle (with Lutheranism slightly veering in the wrong direction!).

    In regards to Shepherd, from that moment on my opposition obviously began. I studied him again over the past year as well as the justification controversies of the 16th and 17th century. I’ve come to the conclusion that Shepherd’s view track not primarily with Rome but with the Sociniano-Remonstrant viewpoint. I argued this at length in the recent Mid-America Journal of Theology.

    Finally, the main point of all this is that whatever I counted gain before I know count as loss for the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ and to be found in Him not having a righteousness of my own from the law but a righteousness that is from God and by faith. When I hear the law, I do run in terror from it because on the basis of the law I have no righteousness before God and am damned eternally, and I do run to the Gospel because in Christ I have all that I need for an eternal and everlasting salvation.

    Shepherd turns us away from Christ and unto ourselves, and this is what the FV, following him, also tends to do. I pray, John, that you will come to see that. And, of course, I still see it yet imperfectly, and what I need to learn each day more and more is that I have no righteousness of my own and a perfect one in Christ and so truly live as one who boasts only in the cross of Christ.

  18. Craig Phelps said,

    March 28, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    John Wesley White in white robes, God bless you!

  19. Lee said,

    March 28, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    Very interesting paper. I enjoyed it, but as Lane might could have guessed, I am going to quibble with your decision to include Ursinus in those who deny the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. You cite many secondary sources who claim Ursinus denied the imputation of the active obedience, but you do not show Ursinus himself rejecting it. In fact, the only primary source you cite from Ursinus, the Heidelberg Catechism, clearly favors the imputation of active obedience. In fact, it rather hammers it home in questions 17, 21, 37, 45, 56, 60, 61, 62, and 79 to name just a few. There is no evidence he ever rejected any portion of his own catechism. The Commentary he wrote on the Heidelberg also states the doctrine of imputation. For example in the exposition of question 17 (pg. 87) Ursinus states, “It was also required of our Mediator, both to merit and bestow righteousness, that he might be a perfect savior in merit, and efficacy.” One could go on in his Commentary to find many examples. If my memory is not mistaken the Commentary was taken from his lectures and overseen by the same Praeus you mentioned.
    While I am convinced that Ursinus held to such a doctrine, I do freely confess that I have not had the access to those secondary sources. Still, it seems that in view of the conflicting data the most judicious thing to do would be to declare Ursinus’ views uncertain and one where much disagreement exists. To pronouce him probably a denier of the active obedience is to take secondary sources over the primary ones without sufficient reason.

  20. tim prussic said,

    March 28, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    Wes, you say the FV turns us from Christ to ourselves. Is there a correct time to do so? I’d contend that there are times to examine oneself, to see the fruit of the Spirit, to weight that fruit in the scales of God’s law, and on and on. That doesn’t mean I’m not looking to Christ, necessarily.
    In other words, one might content that the FV causes us to look to ourselves in an unbiblical way. If that’s what you’re contending, the what specifically is that way? Maybe the FV, as such, it too big of a bite to chew. Maybe Shepherd, Wilson, or one of the other Auburn boys would be a better fodder for a discussion than the FV as some sort of univocal movement, which it certainly seems not to be. That’s a different topic, though.

  21. Wes White said,

    March 28, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    On the Use of Historical Testimony. Response to Lee Johnson and Dr. R. Scott Clark:

    First, let me clear some things up.
    1. Even if Ursinus did not deny the IAO, my argument still stands, I believe.
    2. I recognize that this wasn’t an universal German Reformed view.
    3. The influence of Piscator on Ursinus is purely conjecture on my part. My basis for this is that their close connection under Prince Casimir’s dominions. I think they taught at the same university, but I could be wrong there. I can easily give this point up.:)
    4. I did not say that he adopted this in 1566, but not before 1566. I took that from De Moor.

    Second, on the sources.
    1. De Moor
    a. It is not just a casual reference. He cites 200 pages of a book on this very subject. See the bib. I can mail you a copy of the pages from his book, if you like.
    b. De Moor’s view is very significant. 7 large volumes of commentary on Marckius’ Compendium has been called “a monument to Voetian orthodoxy.” Muller says of it: “the work was so exhaustive and complete in its detail and bibliography that it virtually ended the development fo Reformed doctrine in the form of orthodox system” (Muller, PRRD 1, p. 83).
    c. De Moor had the same motivation as you do to say that Ursinus did not hold to this view (his authorship of the HC). Moreover, he trounces on this view. If Ursinus didn’t hold to this view, why would he say that it did.
    2. Gerhard – where would Gerhard get the idea that Ursinus denied it.
    3. Heppe – I agree with Dr. Clark that he is not always reliable. If he was the only witness to the fact, I would not have cited him. But with De Moor and Gerhard, I think Heppe corroborates the evidence. You can also add to his view Schweizer and Ritschl, though I also agree that they are not completely reliable witnesses.
    4. As for Pareus, it’s just interesting to note that Ursinus’ great student held to this viewpoint. Again, this is part of a string of evidence. Moreover, there were many other German Reformed theologians who did deny the active obedience, according to De Moor and Heppe!

    Reply to objection. I think the quotes provided by you and by David Fagrey in response to Shepherd, can be read in a different way. Piscator could agree that Christ merited righteousness for it. Ritschl also makes the same point about these quotations in his history of reconciliation:
    If you want more details, we can look at some of the quotations.

  22. Wes White said,

    March 28, 2007 at 7:00 pm

    Tim, that was not my point. I agree in self-examination. But when it comes to what is the basis of our confidence before God, it lies completely in Christ’s righteousness. Shepherd teaches that Christ helps us to gain the righteousness of faith by which we are justified. That is our own righteousness; therefore, Shepherd teaches us to look to ourselves and Christ in the matter of justification.

  23. pduggie said,

    March 28, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    I don’t have Backbone of the Bible. Could you perhaps quote a few paragraphs from the reference you use in footnote 34? It would help me understand.

  24. Wes White said,

    March 28, 2007 at 9:38 pm

    Sure. Shepherd says:

    “Faith and repentance and obedience are possible in the experience of sinners, only by grace because we are a new creation (Ephesians 2:10), “for we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.” In the language of Romans 2, those who are seeking to be justified and saved by the works of the law, do not keep the law. They only hear the law, but they do not do what it says. In contrast to that, Paul describes true believers as those who repent of sin and who seek to do what is good according to God’s law. They are recreated in Christ for this very purpose, and they will inherit eternal life. Romans 2:13, “for it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” That obedience is the obedience of faith. Those who believe in Jesus with this kind of faith will be justified. Paul says in v.16, “this will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ as my gospel declares.”

    “The righteousness of those who obey the law is not the righteousness of meritorious achievement. It is the righteousness of faith. The believer who believes in Jesus Christ with a living, active, and penitent faith is the righteous man who lives by faith, (Romans 1:17). He is not without sin – sin that would otherwise condemn him – but his sin is forgiven in the blood of Jesus. The righteous who live by faith are those whom God has recreated in His own image in righteousness and holiness, who look to Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins, and who walk with the Lord day by day in repentance and obedience. This is the kind of faith that is imputed to Abraham for righteousness. This the faith by which we are justified, according to Romans 3:28, and this is what Paul is talking about when he says in Romans 1:17, “the righteous will live by faith.” This faith and this righteousness have nothing to do with justification or salvation by works of the law.”

    He then goes on to explain what the “works of the law” are. I took the quotes from fns. 37-38 and 40 from that section. This explains what he means by the works of the law that are excluded from justification and salvation.

  25. Dave said,

    March 29, 2007 at 1:37 am

    Sorry. If one denies the active obedience of christ beign imputed to us, then we have only half a Savior. And if He is only half a Savior, we then need someone else, for we then have no Savior at all! So it IS out of bounds with Reformed theology if the active obedience is denied.

  26. greenbaggins said,

    March 29, 2007 at 9:09 am

    Dave, I certainly agree that the IAO is important and orthodox (Wes certainly does as well). However, is it the most important aspect of this debate? What Wes is arguing is that there is a larger fish to fry in the debate surrounding Shepherd’s views. Piscator (even though denying the IAO) still says that the righteousness which is the ground of our justification is Christ’s righteousness. That’s the whole “metonymy of the effect” thing. Shepherd’s formulations wind up denying this.

  27. Wes White said,

    March 29, 2007 at 11:25 am


    I disagree with Piscator’s view. On the other hand, if we read him carefully, should we really conclude that he only had “half a Savior”? After all, he says that the imputation of the passive obedience of Christ causes the forgiveness of sins both of ommission and commission. Since that is the case, the result is that we have a right to eternal life and forgiveness of sins. Would we not have to agree with De Moor that, “However much these learned men may be deceived on this point, it must be confessed that they place our right to eternal life in Christ alone without any of our works.” But…as I pointed out in the article this cannot be applied to Norman Shepherd.

  28. John said,

    March 29, 2007 at 12:23 pm

    Thanks for the update, Wes. I’ve often wondered, given what I knew of you in our talks earlier.

    By the way, Lane: Your title for this blog entry is a bit misleading. It speaks of “the denial of the active obedience of Christ,” whereas you really mean to speak of the denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, right? After all, neither Piscator nor Shepherd nor anyone else I can think of denies that Christ was actively obedient.

  29. John said,

    March 29, 2007 at 12:28 pm

    I am delighted to learn of your repentance, Mr. White. I am, however, chagrined that attention is paid to being in the “Reformed tradition.” The proper idea is to be Biblical, not traditional. There are many errors in the “Reformed tradition.” We should rid ourselves of those errors, not excuse them as being “Reformed.” That is the whole purpose of semper reformanda.

  30. greenbaggins said,

    March 29, 2007 at 12:48 pm

    John (#28), you’re right in that the denial spoken of is that of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, not of the active obedience itself.

    John (#29), are you John Robbins? I see your link is to the Trinity Foundation.

  31. tim prussic said,

    March 29, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    John, while I suppose I agree wiht you last post, I think it’s worth addressing that we all tend to read the Bible with truncated vision. Our cherished history and tradition helps us broaden out just a bit, and I think that’s very useful. I don’t think anyone is reasoning: “X can be found in the history of Reformed thought, therefore X is correct.”

    I think, however, that we should be analyzing thus: “Folks who believed X in the history of Reformed thought weren’t chased around with pointy sticks and thrown out of the church where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth. Folks who believe X currently are (may God have mercy on their souls). What’s the difference between their attitudes then and ours now regarding belief in X?”

    Again, historical theology is useful especially because it moves us out of our own prejudices and allows us to see that there’s more (a lot more) out there. At the end of the day, maybe we’re right (biblical) and they’re wrong. Maybe X should be driven from the church and our Reformed fathers were in error by not doing so, but at least we’ve stopped to consider.

    The “semper reformanda” ought never be apart from the “ecclesia reformata.” That is, we ARE in a tradition, like it, hate it, or color it purple. That’s where we necessarily start. It can be no other way. So, let’s accept that, nay, let us glory and rejoice in it, and the seek always to reform it in accordance with the Scripture. Thus, the “ecclesia reformata” ought never be apart from the “semper reformanda.” This seems quite healthy.

  32. Wes White said,

    March 29, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    RE: Tradition

    My point in this paper is not to say that the denial of the IAO is OK. I’m attempting to clear up the debate about whether or not Shepherd should be tolerated because there were many within the Reformed community who denied the IAO and were not censured. My answer is no because Shepherd’s views are very different than theirs on many points.

    I agree that tradition is not the principle of truth. However, I also recognize that my personal reading of Scripture is very often not correct and needs the correction of many learned and godly men. We must go back before we can go forward. God has given the Church to help us grow up in Christ (Eph. 4:11-16).

  33. John said,

    March 29, 2007 at 3:41 pm

    Yes, I confess. My legal name is John Robbins. And I quite agree that we should read widely in Reformation theology, as well as other theologies. It broadens the mind, but we have only one Word from God.

    But to take one example of the church not progressing — actually regressing — on one doctrine (to say nothing of the current debacle on the doctrine of salvation): the validity of Roman Catholic Baptism. The American Presbyterian Church made a major advance over Calvin and other Reformers by declaring the invalidity of RC baptism in 1845. In the 20th century the PC largely repudiated that view and regressed to Calvin’s view. I have published Thornwell’s defense of the 1845 declaration (Sacramental Sorcery: The Invalidity of Roman Catholic Baptism), and it is selling very poorly in Presbyterian circles. Most PC elders, especially on the mission fields, where much error arises, defend RC baptism as Christian baptism. It is not. But “if it was good enough for Calvin, it must be Reformed, and therefore it’s good enough for me — as though Calvin, not Scripture, were the source of truth.

  34. greenbaggins said,

    March 29, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    John, welcome to my blog. I’m sure you remember my father, J.C. Keister, one of Gordon Clark’s best friends, and contributor to the Personal Recollections book that you edited (and which I’ve read several times).

  35. tim prussic said,

    March 29, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    John, certainly an interesting example – thanks for it. I’ve a somewhat related question: Do you receive RC orders? Should a man be reordained if he leaves the RCC and wants to minister in a Reformed church?

  36. John said,

    March 29, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    Yes. Most of what Thornwell says about baptism applies to ordination as well.

    Yes, I remember J. C. I am still waiting for his essay on algebra and the Bible.

  37. tim prussic said,

    March 29, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    John, thanks for the response. I’m impressed that you’re consistent in your views on the RCC. Most folks, I find, who reject RC baptism readily receive RC orders. I think that baptism is far more to be received than ordination.

    We’d certainly agree that the RCC has denied the faith and apostatized. That body has and does opposed the gospel and is a synagogue of Satan, in that respect, very much the same as the Jews of Paul’s day. How did Paul deal with the covenant sign adminstered by apostate Jews? That is, did Paul receive apostate Jewish circumcision, or did he require that faithful Jews, who rightly left the synagogue, be recircumcised?
    No, indeed, they were baptized, the sign and seal of the New Covenant, but their circumcision was still real circumcision and was received as such. They were Jews received as Jews, but they were faithful Jews. I think that situation directly analogous (with regard to circumcision in particular, not the switch in adminstration and attending sign) to the question of whether we should receive Roman Baptism or not. I think that the Donatist controversy has a lot to teach us in this area. God makes the sacrament, men do not. The sin of the one adminstering the sacrament does not besmirch the sacrament. If it did, none of us would be REALLY baptized.
    All that said, I have Thornwell’s works, but I’ve not read his essay on this issue. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, John. I’ll have to read it.

    And then to bring it full circle, I don’t think the Magisterial Reformers’ view (Calvin’s included) on RC baptism was wrong. I think the deviation from their view a slip from biblical orthodoxy, and the return to it glorious. I think that, in this case, the tradition preserved the biblical position.

  38. John said,

    March 30, 2007 at 7:24 am


    You rested your argument for accepting RC baptism on the fact that Paul had no one “recircumcised.” Your words were:

    “How did Paul deal with the covenant sign adminstered by apostate Jews? That is, did Paul receive apostate Jewish circumcision, or did he require that faithful Jews, who rightly left the synagogue, be recircumcised?”

    How, may I ask, is a man recircumcised?

  39. tim prussic said,

    March 30, 2007 at 2:07 pm

    John, a fair (and amusing) question. For clarification, I don’t rest my overall argument for accepting RC baptism on the recircumcision mentioned above. I did, however, rest the arugment in the post on it.

    That said, recircumcision can and is done. Since there’s no absolute distinction between the skin of the shaft and the foreskin, not only is recircumcision conceivalbe, but it’s acutally done. See, However, the logistics of recircumcision are certainly not the point and are WELL beyond any area of expertise to which I may pretend!

    My more fundamental point is that once the sacrament is done, it’s done. With circumcision, this is more palpably true (evidenced by your question). However, the same would hold with baptism. Once validly baptized, a fellow is really, really baptized. The historical discussion between N and S Presbyterians is the issue of validity, which, I think, is the heart of our discussion, too. Within the confines of Reformed/Presbyterian folks, the point of “once done, it’s done” shouldn’t be an issue. That’s an issue with current-day baptists. Ref/Pres folks’ issue is over validity, not the binding nature of the sacrament. Is RC baptism valid? If so, it’s baptism, if not, it’s not.

    Thus, while recircumcision seems wacky, my point above still stands, or at least I think it does. :)

  40. John said,

    April 1, 2007 at 7:57 am


    If the child’s foreskin was not removed the first time the rabbi or doctor tried to do it, then he was not circumcised, since circumcision is defined as removal of the foreskin. But more to the point, foreskin removed by apostate priests does not regrow so that the converted Jew must be recircumcized, as your argument requires. It is impossible to recircumcise someone who has been circumcised.

    But your answer about baptism begs the question, for you assume that RC baptism is valid. That is what you must prove, and you have not done it. In fact, Thornwell has already destroyed all arguments for it. Converted Roman Catholics are not rebaptized; they have never received Christian baptism. The term “anabaptist” is a propaganda device.

  41. April 1, 2007 at 10:06 am

    How on earth did that fruitcake #40 get on here?

  42. greenbaggins said,

    April 2, 2007 at 10:23 am

    My spam blocking only blocks spam if the spam has more than two links in the comment. Since his did not, my spam blocker did not block it. By the way, that explains why legitimate comments will be held for moderation, if they have two or more links in them.

  43. greenbaggins said,

    April 2, 2007 at 10:26 am

    Important note, folks, I have deleted comment number 40. Therefore, Gary’s comment 41 does not refer to the current number 40. ;-)

  44. tim prussic said,

    April 2, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    John, you’re quite right about the heart of the issue with receiving RC baptism being that of validity. I didn’t beg the question at all. I posited something about valid baptisms, then I said the issue with RC baptism is its status: I specifically asked, “Is RC baptism valid.”

    You proceeded merely to assert that Thornwell’s already destoyed “all arguments for it.” In doing so, you managed not to deal with the substance of my post. That doesn’t do much for the blog discussion.

    You have also chosen not to engage the idea of recircumcision. Once agian, you’ve not dealt with my post above that it ACTUALLY DOES happen (I linked to a Q&A with a doctor that does them). You’ve just asserted that it doesn’t.

    As to Thornwell, I certainly look forward to reading him. I’m sad, however, that I have to interact with a book instead of a person on a blog.

  45. May 9, 2007 at 11:01 am

    […] ground of our justification. We still seem to differ on the nature of that obedience. However, as this article shows, Wilson is well within the bounds of orthodoxy on this point. Whether he is a good […]

  46. November 27, 2010 at 7:01 am

    […] was printed in The Confessional Presbyterian 3. You can also read a shorter version of that article here. I want to set Shepherd’s quotes side by side with Johannes Pisactor, a 17th-century German […]

  47. Jack Miller said,

    June 28, 2015 at 9:53 pm

    “Righteousness is in general either uncreated, as God himself is
    righteous, or it is created, as is the righteousness which belongs
    to rational creatures. Created righteousness is legal and evangelical.
    By legal righteousness we mean the fulfilling of the law by
    one, who is thereby declared righteous; or it is such a fulfilling of
    the law as that which is accomplished by one’s own obedience;
    or it is a conformity to the law which he has who is declared
    righteous. This legal righteousness was the righteousness of
    Adam before the fall, and is in the angels, and in Christ as far as
    he is man. Evangelical righteousness is the fulfilling of the law,
    performed, not by us, but by another in our stead, and imputed
    unto us of God by faith.” (HC Commentary, Ursinus. pages 584-585)

    “Christ fulfilled the law by the holiness of his human nature, and
    by his obedience, even unto the death of the cross. The holiness
    of his human nature was necessary to his obedience; for it
    became our mediator to be holy and righteous in himself, that
    he might be able to perform obedience, and make satisfaction
    for us. “For such an High Priest became us, who is holy,” etc.
    (Heb. 7:26) This obedience now is our righteousness, and it is
    upon the ground of this that God is pleased with us. The blood of
    Christ is the satisfaction on account of which God receives us
    into his favor, and which he imputes unto us, as it is said, the
    blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin, both of commission and omission. The shedding of his blood is the
    complementof his satisfaction, and is for this reason called our
    righteousness.” (page 589)

    “At first view it seems absurd that we should be justified by any
    thing without us, or by something that belongs to another. It is
    necessary, therefore, that we should explain more fully how the
    satisfaction, or obedience of Christ becomes ours; for unless it
    be made ours, or be applied unto us, we cannot be justified by it…”
    (page 590)

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