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Are We Justified by an Obedient Faith?

by Wes White
[Editor’s note: This article was originally posted at Johannes Weslianus, the former site of PCA Pastor Wes White. Reprinted with permission]

The simple answer that Protestants have always given over against Rome, Socinianism, and some Arminianism is, “No.” The Protestant doctrine is that sinners are justified by faith looking to Christ and not by faith plus obedience. For years, Norman Shepherd and his Federal Visionist grandchildren have been saying, “Yes.” We are justified by an obedient faith.

For a long time, I did not see the problem with saying that we are justified by an obedient faith for two reasons.
  1. Faith is obedience to a command of God, even though that fact has nothing to do with why faith justifies.
  2. True faith always issues forth in obedience. As the Westminster Confession of Faith says, “It is never alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love” (11.2).
So, what’s the problem?
 
The problem is that faith is one thing, and faithfulness is another. Faith is one thing, and obedience to God’s other commands is another. Faith is one thing, and penitence is another. Faith is one thing, and love is another.
 
Faith is something distinct from these other virtues. It is knowledge, assent, and trust. It receives and accepts. Love gives. These two things must be carefully distinguished, and love must be excluded from all efficacy in our justification.
 
In the matter of justification we are justified by faith. Period. “We conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom. ).
 
To say that in the matter of justification before God, we are justified by an obedient faith is to deny the Apostles’ teachings. It is faith in Christ plus nothing that effects justification.
 
To say that our justification is effected by a living, active, obedient, penitent faith is to add works into our justification. It is to say that our works can effect our justification. It is a salvation by obedience. It is to make the promise of no effect. It is to eliminate the gracious and free nature of our justification (Rom. ).
 

What the Federal Visionists Teach

For a long time, I wanted to believe that Norman Shepherd and the Federal Visionists meant “justified by an obedient faith” in the good senses mentioned above. However, the evidence compels me to think otherwise. We must be ready to receive others charitably, but we must also be on guard against allowing heresy to spread.

 

The Federal Visionists wrote a reply to Westminster West’s book Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry (I do recommend the West book). It is called A Faith that is Never Alone. In this book, Norman Shepherd states as clearly as he possibly could:
 
We must not set faith and faithfulness over against each other as antithetical and mutually exclusive principles of gospel and law when it comes to the justification of a sinner before almighty God. (p. 72)
 
Faithfulness should not be excluded from faith in the matter of the justification of a sinner before God, says Shepherd. Thus, for Shepherd, we are not justified by faith alone. We are justified by faith and faithfulness, faith plus works, man’s work plus Christ’s. How could we have a clearer denial of the sola fide of the Bible and the Reformation?
 
Now, I have already had someone say on this blog that I’m wrongfully imputing to the Federal Visionists the views of Norman Shepherd. Well, John Armstrong, Don Garlington, Mark Horne, Peter Leithart, Rich Lusk, and P. Andrew Sandlin all wrote articles in that book. If any of them would like to say that Shepherd is wrong, then I’ll gladly open my blog for them to do so.
 
However, there’s more. P. Andrew Sandlin does the same thing. He includes obedience in faith’s justifying work. In responding to Horton (who I actually think perhaps goes too far to meet them), he summarizes Horton’s view this way:
 
The faith that justifies is “living, active, and obedient,” but when it actually does justify (instrumentally), it is not “living, active, and obedient” but “passive trust in the finished work of Christ.” (p. 218).
 
You might think that Sandlin would respond by saying, “Thanks, Michael. That’s a fair way to get at these issues.” Instead, he says:
 
This tangled terminology is an effect of a tangled soteriology. It is inconceivable that the Biblical authors — take as just one example the writer of Hebrews 11 — could have posited contrasting definitions of faith — “justifying faith” versus “the faith that justifies” or have isolated that aspect of faith that comprises ‘passive trust in the finished work of Christ’ from the aspect of faith which is “living, active, and obedient.” (Ibid.)
 
This is a plain denial of faith alone by redefining faith to include obedience.
 
The blog De Regno Christi hosted a discussion on FV a few years back. They were asked the following question by William Chellis, “Does the FV distinguish between the narrow instrumental/receptive nature of justifying faith from the broader concept of obedient faithfulness?”
 
Here was Peter Liethart’s enthusiastic affirmation of faith alone:
 
Questions back to you:
What kind of distinction are you suggesting?
A temporal one? As in, for one moment, faith is alone in the person justified but later isn’t? A logical one? What would that mean?
What is the nature of justifying faith? Is it active, living faith? Is it trust, assent, knowledge?

 

Peter, I think the answer that you were looking for to William Chellis’ question is, “No. The FV does not distinguish.”
 
Consider also P. Andrew Sandlin’s comment on the same post:
 
Hebrews 11 convinced me. Obviously the “resting/passive” element is there in the first few verses, but this faith is everywhere vigorous, obedient, active not merely as an effect of that faith but constitutive of that faith itself.
 
This would comport well with the Racovian Catechism, which teaches that obedience is included in faith. It says:
 
You include then in that faith to which alone and in reality salvation is ascribed, not only trust, but obedience also ? I do so . . . it is necessary that the faith to which alone and in reality salvation is ascribed, or which alone is necessarily followed by salvation, should comprehend [include] obedience.
 
In contrast the Reformed Confessions teach that faith justifies “only as an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness” (WLC Q. 73).
 
This brings us finally to the Joint Federal Vision Statement. This is the Federal Vision Statement written by Douglas Wilson and signed by PCA Pastor Jeff Meyers. It says:
 
We deny that the faith which is the sole instrument of justification can be understood as anything other than the only kind of faith which God gives, which is to say, a living, active, and personally loyal faith.
 
Now, notice that last phrase, “personally loyal faith.” Here’s how dictionary.com defines loyalty:
 
The state or quality of being loyal; faithfulness to commitments or obligations.
 
Faithful adherence to a sovereign, government, leader, cause, etc.
 
They tried to slip one past us by using the word “loyal” instead of “faithful,” but it means basically the same thing. Faithfulness to commitments and faithful adherence, according to the Federal Visionists, is included in the “sole instrument of justification.” This is justification by faithfulness, justification by obedience, and justification by works. This is a rejection of the sola fide of the Reformation.
 

Conclusion

Now, let’s go back to the book A Faith that is Never Alone. In Shepherd’s article “Faith and Faithfulness,” his criticism of Godfrey is that he believes that Godfrey holds to a faith that really is alone. If this means that Shepherd believes that Godfrey does not believe in sanctification, then I think the attack is absurd. However, if Shepherd means that Godfrey holds to a faith that is alone and excludes obedience in justification, then his criticism is correct. However, his criticism is not only a criticism of Godfrey. It is a criticism of the entire Protestant Reformation.
The trouble with books like this one is that men like Douglas Green, Professor of Old Testament at Westminster in Philadelphia actually recommend books like this. This is what does even more damage. He says that this is “a stimulating reflection on the relationship of faith and good works.” He says that this book is “a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate over justification” (back-cover blurb). What ongoing debate is he talking about? The debate against the Protestant Reformation? Does the spirit of Norman Shepherd still haunt the halls that Machen built?
 
This book is not a valuable contribution. It is an awful attack on the Protestant Reformation. When they say faith that is never alone, they mean it. For the Federal Visionists, faith alone does not justify. Faithfulness justifies. Obedience justifies. Loyalty justifies.
 
Those who hold to the Biblical faith against the Federal Visionists need to stand up and reject this for the denial of sola fide that it is.