A Boast-Free Gospel

Text: Romans 3:27

Introduction:  I arrived on the campus of Westminster Theological Seminary as an in-coming student in the Fall of 1978 totally unaware of the Shepherd controversy that was reaching a crescendo. Norman Shepherd succeeded John Murray (after his retirement in1963) in the department of Systematic Theology. Around 1974 it became obvious that Shepherd’s views on justification were starting to attract attention and alarm. In response to concerned faculty members, Shepherd prepared a discussion paper in 1976 of fifty-three pages, not intended for distribution, entitled, “The Relation of Good Works to Justification in the Westminster Standards.” It made a startling and categorical statement: “To insist on faith alone for justification is a serious impoverishment.”[i] He went on to claim that Westminster Standards supported his position much to the shock and consternation of a number of his fellow faculty members, Robert Strimple (Systematic Theology), Robert Godfrey (Church History), Meredith Kline (Old Testament), W. Stanford Reid (Church History), Philip Hughes (Reformation Studies), O. Palmer Robertson (Old Testament), and Robert Knudsen (Apologetics). Two of my classes quickly introduced me to the seriousness of this controversy. My course with W. Robert Godfrey “The Theology of The Counter Reformation” revealed that Shepherd had more in common with the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) than he did with the Protestant Reformers.[ii]

The other class, “Old Testament Biblical Theology” with Meredith Kline introduced me to the centrality of covenant theology, particularly the critical nature of the Covenant of Works in understanding the active and passive obedience of Christ in securing our salvation.[iii] Who could have foreseen that twenty-five years later Shepherd’s position (coupled with a similar position as advocated by New Perspective evangelicals like N. T. Wright) would produce the zealous advocates associated with the Federal Vision (The Auburn Avenue Theology). This controversy is no longer restricted to one institution or one denomination, practically every Reformed denomination is presently caught up in this conflict. What is the crux of the matter in this controversy? Simply put, it centers around sola fide especially as it pertains to the definition of fide. Is justification secured by faith in Christ plus our continual faithfulness in which case this faithfulness is directly connected with good works and as such serve (in some definitive way) as the grounds for our final justification[iv]–or is our justification secured by faith alone (that is, in isolation from anything that we do). The latter position is the one that goes all the way back to the Reformation (the genuine position of the Bible).[v] The former is the position of Shepherd and his Federal Vision advocates. Romans 3:27-31 is a key text in understanding the critically important doctrine of sola fide.

I.          God’s Method of Justification:  The Apostle now proceeds to draw out the grand results, the first being that in this scheme the glory belongs exclusively to God. Second, that both Jew and Gentile are justified on the same basis. Finally, God’s law is established on its true basis. Lloyd-Jones underscores Paul’s method of argumentation in this section. “The Scriptures argue and debate and dispute; they are full of polemics. You cannot read this Epistle to the Romans, or the Epistle to Galatians, or indeed any one of these epistles, without seeing that very clearly. Let us be clear about what we mean. This is not argument for the sake of argument; this is not a manifestation of an argumentative spirit; this is not just indulging one’s own prejudices. The Scriptures do not approve of that, and furthermore the Scriptures are very concerned about the spirit in which one engages in discussion. No man should like argument for the sake of argument. We should always regret the necessity; but though we regret it and bemoan it, when we feel that a vital matter is at stake we must engage in argument. We must ‘earnestly contend for the truth’, and we are all called upon to do that by the New Testament. The Apostle Paul thanks the members of the church at Philippi, and thanks God for them, because they have stood with him from the very beginning in the ‘declaration and defense of the truth’. And there is nothing that is so utterly contrary to the New Testament method as to say, ‘Let us be positive, let us forget the negatives, let us never argue about these things’. While men and women are not clear in their minds as to the truth, while they are liable to be carried away by that which is false, we must contend for the truth, we must engage in the type of argumentation that we have illustrated in these verses we are considering.”[vi]

A.        Question One: Where, then, is boasting?:  The word translated “boast” is KAUCHAOMAI. Paul used it in 1:30 (in reference to the Gentiles), and in 2:17, 23 in reference to the Jews). Paul used it elsewhere with similar negative connotations (cf. Phil. 3:3 and Eph. 2:9). “Boasting” Stott rightfully, observes, “is the language of our fallen self-centeredness.”[vii]

B.        The Answer: It is excluded:  Why? The principle of faith excludes it. If justification was conditioned on works or obedience or even on our faithfulness there would be grounds for congratulating ourselves. But Paul categorically denies that, not only here, but in I Cor. 1:31 and Gal. 6:14.

C.        Question Two: By what kind of Law?:  The question is asking what kind of understanding of the law does this imply? As important as the law is, it was never intended to be God’s means of securing justification. Human effort could never accomplish that.

D.        Answer: By the law of faith:  The law actually points us to faith and as such denies boasting. In other words righteousness based upon the sinner’s performance of works is totally incompatible with the grace of God. The not so subtle suggestion made by the covenantal Nomists (Wright, Shepherd, Lusk) that our obedience is a necessary supplement to maintain our covenantal standing must likewise be rejected. Even at its best our personal obedience is poor, faulty, and inadequate.

NOTE: Shepherd and his followers make much to do over the expression “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5) contending that obedience and faith are synonymous. Faith is now defined a “faithful obedience.” This is a serious misunderstanding of Pauline theology. Unbelief is a refusal to ‘obey the gospel’, a failure to submit to the ‘righteousness of God’ revealed in Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:16; II Thess. 1:8; Rom. 10:3). Coming to faith represents ‘obedience from the heart’ to the teaching of the gospel (Rom. 6:17). Seifried correctly remarks that when Paul “speaks of ‘the obedience of faith,’ he appeals to the demand for faith in Christ which was characteristic of earliest Christianity and clarifies its significance. It is important to recall, too, that the ‘faith’ of which Paul speaks is not abstract. As elsewhere in his letters and in the New Testament, the absolute usage presupposes faith in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. It is this faith which God requires as obedience, according to Paul.”[viii]

E.        Question Three: Is the law then nullified?:  To the Jew Paul’s argument seemed to exalt faith at the expense of the law and render it null and void.

F.         Answer: Not at all, rather the law is established: How so? Listen to Calvin, “When the law is opposed to faith, the flesh immediately suspects that there is some incompatibility between the two, as if they were opposed to each other. This misunderstanding is prevalent particularly among those whose minds are coloured by a false view of the law, and who, disregarding the promises, seek in the law only the righteousness of works. On this account the Jews severely attacked not only Paul, but also our Lord Himself, as if all His preaching aimed at the abrogation of the law—hence the protest which He made: ‘I came not to destroy (the law) but to fulfill; (Matt. 5:17). This suspicion extended to the moral as well as the ceremonial law; for since the Gospel puts an end to the Mosaic ceremonies, its intention is held to be the destruction of the ministry of Moses. And further, since the Gospel obliterates all righteousness of works, it is believed to be opposed to all those testimonies of the law in which the Lord affirms that He has prescribed there the way of righteousness and salvation. I therefore take this defense of Paul to refer not only to ceremonies, nor to what are called moral precepts, but to the whole law in general. The moral law is truly confirmed and established through faith in Christ, since it was given to teach man of his iniquity, and lead him to Christ, without whom the law is not fulfilled. In vain the law proclaims what is right, yet it accomplishes nothing but the increase of inordinate desires, in order finally to bring upon man greater condemnation. When, however, we come to Christ, we first find in Him the exact righteousness of the law, and this also becomes ours by imputation. In the second place we find in Him sanctification, by which our hearts are formed to keep the law. True, we keep it imperfectly, yet at least we are aiming at it. Let us, therefore, also remember to preach the Gospel in such a way that we establish the law by our manner of teaching, but let the only support of our preaching be that of faith in Christ.”[ix]

Conclusion: Justification has as its source God and his grace, its ground Christ and his cross, and its means faith alone, altogether apart from works. This is the heart of the gospel and unique to Christianity. All other religious systems teach some form of self-salvation through good works of religion, righteousness or philanthropy. Christianity, by contrast, is not in its essence a religion at all; it’s a gospel, the gospel, good news that God’s grace has turned away his wrath, that God’s Son has died our death and borne our judgment, that God has mercy on the undeserving, and that there is nothing left for us to do, or even contribute either at the beginning of justification or at the end. Definitions of faith that end up making faith a work (our continual obedience) are not just misleading but dangerous and constitute another gospel. “Faith’s only function is to receive what grace offers.”[x] Shepherd and his followers think they have improved the gospel and brought what they like to call a distinctively “Reformed” (as opposed to a Lutheran) understanding of sola fide.[xi] They have done nothing of the sort. What they have done is a major departure from the Reformed position. Martin Lloyd-Jones, one of the great Reformed preachers of the 20th century, when asked for his assessment of Shepherd’s position stated emphatically that “I am in entire agreement with the view of Philip E. Hughes, Stanford Reid, and Palmer Robertson.” He went on: “Shepherd’s view of justification is that of the Roman Catholics,” and further it represents a “misunderstanding of and misuse of the Westminster Confession and the Catechisms.” In four conclusions, Lloyd-Jones explained his analysis of Shepherd’s views: (1) “His teaching is a subtle form of legalism and eventually is ‘another gospel.’” (2) “His teaching makes assurance virtually impossible as one is never satisfied with one’s works.” (3) “His teaching is contrary to that of the evangelicals of the last 400 years and he seems to rejoice in this!” (4) “To teach this to students is tragically wrong.”[xii]



[i] Shepherd later apologized for his earlier paper and acknowledged that some of its formulations were obscure or misleading, and at other points loosely written or ambiguous. He later came out with “Thirty-four Theses on Justification in Relation to Faith, Repentance, and Good Works.” If anything this document only made things worse, as evidence by the following, Thesis 20: “The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, ‘The doers of the Law will be justified,’ is … to be understood … in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified.” Thesis 21: “The exclusive ground of the justification of the believer in the state of justification is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, but his obedience … is necessary to his continuing in a state of justification.” Thesis 22: “The righteousness of Jesus Christ ever remains the exclusive ground of the believer’s justification, but the personal godliness of the believer is also necessary for his justification in the judgment of the last day.” Thesis 23: “…good works … though not the ground of [the believer’s] justification, are nevertheless necessary … for justification.” (my emphasis) Shepherd acknowledged that it was possible for a person to lose their justification. He also later admitted his position “went beyond the standards but is true to their Reformed structure” (Shepherd has yet to produce from the individual Westminster divines a single one that supports his views). Shepherd was finally dismissed from his position at the Westminster in 1982. For detailed analysis of this controversy cf. A. Donald MacLeod. W. Stanford Reid: An Evangelical Calvinist in the Academy (McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press, 2004), pp. 257-279.


[ii] Like Trent, Shepherd and his followers (i.e. Federal Vision representatives like Rich Lusk) deny the imputation of Christ’s righteousness; they concur with Trent in teaching that justification is in two stages: initial, by Grace through Faith in Christ (the all important alone is missing) and final, by our works. On these and a variety of related points, Paul’s opponents in Galatia, the medieval church, and a growing number of self-proclaimed “Reformed” people, all of these share in their denials of sola fide have a common tendency toward what E. P. Sanders (The New Perspective on Paul) has coined “covenantal nomism” (we get into the Covenant by grace but we maintain our place in the Covenant by the performance of good works). None of these views are brazenly Pelagian, but then neither was the Council of Trent. Shepherd and his followers constantly complain that they are misunderstood. The truth of the matter is that they are the ones who are confused and confusing. Cf. Michael Horton’s article “Déjà vu All Over Again” in Modern Reformation (July/August 2004).


[iii] Shepherd explicitly rejects the concept of the Covenant of Works. Both Godfrey and Kline were (and continue to be) two of the most out spoken critics of Shepherd. Cf. Kline’s article “Covenant Theology Under Attack” in New Horizons (Feb. 1994). This is a denomination publication of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Also cf. W. Robert Godfrey, chapter “Westminster Seminary, The Doctrine of Justification, and The Reformed Confessions” in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: Essays in Honor of Robert B. Strimple (P&R, 2004).


[iv] The late Philip Hughes who at the time was visiting prof. of New Testament and Reformation Studies at Westminster wrote in opposition to Shepherd’s thesis that faith must be accompanied by faithfulness (good works), the following: “where justification is concerned (and this is the essential qualification) I do indeed isolate faith from good works and I do indeed regard good works as intrinsically in competition with the unique role of faith. I deprecate the extension of justification into the sphere of sanctification, for it is precisely this procedure that leads to the notion that the good works of the Christian have a necessary part to play in his justification. This means, of course, that I dissent strongly from the earlier assertion that “faith is never faith-in-isolation: (p. 2 of the Report). On the contrary, I maintain that in justification faith is precisely faith-in-isolation. This is the whole point of the Biblical and Reformed emphasis on faith alone where our justification is concerned; for justification by faith alone (sola fide) means justification by faith in isolation, and particularly in isolation from works, This does not mean, however, that I have any intention of denying the close inter-relationship between faith and works that follows and flows from the believer’s justification and should be the hallmark of his life as a Christian, that is, of his sanctification.” Cf. his “Some Reasons for Dissenting from the Majority Report of 21 April 1978 on the Subject of JUSTIFICATION Submitted by the Faculty to the Board of Westminster Theological Seminary.” This is reprinted in J. Robbins, A Companion To The Current Justification Controversy (Trinity Foundation, 2003), pp. 105-115.


[v] This is well documented by W. Stanford Reid, “Justification by Faith According to John Calvin” Westminster Theological Journal (Vol. XLII, Spring 1980, No. 2).


[vi] M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Chapters 3:20-4:25: Atonement and Justification (Zondervan, 1971), p. 114.


[vii] J.R.W. Stott, The Message of Romans (IVP, 1994), p. 119.


[viii] Mark Seifried, Christ Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification (IVP, 2000), p. 135. He adds, “The Greek terms for ‘obedience’ involved (HYPAKOE, HYPAKOUEIN, HYPEKOOS), despite their semantic breadth, cannot be said to be synonymous with ‘faith’ in the biblical tradition. They bear the general sense of ‘responding in subjection’, thereby carrying connotations of ‘hearing’ or of response to a person. These associations do not in themselves entail the notion of ‘faith’ or ‘believing’ (e.g. Rom. 6:12, 16; Eph. 6:1, 5; Mark 1:27; I Pet. 3:6; Gen. 41:40). We can scarcely suppose that Paul uses HYPAKOE in the sense of ‘faith’ in Rom. 1:5 and 16:27, since that reduces the expression HYPAKOE TES PISTEOS to a redundancy.”


[ix] Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries VIII (Eerdmans, 1973), p. 81.


[x] Stott, p. 118.


[xi] Contrary to the claims of Shepherd, Calvin’s understanding of sola fide is exactly that of Luther! Cf. Reid’s article cited in endnote 5.


[xii] As cited in MacLeod, p. 269.

Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional

Freshly translated from the original German into today’s English, this book contains a treasury of devotionals taken from Luther’s writings and sermons (1513 to 1546), conveniently divided into daily readings to point readers to the Bible and a deeper understanding of faith.

Timeless insights from one of the most important people in church history. Resounding across the centuries, Martin Luther’s prolific writings as a pastor, theologian, scholar, Bible translator, father, and more, remain powerful and richly relevant. Faith Alone is a treasury of accessible devotionals taken from Luther’s best writings and sermons from the years 1513 through 1546. This carefully updated translation retains the meaning, tone, and imagery of Luther’s works.

Through daily readings, Luther’s straightforward approach challenges you to a more thoughtful faith. Read one brief section a day or explore themes using the subject index in the back of the book. Faith Alone will deepen your understanding of Scripture and help you more fully appreciate the mystery of faith.

“Some people value good works so much that they overlook faith in Christ. Faith should be first. It is faith—without good works and prior to good works—that takes us to heaven. We come to God through faith alone.” —Martin Luther

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