Norman Shepherd Begins By Telling Us Not to Talk about Election

The ultimate way we can tell people that the gospel is “outside of you” is to tell them that the gospel they MUST believe excludes even this believing as the condition of salvation. The only condition of
salvation for the elect is Christ’s death for the elect.

No debated language about the objectivity of “covenants” or “sacraments” should be allowed to obscure this gospel truth. Unless you preach that Christ died only for the elect, no matter how
confessional you are, you will end up encouraging people to make faith into that little something that makes the difference between life and death!

I am not looking for another discussion about Calvin and Luther on the extent of the atonement. I am also looking for something ambiguous enough for influential people to sign in some “alliance” or “coalition”.. I am asking us if we believe that the glory of God in the gospel means that all for whom Christ died will certainly be saved. Or has this doctrine become too “rationalistic” for us?

Would that doctrine perhaps take the grace of God out of the hands of those who hand out the “means of grace” and locate grace with the Father who has chosen a people and given them to Christ? (Romans 11:4-6) Would the doctrine of effective atonement take the starch out of those who thank God for how much changed their “hearts and souls” are?

I want more sermons about God’s love being found in the propitiation accomplished by Christ. Out there, back then!

Election is God’s love. When the Bible talks about God’s love, it talks about propitiation. I John 4:10, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” If all we only stipulate that the appeasement of wrath will not work without our faith, then it’s not enough to add on that God sent His son to purchase our faith. The nature of the cross as a propitiation will not be proclaimed. Instead a James Boice (sermons on Psalm 22) will turn the gospel into law, and tell sinners that the atonement was for them but they “ruined” it for themselves.

A propitiation for the elect which is also the same and enough for the non-elect, amounts to nothing. Does the Neo-Calvinist love the gospel of election, or does he hate the doctrine and suppress it? Yes, Christ loved the church, but is the church the Norman Shepherd church of elect who become the non-elect? The Shepherd gospel is not first of all about future justification by works. It starts with the idea of talking about “covenant” instead of “election”, about water baptism instead of regeneration.

The Neo-Calvinist does not talk about Christ not dying for the non-elect. He won’t even talk about Christ not dying for those who don’t put their trust in Him. The Neo-Calvinist wants you to give yourself to Christ without knowing anything about election.

The Neo-Calvinist will even defend this non-election gospel as being the only perspective possible to us. We have to know we believe, before we can know if we are elect. I agree that knowing our election before we believe is impossible. Knowing our election is NOT our warrant to believe. (See Abraham Booth’s wonderful book against preparationism– Glad Tidings).

But this is no excuse for leaving the Bible doctrine of election out of the doctrine of propitiation by Christ’s death there and then on the cross. We can and should teach the doctrine of election. The Bible doctrine of election does not teach unbelievers that they are elect, nor does the Bible doctrine of election teach unbelievers that they can find out if they are elect without or before believing,

The glory of God does not depend on human decisions, and the gospel must not become a hostage to collaborations with evangelicals who in the name of universal atonement condition salvation on what God does in the sinner.

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16 Comments on “Norman Shepherd Begins By Telling Us Not to Talk about Election”


    Bavinck:“…When the covenant of grace is separated from election, it ceases to be a covenant of grace and becomes again a covenant of works. Election implies that God grants man freely and out of grace the salvation which man can never again achieve in his own strength. But if this salvation is not the sheer gift of grace but in some way depends upon the conduct of men, then the covenant of grace is converted into a covenant of works. Man must then satisfy some condition in order to inherit eternal life.

    “So far from election and the covenant of grace forming a contrast of opposites, the election is the basis and guarantee, the heart and core, of the covenant of grace. And it is so indispensably important to cling to this close relationship because the least weakening of it not merely robs one of the true insight into the achieving and application of salvation, but also robs the believers of their only and sure comfort in the practice of their spiritual life.”

    Notice how far reaching this is – reformulating the reformation truth of the covenants leads to a messed up view of election (saying there are different degrees of election), justification (injecting our works there where they do not belong), and sanctification (making justification dependent on sanctification). It also throws our salvation back into stormy waters, teaching that only those who make it to the life raft will get out of the seas of death. Who can be truly pious when their salvation depends on something they do?

    Our Reasonable Faith (260-269)

  2. markmcculley Says:

    Norman Shepherd who told us to view election by means of “covenant”, so that there would be only kind of membership.

    Shepherd writes that “The prophets and apostles viewed election from the perspective of the covenant of grace, whereas Reformed theologians of a later day have tended to view the covenant of grace from the perspective of election”(p 60). The result of this, it is argued, is that the reformed preacher no longer says “Christ died for you” – but, when these words are construed, not from the point of view of election, but of the covenant, then “The Reformed evangelist can and must say on the basis of John 3:16, Christ died for you.”

    mark: Does this mean that Shepherd was saying “for you” to the church, but not to those outside the church? If so, was Shepherd making the church the object of evangelism?

    Sinclair Ferguson: First, Shepherd appears to adopt the view of the prevailing academic critique of the covenant theology of the seventeenth century (forcefully presented decades ago by Perry Miller), which suggests that the doctrine of covenant somehow makes God’s secret counsels less harsh. We ought therefore to look at covenant, and not at election. This analysis, both historically and biblically we reject… To use Shepherd’s own citation – the fact is that some passages, e.g. Ephesians 1:1-14, do employ the mode of looking at covenant from the viewpoint of election. Indeed, in that passage it is necessary for the reader to look for covenant in the context of election. From a more practical point of view – was it because Whitefield and Edwards, Spurgeon and M’Cheyne managed to escape the old reformed straitjacket and discover election it its covenant perspective that they were such great evangelists? It seems highly doubtful.”

    mark: Did these revivalists talk about “covenant”? I would say that we have to, but that we should begin by NOT saying what Shepherd says about “covenant”….

  3. markmcculley Says:

    Sinclair Ferguson: First, Shepherd appears to adopt the view of the prevailing academic critique of the covenant theology of the seventeenth century (forcefully presented decades ago by Perry Miller), which suggests that the doctrine of covenant somehow makes God’s secret counsels less harsh. We ought therefore to look at covenant, and not at election. This analysis, both historically and biblically we reject… To use Shepherd’s own citation – the fact is that some passages, e.g. Ephesians 1:1-14, do employ the mode of looking at covenant from the viewpoint of election. Indeed, in that passage it is necessary for the reader to look for covenant in the context of election.

  4. markmcculley Says:

    Not of Works: Norman Shepherd and His Critics, by Ralph Boersema, p 151 quoting Cornelius Venema—“Norman Shepherd’s strength is his insistence on the conditionality of the covenant. The covenant of grace is conditional in its administration. To view salvation in terms of God’s electing grace would make it impossible to do justice to human responsibility and to ward off antinomianism.”

  5. markmcculley Says:

    Guy Prentiss Waters, “The Theology of Norman Shepherd: A Study in Development, 1963–2006,” in Robert L. Penny, ed., The Hope Fulfilled: Essays in Honor of O. Palmer Robertson(Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008), 207–231.

    In the 1974 article Shepherd argues that the first resurrection does not refer to conversion but rather to “the experience of baptism,” which, he writes, “is even more properly resurrection than is the resurrection of the body.”

    “Shepherd is undoubtedly driven by a biblicistic concern to limit modern theological vocabulary strictly to the biblical incidences of those words. It is clear, however, that Shepherd’s understand of what happens at an individual’s baptism is what Reformed theology has historically called “regeneration.”

    For Shepherd, we ought to speak to people “not in terms of decretal election or reprobation” but rather “in terms of their covenant faithfulness.”

    “The decree has no meaning full connection with or relationship to Shepherd’s covenantal perspective.”

    Norman Shepherd, “The Resurrections of Revelation 20,” Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974–75), 37.

  6. markmcculley Says:

    It is not proper, therefore, to set up a dichotomy whereby according to God’s secret will, election or justification cannot be lost, but according to our covenant perspective they may be lost. The statements cited show a tendency to use typically Calvinistic language with respect to the level of God’s secret will, but in the level of “covenant perspective” to use typically Arminian language (Christ died for you; the elect may become reprobate). There is even the notion that Ephesians 1:1–14 does not “function as canon” in relation to God’s unchangeable decree of predestination, but functions as canon only within that “context of the covenant” where “election” maybe lost. This is a misreading of the doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility. That doctrine does not mean that the perspicuously revealed grace of God in election and justification can be regarded as changeable on the covenant level.

    —Henry W. Coray, Mario Di Gangi, Clarence W. Duff, David Freeman, Donald C. Graham, Edward L. Kellogg, Meredith G. Kline, Robert D. Knudson, Arthur W. Kuschke, David C. Lachman, George W. Marson, W. Stanford Reid, Paul G. Settle, Lelie W. Sloat, William Young to the Trustees of Westminster Theological Seminary (December 4, 1980), 5.

  7. Shepherd

    no conditions, no “offer”

    if you believe the gospel, God will save you, is true

    if you believe the gospel, your faith will be the condition and cause of your salvation, not true

    if you don’t ever believe the gospel, God will condemn you, is true

    if you don’t believe the gospel, your unbelief is what caused your condemnation, is not true

    John 3: 17 For God did not send His Son into the world in order to condemn the world, but in order that the world be saved through Him. 18 Anyone who believes in Him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, BECAUSE he has not believed in the name of the One and Only Son of God.

    (which does not mean that the elect who do not believe will always be condemned, which does not mean that the elect who donot believe will never believe)

    “Because he has not believed” does not mean that unbelief is the cause of condemnation and does not mean that faith is the cause of justification. But it does mean that the elect who have not yet believed the gospel are still condemned.

  8. Norman Shepherd defends Turretin against Daane.

    Turretin Locus 4, Question 10, AIthough we are not elected on account of Christ, yet we are not elected without and out of him; because by the very decree which destined salvation to us, Christ also was destined to acquire it for us, nor was it otherwise destined, than as to he acquired by Christ. Election, therefore, does not exclude but includes Christ, not as already given, but as to be given” (Paragraph 14);

    Turretin—“The Election of Christ as Mediator should not be extended more widely than the Election of men who are to be saved, so that he was not destined and sent for more than the elect” (Paragraph 19).

  9. In 3.14.21 Calvin himself seemed a little uncertain about the expression when he wrote “whenever the true cause is to he assigned….” That seems to imply at least that the “inferior causes” are not causes in the same sense and perhaps not actual “causes” at all. In other words, it suggests that he was equivocating on the word cause

    We may disagree about what some contemporary writers are about. I think that there is a conscious attempt to move (re-locate) the Shepherdite formulations (e.g., “through faith and works” or “through faithfulness”) from the doctrine of justification to the doctrine of salvation more broadly.

    One leading critic of the tradition said to me directly that the Heidelberg Catechism’s structure of “Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude” makes sanctification and obedience a “second blessing.”

    Behind the attempt to make our good works co-instrumental lies a certain dissatisfaction with the mainstream of historic Reformed orthodoxy. This is one reason why one sees so much emphasis on the “diversity” in Reformed theology, why folks are appealing to Davenant and even to the Amyraldians as if they were just as orthodox and formative of the tradition as Perkins, Ames, Polanus, and Turretin.

    The appeal to “the many” fits the spirit of our age and we find it persuasive. I’ve argued here and elsewhere that there was indeed a Reformed mainstream on these issues. there is a school of thought that is widely influentialthat rejects (or at least calls into question) the very notion of an ordo salutis…The effect of this approach is to swallow up the sorts of distinctions we used to make,… so that faith and works become co-instrumental.

    Behind Shepherd and his supporters there is the Edwardean tradition that dismisses faith as the “instrumental cause” of justification and that speaks of justification in two stages: initial and final. . In that scheme, our good works play an essential part in the formation of faith (which is essentially Thomas’ definition of faith as “formed by love”) and we are, as it were, on the hot seat until the consummation. Readers and listeners are hearing some folks to teach that we justified provisionally now but that ourfinal state is, in part, contingent upon our obedience and good works (cooperation with grace).

    If this is NOT what people should be hearing then the solution is quite plain. If we’re all really just saying the same thing then we should able to establish that


    Could have” sounds so yesterday. What Adam might have done….What Christ might have done…

    Why preach Christ and Him crucified when all that’s in the past, and the intercession of Jesus present in you is in the future? And why preach election, when’s that too is past, and best forgotten for now (or at least kept secret). And the two-sided covenant extends into your future?

    To quote from Shepherd’s Call of Grace, published by Presbyterian and Reformed and endorsed by Richard Gaffin, p 83—-“To look at covenant from the perspective of election is ultimately to yield to the temptation to be as God.

    p 84—“God has wrought a finished and complete redemption, and so salvation (and not merely the possibility of salvation) is offered without equivocation to all…. The Calvinist frequently hedges on the extent of the world, because the saving love of God revealed in the atonement is only for the elect….The Reformed evangelist can and must preach to everyone on the basis of John 3:16 –Christ died to save you.

    p 89—“John 15 is often taught by distinguishing two kinds of branches. Some branches are not really in Christ in a saving way. Some are only in Him externally…If this distinction is in the text, it’s difficult to see what the point of the warning is. The outward branches cannot profit from it. because they cannot in any case bear genuine fruit. And the inward branches cannot help but bear good fruit. The words outward and inward are often used in the Reformed community…to account for the fact that the covenant community includes both elect and non-elect. But when Paul uses the terms Romans 2:28-29 , he is not referring to the elect and non-elect. The terms define the difference between covenantally loyal Jews and disobedient transgressors of the law.”

    Clair Davis—”Election is not really about evangelism and what we should say then. I think this is the answer that pulls us together, the one that helped Whitefield and Wesley keep on working together, actively evangelizing together.”

    Doug Wilson: “To see election through a covenant lens does not mean to define decretal election as though it were identical with covenant election. But we do not drag the decrees down into our understanding of history — we let God unfold His unchangeable decrees throughout the process of all history. The content of the ultimate decrees is none of our current business, although we cheerfully acknowledge that the decrees are really there and that they have an unchanging content.”

    Doug Wilson: “Because of the promises of the covenant, we may deal with election on our end, which is covenant election. The decrees are on God’s end. It is important for us to know that God does what He does on His end, but we only know that He is doing it, not what He is doing.”

  11. markmcculley Says:

    The cause of faith itself, however, they would keep buried all the time out of sight, which is this: that the children of God who are chosen to be sons are afterwards blessed with the spirit of adoption. Now, what kind of gratitude is that in me if, being endowed with so pre-eminent a benefit, I consider myself no greater a debtor than he who hath not received one hundredth part of it? Wherefore, if, to praise the goodness of God worthily, it is necessary to bear in mind how much we are indebted to Him, those are malignant towards Him and rob Him of His glory who reject and will not endure the doctrine of eternal election, which being buried out of sight…
    Let those roar at us who will. We will ever brighten forth, with all our power of language, the doctrine which we hold concerning the free election of God, seeing that it is only by it that the faithful can understand how great that goodness of God is which effectually called them to salvation. I merely give the great doctrine of election a slight touch here, lest anyone, by avoiding a subject so necessary for him to know, should afterwards feel what loss his neglect has caused him.

    Now, if we are not really ashamed of the Gospel, we must of necessity acknowledge what is therein openly declared: that God by His eternal goodwill (for which there was no other cause than His own purpose), appointed those whom He pleased unto salvation, rejecting all the rest; and that those whom He blessed with this free adoption to be His sons He illumines by His Holy Spirit, in order to receive the life given in Christ; while others, continuing of their own will in unbelief, are left destitute of the light of faith, in total darkness.

    But you will say, In a matter so difficult and deep as this, nothing is better than to think moderately. Who denies it? But we must, at the same time, examine what kind and degree of moderation it is, lest we should be drawn into the principle of the Papists, who, to keep their disciples obedient to them, make them like mute and brute beasts. But shall it be called Christian simplicity to consider as hurtful the knowledge of those things which God sets before us? But (say our opponents), this subject is one of which we may remain ignorant without loss or harm.
    As if our heavenly Teacher were not the best judge of what it is expedient for us to know, and to what extent we ought to know it! Wherefore, that we may not struggle amid the waves, nor be borne about in the air, unfixed and uncertain, nor, by getting our foot too deep, be drowned in the gulph below; let us so give ourselves to God, to be ruled by Him and taught by Him, that, contented with His Word alone, we may never desire to know more than we find therein. No! not even if the power so to do were given to us! This teachableness, in which every godly man will ever hold all the powers of his mind under the authority of the Word of God, is the true and only rule of wisdom.

  12. markmcculley Says:

    is “national election” also “common grace”?

    John Frame– The ordo, of course, is historical in that all the events it describes, from effectual calling to glorification, takes place in space and time. But the events described in the ordo recur over and over again in history. Noah and Abraham experienced the events of the ordo, as did Moses, David, Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, you, and me. The second model, historia salutis, however, focuses on non-recurring historical events. God made a covenant with Noah, for example. He never made that covenant again, and he never will make it again. . That covenant continues while the earth remains. Same for the covenants with Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, and Christ.

    Another feature of the historia salutis method is that it sees salvation less in individual terms, more in corporate terms. The covenants are made, not only with the covenant mediators like Noah and Abraham, but through them with their families. By the time of Moses, the family of God had become a nation; and with the institution of the New Covenant, it became a nation made of many nations.

    The corporate emphasis in the historia salutis leads to a focus on the public and visible aspects of salvation. The events described in the ordo are invisible, inward. They occur in the individual heart. The historia salutis occurs in public events. The covenants are publicly witnessed. God attests his covenant mediators by signs and wonders. The history includes deliverances from oppressors, victories in war, dramatic displays of divine power and grace. The crucifixion of Christ took place once for all, in a public setting; and his resurrection was visible to hundreds of witnesses.

    Further, the history of salvation focuses on the visible church rather than, as the ordo salutis, on the invisible. In the Old Testament, the history of salvation is largely the history of one nation, Israel….. The ordo salutis analyzes the heart condition of church members and declares that those who are truly regenerate cannot apostatize. The historia salutis analyzes the empirical reality of the church in history. In its view, people enter the church through baptism, and they either continue in their allegiance to Christ or they renounce him.4

    So historia salutis focuses on non-recurrent historical events of a corporate, public, and visible nature. As such, Scripture often describes it in political terms. The history of salvation is the coming of the Kingdom, to allude to Herman Ridderbos’s important volume by that title. God calls Israel to defeat by his power all the ungodly nations of Canaan. These are holy wars, and God promises Victory to Israel when she is faithful to him. John the Baptist, and later Jesus, preached “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” The apostolic church preached “Jesus is Lord,” Kyrios Iesous, a phrase with a deeply political meaning. The Roman emperors proclaimed their own Lordship; the Christians proclaim the Lordship of Jesus. The Romans crucified Jesus, and later persecuted the church, because they thought Jesus presented himself as a rival Caesar. The Romans, of course, misunderstood Jesus’ claims in some ways; but in other ways they were deeply insightful. The mission of the church was nothing less than to establish a new world order.

    The historia salutis expresses a more obvious integration between law and gospel than we saw in the ordo salutis. The gospel, the good news, is “Your God reigns” (Isa. 52:7). It is “the time has come, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). This is gospel, because it is good news. But it is also law, because it is the coming of a king, the imposition of his rule.

  13. markmcculley Says:

    election is easy

    all you need to know is that you are a Christian

    and then you know you are elect

    all you need to know is that God loves you

    even if you disagree with God about who God is

    in spite of that, because you know you believe in the God

    you believe in, you know you are a Christian

    if you must think about such things

    Some “Calvinists” believe in a “limited atonement” in that they say that “”Jesus only died for those He knew He would enable to ask Him to die for them”

    ie, if you ask Jesus to die for you, He will

    that is “limited atonement”, but it’s not what the Bible teaches about the nature of propitation for the imputed sins of the elect

  14. markmcculley Says:

    John Calvin—“The integrity of the sacrament lies here, that the flesh and blood of Christ are not less truly given to the unworthy than to the elect believers of God; and yet it is true, that just as the rain falling on the hard rock runs away because it cannot penetrate, so the wicked by their hardness repel the grace of God, and prevent it from reaching them.

    Cary–Reformed and Lutheran will heartily agree that the sacramental means of grace can only do me good only because of the Word that gives them their form and power. There is no sacrament of Christ’s body without the Word of institution: “This is my body, given for you.” The question is, if I am weak in faith, how can I trust that this sacrament and its Word will do me good? Luther points here to the words “for you,” and insists that they include me. When faith takes hold of the Gospel of Christ, it especially takes hold of these words, “for you,” and rejoices that Christ did indeed died for me.The Gospel and its sacraments are signs that effectively give us the gift of faith. I do not have to ask whether I truly believe; I need merely ask whether it is true, just as the Word says, that Christ’s body is given for me. And if the answer is yes, then my faith is strengthened

  15. markmcculley Says:

    Erasmus –“Some things can be noxious because, like wine for the feverish, they are not fitting. Hence such matters might be treated in discourses among the educated or also in theological schools, although it is not expedient even there I think unless done with caution. Definitely, it seems to me, it is not only unsuitable but truly pernicious to carry on such disputations when everybody can listen.”

  16. Mark Mcculley Says:

    Since the Reformed define their true visible church as including the non-elect, they of all people have the least right to declare that the elect will all join their true visible church

    Many of them say that nobody ever joins their true visible church. Instead they claim that every elect person was born already in their true visible church

    In what they call their true visible church, they have not only many people who neither know or believe the gospel, but also even worse than that, their Constantinian presumption claims that all God’s justified sinners are part of their visible church. You are there apart from your choice, and they will discipline you without your choice.

    Predestinaton and election do not mean that justification before God is not visible. God’s election results in the elect knowing and believe the gospel. Predestination and election mean that no visible church is in charge of administering election and justification before God.

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