Covenantal Nomism Needs a Particular Sort of People, Not the Merits of Christ

Brain Vickers, Justification by Grace Through Faith, Explorations in Biblical Theology , edited by Robert Petersen, Presbyterian and Reformed, 2013

His chapter 3 puts the emphasis on the conditionality of Abraham continuing to do what needs to be done. We got this reading of Genesis a long time ago from Dan Fuller, and it certainly fits with an Edwardsian notion of justification as a process based on God knowing that God will enable the children of Abraham to keep doing well enough to meet the conditions to obtain what they have learned to desire. The theological grammar depends on a “covenantal nomism” distinction between election and conditional covenant.

Listen to this Vickers soundbite— “God keeps his word. At the same time the blessing is unconditionally promised to a particular sort of people.” (p 66) Clever, is it not? “At the same time”. The covenant itself is “unconditional”. But. Who stays in the covenant, well, that’s not so unconditional. “A particular sort of people”. The people God keeps causing these sort of people to keep meeting the conditions (100% God, but also 100% them). Be warned— you haven’t got to the end and there is no “closure” (assurance) for you yet.

This approach avoids the “antinomian” “once justified, always justified” and “once born again, always born again” teaching. Maybe you think you are in the “particular kind of people” but are you really? Sure, justified people stay justified, but you can never know until the end if you ever were justified! There are different ways to get to these “gospel threats” and warnings. Vickers does not sound like the federal visionists about water baptism making you elect, and then you losing your election. But still you have to keep running to the end in works without ever knowing for sure that you believe the gospel.

But don’t I myself have a similar kind of problem, since I insist first, that Christ died only for the elect and second, that the elect will come to know and believe the gospel.? So maybe next week, I will find out that I am not elect, and that I don’t believe the gospel, and then it will be seen as evidence that I never did? . We should continue to think about that challenge, but for sake of information, let me remind you that Vickers and Schreiner (along with John Piper and Dan Fuller) don’t like to think of the warnings as after-the-fact evidence. They love the “beauty of threats” as the means of grace. See especially John Piper’s book Future Grace and its plea for “conditionality”.

Then we can discuss if there is a practical difference between the idea of “evidence” and “warnings as means”. Maybe we can discuss also the conclusion by Vickers: “However, while Abraham sets the standard for justification by faith alone, he also proves the old Protestant phrase—the faith that justifies alone is never alone.” (p 70) Yes, I do want to question old phrases, but before we do that, we need to question the idea that God counts faith as the righteousness. God imputes righteousness. God does not impute faith. And God certainly does not impute faith as righteousness.It’s not faith that justifies. It’s Christ’s death which justifies. It’s Christ’s righteousness which justifies, and Christ’s death is Christ’s righteousness.

Faith is not ‘all that is needed”. Christ’s righteousness is needed. Faith is a gift given by means of Christ’s righteousness. II Peter 1:1– To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.

On page 74, Vickers makes some of the most polemical remarks in his book. They are not directed against NT Wright or the new perspective, or against those who say that God counts faith as righteousness. Vickers instead attempts to distance himself from the metaphor of a “storehouse of merit”. Vickers seems very worked up when he insists that “righteousness is not a commodity”. Sure, agree also that it’s not a gas or a liquid either, but if you really want to do us a service, interact with a specific old (or new) writer who uses the metaphor in a way you don’t approve. Help us to think through the problems.

When you simply say that “the righteousness in view is incarnate”, that opens you wide to Osiander who located the righteousness in Christ indwelling us. Even worse, it opens up the old false antithesis between person and work, so that the work of Christ can be disregarded (or believed in “implicitly”, ie, without understanding) just so long as we all look together at Christ. But the “righteousness revealed” in the gospel (Romans 1) is not simply God’s attribute as just, but what God got done in Christ, in His death and resurrection.

Vickers teaches that “imputation is sharing in the Christ who is our righteousness”. Does that mean that we no longer need the language of imputation, and we can simply say “union with Christ” or “participation in Christ”?

It turns out that the phrases we prefer to use need their own explanations. For example, how does “in Christ” relate to “Christ in us”, and is the difference between the two phrases important, or is everything solved by simply saying “union” or “participation? Don’t those metaphors have to be thought through as well, both in what they mean and what they don’t?

While we don’t have to talk about “first national bank of heaven”, Bunyan was not wrong to say that the righteousness is not in us but in heaven. Nor do I think it’s helpful to be so dismissive of “some theologians who speak of the atonement as something that can be mathematically quantified.” If Vickers wants to think more about that, he should read the excellent book by his colleague Tom Nettles (By His Grace and for His Glory) on old Baptist theologians Boyce and Dagg and Abraham Booth. No matter what Andrew Fuller may have said, it was not John Gill who invented the idea of atonement by price, nor was it Tom Nettles who invented the idea of Christ doing things by measure (instead of by infinity). We need to pay special attention to the distinction Nettles makes between imputation in the atonement, and imputation in justification.

It’s not enough to contrast believing and doing, especially if it turns out that you stress the evidence of believing is doing. (p 80) The big focus of the gospel is not our believing. The big focus of the gospel is the doing of Christ. If we are only depending on the idea that we believe instead of doing, we are still not believing on what Christ did. And if we think that God will count our believing as the righteousness God accepts, we are mistaken, no matter how much we give God the credit for our believing.

On Romans 8:4, Vickers comments: “I do not think it is likely that Paul is speaking here of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as the fulfillment, but rather of what Christ’s work accomplishes in us through the Spirit.” p 160) But since Vickers is not into polemics (except with those who use commercial metaphors for the atonement or for justification), he does not interact with Hodge or Smeaton or anybody else who has a different view. He thinks the word “walking” proves his point. As to the question of which law it is that we are imperfectly fulfilling, Vickers tells us that “it is not the law of Moses per se but the aim of it that believers fulfill through the Spirit. So Vickers doe not think perfection is necessary for “fulfillment”. Vickers fudges things a bit–the intent of the law, and the intent of us wanting to be perfect.

So what sort of people are you? Are you the sort of person who can live in the distinction between “based on” and “part and parcel”? Or do such distinctions tend to deconstruct before your eyes when you end up in the same place the enemy’s tax agent: God be merciful (propitiated!) to me .

One problem with Vicker’s apporach is that he wants to say different things to different people. He wants to be wise enough to preach faith is not alone to those who believe in faith alone, and then preach faith alone (look outside) to those who thank God for having given them a new heart which meets the conditions. Vickers concludes: “We must be bold enough to tell people that no amount of confessional orthodoxy is enough to save anyone, and that being a dyed in the wool believer of justification by faith is not the same thing as trusting Christ for salvation. We cannot skirt the reality that the true people of God are meant to live as those who have the Spirit…” (p 162)

“Meant to”? Yes, the law still commands perfection? But are you living it? I do not ask about how bold and open you are about “covenantal nomism”. I ask, are you self-righteous enough to think that you yourself are the sort of person who will keep on living well enough to make the death of Christ work for you?

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8 Comments on “Covenantal Nomism Needs a Particular Sort of People, Not the Merits of Christ”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    Heidelberg Catechism 21. Q. What is true faith?

    A. True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in His Word.[1] At the same time it is a firm confidence[2] that not only to others, but also to me,[3] God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation,[4] out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.[5] This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel.[6]

    [1] John 17:3, 17; Heb. 11:1-3; James 2:19. [2] Rom. 4:18-21; 5:1; 10:10; Heb. 4:16. [3] Gal. 2:20. [4] Rom. 1:17; Heb. 10:10. [5] Rom.3:20-26; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-10. [6] Acts 16:14; Rom. 1:16; 10:17; I Cor. 1:21.

  2. Alien Pebble Says:

    However, the problem with universal atonement goes deeper than these particular schemes. Redemption is particular rather than universal, because the object of redemption is not some “principle” but persons. Short of affirming universalism, any universal atonement theory, in order to preserve “efficacy” of atonement, must argue the priority of some “principle” to persons, and then say Christ died for that “principle” effectively. Whether a person is saved then depends on whether he has or obeys that principle.

    Often the “principle” is “Humanity”. It is not any person in particular, but an abstract universal Humanity. According to my knowledge, this appears to be what the Eastern Orthodox holds, who thinks Incarnation is Redemption (with the motto “that which is not assumed is not redeemed”), and Christ redeemd Humanity. (I heard this was why they don’t have Total Depravity, as that would imply Christ was depraved in their system.) From here it is not hard to extend to the “World”, and turn Christianity into a Babel project.

  3. markmcculley Says:

    Matt Perman—Some “justification is a process” theologians would not want to say that faith and obedience are the same thing. They argue that faith and obedience are so closely tied together that you cannot have one without the other….But many of them do not mean simply that obedience always results from faith. What they mean, rather, is that while obedience involves things other than faith, faith is still part of the very nature of obedience. Faith is an ingredient in obedience on their view–and, in fact, for them faith is the ingredient that makes obedience virtuous.

    Mark McCulley—Galatians 3: 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Argument—-faith is not doing, law requires doing, law does not require faith. God counts according to truth, not fiction. Your faith is not a satisfaction of law, and this is not only because your faith is not perfect enough. Your faith is not a satisfaction of law, because the law requires death (not faith) to pay for your sins.

  4. markmcculley Says:

    Most professing Christians say that Jesus is the Savior of all sinners whether they ever get saved or not. But Arminianism is not nearly denounced as are “Antinomians who Deny Christ’s Lordship by Saying that Sinning or not Sinning is not what gives assurance”. Some think that they sin less and thus have Christ as their Lord where others do not.

    Lord of all, even if you don’t confess it? Savior of all, even if not saved?

  5. Mark Mcculley Says:

    Storms, p 845–A mere profession of faith without good deeds will not avil on the day of judgment
    Then Storms quotes Schriener (not Piper’s intorduction to Schreiner)–“Paul’s statments in Romans 2 are not merely hypothetically those who fail to do good works . No one can be saved without good works an good works are necessary to obtain an eschatological inheritance . The Spirit’s work in a person producs obedience to the law. These works then do constitute an earning of salvation but the evidence of salvation. We should stress that Paul is not demaanding perfect obedience but
    obedience that is significant, substantial an observable. (laaw and
    its fulfillment, p 204)
    So Storms is looking for “the Sort of person” who does enough works
    p 846 Whereas it it true that we are justified by faith alone, we are
    not justified by the faith that is alone
    Now, you can say, if only Storms knew that the elect will be saved
    by the righteousnss of Christ’s death, then maybe Storms would not
    talk this stupid way about being saved by faith.
    But I don’t think so, because STorms would agree to many things we
    might say about Christ’s righteousness imputed.
    p 848–“Real faith is like a seed–when planted, it prouces fruit. Real
    faith prodcus a life in whicch one’s heart loves the things of God and
    WANTS to walk in obedience. Real faith does not produce perfection,
    but real faith does produce passion and pursuit for God.

    • markmcculley Says:

      Mike Horton, Justification, volume 2, (New Studies in Dogmatics , -“a person can become a member of the covenant of grace without truly beleiving the gpspel All persons in the covenant are to be threatened with the consequences of apostasy. Some belong to the covenant community and experience thereby the work of the Spirit through the sacramental means of grace and yet have never believe the gospel . Thus we have a category for a person who is in the covenant but this has nothing to do their faith in the gospel.

      p449—Union with Christ is not actually an element in the order of salvation but an “umbrella term” for the order as a whole.

      Horton, p450—“The Holy Spirit grants us faith to be united to Christ.”

      Horton, p451—“Union is not a goal but the source”

      Horton, p487—“the goal of union”

      Horton, p455–“There is no union with Christ which is not union with the visible church”

      Horton, p467–Calvin goes beyond Luther by stressing the more and more aspect of salvation

      Horton, p471—” Logical priority does not determine basis”


      Mike Horton—Does God require our obedience for salvation? Sure God does. But here’s the key thing to remember. God gives what God
      commands. In the old covenant, God commanded the nation of Israel to circumcise their own hearts (Deut 10:16). In the new covenant, God
      promises to do that himself. We can’t obey our way into God’s family. But God requires our obedience, just as any good father does. “If you
      love me,” Jesus said, “then you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). Imagine someone adopting a child into a great family full of love and
      grace. Then, after being written into the Father’s will, the young person says, “Glad to have the goods, but I don’t even know you. I’m gone.” Now, sometimes God’s children do actually go off to a far
      country into the depths of sin, like the prodigal son. They’re welcomed back, but as repentant children, just like the prodigal. The Father’s arms are wide open to receive prodigals back. But is
      obedience necessary? Of course, it is like in any good home. Everyone the Father calls to himself by his Spirit through the gospel trust in Christ. And true turst always bears the fruit of love and good works. You can’t be united to Christ for justification and not also for sanctification. We’re justified apart from our own obedience precisely to become obedient

      Mike Horton—“The New Testament lays before us a vast array of CONDITIONS for final salvation. Not only initial repentance and faith, but perseverance in both, demonstrated in love toward God and neighbor ” God of Promise, p 182

      Mike Horton—To be claimed by water baptism as part of God’s holy field comes with threats as well as blessings. Covenant members who do not believe are under the covenant curse. HOW CAN THEY FALL UNDER THE CURSES OF A COVENANT TO WHICH THEY DID NOT BELONG? God promises his saving grace in Christ to each person in baptism, whether they embrace this promise or not. Yet the instrumental CONDITION is that they must embrace the promise in faith. Otherwise, they fall under the covenant curse without Christ as their mediator….”

  6. Mark Mcculley Says:

    Lee Irons—-Note the fundamentally voluntarist reasoning of the Westminster Confession’s opening statement on the covenants: The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant (WCF VII.1). All the basic elements in this statement are derived directly from the Franciscan notion of covenantal or congruous merit.

    Click to access redefining_merit.pdf

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