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?