“Justification by Faith Alone”

by Norman Shepherd

in Reformation & Revival Journal Vol. 11, Number 2, Spring 2002

A Review by David H. Linden

This article by Rev. Norman Shepherd in Reformation & Revival Journal, (edit. John H. Armstrong) appears in an issue with the theme: Justification: Modern Reflections.

The subject of Professor Shepherd’s article is now recognized as a large subject on which much is currently being written. I have chosen to address issues in this one article rather than the wider range of Shepherd’s theology.

His focus is to address justification by faith in the Westminster Standards with the Confession receiving more attention than the catechisms. His special focus is on the appropriateness of saying that justification is by faith alone and how such words may lead us astray.

A. Important Incidentals

1. The precise wording “justified by faith alone” does not appear anywhere in the Westminster Standards – so we are informed in this article. One might think by this observation that such words would not appear because they express a dogma the Confession rejects. That such words are not employed proves nothing, yet the observation may lead some to think that Shepherd has here some key insight most of us have missed. Underlining this neutral fact creates an impression that there might be substantial reason why the Confession does not say we are ‘justified by faith alone’. In the latter part of his article he says more frankly, “By not using the formula, justification by faith alone, the Westminster Standards avoid a serious misunderstanding of the gospel,” p.85. This indicates the strength of his rejection of this common way of speaking of justification.

The question to be dealt with in my review is whether Shepherd really has the Westminster Standards behind him in his rejection of the idea these words convey. He admits and shows early in his writing that both Westminster Catechisms employ “faith alone” but this language he questions in a context where he is not quoting the catechisms, a criticism that does not appear till later.i However, when Luther used “faith alone” in his translation of Romans 3:28, Shepherd is quite frank, saying those words distort the Apostle’s Paul’s message! p. 87. It would be fair to say that Mr. Shepherd does not like the idea of “faith alone.”

2. The grammar of the word “alone.” Shepherd makes a claim on the grammar of “faith alone”. His rather surprising point is that when the catechisms say “faith alone” they do not really mean that because “alone” supposedly is not an adjective and thus could not really be modifying “faith”.ii So when reading “faith alone” in a Westminster catechism one should not think that the “alone” refers to faith. In this case “alone” is, he claims, an adverb so the catechisms are only saying how justification is received. I suspect a grammar teacher would not agree. Shepherd maintains that what the catechism really means is that the only way justification is received is by faith. If this is what those Englishmen and other British writers meant, I suggest they would have said, “only received by faith” or “received only by faith”.

But if they had written even those words, it would still mean that the justifying verdict could not be received in any other way than by faith, since only faith is listed. And that ends up being the same in meaning as saying “faith alone”. Shepherd’s efforts to get some grammatical distance from “faith alone” should serve to signal his rejection of it. I think his analysis of the grammar is wrong. “Alone” in the catechism is an adjective modifying the noun “faith”.iii If his grammatical point is valid, we still end up with a clear statement that justification can be received in no other way than by faith. Good works are still blocked from being a means to justification.

Shepherd’s chief point throughout his article is to establish that faith, even at the moment when one is justified, does not stand alone. And I observe that he is at some grammatical pains to make the catechism say this when it does not. If he is right, one might understandably wonder what might then be combined with faith as a requirement for justification. If something in addition to faith is needed, then it is very clear that justification cannot be by faith alone. But if that hypothesis is right then the Westminster catechism is wrong. I hold that the catechism in its simple wording is Biblically sound. And I further assert that Shepherd cannot have it both ways. He cannot have the catechism with him and also have a doctrine that justification is by more than faith.

3. The instrumentality of faith. Shepherd uses “instrument” or related forms of the word some 29 times. He turns to “alone instrument” in the Confession as the key alternative to the popular expression “justified by faith alone.” The Confession says,

Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.iv (WCF 11:2)

“The Alone Instrument” is the title of a section comprising 20% of his article. So this is not a peripheral issue with him. This section bears down on the error of Rome in making baptism an instrument of justification along with faith. He thinks the Confession with these words was chiefly counteracting that error. He says:

…When the Catechisms say that imputed righteousness is received by faith alone they are describing the instrumental function of faith. They do not use the formula, “justified by faith alone.” p. 78

We are told the words “the alone instrument” are preferable to saying we are “justified by faith alone.” We do know he does not like the second option. This issue is certainly raised, but no reason is provided till later. But what is clear is, to Norman Shepherd, “the alone instrument of justification” does not mean the same as “faith alone.” This embrace of one phrase and the multiple qualifications made concerning the other is congenial to his view of justification. It is alright to say, “Faith functions instrumentally as the way in which we receive the righteousness of Christ,” p. 79, but for some reason not yet apparent, he does not want to say “justified by faith alone”. Both ways are equally restrictive. If faith is THE way we receive justification, then faith alone is the instrument.

Any preacher proclaiming Shepherd’s fine distinction will not bring the congregation to a clearer grasp of justification. One set of words is absolutely true; faith does function instrumentally in justification. But that does not preclude the other very common way of stating how we are justified. Both mean the same thing. So we find in this article a dubious distinction struggling to stand apart from justification by faith alone. It is as difficult to grasp Professor Shepherd’s point here as it is to find a difference between six and a half dozen. But one thing is clear; we are left with more impressions. And when an educated man speaks, trusting people tend to give him the benefit of the doubt, musing, “There must be some difference between the two or he wouldn’t say it.”

4. Where “justification by faith alone” is allowed. If – and one must stay in the boundaries of the “if” – if one thinks of good works as merit, then saying “justification by faith alone” is a good correction for such error. Otherwise Shepherd believes the same expression will lead us astray. This is the first time I have ever encountered the suggestion that in order to preserve a truth one ought to replace an error with another error.

As we go along we will find that Shepherd thinks that works are a part of ‘faith’. Yet he does not think making works part of faith falls into the error of a merit salvation. (I say it does.) But if anyone does think that good works are meritorious, then and only then the use of “justified by faith alone” is both useful and necessary, p. 85.

Hopefully none of us actually accept that good works are of the essence of faith. Yet in this article he urges us to adopt such a view. But if we suggest that good works are meritorious, then we ought, in his counsel, to counter that error by saying that justification is by faith alone. Otherwise we should not say justified by faith alone.

In this article, by invalid reasoning, strained distinctions and nuances hard to grasp, the door of justification has been propped open for good works to enter in as a component of faith itself. His Trojan horse is his reworked definition of faith, but the enemy hidden inside this faith with a new definition turns out to be our obedience. After reading this article, one will find that such good words as “faith alone” do not, in Shepherd’s hands, manage to exclude good works as an essential ingredient of faith. That is the shock that the evangelical reader must face in understanding Norman Shepherd. We can easily fall into a psychological state of denial such as one has when first learning some terrible news from the doctor – that sense that this just cannot be true. Read my words carefully; Norman Shepherd believes justification is by a faith that not merely is evidenced by but one that must include in it our obedience to God’s law. That is why he is so very eager to get around such language as “justified by faith alone”. It is not so much that the Confession does not use those words as that he does not agree with what they mean.

There are two things Shepherd must do to convince us of his view. First he must overcome the language of faith alone. He has certainly tried to prove that strong confessional language is not a barrier to good works as a means of justification – though we might have expected that “faith alone” in both catechisms would have done that! But his second difficulty is that he must find some positive support in the Confession for justification by more than just faith. Thus Shepherd will argue that the Confession asserts that our obedience is part of the essence of “justifying faith”.v

B. Faith Never Alone

Shepherd uses the term “justifying faith” almost a dozen times. When he says, “The Confession does this when it says that justifying faith is never, ever alone,” p. 80, the reader of his article will have the impression, even if quotation marks are not used,vi that the Confession does indeed say, “justifying faith is never alone”. It simply does not. Here again is the paragraph to which Shepherd alludes:

Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it [referring to faith] not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love. (WCF 11:2)

The question is this: Does the Confession teach that justifying faith includes the other saving graces at the moment when a person is justified? If so, one may then call such a composite faith “justifying faith”. This is the point at issue. Shepherd slips in that the confession says that justifying faith is not alone (when it does not say this!) and then he continues to make his case. He cheated. He said the Confession said something it does not! Nowhere does it say “justifying faith” has other graces present in it. It does not and it would not. Professor Shepherd is explicitly clear when he says these saving graces are not “added to it [justifying faith] at a later point,” p. 81. If the Confession really said what Shepherd’s unwary readers may well think it does, he would have tremendous support for his position. This glaring error the Confession simply does not make. It says faith [i.e. of the Christian] is never alone; it does not say justifying faith [i.e. of the one seeking to be justified] is never alone, because justifying faith is alone. Shepherd has read into the Confession what is not there.

What he is teaching is this: when a person is justified by faith, that justifying faith has in it already all these other graces. Obviously that initial repentant faith of a sinner coming to Jesus Christ in his sins for forgiveness, could not be a faith that is alone if indeed it must have all these other graces in it up front. That is a far cry from what the Westminster Confession of Faith is saying. (Yet what the Confession does say is true: faith is always accompanied by this complex of saving graces; saving faith is not a bare faith that stands without them in the life of a justified person.) All of Professor Shepherd’s early effort in this article to downplay “faith alone” was to make room for these saving graces as part of justifying faith.

The Confession says one of these saving graces of chapter 11 of the Confession is “obedience to his commands” mentioned in chapter 14. But let us tread carefully here; if the complex of other graces really is part of the means of justification, then the evangelist in proclaiming the gospel must demand that these graces be present in the one coming to God for justification. Shepherd might as well say that God only saves people who are already good. (I am sure he would never say that, but his theology requires it.) I am very glad when I was without Christ in my unforgiven and sinful state, that I was not exposed to such a parody of the gospel. Norman Shepherd is telling people in the guise of reformed theology that the person who seeks to be justified in the obedience of Christ must come with his own obedience first in order to receive Christ’s. This is a far cry from the real gospel. Sinners cannot come to Christ in their sins if they must come to Christ without their sins.

What does the Confession mean when it says “faith… is not alone”? It means that the faith of the person who believes is not a dead faith; it always issues in the fruit of other graces. These different graces are not identical to the initial faith that is without good works. The beginning faith of a sinner reaches out with empty hands for free justification as the gift of God. He comes to Christ with no virtue in him; he comes with nothing to receive everything. The reason for this is simple: when a person is justified by faith, he has a new standing before God, a newly reconciled relation with the Lord, in which he now benefits by receiving the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is a sanctifying Spirit Who produces these other graces that always accompany the saving grace of justifying faith, Romans 8:9-15. All those “other saving graces” ever after accompany the early justifying faith, when the sinner came to Christ without any good works at all. Those good works will surely come in every justified soul, but one has to be justified first, Ephesians 2:8-10.

Norman Shepherd would disagree heartily with what I have just said. He holds that “…justifying faith does not have the other gifts and graces added to it at a later point, after it has brought about justification…” p. 81. He says “the sequence is of fundamental importance” p. 81 because he claims the Westminster Confession says that justifying faith is never alone, even at the outset, p. 81. This is a very serious misrepresentation of what the Confession is really saying.

How must we read Chapter 11 on Justification in the Westminster Confession?

The first paragraph is about how a sinner is justified. Then having covered that point the next paragraph speaks of that faith in a person who has been justified. Faith is alone when one comes to be justified (para.1), but for the person already justified (para.2) faith is not alone.

How does Mr. Shepherd read this? He keeps on reading the second paragraph as if it did not move beyond the first – as if it were teaching that to become a justified person one must have the kind of faith that is accompanied by all other saving graces. At this point he picks up the confessional truth that the saving graces in paragraph 2 should include the obedience mentioned in Chapter 14 of the Confession. But by saying that this is what justifying faith is, he forces into justifying faith the character of a transformed Christian life. In other words he takes the virtue of a person already justified and vitally united to Christ, and he then makes that a condition up front for a justification that is supposed to be by faith alone according to the catechisms. It is a massive confusion that destroys justification by taking the faith of a poor sinner with no righteousness and demands that he come with obedience. Shepherd might as well say that to become a Christian you have to be one first.

Here again is the disputed paragraph, 11:2, in two parts:

Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification:

This is a review of what is confessed in paragraph one. (See the attached endnote for the entire paragraph.)vii The faith instrument is alone at the time of the verdict of justification. The paragraph is deliberately setting out a contrast between two different states before God. One could say here first is faith for the unjustified and then faith for the justified.

yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love. (WCF 11:2)

The situation after the word “yet” has radically changed. The attention of the Confession changes to the person newly justified. Before the sinner was justified it was a matter of his having faith and nothing else for justification. Now that same sinner is called “the person justified,” and in such a person as that, faith is not alone. His faith is ever after accompanied with all other saving graces. So when the Confession moves from the one needing justification to the person justified, it declares that faith is now accompanied. “Faith alone” switches to a faith that from that point on is “not alone”.

We ought to be able to see that the situation is different. Would not faith in a saved person who has the Holy Spirit, be different from the faith he needed for justification when he came as a sinner to the Lord? This is a distinction Norman Shepherd refuses to recognize and in the process loses the gospel. He treats the faith of “the person justified,” as identical to the faith needed in the man at the moment of his conversion. I have to say that Mr. Shepherd at that point is not reading the Westminster Confession very well.

An Obedient Faith

By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace WCF 14:2

First we must see how Mr. Shepherd approaches this section about faith. He insists that saving faith is the same as justifying faith, p. 82, so whatever he can derive from this paragraph about saving faith will, in his system, have to be the same for justifying faith. He interprets the section: “Saving faith is described not only as believing whatsoever is revealed in the word of God but also as obeying its commands, trembling at its threatenings, and embracing the promises of God…” p. 82.

At first glance it seems that his reading is valid. But this section is telling us the result of saving faith. A Christian will live a certain way which the Confession elaborates. I say it is saying that:

A Christian believes to be true what is revealed in Scripture …

And this Christian acts upon Scripture in different ways, namely:

The Christian yields obedience…

The Christian trembles at …

The Christian embraces the promises of God …

Now how does the Christian do all this? He believes and acts in these ways by faith. Here is faith working its way out in the thinking and conduct of a Christian. So it is that the Confession says that by saving faith a Christian yields obedience. It is hopefully not surprising that a Christian should live this way. But we must not miss that it is the Christian who believes, and acts, and yields obedience. Mr. Shepherd takes it a different way. He takes obedience in chapter 14 to be a description of justifying faith, rather than the behavior of a Christian. Then he can claim that the Confession really holds that justifying faith includes obedience. Note his words: “Saving faith [to him the same as justifying faith] is described … as obeying…” p. 82. Then he can transport an aspect of a Christian’s life back into a requirement for justification.

He will say you must have faith to be justified. He has discovered a way to stretch faith to say that saving faith includes our obedience (which for the Christian is true), and then he teaches that for justification the sinner must be obedient! In this way he thinks he got the Confession to teach justification by works. He has a tremendous skill at improvising a doctrine out of bits and pieces of other contexts and statements of truth.

But to get to such a conclusion as that, he had to cut out a description of a Christian’s life and paste it into a situation the Confession is not speaking about at all in chapter 14. Shepherd injects Christian conduct into the means of justification. (No wonder he was so energetic to restrict “faith alone”!)

Furthermore, he had to take a statement of what the Christian does, and say that that is what faith is, distorting the grammar of 14:2 in the process.viii The Confession says by faith a Christian yields obedience. It was not actually saying at that place that faith yields obedience. It was saying how a Christian acts, not what faith is for everybody. But no matter, Shepherd had to take the faith by which a Christian lives, and especially obedience, a result of that faith, and use it for his novel definition of what justifying faith is. A truly amazing maneuver. The Confession does not even hint at describing justifying faith as the obedience a Christian yields to the commands of God. On television there is a program where people compete to make some item from whatever they can find in a junkyard. It certainly takes creativity. I find myself thinking of that when I see how Norman Shepherd theologically welds together pieces from elsewhere to build a doctrine the Confession abhors, and then he says he got it from the Westminster Confession.

When is a Person Justified?

We have looked at Mr. Shepherd’s version justification from the standpoint of what he packs into faith. We can never lose sight of that angle if we want to understand his doctrine. But another way emerges in his Reformation & Revival Journal article, and that is related to when a person is justified. To do this we must pay careful attention to matters of timing.

It is Shepherd who raises the issue of when.ix No one with any grasp of Scripture can deny good works in the life of every believer. The Bible many times insists on and requires the presence of sanctifying graces, the result of a vital union with Christ, as part of the presence of the indwelling Spirit who produces holy fruit in all of God’s children. Without holiness, no man shall see the Lord.” That is a stern statement of the necessity of godliness in us in order to be identified now and later as real believers. It is not however a statement of how one is justified. I will not quarrel whether the graces of a life changed by God show up immediately; I do think they do in a way perceptible to God. It shows in the sense of peace and joy the justified person has when reconciliation with God occurs. The offense that Mr. Shepherd commits is to push these consequences right into faith itself as a condition of justification, and a most serious offense it is. Two examples of this:

1) The Fruit of Repentance

Repentance is recognized in reformed theology as the converse of faith.x When Shepherd says we are justified by a repentant faith, he is right. (When others forget that, it lays fertile soil for aberrant views such as Shepherd’s) But he wants to inject the resulting fruit of repentance into the condition. “…Does Jesus accept us the way we are? The answer is “no” if we mean that coming to Jesus is in faith does not require repentance and a change in lifestyle,” p. 89. What may get lost here is that we are not accepted the way we are at all, either in our sinfulness or in supposed vast moral improvements. That is simply not the point. Shepherd turns all attention to the changes needed in the sinner. Change from sinfulness is not optional to God, but it is simply not the point of justification. We are accepted in Christ,xi we are justified only in His righteousness. By modifying faith, as he has to include our obedience, the attention of real faith is adulterously diverted from the true righteousness. It is only because of Jesus’ law-keeping and only because of Jesus’ obedience that God can ever justify any sinner. Shepherd cannot get out of his peculiar covenantal thinking that we are justified in our covenantal faithfulness. Faithfulness is required of us as covenant people; it is not required for justification. It is sad to see a theologian with Shepherd’s great gifts mired in this quicksand, and the more he defends this position the more he sinks. The answer is simple, we should take all our obedience and good works and flee from them to Christ alone for all hope of justification. Let us have no eye on our moral improvement whatsoever, for when the eye is fixed on Christ alone then we are actually believing in Him, and repenting and God will justify every such sinner for Christ’s sake, not ours. And indeed, whether we realize it or not, He will begin the vast sanctifying improvements that take all of this life and completed only when the Lord Jesus appears in His glory. Poor Shepherd’s covenantal moralism excludes him for the pale of reformed orthodoxy and from the pale of sound evangelicalism as well. His doctrine is heresy.

But Norman Shepherd is convinced that promoters of “faith alone” who think repentance follows as evidence of justification evade the biblical demand for it, p. 87. Every preacher of God’s law demands repentance. But do we really evade the biblical demand for it if we remove the fruit of repentance from the means of justification. Breaking the law of God and repenting of such sin is simply a way to speak of obedience to the law. But if the call for repentance is not a demand to come up with the results of repentance, all stated as a condition of justification, have we been unfaithful to the law, I say no. And unfaithful to the gospel? I say we must keep our works of repentance out, the same way we keep out the works of faith, i.e. our obedience. We simply must not even dream we could ever come to God with a changed condition in hope of His justifying verdict as a result. That is moralism.

Shepherd falls into moralism. He again takes a description of the Christian life, this time a definition of repentance from chapter 15 of the Westminster Confession and makes it a condition of justification. The chapter speaks of “a sinner”. Shepherd has great reservation about calling a Christian a “sinner”. All who do not understand justification share this reluctance. They cannot see how one can be a sinner defiled and stained in every part can also be accepted by God in Christ and declared perfectly righteous. If we do not hold fast to justification entirely in the merits of Christ, such disorientation is inevitable. If we do not see justification in Christ’s righteousness we cannot help but bring our obedience and fruits of repentance into play.

If we take the language of Chapter 15 of the Confession and suppose its mention of pardon is only for those coming for justifying pardon, then one can see how Shepherd applies this section. He says:

Repentance as defined in chapter 15 is not only a sorrow for and hatred of sin, but also a turning from sin with a purpose and endeavor to walk with the Lord in all the ways of his commandments. Faith without repentance is not true faith, and repentance without faith is not true repentance.

It does not satisfy Norman Shepherd that we are justified by faith; he must add in obedience, the consequence of faith. Likewise in this part of the Confession, the description of repentance as “sorrow for and hatred of sin” are internal things that can happen in a moment of repentance when one turns to Christ. Of course such internal change of mind is less than the full-orbed grace of repentance. Real repentance leads to a ‘walk with the Lord’, and we always view walk as an on-going activity. Now how shall a sinner be justified? Will a simple turning in penitent faith to our Lord Jesus Christ be enough, or must there be a walk with the Lord (without which justifying repentance is inadequate). In his view a justifying faith not yet accompanied by all other saving graces is not enough for that needed verdict. Mr. Shepherd makes very heavy demands on people – heavier than the demands of the Lord who tells the weary and burdened His burden is light and to come without money to buy wine and milk.

But these escalating demands are what happens if we cannot turn our back on our obedience for justification and be satisfied with that of Christ. If sorrow for sin is not enough in coming to Christ, then there is going to be a necessary lag in time for the sinner to get ship shape to meet the high demands of faith and repentance as Shepherd sees them. How long does it take in his system to get justified? Just how much do we have to do? And when is the fruit of repentance enough fruit and the obedience of faith enough obedience? He does not tell us. But it is clear that it will take time. This is very strange doctrine. A required change of repentant lifestyle (p. 89) cannot follow as evidence of salvation (p. 87) that is, follow in time. It must, in Shepherd’s gospel, be there at the outset for justification to occur.

2) Sanctification First

A person’s justification is going to take time. Shepherd never indicates that it will take time for God because he does call it correctly a forensic act. (When we say forensic we indicate that God as judge makes a judicial decision.) If God is making a judicial statement about our conduct before His all-seeing eye, we will never be justified ever! But if that verdict is based on Someone else’s perfect righteousness, justification needs no time for us to catch up with covenant faithfulness. But if we insist on including some of our holiness, then it will need time to develop and show itself as the real thing. Shepherd’s idea of justification takes time; he says:

Regeneration initiates the process of sanctification, and saving faith, or justifying faith, emerges in the believer in the process of sanctification. This process brings to life not only faith but also repentance and obedience. Just this priority of regeneration to faith explains why faith can never be alone “but is ever accompanied with all the other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”

Faith is logically prior to justification. We believe with a view to being justified. Because regeneration is prior to faith and is the initiation of sanctification, we have to say that the process of sanctification begun is prior to justification.

If saving faith is necessary, and it is, and if it emerges (itself a word that implies a process) in a process of sanctification, then one cannot be justified in a moment. Moral development must precede it.

If the process of sanctification begins before justification, then Shepherd has embraced the anomaly of a person being sanctified by the Holy Spirit before that person is justified. God does not give His Spirit to reside in those who are not His justified children. Mr. Shepherd has a different theology.

The real gospel calls on us to “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ an you will be saved” immediately – before the fruit shows up, before the obedience emerges. All we need do is embrace Christ, and the not yet justified person can do that in no other condition of life than in his sin.

A Partial Conclusion

My review does not cover all the error in Professor Shepherd’s “Justification by Faith Alone,” an article he could have called, “Why I Do Not Believe in Faith Alone.” His is a view of justification that has a principle in it that operates like a gyroscope; no matter which way the question comes up, if it relates to the requirement on us for justification, faith alone is not enough. For that idea Norman Shepherd has only scorn. In his doctrine, our transformed moral condition is ever getting in as the necessary condition God lays on us before He will declare us righteous. From the forensic standpoint, God never declares righteous even the most godly believer on this earth. God will speak of Christians as righteous in terms of relative personal righteousness (developed by the Spirit in sanctification) but He will not declare our righteousness righteous in a judicial verdict. Thank God He looks only to Christ for that.

How lovely it would be if Norman Shepherd would hold constantly before our eyes Christ our great faithful covenant keeper who met the requirement of obedience for us completely. Then he could tell us we do not need to present any of our own, and that to attempt to do so is a sin that denies the adequacy of Christ’s obedience. But after all these years that this controversy has carried on, I guess Mr. Shepherd does not see that. I have to say that his is a different gospel, and a very ugly one indeed, because unlike the real one, his is not one of faith alone in Jesus Christ. A faith alone gospel moves all the burden to Christ our substitutionary “law obeyer”. The utter acceptability of His obedience greatly glorifies God who is pleased with His holy Son, not only as a Divine Person, but as also as Mediator in our human flesh, the only man who satisfied God with His obedience. It is a disgrace and a danger that Mr. Shepherd’s version of justification is gaining a hearing again, because his doctrine detracts from Christ.

Final Unanswered Questions

If “even in the act of justification” (p. 81) faith is not alone but accompanied by our works, we have a doctrine Westminster is not teaching. If good works done in obedience are part of justifying faith, then for Shepherd, these works must be present, not potentially present but really present, in order to have a lively faith, the only kind of faith that justifies. I wonder what he would say if we could ask him if he has enough of those good works in His life such that God is compelled by Shepherd’s obedience to justify him.

He is locked into this because, in spite of reference to the imputed righteousness of Christ, he does not open up what he means by that. Instead of Christ obeying for us, (and that obedience being judicially imputed to us) his demand for the presence of obedience in us, is explained far better by a very brief remark; Shepherd says, “Faith saves because it unites us to Christ in whom alone are righteousness and life,” p. 82. Here we really need opportunity to find out from Professor Shepherd whether he means we are united to Christ by representation, so that all the needed righteousness is outside us. OR is our justification the result of a living union (sometimes called a “vital” union) so that righteousness and life flow to us and so are found in us, and then that is the reason God can justify us? In other words, the very righteousness of Christ has appeared in us. When he argues that justifying faith emerges in the believer in the process of justification, he leans very much in that direction. I point out that this vital union explanation is in violent disagreement with the Westminster Confession 11:1. What does Shepherd mean by union with Christ?

Outside this journal article, Shepherd says, “…the personal godliness of the believer is also necessary for his justification in the judgment of the last day.” And also: “… abiding in Christ by keeping his commandments (John 15:5; 10; 1John 3:13; 24) are all necessary for continuing in the state of justification …” xii

How can our personal godliness ever be a factor in justification if our righteousness in the sight of God is the righteousness of Christ? How can we do anything to continue in the state of justification when we cannot be separated from Christ, and our justification rests only on His having already kept God’s commandments? These questions have been raised many times.

In his book The Call of Grace, we learn his view that baptism (not faith) “marks the point of conversion. Baptism is the moment when we see the transition from death to life, and a person is saved,” p. 94. The Heidelberg Catechism (which Rev. Shepherd affirms as his own belief, says that it is by faith alone that we share in Christ.xiii How can he hold to a justification by faith when he teaches that baptism (including that of infants without faith) is the moment that person is saved?

We need to see that his doctrine is not that of the Reformation, the Westminster Standards, or the Bible. We must guard our pulpits from such teaching. Those ministers who stand in them should be very frank and open about their views on these things. I say this because Mr. Shepherd has lately had a growing influence among ministers in conservative reformed circles. I say again that his inclusion of our obedience as necessary for our justification is heresy. Let us beware.


i “Now if we use the formula, justification by faith alone, do we mean faith with repentance or faith without repentance? If we mean faith with repentance, how can this faith be described as faith alone?” p. 85.

ii Shepherd’s words are: “… The “alone” in the expression “by faith alone” in the Catechisms is not an adjective but an adverb. The point is not that the faith is thought of as existing all by itself, even in the act of justification. Rather, the point is that the justifying verdict is received only by faith and in no other way.” p. 81

iii The catechism says, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace wherein He pardons all our sin and accepts us as righteous in His sight only for the righteousness of Christ, imputed to us and received by faith alone.” Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 33.

iv One should not miss that “alone instrument” is a clear use of “alone” as an adjective.

v I am not giving the whole picture, but neither could Shepherd in his very short journal article, one too brief for him to present the full scope of his system. In his book The Call of Grace and in numerous lectures, he speaks from the standpoint of covenant. Those wishing to see his position fleshed out more adequately will find much more in that book. There one sees that eternal life is gained in the way of our faith and (our) obedience, another way to say we are justified by our works. The picture is that God keeps covenant and so do we, and when we do we are faithful in the covenant, and such faithfulness on our part is saving faith – as if any person other than Christ is capable of it! In short, the good works of a Christian’s obedience meeting the requirement for justification, are again admitted in. This error is at the core of Norman Shepherd’s theology. He does declare “obedience necessary for entering into eternal life” in this article on page 86. When he said that he was referring to our obedience not Christ’s. Confidence in our flesh, is the very worst way anyone can face our holy God. He repeats his Pelagian stance when he says on page 88, “What he [God] asks of us is to answer his love and faithfulness with a corresponding love and faithfulness in the covenant body of union and communion that he establishes with his people.” In a 2001 lecture he said we can do that. His statement on p. 88 is perfectly acceptable, if it has reference to the calling and dynamics of life in Christ, but it is a horrid statement of works-righteousness when it is cast in the role of explaining the faith and obedience necessary for justification.

vi We do not encounter only one example where the Confession appears to be quoted. Note these; in every case I have added the emphasis:

One might think the Confession actually says what it supposedly confesses and declares. It is wise to watch Mr. Shepherd closely when he tells us what the Confession is saying.

vii Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God. WCF 11:1.

viii Sadly, this is not the first time Professor Shepherd has had pointed out to him that he misreads the Confession. Twenty-six years ago, Dr. O. Palmer Robertson, a fellow faculty member of the seminary in which Shepherd then taught, wrote a paper to refute a paper Shepherd wrote. It has recently been taken from an archive related to this controversy and put on the Internet. The Robertson article is titled Nineteen Erroneous or Misleading Statements. It can be found at:


To find reference to this specific violation of syntax, read Robertson’s Erroneous or Misleading Statement #5. In that section Robertson points out the same flaw. He corrects Shepherd’s distortion of grammar and then Robertson addresses the distortion of the Confession’s position on faith by saying, “But faith is not to be identified with the good works it produces any more than faith is to be identified with justification.” That Professor Shepherd would write an article in 2002 using the same violation of grammar in the very same sentence of the Confession, reveals, I fear, a greater commitment to his version of justification than it does to honest handling of the document he alleges agrees with him. (I have offered my review to Mr. Shepherd through a third party, but I have not heard a response yet. I do think he has repeated a misrepresentation of this sentence in the Confession). Shepherd is in a real bind, if he does not keep up this kind of reading of the Confession, he will have to admit the Confession actually does hold a different position from his on a vital matter. He once took his vows as a seminary professor and as a minister on this Confession. I am afraid he took his vows on a false understanding of the Confession. And sadly, the theological gap is now so great and the differences are held to so tenaciously that communication is difficult. I too am tenacious in espousing my commitment of justification by faith alone. I have no choice in that; it is my duty to God.

ix To give only some examples; all emphases I have added.

(I must point out that while Shepherd disagrees with that last sentence, I do not infer that I do agree with everything in it. It is a mixed bag. Trying to sort out truth and error in his theology is difficult since there are ambiguities and meanings placed into words not ordinarily there in the vocabulary of persons holding to classic reformed theology.

x It is fine for Shepherd to distinguish repentance from faith; they are not identical. Yet the act of believing is impossible to detach from the act of repenting. A turning to Christ (faith) for forgiveness is always a turning from sin (repentance) for forgiveness. Thus it is artificial to argue that since both faith and repentance are needed, that is somehow proof that justification is not by faith alone, an argument he makes on page 85: “If we mean faith with repentance, how can this faith be described as faith alone?” (emphasis original).

xi We should let a Westminster document speak to this, one Shepherd quoted elsewhere in this article. “What is justification? Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteousness in his sight only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone.” (Shorter Catechism 33) I think the Catechism means a repentant faith, so it is not contradicting itself by saying “faith alone”.

xii 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 (Matt. 7:21-23; 25:31-46; Heb. 12:14). Thesis 22

Because faith which is not obedient faith is dead faith, and because repentance is necessary for the pardon of sin included in justification, and because abiding in Christ by keeping his commandments (John 15:5; 10; 1John 3:13; 24) are all necessary for continuing in the state of justification, good works, works done from true faith, according to the law of God, and for his glory, being the new obedience wrought by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer united to Christ, though not the ground of his justification, are nevertheless necessary for salvation from eternal condemnation and therefore for justification (Rom. 6:16, 22; Gal. 6:7-9). Thesis 23 Both quotations are from Norman Shepherd’s “Thirty-four Theses on Justification in Relation to Faith, Repentance, and Good Works”

xiii 65 Q. It is by faith alone that we share in Christ and all his blessings: where then does that faith come from? A. The Holy Spirit produces it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it through our use of the holy sacraments.