Foreword to Sandlin, ed., Backbone of the Bible

by John M. Frame

I was asked to write a Foreword to Andrew Sandlin, ed., Backbone of the Bible (Nacodoches, TX: Covenant Media, 2004). I let my sinful emotions get the better of me in the original draft and some early readers took offense at some of my adjectives. I later thought it best to rewrite the Foreword with more gentle language, but, alas, the rewrite was too late, and the original language appeared in the book. Andrew Sandlin graciously allowed me an erratum sheet to make some disclaimers. In any case, here is the version of the Foreword I hoped, after prayerful reflection, to include in the book.


I am pleased to present and recommend these essays on covenant and justification. They exhibit a high quality of thought on some matters of great importance, and therefore they deserve to be published and to be read with care.

I also have personal reasons for commending this book. The editor and a number of the writers are good friends of mine, and I’m happy for them to have this opportunity to get their messages out. I wish especially here to honor Norman Shepherd, a friend for about 40 years and a colleague for 12 of those. Shepherd was the man who first hired me to teach theology. I joined him in 1968 in the systematics department at Westminster Seminary. Although he was only about five years older than I, I was always in awe of him, praying that I could attain some small measure of his understanding of the Scriptures and the Reformed Faith. After I had myself been teaching theology for ten years or so, I audited Shepherd’s lectures in the Doctrine of God and the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (salvation)—not just to get a direct line on the “Shepherd controversy,” but for my own edification. Anyone who knows Shepherd’s work on the doctrine of God and has also read my book on the subject1 will know how deep his influence on me has been. Besides that, he has been an example to me of godliness and gentleness, always an encouragement to a younger man who must have seemed to him often more like a student than a colleague.

But of course even to recommend these essays is to plunge headlong into controversy. So I should indicate that although I deeply respect these authors as teachers of theology and men of God, this Preface does not constitute an endorsement of everything they have written. As usual with these Reformed controversies2 I find myself seeking third alternatives, rather than jumping on existing bandwagons. I believe that there are intelligent and godly people who accept, and others who reject the various theses propounded in this volume. So I initially presume that among all of these viewpoints there is some insight to be found, or at least some good questions that need to be addressed. One viewpoint in my judgment, however, does not deserve such respect, and I will mention that in a moment.

It is especially important for me to tread lightly in this area, for I have never taught a course dealing with justification, and I have done far less research on the subject than have most of those on all sides who have expressed their views in writing. But I should express in general terms my response to the controversy, because I’ve learned that if I do not, critics will make assumptions about my views, often without any basis whatsoever. These thoughts will also model for readers one possible way of responding to the essays in this volume. We intend the book, not as a party line from which no friend of ours may deviate, but as a set of theses that deserve careful consideration.

First, some comments on Shepherd’s articles. By his own admission, Shepherd has taken positions contrary to some elements of the Reformed tradition: (1) He denies that merit plays any role in covenant relationships between God and man. (2) He denies, therefore, that in justification God imputes the merit of Jesus’ active righteousness (i.e. the righteousness of his sinless life) to his people. (3) Positively, Shepherd teaches that justification is God forgiving our sins, on the basis of Jesus’ death and resurrection. (4) It is, therefore, the righteousness of Jesus’ death and resurrection that God imputes to his people and they receive by faith. (5) That faith is opposed to any attempt to gain God’s favor by our works or merit; but it is a living, active, and obedient faith (James 2:14-26), not a dead faith.

As I said, these propositions have sometimes been questioned in the Reformed tradition. Shepherd in this volume, however, shows that much of that tradition, especially its early confessions, is on his side. And he provides extensive scriptural support for his theses.

Shepherd has persuaded me of his theses (3)-(5), but not entirely of (1) and (2). Let’s think first about “merit,” thesis (1). Perhaps the idea of merit is too closely associated in our minds with employer-employee relationships or teacher-student relationships, which are largely concerned with one party meeting the standards of another. In contrast, Shepherd defines covenant as “a divinely established relation of union and communion between God and his people in the bonds of mutual love and faithfulness” (The Call of Grace, 12). For Shepherd, the covenant relation is more like a family than like a business or school. Yet, in families too there are standards to be observed and rewards and punishments. Of course, in a loving family, parents administer the standards rather differently from the business or academic worlds. When my son cleans his room, his reward may be only a parental smile—less, or in one important sense more, than he might get for cleaning rooms on the free market. But even in an ideal loving family, parents rightly expect obedience, and the rewards and punishments are just, and so, in one sense, deserved, however much they may differ from the values of the market.

We may not want to use the word “merit” for such desert, but we need to recognize the importance of it. Did God, in covenant with Adam and Eve in the garden, hold them to such standards? We know that he did in the case of the forbidden fruit. Did they deserve their punishment? Certainly they did. Did Jesus deserve to die? Certainly not, except for the fact that he died in our place, bearing our sins. Did we deserve God’s forgiveness? Certainly not, except that Jesus’ died in our place, so that we could have what he deserved. But the work of Christ for us eminently deserved the Father’s approval and reward. It was just. In Jesus’ death, the Father shows his righteousness, “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 4:26).

The language of “merit” can be rephrased into the language of “deserving,” which in turn can be rephrased into the language of justice. Although I prefer to speak of “desert” and “justice” to speaking of “merit,” Shepherd has not convinced me that the last term is simply wrong. I certainly agree with him, of course, that our salvation is not something we merit or deserve. The only deserving here is that of Christ himself. So in the work of Christ, perfect justice and perfect mercy meet together.

Nor am I ready to abandon the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience (2). There is room for debate as to whether the New Testament teaches this doctrine explicitly. John Piper has recently made a strong case that it does.3 But we should also look at the implications of Jesus’ sacrifice, affirmed by Shepherd in theses (3) and (4). Shepherd affirms that justification is God’s forgiveness, based on Jesus’ death and resurrection. But, it may be argued, that forgiveness implies an imputation of active righteousness as well. Heb. 9:14 and 1 Pet. 1:19 describe Jesus in Old Testament sacrificial terms as without spot or blemish, doubtless referring to his sinless life. Jesus’ perfect sacrifice implies and presupposes his sinless life. Now remember that Jesus is our substitute. Jesus who is perfectly righteous substitutes himself for us sinners. God accepts hisperson, and us in him. So it is not only Jesus’ moment of death that is credited or imputed to us; it is the whole Christ, living and dying. It seems to me that one element of this imputation is that of his active obedience.

To say this fits in well with a more obvious teaching of the New Testament, that God also imputes Jesus’ post-resurrection life to our account. In Gal. 2:20 Paul says that his life by faith is the life of “Christ living in me.” Shepherd does not hesitate to speak of our union with Christ (Paul’s “in Christ”) in its many dimensions. But our union with Christ is not only union with him in his death, but also in his resurrection life (Rom. 6). That union with Jesus’ sinless life is a major motivation for us to live for God. So God sees us as united to Christ, both in his death and in his life, his life both before and after his resurrection.

There is room for disagreement here. But these are technical matters of theological exegesis, and godly scholars have different views of them. Our response, as Jeffrey Ventrella teaches us, should be one of patience and mutual respect, as we await the development of a consensus.

But there are those who see this discussion in much more serious terms. I am referring to some critics of Shepherd who have said that Shepherd teaches “another gospel” or that he “denies the gospel.” Two small denominations have used such language against Shepherd, along with a number of theologians, pastors, and web writers.

We should be clear that this kind of language is not the normal pattern of theological discourse. It is not routine theological give-and-take. This language raises the stakes far beyond the normal levels. If someone preaches “another gospel,” he incurs the Pauline anathema (Gal. 1:8-9); he is under God’s curse. If someone preaches another gospel, therefore, he should not be allowed to belong to a church. If a church member is found to be teaching another gospel, he should be excommunicated. And if someone teaches another gospel from outside the church, he should not be regarded merely as a non-Christian, but as one who is working actively against Christ. Make no mistake: if Shepherd teaches another gospel, he is excluded from the kingdom of God and headed for eternal punishment.

I’m not saying that we should never make such accusations. Certainly Paul makes them against the Judaizers, and Jesus makes them against the Pharisees. But such accusations raise the bar considerably on the quality and strength of argument that must be used. If we believe that someone is excluded from the kingdom of God, we had better be prepared to make a strong case.

Frankly, of all the arguments against Shepherd’s positions, including my own arguments noted above, I have not seen any that reaches anywhere near that level. In the report of the Reformed Church US dealing with Shepherd’s views, for example, there are a number of interesting arguments. Some I agree with, some I disagree with. It’s a kind of amiable theological debate, until one reaches the end, where the Synod says that Shepherd teaches another gospel. The conclusion goes far beyond the strength of the arguments—so far beyond them that it is difficult to take the inference seriously. Or it would be difficult, if it were not such a serious matter.

I hope that Shepherd’s more vehement critics will listen to his words in this volume. Shepherd teaches that “the sin of Adam plunged the whole human race into sin, condemnation, and death” (Chapter 6). How does God redeem us from this awful condition? Shepherd says,

Salvation comes ultimately through Jesus Christ who does two things: he deals definitively with the guilt of sin, and he deals definitively with the corruption of sin. By his death and resurrection he pays the penalty for sin and on this ground bestows the gift of forgiveness. This is justification. By his death and resurrection he destroys the corruption of sin so that we are recreated in righteousness and holiness. This is sanctification. Those who are justified and sanctified in union with Christ are the righteous who will inherit the kingdom and enter into eternal life. (Chapter 6)

This is clearly a biblical, evangelical, and Reformed understanding of the gospel and nothing else. There is certainly room for disagreement with his broader discussion. But no one, I think, can legitimately doubt that he has the gospel straight.

That phrases like “another gospel” and “denial of the gospel” are slung around so recklessly in our circles these days, I think, brings great grief to our Lord and greatly damages the cause of Christ.

Shepherd’s essays are certainly the most controversial in this volume. The others require less comment, but I do want to commend them also to you. Sandlin’s article provides additional and powerful Scripture support for the thesis that saving faith is living and obedient.

Booth teaches that the covenant is visible and tangible: we enter it by baptism. We live it in the life of the church. So the covenant is different from eternal election. I’m inclined, rather, to see both conditional and unconditional elements in the covenants. From one perspective, the covenants include both elect and nonelect members. From another perspective, however, the nonelect members are not part of the covenant at all. Note Paul’s words, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom. 9:6).

Similarly, Niell argues that the special knowledge of God characteristic of the new covenant (Heb. 8:11) consists only in the change from the Old Testament priestly-sacrificial system (by which believers were taught in that era) to the teaching of the fulfillment of those ceremonies in Christ. Therefore, he argues that the membership of the new covenant is not limited to the elect. I am inclined, rather, to see the new knowledge of verse 11 as more extensive than this, including a more pervasive internal work of the Holy Spirit in God’s people, which would suggest that only the elect are fully “in” the covenant. Of course, only God can see when this internal subjective ministry is taking place. So some members of the visible church may not be elect. Elect or non-elect, these are, by baptism, official members of the church, and thus the recipients of many blessings. But they are not truly Christ’s, as unfaithful Israelites were not truly Israel. Though I disagree somewhat with Niell and Booth on these matters, I still think their essays, like Shepherd’s, present good arguments for their positions, and they deserve to be given consideration.

Wagner argues that gospel and law can be understood as complementary, not antithetic, within the covenant context. I strongly agree with this thesis, and with that of Jeffrey Ventrella, who presents some vitally important principles for engaging in theological controversy. I strongly exhort readers to read Ventrella’s essay before reading anything else in this book. May God use this volume to turn readers from ugly dogmatism toward a calm, gentle, and thoughtful dialogue on these important matters.


1 Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002).

2 For more on these controversies and my style of response to them, see my “Machen’s Warrior Children,” in Sung Wook Chung, ed., Alister E. McGrath and Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2003).

3 Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002).


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