Recapitulation Drives Out Grace

The next two essays in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry are by Hywel Jones, and are tightly related, and so I will treat them together. As with Robert Godfrey’s contribution, there is not a lot to disagree with here. The bulk of what is written here is good, sturdy Reformed stuff.

At the same time, there are some minor problems, and there are also some larger questions generated. In the category of the former, for example, Jones apparently misidentifies John Armstrong as a Baptist (p. 286), which he was at the time of the 1996 footnote, but not now. And his occasional interactions with Norman Shepherd appear to me to be based on differing definitions of the same terms. Does obedience (in the context of justifying faith) mean works, or does it mean life? If the former, then mixing it into justifying faith is death warmed over. If the latter, then leaving it out is death stone cold. But at the same time, I am not really an expert in The Call of Grace, a 2000 publication of Presbyterian & Reformed, a respected publisher of material that is always genuinely Reformed. Perhaps questions could be referred to Richard Gaffin?

For the rest of Jones’ writing, I would like to content myself with addressing certain questions that he raises, either directly or indirectly.

Jones makes a very good point with regard to James and Paul, noting that these two men were not strangers to one another. He says that those who confound their messages have done so in such an insistent manner “that anyone who is not familiar with the New Testament might well be pardoned for thinking that those men never had the opportunity of talking to each other” (p. 289). Even though their stipulated definitions of certain terms are clearly not the same, they agree in substance nonetheless. “What is clear is that they did not disagree with each other” (p. 290). I think this is very true, and it highlights the need that certain parties in the current conflict have to visit with their adversaries. Perhaps men who have talked with each other in person can come out of it agreeing — even though their usage of certain terms is varied. Verbal differences do not necessitate substantive disagreement, as Paul and James show.

On another point, I want to emphasize again that the Westminster Confession describes the Mosaic economy as an administration of the covenant of grace. I do so because Jones (on p. 298) brings that economy up in a way that demonstrates what might be called the Pauline corollary to Gresham’s Law. Gresham’s Law is an economic principle that says bad money drives out good. Those who want the Mosaic law to recapitulate the covenant of works from the Garden need to be aware that works will always drive out grace. To mix the covenant of works into the Mosaic administration of grace will ensure that the grace of the law will be entirely supplanted. It is astonishing that, throughout this book, the recapitulated sense of law and condemnation has almost entirely effaced the Westminsterian understanding of the graciousness manifested at Sinai. For a sampling, consider this:

“Up to the coming of Christ, Jews had been ‘held captive under the law’ (3:23 ESV) or under its disciplinary function (3:23). Something similar was also true of Gentiles because they were ‘enslaved to the elementary principles of the world (4:3 ESV) and to ‘those that were by nature no gods,’ that is, to idols (4:8). Life before Christ was therefore life ‘under law’ for Gentile as well as Jew. There was a universal obligation to obey however much of God’s law that had been made known, by whatever means it had been disclosed, and on pain of awful penalty if it was not fully kept (Rom. 1:18-32; 2:14-16; 3:9-20).”

God had brought the Jews out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, but apparently the hosts of recapitulation had not been drowned like Pharaoh, but chased them out into the wilderness, caught up with them, and subjected them again to a yoke of slavery. A very striking thing in this book so far is that the writers never speak of Moses the way that Westminster does.

In his second essay, on the preaching of sola fide, Jones says many good things. But he brings up several issues that (I believe) reveals the hidden engines of our controversy. The first has to do with pastoral ministry directly. Speaking of “a local Christian congregation,” Jones addresses how we are to preach to them.

“Those who have not yet believed are to be regarded as ‘under the law’ and ‘outside of Christ’ thought they have a promise that God will be gracious to them if they turn to him. They are covenant children by birth and holy (1 Cor. 7:14), and baptism incorporates them into the covenant community (visible church) — but not necessarily into Christ” (pp. 325-326).

This is the heart of all the troublesome business. Note that baptized members who have not yet believed are outside of Christ, and under the law. What are they inside then? They are inside the covenant community or visible church. Put these two things together and what do you get? This means, at the very least, that (potentially very large) portions of the visible church or covenant community are outside of Christ. What kind of ecclesiology is this?

Far better to say that the entire visible church is joined to Christ covenantally. The entire congregation is in Him in that objective sense. But there is a subset within the first group that is joined to Him with fruit to eternal life. As John 15 and Romans 11 plainly state there are two classes of branches. One kind of branch is in Christ temporarily and the other permanently. What distinguishes them is how long they are in the trunk. They are not distinguished by one being in the trunk and the other not.

Another interesting point is raised by Jones. Speaking of those who die in infancy or those who cannot understand the gospel because of mental incapacity, he says (wonderfully) that they . . .

“will be admitted to heaven because they are ‘regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth.’ Two things, however, need to be remembered at this point. The first, by way of necessary implication, is that such persons were born in sin and were destitute of spiritual life. Another way of salvation is not therefore being taught, but sola gratia is being reinforced in that the one group cannot properly be said to act and the other cannot be said to understand. Here, perhaps, lies the rub of the debate over sola fide in every age — no capable and knowledgeable adult likes to have to admit being as helpless in spiritual things as those described” (pp. 326-327).

Now I agree with Jones completely that such infants are saved, but I need to point out that he has completely confounded sola fide and sola gratia here. He begins well by saying that the salvation of dying infants or those otherwise impaired is “one exception” to the “connection between Christ’s worth and human faith” (p. 326). Okay, so then we have an exception to sola fide in a large category of saved individuals. How then is it faith alone? Faith alone for whom? At the day of judgment, could we ask for a show of hands? “How many of you were saved by grace through faith alone?” All who had come to years of discretion would raise their hands. “How many were saved by grace alone through some other instrumentality of God’s sovereign devising?” Many millions of hands would go up. So what do we mean by faith alone?

We have been told elsewhere in this volume that our emphatic agreement with sola gratia is insufficient for us to keep our Reformed credentials up. But now we have an acknowledged exception to sola fide found in a book edited by R. Scott Clark. Either somebody was asleep at the switch editorially speaking, or Clark needs to be brought up on charges for denying sola fide . . . or the question is perhaps more complex than the current sloganeering might allow. Why are they allowed to say there is “one exception” to sola fide while we must sign all the talking points blindfolded, no questions permitted?

One last thing. Speaking of Paul’s use of the phrase the obedience of faith, Jones says this:

“The apostle is using the term obedience to describe faith as submission to what Christ did (by way of his obedience) and not to refer to anything the sinner is to do by way of contribution to Christ’s work or even by way of appreciation of it” (p. 328).

I am amening my way along here, but then am suddenly arrested by that last phrase. The obedience of faith is simply submission to the gospel. Okay, I buy that. It does not refer to anything a miserable sinner might do to improve upon Christ’s work. Okay, I buy that too. But then comes this — “or even by way of appreciation of it.” I confess myself nonplussed. I can understand how obedience is used in Scripture as a synonym for faith. We not only believe the gospel, but we also obey the gospel. And this belief or obedience is knowing, assenting, and trusting. But how can someone obey the gospel in this sense without appreciating it? All the other verbs are stronger — why would appreciation of the gospel introduce a works principle where trusting, obeying, and believing did not? Just curious.

Enough for now. Only three more chapters. Stand fast.

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