The Call of Grace

Norman Shepherd

Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.


Reviewed by Louis F. DeBoer

 The Shepherd controversy has been with us now for almost three decades. There has been plenty of time for the dust to settle. When this controversy first erupted in the 1970’s many did not take it seriously. It was widely reputed that Shepherd was orthodox, but merely careless in his theological expressions, and that he was causing confusion with his ill-advised use of terms. This was the official position of Westminster Seminary and faculty, that persistently refused to condemn Shepherd’s opinions. We have been waiting for many years for the smoke to clear, for the dust to settle, and for Shepherd to clarify his terms. Well, the smoke has long since cleared and there is definitely fire. The publication of this book in 2000 did much to contribute to this. Not that Shepherd has clarified his terms, for his writings are as vague and disingenuous as always. It is more that, after three decades, this vagueness is seen as deliberate and as part of a smokescreen to maintain a semblance of orthodoxy while promoting a heretical soteriology. A careful reading of this book will make that conclusion inescapable.

The Federal Vision or the Auburn Avenue Theology, that has developed out of Shepherd’s redefinitions of terms such as faith, covenant, etc., has certain defining characteristics. There is a rejection of the Covenant of Works and a resultant elimination of the distinction between law and gospel. The Scriptures that speak of obtaining life through personal obedience, normally attributed to the Covenant of Works, are conflated into the “Covenant of Grace.” The salvation offered through the “Covenant of Grace” therefore now includes a requirement of personal obedience for salvation. Faith is redefined to include works and is termed covenant faithfulness, faithful obedience, or an active obedient faith, etc. Salvation is now seen to be by faith and works, with the latter being defined as included in the former, to maintain the dubious claim that one still believes in justification by faith alone. The sacraments are reinterpreted, and baptism is seen as the means by which one enters the covenant while personal obedience is seen as the means by which one remains in the covenant. This medieval and Romish soteriology is presented as a new and improved development of the old soteriology, the faith of the Great Protestant Reformation. We will see how clearly Shepherd’s ideas have paved the way for and pioneered these developments.

Shepherd wastes little time in this book in getting right to the meat of the issue. In Part 1, Covenant Light on the Way of Salvation, Section 1, The Abrahamic Covenant, he clearly shows his hand. 

The terms of the covenant are clearly annunciated in Genesis 17:1-2. They declare, “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.” The condition is to walk before the Lord and be perfect. Abraham was not perfect. He was a sinner. How could he come into covenant with a holy God? The answer has traditionally been found in Genesis 15:5-6. “And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” Abraham was justified by faith. And being declared righteous, being justified, he could come into covenant relationship with God. The Abrahamic Covenant is seen as being founded on justification by faith and not on Abraham’s own righteousness or his own works. This is the Apostle Paul’s argument in both the epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians. The Abrahamic Covenant is therefore generally considered to be an unconditional covenant. This is, not because there are no conditions, but because the conditions are all met by the merits of the finished work of Jesus Christ. God himself provides the required righteousness through his Son and thus guarantees the fulfillment of the covenant. 

Shepherd manages to turn all this on its head. He sees the Abrahamic Covenant as a conditional covenant that depends on Abraham’s personal obedience, Abraham’s own covenant faithfulness. He argues repeatedly that the covenant was fulfilled because Abraham obeyed God. He states…

What is significant is that walking before the Lord blamelessly is connected with confirmation of the covenant. The covenant with its promises is confirmed to Abraham, who demonstrates covenant faith and loyalty. He fulfils the obligations of the covenant (The Call of Grace, p. 16).

 The promises are renewed and will be fulfilled because Abraham trusted in God and walked in righteousness according to the word of the Lord. (The Call of Grace, p. 17).

Shepherd does get around to admitting that the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant is ultimately made possible through the righteousness of Jesus Christ. But even there he radically departs from orthodoxy as he states…

But just as Jesus was faithful in order to guarantee the blessing, so his followers must be faithful in order to inherit the blessing (The Call of Grace, p. 19). 

Ultimately, in Shepherd’s view the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham depend on our obedience, our covenant faithfulness. How this can be so, if Christ has guaranteed the promises of the covenant, he fails to explain. What is guaranteed and to whom, if it all remains conditioned on our  obedience? The traditional view that Christ has guaranteed all this for the elect is totally absent. Shepherd’s “gospel” is the bad news that the promise that God will be our God and we his people depends on our personal covenantal faithfulness and obedience. 

Having established the place of works in our salvation Shepherd now has to deal with the issue of salvation by grace versus merit. Having postulated the necessity of good works to inherit the covenanted blessings, Shepherd now seeks to avoid the charge of salvation by human merit. He reviews Roman Catholic theology and their view of merit as expressed in the Council of Trent and condemns it as a religion of merit. However, in his zeal to avoid the charge, he goes to an extreme that actually destroys the historic Protestant understanding of the gospel. He states…

On one level Rome’s doctrine of salvation requires that place be given to human merit…But on a deeper level what must be challenged in the Roman Catholic doctrine is the very idea of merit itself. God does not, and never did, relate to his people on the basis of a works/merit principle (The Call of Grace, p. 60). 

In spite of all the heat and passion Shepherd seeks to demonstrate in his opposition to Romish soteriology, this is mostly smoke, for he is actually attacking the Protestant position while setting forth a soteriology that is suspiciously like Rome’s. The difference between the Roman Catholic and the Protestant understanding of God’s salvation does not lie in whether or not God relates to his people on the basis of a works/merit principle. In fact both agree that he does. The difference lies in whose merit is the basis for our salvation. Rome says that our own merit, plus some accrued merit from the saints, and the grace  of the church are the basis of one’s salvation. Protestantism says that the merits of the finished work of Christ are the basis for our salvation. God demands perfect obedience and on that basis only awards eternal life. This is the principle of the Covenant of Works; this is a works/merit principle. And the perfect righteousness, the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ, credited to our account when we are justified in God’s sight, is the basis for our salvation. When Shepherd denies in principle any merit as the foundation of our salvation, he is subverting the very foundation of the historic gospel of Jesus Christ. 

This is crucial, and I have to believe that a trained theologian like Shepherd is well aware of it. His “gospel” is all too similar to that of Rome, so he passionately attacks Rome and then injects a principle that is absolutely deadly to the historic Protestant gospel. He loudly declaims that we have to reject all merit. He denies that the works, or working faith, or covenant faithfulness, that he states are necessary for our salvation, have any merit.  However, his saying so does not make it so. If it is necessary, if it is the indispensable condition for inheriting the covenant blessings, then how is not by merit? If Abraham gained the fulfillment of the covenant promises by his covenant faithfulness and covenantal obedience, then how is that not by merit? If Israel gained entrance to the promised land, as Shepherd insists, by their covenant faithfulness and covenantal obedience, how is that then not by merit? Shepherd has a lot of explaining to do, but you will look in vain for the answers in this book. Shepherd is just being disingenuous and his attack on merit is not so much an attack on Rome as it is on the Protestant gospel of the Reformation.

The fourth chapter of Romans contains Paul’s great defense of justification by faith, particularly as it applied to Abraham. Having concluded in Romans one through three that all are under God’s condemnation as guilty sinners and that there are no righteous men, Jew or Gentile, Paul then takes up the case of Abraham. 

1What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? 2For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. 3For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. 

Paul states that Abraham was not justified by his own works but by faith.

4Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. 

Paul goes on to say that if Abraham was justified by his own works it is not by grace, but by merit. Abraham has earned his justification and God owes it to him. This is in direct contrast to Shepherd’s assertion that we have to completely deny any principle of merit in divine dealings with men.

5But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. 6Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, 7Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. 8Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. 

Paul reasserts the principle of justification by faith and quotes David as teaching this doctrine in the Psalms. Then he gets back to Abraham’s case.

9Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. 10How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. 11And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: 12And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised. 

Paul now argues that Abraham was justified by his faith before he was ever circumcised. Remember that in Genesis 15 God declares Abraham justified by faith and in Genesis 17 God makes his covenant with Abraham and requires circumcision. Abraham had to be justified before a holy God could enter into covenant with him. The terms of the covenant as spelled out in Genesis 17:1 required that. This is of course a death knell to the view of Shepherd’s followers that maintain that baptism, the New Covenant equivalent of circumcision, is what makes us Christians. Abraham was justified and became a child of God, a Christian if you will, while he was yet uncircumcised. 

Now what does Shepherd say about all this? How does he interpret the salvation granted to Abraham under the Abrahamic Covenant? How does he deal with this great passage on justification by faith as experienced by Abraham? Speaking of the Abrahamic Covenant and its privileges he says…

At the same time, privileges entail responsibility. Abraham had to keep covenant with the Lord, as did his descendants to whom the promises were also made. The preeminent covenant keeper is Jesus Christ…As the covenant is kept, according to the pattern of Jesus Christ, the promises of the covenant are fulfilled (The Call of Grace, p. 75). 

Note the radical difference between Paul and Shepherd regarding Abraham’s inheriting the promises of the covenant and being justified before God. Shepherd says that Abraham, as well as his descendants, have to personally keep the covenant, and as they do he says the promises of the covenant are fulfilled. In Shepherd’s view the promises are contingent upon personal obedience to the covenant Their salvation, their becoming the people of God, as promised by the covenant is dependant upon their own righteousness. No longer is it by a righteousness received by faith. It is now definitely by works, our own works. And what of Jesus Christ? What of the doctrine that he has kept the terms of the covenant for us, and on our behalf? And what of the belief that Christ by his perfect fulfilling of the covenant has purchased our redemption? That is entirely missing. Instead Shepherd reduces Christ to merely an example. As we keep the covenant according to the example of Jesus Christ we inherit the promises. This is the theology of liberalism. This is the theology of the National Council of Churches. This is the theology that reduces Jesus Christ to a great moral example and says that we, by imitating his example, can find acceptance with God and be saved. This is a theology of salvation by works. And what of Romans 4? Here is what Shepherd has to say about that great passage that expounds the very heart of the gospel, justification by faith.

For Abraham, the sign of both covenant privilege and covenant responsibility was circumcision. Paul calls circumcision ” a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith” (Rom 4:11). The righteousness of faith is the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5; 16:26), and is therefore simultaneously covenant privilege and responsibility (The Call of Grace, p. 76). 

This is astounding! Shepherd has the nerve to go right to Paul’s great chapter on justification by faith, where Paul explicitly condemns the notion of salvation by works, and to make it say the exact opposite. He redefines the righteousness received by faith, as actually being a righteousness achieved by “the obedience of faith.” Faith has become works and justification by faith has become justification by our own  works of obedience. The righteousness that saves is no longer the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to the believer and received by faith. It is now the filthy rags of one’s own righteousness as one attempts to emulate the covenant keeping example of Christ. This is indeed another gospel. Another gospel that will leave its deluded followers on the last day with the awful words of Christ ringing in their ears, “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” 

A quick read of this book produced six pages of notes. I have only covered one page of notes thus far. However, this is a review, not a comprehensive rebuttal. For that I recommend you read Brian Schwertley’s forthcoming book the Auburn Avenue Theology, that systematically refutes Shepherd and his followers. There are many other significant errors in this book including a call for Arminian evangelism. This is only logical for if salvation is not by sovereign grace, but by works, then the truth of Arminianism has already been granted. After all, Arminianism is a doctrine of salvation by works, the work of believing by one’s own spiritual power, apart from the irresistible grace of God.

Finally, we have to address why Shepherd’s views have gained so much traction in even professedly Reformed churches. Shepherd has advanced his views under the aegis of opposing antinomianism. Shepherd maintains that the historic Reformed understanding of salvation by grace and justification by faith alone leaves us open to the ravages of antinomianism. He characterizes that as having to accept the position that if one believes the gospel and is justified by faith alone, then no matter how wickedly he lives and how he perseveres in a sinful lifestyle, he must be accepted as a redeemed person. But that is a straw man. No one, certainly no Reformed theologian has ever taught that.

The Reformed faith has never denied the necessity of good works. However, it has consistently, and vehemently, denied that good works are a ground of our justification and our acceptance by God. What it has maintained is that good works are the fruit of our salvation. A redeemed person serves God out of gratitude, not in a vain attempt to earn one’s salvation. A regenerate person produces good works because as Christ said, the tree is known by its fruits and a good tree will produce good fruit. One point we can agree on with Shepherd is a true living faith produces good works. The crucial distinction is that good works as the fruit of true faith is radically different from teaching that that faith includes works, that faith and works are all the same. Reformed Christians are not antinomians. If you do not produce spiritual fruit, if you do not produce good works, you probably do not possess true justifying faith and are still in an unregenerate state. Even the thief on the cross produced fruit after his conversion and rebuked the other thief’s blasphemies and witnessed to the truth of Jesus Christ. The tree is known by its fruits. God does not justify people in a vacuum. There is an unbreakable connection between regeneration, faith, repentance, justification, and sanctification, etc. This is the golden chain of Romans 8:29-30. Our sanctification, our good works, is the necessary evidence of our salvation. Unlike our regeneration and our justification, which are invisible to the human eye, our sanctification, our good works, are observable, and hence Christ says that we will be known by our fruits. They form part of that credible profession of faith that is necessary for adults to receive baptism and become members of the church of Jesus Christ.

Shepherd ignores all this, and under the pretense of opposing antinomianism he has thoroughly corrupted the gospel and destroyed the Reformed faith. He is a false teacher. He is a heretic. Those who read this book need to be warned. Those who follow his teachings do so at the peril of their eternal souls.