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URCNA Synod 2007

Trinity%20Christian%20College.jpgI'm off to Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL--a suburb of Chicago--for the sixth synod of the URCNA.  Synod opens on Tuesday (July 10) and convenes on Saturday (July 14).

There are a number of important matters before our synod, most of them dealing with ecumenical relations with other churches (most notably the Canadian Reformed Churches).  There are proposed changes to our church order, an overture calling for the formation of a new classis in the Pacific Northwest (thankfully our church is growing), and an overture which recommends accepting the RCUS' 2004 report on Norman Shepherd's teaching on justification, which concludes that Shepherd teaches "another gospel" (Click here: REPORT OF THE SPECIAL COMMITTEE TO STUDY JUSTIFICATION IN LIGHT OF THE CURRENT JUSTIFICATION CONTROVERSY).

As you can see, these are important issues for the life of our church, and I would ask you to please pray for the success of our synod.

I'll be gone for the next week or so--I won't burden you with a "live blog" of what happens during Synod 2007!  But I may have a report for you when its all over . . .

Reader Comments (5)

Reverend Kim,
My prayers are with you. May God's Spirit give they Synod wisdom in dealing with these vital matters.
Matt Holst
July 7, 2007 | Unregistered Commentermatt holst
As a URC missionary I too am praying for our synod especially in the area of Norman Shepherd's view of justification. I trust that the truth will prevail and that we will stand with the Reformers. May God grant you safety and strength as you travel!
July 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSteve McGee
BTW, I do hope that you will give updates on the synod. I get virtually no news here in Trinidad!
July 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSteve McGee
Kim, We pray for the success of the Synod. Fight the good fight. We have to have it stay 'right' somewhere in the 'churches' today!! Everything is so messed up and we cheer you on to fight for what is right. Thank you for your involvment. We pray you have a safe trip home and are looking forward to reading the report when you get back and catch your breath!!

The kids from Missouri
July 10, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterplw
This quotation is from John Frame, in an article where Frame responds to the RCUS paper that calls Shepherd's teaching another Gospel.

Quoting Frame:

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 his person, 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.
July 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterI like John Frame

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