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Douglas Wilson and Justification

Douglas Wilson is the embodiment of “RIP my mentions.” His controversies range from politics to theology to literature. People laud him as a visionary leader, and people deride him as a cult leader. To some he is too conservative. To others, he has departed from the true Reformed tradition. Wilson has copycat followers, deranged former fans, critics shocked by his very existence, and a sizeable number of anonymous readers who cover their screens as they check his blog each morning. A summary of what his critics dislike about him can be found here. Wilson’s own response to most of these charges is available here. Perhaps the best summary of his larger ministry can be found in this 2009 article by Molly Worthen. Amazingly, if one were writing a biography of Doug Wilson, the Federal Vision would be but a single chapter.

And yet when it comes to understanding the Federal Vision, Wilson is the single most important name. He is easily the most famous of the FV pastors and theologians, and his influence and legacy overshadows all of the other men combined. This is not to suggest that Wilson was the originating genius of the FV or even the main thinker. He was not. As time went on, it became obvious that he was something of the odd man out. But in 2002 and 2003, Douglas Wilson was very much an FV spokesman, and his connection to the FV raised its profile considerably. It’s hard to imagine what would have even become of the FV without Wilson, but it seems likely that the controversy would never have been as big without him. Indeed, those early conferences may have even passed by entirely unnoticed by the larger world. But that is not how it actually played out.

In previous posts, I have used the language of FV Dark and FV Light. This is language that Wilson himself coined, though he used the more colorful names of “FV Oatmeal Stout” and “FV Amber Ale.” You can see him using these names as early as 2004 in his interview with Michael Horton. I argue that this divide played out pretty consistently until Wilson finally came to reject the FV label entirely, coming to believe that the two positions were ultimately irreconcilable and that his brand of FV was actually closer to the critics of FV, whereas the FV Dark group largely fit together as a distinct theology. In making this argument, it is not my goal to defend or vindicate Wilson. I believe that there are important points of his theology which can be criticized, even parts related to FV. He did not always maintain a perfect consistency in his writing, and he certainly did not always distinguish his views from the other FV views. Indeed, in the earlier years, he often approvingly cited FV Dark essays. However, I do think that he demonstrates a basic continuity throughout the controversy, and I think that on the most significant points of controversy—the doctrine of justification and the efficacy of the sacraments—he maintained what could be called a confessional Reformed position.

In what follows, I will not be discussing the broader universe of Wilson controversies. I will only be discussing his relationship to FV and specifically the doctrine of justification. Much more could be said about Wilson, especially on the definition of the church and on the sacraments. But justification typically takes the top place in matters of controversy, and in explaining Wilson on justification, his views on related issues will become easier to understand.

Justification

Much of what Wilson wrote about in the years between 2002 and 2005 was material that he had taught in earlier forms. Throughout the 1990s, Wilson moved from a baptistic Evangelical outlook to a paedobaptistic and ecclesiastical form of Reformed Christianity. Much of Wilson’s “FV” was the flowering of this transition, and much of his writing on these topics is cast in conversation with or indeed opposition to his earlier “baptistic” way of thinking. Throughout this transition, however, Wilson continued to call himself Reformed and even an “Evangelical.” He never presented his transition as a conversion away from Evangelical Christianity, and he always maintained his consistency and even allegiance to the Protestant Reformation. It’s also important to note the organic and, frankly, messy way that Wilson developed. He did a lot of his thinking in public, and he worked his way from a generic Evangelicalism towards something like traditional Presbyterianism. Interestingly, as late as 2004, Wilson’s church did not officially subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith. This highlights a certain irony. As the FV controversy unfolded, Wilson was becoming more ecclesiastically Reformed. But this also explains why Wilson did not always do his writing in ways that traditional readers would expect. He was not simply working through classic dogmatics texts. He was making biblical arguments within his local circumstances.

In the late 1990s, Wilson wrote about justification in a fairly conventional way. 1999’s Federal Husband puts it like this:

The Bible describes the relationship between Adam and the human race as a federal one. That is, God made a covenant with the entire human race, with Adam serving as the representative or covenant head of that race. Adam, as a covenant head, must be described as the federal head of our race. As we will see, this is why the Bible speaks of our loss of righteousness as occurring in Adam.

In the same way, our salvation was accomplished federally. Christ, the second Adam, was sent by God to be the Federal Head of a new race. His obedience was representative and was imputed to all His elect, who are identified as such by their faith. This is why Christ stands in a relationship with the Church which is described as one of headship. This headship is covenantal, which means that it is necessarily a federal headship. (FH, 10)

In 2001, Wilson expanded on this in his Mother Kirk:

Reformed evangelicals are reformational in their understanding of the doctrine of salvation. The Bible teaches that God is the Almighty One, and that His sovereignty is manifested most gloriously in the salvation of sinners. In our doctrine of salvation, we must hold that God is the sole author of sovereign grace (Eph. 2:8-10…

When the time was right, the Son of God was born of a woman, born under the law, in order to accomplish the will of God (Gal. 4:4). That will was to secure the salvation of God’s elect through the vicarious death of Christ on the cross (Eph. 5:25). We may call this aspect of Christ’s death the doctrine of efficacious redemption. It refers to the nature of Christ’s death as an effective substitute for His people (Rom. 5:6). Christ died in order to secure the redemption of His people, and that act of obedience was powerful and efficacious (1 Jn. 2:1-2). When Christ died, the salvation of every sinner to be saved was at that point secured—not merely made possible, but actually secured. (MK, 38- 39)

To this he added:

As the Word is preached, the only saving response to the gospel is that of true evangelical faith. With the Reformers, we hold that justification by faith is the article upon which the church stands or falls (Rom. 3:28). Saving faith is not to be understood as our autonomous response to the message of what God has done. Rather, it is the gift of God, so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:28-9). Faith is not the ground of our justification—the only ground of justification is the death of Christ (Jer. 23:6). A man is justified when God, because of His good pleasure, imputes the obedience of the Lord Jesus to that man. Faith is the instrument whereby our justification is received, an instrument in its own turn given to us by God (Acts 18:27; Phil. 1:29). Saving faith is a gift of God. That this removes all boasting can be seen in how controversial the assertion is. Proud men do not want the gospel to be entirely grace. (MK, 41)

In these two books, we see Wilson teaching a basic sort of covenant theology. Sinners are condemned in Adam, and believers are redeemed in Christ. Salvation is entirely by God’s grace and because of Christ’s work. Wilson even affirms that faith is the instrument of receiving justification from Christ.

When Wilson published ‘Reformed’ Is Not Enough, the FV was beginning to take off and reach controversial status. In that book, Wilson does not reject his earlier thought. He presents himself as continuing to hold to a Reformational outlook. He does believe that many Reformed pastors and thinkers have adopted a truncated version of the Reformed faith (and readers can debate the accuracy of Wilson’s claims here), but Wilson never blames the Reformation for this. Wilson does not even argue for a sort of Shepherdite modification. To the contrary, he writes:

We are justified for Christ’s sake only. God does not justify us for anything done by us, and, far more important, for anything done in us (even by Him). Nor does God justify us because of our faith—rather He justifies us because of Christ’s obedience and work, and this is appropriated by us through faith. Understanding these prepositions (in the gut) is a matter of life and death, heaven and hell. (RINE 45)

In the surrounding pages, Wilson gives traditional explanations of the relationship between the ground of justification and subsequent evidentiary proofs. He also maintains that true believers cannot lose their justification. While certain non-elect persons can enjoy various benefits of the covenant of grace for a season, Wilson believes they will always eventually manifest their unfaithfulness and fall away, while true believers will necessarily persevere unto the end, because of the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in them.

Faith and Faithfulness

Some have argued that Wilson was still not careful enough to distinguish faith and works because he used the language of “living faith” or a faith that obeys. While this language in itself is actually rather traditional, in the context of the FV debate, it was associated with the Norman Shepherd controversy. Many people assumed “living faith” was a way to speak of a composite faith, a faith that included works of obedience. This level of the debate quickly devolves into arguments over emphasis and trajectory. However, Wilson made his position clear enough when he explained what it is that faith does in relationship to receiving justification.

When it comes to “living faith,” Wilson explains that God gives the faith and that God gives the faith with a specific character– it is alive. “The kind of faith that God gives as a gift is always alive” (RINE, 46). This “living” character is what causes the faith to produce good works, what allows it to do so, but it is also what distinguishes the faith from false or spurious faith, even in its act of believing. And so Wilson would occasionally call works “the animating principle” of the faith. This language causes some readers to assume that Wilson is redefining faith as obedience. But the way to determine if this is so is to see what role the faith is playing, what the faith is doing, in the reception of justification. Wilson does not say that this animating principle– the life, the faithfulness– receives Christ’s righteousness through its activity of obedience. Rather, he says that the animating principle explains how this faith was able to believe. God gives the faith, and God gives the kind of faith that can believe. Because it is alive, the faith can truly believe. And then this lively faith goes on to acts of faith-filled obedience. Wilson explained this using the language of temporal succession:

But when God has done this wonderful work, the faithful instrument does not shrivel up and die. It continues to love God and obey Him. If it does not, but just lies there like a corpse, then we have good reason to believe that it was lying there like a corpse some days before–not being therefore an instrument of justification. Faith without works is a dead faith, and a dead faith never justified anybody. Saving faith is ever accompanied by all other saving graces. (RINE, 46).

Readers may find some of Wilson’s phrasing confusing or unexpected, and it is true that Wilson could have explained himself in more detail. Wilson believed he was making use of the argument and metaphors used by James 2, and that the fact of this would prove sufficient for his own use of the language.  Faith and works are there paralleled with the body and the spirit– faith is paralleled with the body, and works are paralleled with the spirit. Wilson is clear that the animating principle behind everything is God’s gracious decree. God gives the faith, the living faith, to the believer, and that faith believes God. It is then “accompanied by” the other saving graces.

The function of this faith becomes most clear when Wilson discusses the relationship of faith to covenant succession (the raising up of children in the faith). In fending off charges that he taught salvation by technique, Wilson wrote:

I have argued that promises are apprehended by faith, not faithfulness or fidelity, but, of course, faith in the biblical sense is inseparable from faithfulness. Faith, by definition, is not faithless, but rather faithful. Faith is invisible to the human eye, but faith’s constant companion—faithfulness—is not invisible. Nevertheless, it is faith that receives the promises, overthrows kingdoms, and stops the mouths of lions. (RINE, 186)

In this section, Wilson is clearly distinguishing between faith and faithfulness, and he is arguing that faith believes God’s promises. He makes this explicit a few paragraphs later:

If God were to have my children turn out on the basis of my works—on one of my good days—they would all be in the penitentiary. But he offers to give me my children, and their children after them. What must I do? I must believe Him when He offers them to me.

Now if I believe Him, this faith is organically connected to parental faithfulness. But we are solid Protestants, and so we do not try to have the ox push the plow. Faith first and faith foundationally. (RINE, 187)

Thus we can see that Wilson has a basic category of faith as “belief” which works as a foundation for all subsequent notions of faith as faithful obedience. He even uses the traditional language of cause and fruit:

These good works are not in themselves the ground of salvation, but they are the ground of assurance of salvation. They are the fruit of the tree, not the cause of the tree. They are the evidence that the tree is alive and growing. They are fruit and evidence of a true and lively faith. (RINE, 172)

Law and Gospel

Some critics argue that not even this is enough, and they argue this because Wilson does not believe in the classic law/gospel distinction. To them, one’s profession of faith is insufficient unless accompanied with the appropriate systematic explanation. Sometimes this kind of criticism is overly demanding, but other times it simply means that the critic believes Wilson to be speaking equivocally. He uses the right words, they say, but he means something different by those words. Of course, to be totally honest about this kind of debate, we have to admit that all parties run the risk of petitio principii. When it comes to something like the law/gospel distinction, there are various points of view even within the Reformed tradition, and whether or not just one perspective is necessary for a proper articulation of justification by faith alone is a contested position. It is certainly true that Wilson was critical of many law/gospel distinctions, and it is even true that he even occasionally said that law/gospel distinctions were unhelpful or biblically misleading without clarifying which variety he had in mind. At the same time, Wilson also did use certain kinds of law/gospel distinctions under stipulated conditions.

One particularly clear example is found in Wilson’s interview debate with Michael Horton. This exchange occurred in the winter of 2004, and Wilson was asked directly about what he thought of Horton’s understanding of law and gospel. This section of the conversation begins at the 23:28 mark. There the host, Joost Nixon, asks Wilson, “Do you agree with Mike’s definition of law and gospel, and if you don’t can you tell us where you disagree?” Wilson responds in this way:

I agreed with a lot of what he just said and would want to take a few other steps beyond and point to a few additional considerations. First, if we consider the three uses of the law, which I think Mike and I would agree that that’s a historic Reformed expression of what we are to do with the law that comes to us. If we consider the civil use, that’s certainly gracious—God restraining our wickedness in public. That’s a good thing for us.

This might be surprising, but in the second use of the law, the pedagogic use of the law, I believe even that, you know if you have Moses knocking down Bunyan’s pilgrim—you know, beating him up—but the point was to beat up to bring him to Christ, to bring him to salvation. So even there, in retrospect, that being worked over by Moses is seen as gracious. But the one place where there is no grace in the law is when the person is convicted of his sin, every mouth is stopped before God, and they do not repent. So when the law comes to someone, and they don’t come to Christ, they refuse Christ, then the law is terrible in its severity. And there, it’s pure law. That’s what you have at the judgment. Law and no grace.

And then the third use of the law is entirely gracious…We keep the Decalogue out of gratitude, not out of an attempt to earn our salvation or anything like that…

I understand how Mike and many of his group would like to hear robust affirmations from us, about the second use of the law, which I’m happy to provide—Rom. 3:20, Rom. 5:20—the law is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. And I see that as gracious when the person does, in fact, come to Christ, and he thanks God afterwards for the whole. But I do think the convicting and condemnation of the law is seen in its terror most clearly when you presuppose that the person doesn’t come to Christ. Just as we would like to perhaps hear more from them about the third use of the law, they would like to hear more from us on the second use of the law. And I’m happy to affirm that. I really do believe that the Lord Jesus was applying the second use of the law to the Rich Young Ruler who said, ‘What do I have to do?’ And Jesus loaded up his backpack full of law brick.

Here we see Wilson affirming the pedagogic use of the law and even connecting it to the passage in the gospels where the Rich Young Ruler asks what he has to do to be saved. For Wilson, this is a kind of “law” question, and, also for Wilson, Jesus answers it in the traditional “Lutheran” way, by driving the Rich Young Ruler to despair over his inability to properly keep the law.

Wilson even worked this modest affirmation of a law/gospel distinction into the 2007 Joint Federal Vision Statement, which said the following:

At the same time, we affirm that it is appropriate to speak of law and gospel as having a redemptive and historical thrust, with the time of the law being the old covenant era and the time of the gospel being the time when we enter our maturity as God’s people. We further affirm that those who are first coming to faith in Christ frequently experience the law as an adversary and the gospel as deliverance from that adversary, meaning that traditional evangelistic applications of law and gospel are certainly scriptural and appropriate.

Leading up to this admission, the Joint FV Statement explained the ways that it did not appreciate the law/gospel distinction. Here, however, we see some flexibility, as the term law can be used both as a redemptive-historical marker and as a psychological experience of condemnation. It even allows that this latter usage of “law” is “scriptural and appropriate.”

One final source will be helpful to conclude this essay on Wilson’s views of justification. In 2004, he requested his presbytery to examine his theology. This allowed him to explain himself in more detail on a topical basis. That document is available online here. On pg. 8, Wilson explains his view of the relationship between grace and law. He denies that grace and law are antithetical, but his explanation reveals that their lack of antithesis is found in the work of the heart. The unregenerate heart dislikes both law and grace, because of its stubborn sin, whereas the regenerate heart sees the grace involved in bringing the conviction of sin and subsequent forgiveness in Christ. Still, Wilson affirms that the law is perceived as a terror when it brings this conviction, and Wilson affirms that “the gospel” reveals God’s grace most clearly in Christ.

Even more importantly, however, is what can be found on pg 10, question 44. There Wilson is asked about the notion of merit as it related to the covenant of works. He answers that question but also discusses the more basic notion of Adam’s obedience and Christ’s corresponding work. Wilson states:

I agree with John Frame in his foreword to The Backbone of the Bible, when he says that “although I prefer to speak of ‘desert’ or ‘justice’ to speaking of ‘merit,’ Shepherd has not convinced me that the last term is simply wrong.” Had Adam obeyed he would have obtained our salvation, and it would have been a fulfillment of the terms of the covenant, and therefore just and right. The same is true of Christ’s obedience. Christ purchased us, and it is just and right that this happen. My problem with merit is that it tends to drag autonomy behind it. Remove that, and I would not want to quibble over words.

Here we see Wilson addressing Norman Shepherd directly and disagreeing with him. In fact, Wilson affirms that Adam was expected to fulfill the terms of the covenant in Eden by obedience, and Wilson says that this would have justly “obtained our salvation.” Since this did not happen, Wilson argues, Christ came to earth to purchase the salvation of believers with his obedience. This statement would seem to provide everything that is typically meant by “covenant of works” or the law/gospel distinction, once appropriate qualifications are taken into account.

Conclusion

Much more could be said about how Wilson’s views here relate to other FV writers. It is certainly reasonable to ask how they could coexist on one side of the controversy and over against views which seem more naturally allied with Wilson’s own. The answer is unlikely to be found in pure intellectual consistency but rather the complicated realities of history and social pairings. Wilson had friends, for better or for worse. Whether this could have been properly sorted out at the time—and by whom—are questions that I will leave to the side. But looking back, what Douglas Wilson actually advocated is plain enough.

In a final installment, I will try to synthesize the whole FV theological conversation and give my appraisal of it. I will explain the two forms of FV, acknowledging that many individuals might want to agree with parts of one or the other. Finally, I will try to explain what parts of the FV still have something to offer us and which parts should be left behind as unhelpful confusions.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.