The Dangers of Reformed Theology

The Dangers of Reformed Theology

by George Zeller

The Scriptures tell us to “prove all things [test all things by the Word of God]; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess 5:21). As believers in the Lord Jesus Christ it is our responsibility to test and examine what men teach in light of the inerrant Word of God. We will attempt to do this with respect to the teachings of Reformed theology.  May the Lord grant that this analysis would be fair and accurate, and most of all true to His Word.

Before exposing some of the doctrinal dangers of Reformed theology, let us consider some of the positive aspects of this movement. Consider the following strong points:

  1. The Bible (66 Books) is considered the only rule of faith and practice.  Those in the Reformed tradition have a great reverence and respect for the Word of God and they generally hold to a high view of inspiration, insisting that the Bible is totally without error of any kind.  May we all be counted among those who tremble before the Word of our God (Isa 66:2).
  2. Justification by faith is given its proper place as well as the other great Reformation doctrines such as the universal priesthood of every believer and the sole authority and supreme authority of the Scriptures. We can only thank God that these great truths were re-discovered and brought to light by the early reformers.
  3. The grace of God is rightly exalted. Knowing the depravity of the human heart, Reformed men have expressed deep gratitude for the amazing and super abounding grace of God which can reach to the chief of sinners.  Every believer needs to join with them in boasting in our merciful and gracious Saviour and exulting in His sovereign grace.
  4. Because of their emphasis on the depravity of man and the glory and sovereignty of God, those in the Reformed tradition tend to have a God-centred emphasis rather than a man-centred, humanistic emphasis which is so common today, even in the evangelical world.  Their theology tends to abase sinful man and exalt the God of all glory.  It is fitting to do so “for of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen” (Rom 11:36).
  5. Those in the Reformed tradition usually have a healthy fear of God and a strong abhorrence for sin.  They also have a reverential respect for God’s absolute moral standards, especially as they are set forth in the Ten Commandments. “But as He which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conduct; because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Pet 1:15-16).
  6. Reformed theology has on its roles some noted men who ought to be recognised. They have been diligent in the study of the Word of God from which we all can benefit. Such men have sought to point to God and His Word in the outworking of this age of grace. To the measure that these men have imitated Christ, to that measure we can imitate them (1 Cor 11:1).
  7. Those in the Reformed tradition have been very successful in making their views known. They have done this not so much through local church outreach, but through literature. Reformed writers have permeated the Christian book market. A great majority of theology books and Bible commentaries are written from a reformed perspective. Most people who are converted to Reformed theology will admit that they were led to embrace this position as a result of reading certain books. Though we do not agree with all that they write, we acknowledge that they have been diligent in making their positions known through the printed page.

Certainly there is much that is commendable in the Reformed movement. These seven points (and more could be added) are certainly to their credit. In general it has been a God-honouring movement which has preached Christ, detested sin, acknowledged that God rules on His sovereign throne and proclaimed the glorious doctrine of justification by grace through faith according to the Scriptures.  May these very things be said of us.

With all due respect for this movement, the men of this movement and the fruits of this movement, it is our purpose to alert believers to the doctrinal problems and dangers of Reformed theology.

Keeping Truth in Balance

Believers are ever in danger of failing to keep God’s truth in balance. Christians often err when they seek to confine God’s truth by locking it in to man-made systems of theology. C.H. Mackintosh made the following observation:

“God…has not confined Himself within the narrow limits of any school of doctrine – high, low or moderate. He has revealed Himself. He has told out [made known] the deep and precious secrets of His heart. He has unfolded His eternal counsels, as to the Church, as to Israel, the Gentiles, and the wide creation. Men might as well attempt to confine the ocean in buckets of their own formation as to confine the vast range of divine revelation within the feeble enclosures of human systems of doctrine. It cannot be done, and it ought not to be attempted. Better far to set aside the systems of theology and schools of divinity, and come like a little child to the eternal fountain of Holy Scripture, and there drink in the living teachings of God’s Spirit.”

In another place Mackintosh said:

“Dear friend, your difficulty is occasioned by the influence of a one-sided theology [extreme Calvinism] – a system which we can only compare to a bird with one wing, or a boat with one oar. When we turn to the sacred page of God’s Word, we find the truth, not one side of the truth, but the whole truth in all its bearings. We find, lying side by side, the truth of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Are we called to reconcile them? Nay, they are reconciled already because they are both set forth in the Word. We are to believe and obey. It is a fatal mistake for men to frame systems of divinity. You can no more systematise the truth of God than you can systematise God Himself.  Let us abandon, therefore, all systems of theology and schools of divinity, and take the truth.”

By God’s grace may we wholly follow the Word of God, not the frail and faulty systems of men. In the following few points we will see some examples of how Reformed theology has strayed from the simple and balanced teaching of the Bible, especially regarding the extent of the atonement and saving faith.

1. The Danger of Teaching that Christ Died Only for the Elect

This is commonly known as a belief in a “limited atonement” (some Reformed men prefer to call it “definite atonement”). It is the teaching that Christ died on the cross and paid the penalty only for the sins of the elect. He did not die for the ones who eventually will be in the lake of fire. Often it is worded as follows: “Christ died for all men without distinction but He did not die for all men without exception.” This is a subtle game of semantics which makes it possible for them to say that He died for all without really meaning that He died for all. What they really mean is that Christ died for all kinds of people and all classes of people, but He did not die for every single person. That is, He died for Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, etc., but it is understood that He died for only elect Jews and Gentiles, only elect rich and poor, etc.

Dr. Paul Reiter has clearly and simply summarised the scriptural teaching on this issue. For whom did Christ die? He died…

  1. For all (1 Tim 2:6; Isa 53:6)
  2. For every man (Heb 2:9)
  3. For the world (John 3:16)
  4. For the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2)
  5. For the ungodly (Rom 5:6)
  6. For false teachers (2 Pet 2:1)
  7. For many (Matt 20:28)
  8. For Israel (John 11:50-51)
  9. For the Church (Eph 5:25)
  10. For “me” (Gal 2:20)

It is evident that the extreme Calvinist must ignore the clear language and obvious sense of many passages and must force the Scriptures and make them fit into his own theological mould. Limited atonement may seem logical and reasonable, but the real test is this: is it biblical? “What saith the Scriptures?” (Rom 4:3). In childlike faith we must simply allow the Bible to say what it says.

Those who promote this erroneous doctrine try to tell us that “world” does not really mean “world” and “all” does not really mean “all” and “every man” does not really mean “every man” and “the whole world” does not really mean “the whole world”. We are told that simple verses such as John 3:16 and Isaiah 53:6 must be understood not as a child would understand them but as a theologian would understand them. That is, we must reinterpret such verses in light of our system of theology.

The true doctrine of the atonement could be stated as follows: the Scriptures teach that the sacrifice of the Lamb of God involved the sin of the world (John 1:29) and that the Saviour’s work of redemption (1 Tim 2:6; 2 Pet 2:1), reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19) and propitiation (1 John 2:2) was for all men (1 Tim 4:10), but the cross-work of Christ is efficient, effectual and applicable only for those who believe (1 Tim 4:10; John 3:16). The cross-work of Christ is not limited, but the application of that cross-work through the work of the Holy Spirit is limited to believers only.

The extreme Calvinist would say that the cross was designed only for the elect and had no purpose for the “non-elect” (persistent unbelievers). But the death of God’s Son had a divine purpose and design for both groups. For the elect, God’s design was salvation according to His purpose and grace in Christ Jesus before the world began (2 Tim 1:9; 2 Thess 2:13). For unbelievers, God’s purpose and design is to render the unbeliever without excuse. Men are condemned because they have rejected the person and work of Jesus Christ and refused God’s only remedy for sin (John 3:18; 5:40). Unbelievers can never say that a provision for their salvation was not made and not offered. They can never stand before God and say, “The reason I am not saved is because Christ did not die for me.” No, the reason they are not saved is because they rejected the one who died for them and who is the Saviour of all men (1 Tim 4:10). They are without excuse.

This issue is not merely academic. It is extremely practical. It affects the very heart of the gospel and its presentation. The gospel which Paul preached to the unsaved people of Corinth was this: “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3). Do we really have a gospel of good news for all men (compare Luke 2:10-11)? In preaching the gospel, what can we say to an unsaved person? Can we say, “My friend, the Lord Jesus Christ died for you. He paid the penalty for your sins. He died as your substitute”?

One Reformed writer said this:

“But counsellors, as Christians, are obligated to present the claims of Christ. They must present the good news that Christ Jesus died on the cross in the place of His own, that He bore the guilt and suffered the penalty for their sins. He died that all whom the Father had given to Him might come unto Him and have life everlasting. As a reformed Christian, the writer believes that counsellors must not tell any unsaved counsellee that Christ died for him, FOR THEY CANNOT SAY THAT. No man knows except Christ Himself who are His elect for whom He died [emphasis mine].”

As C.H. Mackintosh has said, “A disciple of the high school of doctrine [extreme Calvinist] will not hear of a world-wide gospel – of God’s love to the world – of glad tidings to every creature under heaven. He has only gotten a gospel for the elect.”

How can we sincerely offer to men what has not been provided for them? How can we offer them a free gift if the gift has not been purchased for them? How can we urge them to drink from the fountain of life if no water has been provided for them? How can we tell them to be saved if the Lord Jesus Christ provided not for their salvation? How can we say to a person, “Take the medicine and be cured!” if there is no medicine to take and no cure provided? W. Lindsay Alexander explains: “On this supposition [that of a limited atonement] the general invitations and promises of the gospel are without an adequate basis, and seem like a mere mockery, an offer, in short, of what has not been provided.”

If the Reformed preacher were really honest about it, he would need to preach his “gospel” along these lines:

  • “Perhaps Christ died for you.”
  • “Maybe God so loved you.”
  • “Christ shed His blood for you, perhaps.”
  • “Salvation has been provided for you, maybe.”
  • “Possibly God commendeth His love toward you.”
  • “Hopefully He’s the propitiation for your sins.”
  • “There is a possibility that Christ died as your Substitute.”
  • “I bring you good news, maybe.”
  • “It’s possible that Christ died for you. If you get saved then we know that He did die for you, but if you continue to reject Him then He did not die for you.”
  • “Christ died for you only if you believe that Christ died for you (thus proving you are elect), but if you do not believe this and if you continue in your unbelief until the day you die, then Christ did not die for you.

Those who hold to a definite or limited atonement do not present the gospel in this way, but would not such a presentation be consistent with their theology? Would it not be a correct and cautious and sincere way of sharing with the unsaved? An extreme Calvinist must be very careful how he presents the cross-work of Christ to an unsaved person because he never really can be sure if Christ has made provision for that person. As Robert Lightner has said, “Belief in limited atonement means that the good news of God’s saving grace in Christ cannot be personalised. Those who hold to such a position cannot tell someone to whom they are witnessing that Christ died for him because that one may, in fact, not be one for whom Christ died.”

John Bunyan made this observation: “The offer of the gospel cannot, with God’s allowance, be offered any further than the death of Christ did go; because if it be taken away, there is indeed no Gospel, nor grace to be extended” (Bunyan’s Works). In other words, how can you offer the gospel to a person if Christ did not die for that person? How can we offer the sinner what has not been provided? As Lightner has said, “No maxim appears more certain than that a salvation offered implies a salvation provided.”

Boettner says: “Universal redemption means universal salvation” (cited by Lightner, The Death Christ Died,  p. 96). Extreme Calvinists argues that Christ must save everyone that He died for. They reason thus: “If Christ died for everyone, then everyone will be saved.” Let’s think about the logic of this statement. This would be like saying, “If medicine is available for everyone, then everyone must be healed.” This is obviously false. The medicine, though available, will not do any good unless it is taken. “There is more than enough cool, refreshing water for every thirsty person in the village.” Does this mean that every person in the village will have his thirst quenched?  Only if every person drinks! We need to make a difference between redemption accomplished and redemption applied.

“Lord, I believe were sinners more
Than sands upon the ocean shore,
Thou hast for all a ransom paid,
For all a full atonement made.” (Nikolaus L. von Zinzendorf, 1739)

2. The Danger of Teaching that Regeneration Precedes Faith

The doctrine of man’s total depravity has been distorted by extreme Calvinists resulting in a wrong understanding of man’s inability. The Philippian jailer once asked, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30-31 and compare Acts 2:37-38). Some extreme Calvinists, if they had been in Paul’s place, would have answered as follows: “What must you do to be saved? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! You are spiritually dead and totally unable to respond to God until you are regenerated!”

Extreme Calvinists teach that regeneration must precede faith, and that a person must be born again before he can believe. They would say that a person must have eternal life before he can believe because a person dead in sins is unable to believe. They teach that faith is impossible apart from regeneration. Such teaching seems logical and reasonable to them based on the theological system which they have adopted. But “What saith the Scriptures?”

The Bible clearly teaches this: believe and thou shalt live! “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life” (John 6:47). “That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:15).  The extreme Calvinist says, “Live and thou shalt believe!” Please notice that John 1:12 does not say: “But as many as have been regenerated, to them gave He the power to believe on His name, even to those who have become the children of God.” Notice also that John 20:31 says, “believing ye might have life.” It does not say, “having life ye might believe.” In his helpless and hopeless condition the sinner is told to look to the Lord Jesus Christ and live (John 3:14-16). [We sing the hymn “Look and live.” The extreme Calvinist should change the words to “Live and look”].

For a moment, let’s assume that what the extreme Calvinists are saying is true. If regeneration precedes faith, then what must a sinner do to be regenerated? The extreme Calvinists have never satisfactorily answered this. Shedd’s answer is typical: “Because the sinner cannot believe, he is instructed to perform the following duties: (1) Read and hear the divine Word. (2) Give serious application of the mind to the truth. (3) Pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit for conviction and regeneration.” [See W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 472, 512, 513.]

Roy Aldrich’s response to this is penetrating: “A doctrine of total depravity that excludes the possibility of faith must also exclude the possibilities of ‘hearing the word,’ ‘giving serious application to divine truth,’ and ‘praying for the Holy Spirit for conviction and regeneration.’ The extreme Calvinist deals with a rather lively spiritual corpse after all.

The tragedy of this position is that it perverts the gospel.  The sinner is told that the condition of salvation is prayer instead of faith. How contrary this is to Acts 16:31. The sinner is not told to pray for conviction and for regeneration. The sinner is told to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Some Reformed men, including R.C. Sproul, even teach that a person can be regenerated as an infant, and then not come to faith in Christ until years later.

3. The Danger of Teaching that Faith is the Gift of God

This teaching is based on a wrong interpretation of Ephesians 2:8-9 which says; “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” Many reformed men wrongly conclude that the pronoun “it” refers to “faith”. What Paul is really teaching is that salvation is the gift of God. The IFCA Doctrinal Statement is accurate and clear: “We believe that salvation is the gift of God brought to man and received by personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Salvation is the gift; faith is the “hand of the heart” that reaches out and receives the gift which God offers. We need to be careful not to confuse the gift with the reception of the gift.

The fact that salvation (eternal life, righteousness) is the gift of God is taught repeatedly throughout the New Testament (see John 4:10; Rom 5:15, 16, 17; 6:23). In the New Testament the word “gift” never refers to saving faith, though we certainly recognise that apart from God’s mercy and gracious enabling and enlightenment, saving faith could not be exercised (John 6:44, 65; Matt 11:27; 16:16-17; Acts 16:14 etc.).

The teaching that faith is the gift of God has some very practical implications and will affect the way a person understands the gospel and how a person presents the gospel. If faith is the gift of God, then how do I get this gift?  What must I do? What must I do to believe? How can I get this gift from God? First option: Do I do nothing and hope that God will sovereignly bestow it upon me? Do I do nothing and hope that I am one of God’s elect? Second option: Do I cry out to God and pray that He will give me the gift of saving faith?

John MacArthur holds to this second option. He teaches that faith is the gift of God and he recommends that the sinner pray to God in order to obtain it: “Faith is a gift from God…it is permanent…the faith that God gives begets obedience…God gave it to you and He sustains it…May God grant you a true saving faith, a permanent gift that begins in humility and brokenness over sin and ends up in obedience unto righteousness. That’s true faith and it’s a gift that only God can give, and if you desire it, pray and ask that He would grant it to you.”

Notice carefully what MacArthur is doing. He is not telling the sinner to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31) but rather to pray and ask God to grant the gift of faith. This perverts the gospel of Christ by making the condition of salvation prayer instead of faith. Sinners are commanded to believe on Christ. They are not commanded to pray for the gift of faith.

4. The Danger of Putting Believers Under the Law

Reformed Theology attacks the very essence of the Christian life and the rule by which it should be lived. Reformed theology errs in its teaching on sanctification by sending the believer back to Mount Sinai instead of sending him to Mount Calvary. Paul’s focus was ever upon the cross: “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?” (Gal 3:1). “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal 6:14).

Reformed men would never say that a person is justified by the works of the law. They rightly insist that justification is by faith and not by works. “Justification by faith” was the faithful cry of the Reformation. The problem does not relate to justification but to sanctification (the Christian life and how it is to be lived). Reformed theologians consistently teach that believers are under the law as a rule of life. Usually they say that the believer is not under the ceremonial law (the sacrificial system, etc.) but that he is under the moral law (the Ten Commandments, etc.). The overpowering characteristic of all Reformed theologians is their doctrine of the believer’s relationship to the law. They would say that the believer is “under the law” as a rule of life.

Miles Stanford, author of The Complete Green Letters, has given the following list of pro-law Calvinist or Reformed authors whose theology permeates the thinking of vast numbers of believers: J. Adams, O. Allis, C. Bass, R. Baxter, L. Berkof, G. Berkouwer, L. Boettner, J. Boice, A. Bonar, T. Boston, D. Brown, H. Conn, Wm. Cox, J. Edwards, D. Fletcher, D. Fuller, J. Gerstner, J. Gill, T. Goodwin, R. Haldane, F. Hamilton, A. Hodge, C. Hodge, D. Kromminga, H. Kuiper, A. Kuyper, M. Lloyd–Jones, P. Mauro, L. Morris, G. Murray, J. Murray, R. Nicole, J. Owen, J.I. Packer, H. Payne, A. Pink, Wm. Romaine, J. Ryle, F. Schaeffer, Wm. Shedd, G. Smeaton, D. Steele, N. Stonehouse, J. Stott, C. Thomas, C. Van Til, H. Van Til, G. Vos, B. Warfield, R. Watson, T. Watson, and M. Wyngaarden.

Many of these mentioned above could and should be considered as great and godly men.  Their contribution to the cause of Christ ought not be minimised. However these men  did err whenever they insisted that the believer is under the law as a rule of life. For sanctification the believer must be directed to Mt. Calvary, not to Mt. Sinai. It is at the cross that true freedom is found.

Mr. J. Berry, in his preface to William Huntington’s classic work on The Believer’s Rule of Life, summed up the problem well:

“It is a divine fact that Christ has delivered absolutely, the “redeemed” from all bondage to, and consequences of, all coded law with penalty.  This truth was at first denied by the Pharisees and by some believing Jews. This denial of the truth might have prevailed, had not the issue been immediately settled forever by the apostles. The essentials of this work is recorded of the conference in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35); in Paul’s correction of Peter; of the apostle’s rebuking the Gala­tian Judaisers (Galatians); his exposition in the Roman Epistle, and the final clarification in the letter to the Hebrews. But in spite of these clear declarations from heaven, certain men came into the churches and persisted in teaching the same coded law of Moses. At the Council of Nicea, called by the Roman Emperor Constan­tine, his bishops began the first “system” of Judeo-Christian coded laws, to be expanded through the dark ages by Popes and their hierarchy of bishops; then modified and continued by the Protestant Reformers, – thence in all Christendom to the present day…The issue is not a question of right or wrong doing, but of the relationship under which we serve. All under every coded law serve sin to condemnation; all who are freed from the law now serve as free sons to righteousness and true holiness (Rom 6:15-23).”

The early dispensationalists also understood the issue well:

“I learn in the law that God abhorred stealing, but it is not because I am under the law that I do not steal. All the Word of God is mine, and written for my instruction; yet for all that I am not under law, but a Christian who has died with Christ on the cross, and am not in the flesh, to which the law applied. I have died to the law by the body of Christ (Rom. 7:4).” John Darby

“Some good men who in grievous error would impose the law as a rule of life for the Christian mean very well by it but the whole principle is false because the law, instead of being a rule of life, is necessarily a rule of death to one who has sin in his nature. Far from a delivering power, it can only condemn such; far from being a means of holiness, it is, in fact, the strength of sin (1 Cor 15:56).” William Kelly

“We are fully convinced that a superstructure of true, practical holiness can never be erected on a legal basis; and hence it is that we press 1 Cor 1:30 upon the attention of our readers. It is to be feared that many who have, in some measure, abandoned the legal ground, in the matter of “righteousness”, are yet lingering thereon for “sanctification”. We believe this to be the mistake of thousands, and we are most anxious to see it corrected…It is evident that a sinner cannot be justified by the works of the law; and it is equally evident that the law is not the rule of the believer’s life…As to the believer’s rule of life, the apostle does not say, To me to live is the law; but, “To me to live is Christ” (Phil 1:21). Christ is our rule, our model, our touchstone, our all…We receive the Ten Commandments as part of the canon of inspiration; and moreover, we believe that the law remains in full force to rule and curse a man as long as he liveth. Let a sinner only try to get life by it, and see where it will put him; and let a believer only shape his way according to it, and see what it will make of him. We are fully convinced that if a man is walking according to the spirit of the gospel, he will not commit murder nor steal; but we are also convinced that a man, confining himself to the standard of the law of Moses would fall very short of the spirit of the gospel.” C.H. Mackintosh

“Most of us have been reared and now live under the influence of Galatianism. Protestant theology is for the most part thoroughly Galatianised, in that neither the law or grace is given its distinct and separate place as in the counsels of God, but they are mingled together in one incoherent system. The law is no longer, as in the divine intent, a ministration of death (2 Cor 3:7), of cursing (Gal 3:10), or conviction (Rom 3:19), because we are taught that we must try to keep it, and that by divine help we may. Nor does grace, on the other hand, bring us blessed deliverance from the dominion of sin, for we are kept under the law as a rule of life despite the plain declaration of Rom. 6:14.” C.I. Scofield

“When the sinner is justified by faith, does he need the law to please God? Can obedience to the law produce in him the fruit of holiness unto God? What is the relation of the justified believer to the law? Is he still under the dominion of the law or is he also delivered from the law and its bondage? These questions are answered in this chapter [Romans 7]. “Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to Him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God…But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter (Rom 7:4,6).” Arno C. Gaebelein

Believers today are not under law, either as a means of justification or as a rule of law, but are justified by grace and are called upon to walk in grace…Primarily here [in Rom 7:14-25] we have a believing Jew struggling to obtain holiness by using the law as a rule of life and resolutely attempting to compel his old nature to be subject to it. In Christendom now the average Gentile believer goes through the same experience; for legality is commonly taught almost everywhere. Therefore when one is converted it is but natural to reason that now [that] one has been born of God it is only a matter of determination and persistent endeavour to subject oneself to the law, and one will achieve a life of holiness. And God Himself permits the test to be made in order that His people may learn experimentally that the flesh in the believer is no better than the flesh in an unbeliever. When he ceases from self-effort he finds deliverance through the Spirit by occupation with the risen Christ.” H.A. Ironside

“The Word of God condemns unsparingly all attempts to put the Christian believer “under the law”.  The Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul gave to the church the book of Galatians for the very purpose of dealing with this heresy. Read this epistle over and over, noting carefully the precise error with which the writer deals. It is not a total rejection of the gospel of God’s grace and a turning back to total legalism. It is rather the error of saying that the Christian life, having begun by simple faith in Christ, must thereafter continue under the law or some part of it (Gal 3:2-3).” Alva McClain

The key to living the Christian life is not found at Mt. Sinai. It is found at Mt. Calvary. It is there that I learn that “I died, and my life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). The law came forth from Sinai, but grace flowed forth and gushed forth from Calvary, and it is the grace of God that teaches us “that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world [age]” (Titus 2:11-12). The foolish Galatians abandoned Mt. Calvary in favour of Mt. Sinai even though Jesus Christ had been evidently and openly set forth before their eyes crucified among them (Gal 3:1). “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal 6:14).

Reformed theology is deficient in its teaching on sanctification. William Newell made the following observation:

“Neither in doctrine nor in walk did the Reformation go back to the early days of the Church. In doctrine they did teach (thank God!) justification by faith apart from works. Luther’s Commentary on Galatians is in many respects the most vigorous utterance of faith since Paul. Yet the Reformers did not teach Paul’s doctrine of identification, – that the believer’s history, as connected with Adam, ended at Calvary: that he died to sin, federally, with Christ; and died to the law, which gave sin its power. All the Reformation creeds kept the believer under the law as a rule of life; and “the law made nothing perfect”. Whereas, Scripture speaks of a perfect conscience, through a perfect sacrifice; of faith being perfected; of being made perfect in love; of perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” (William Newell, Revelation – A Complete Commentary, p. 63. See his comments under Rev 3:2).

5. The Danger of Teaching the Erroneous Doctrine of “Vicarious Law-Keeping”

“For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” (Rom 5:19).

The contrast in this verse is between Adam’s one act of disobedience which plunged the entire race into sin and Christ’s one act of obedience which provided salvation for all. Romans 5:19 is often misinterpreted by Reformed men who say that the obedience of Christ mentioned in this verse refers to His obedience throughout His life in keeping the law perfectly. And while the Lord Jesus Christ did keep every jot and tittle of the law perfectly, the obedience spoken of in Romans 5:19 is the same obedience referred to in Philippians 2:8, namely Christ’s obedience to the Father’s will by going to the cross. It refers to His one act of redemption.

Reformed theologians hold to a theory which is sometimes referred to as “vicarious law-keeping”. This theory says that Christ not only died for us as our substitute (a truth which we fully agree with), but that Christ also lived for us (during His pre-cross days) and kept God’s commandments for us as our substitute. They teach that the debt man owed to God was paid and fully satisfied not only by Christ’s substitutionary death but also by the obedience of His life (which they call Christ’s “active righteousness”). They teach that justification is grounded not only in Christ’s death on the cross where He bore the penalty of God’s judgment against us, but it also “is grounded in Christ’s lifelong obedience in which He fulfilled the precepts of God’s law for us” [Reformation Study Bible, see note under Romans 3:24]. Concerning this “obediential righteousness of Christ”, they assert and maintain that Christ atoned by His life as well as by His death, and that this was absolutely necessary and essential in procuring our righteousness. They say that when we get saved, God imputes to us the law-keeping righteousness of Christ.

The 1999 document entitled, The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration (signed by many leading Evangelicals including Hybels, Hayford, MacArthur, Robertson, McCartney, Swindoll, Lucado, Stott, Ankerberg, Neff, Stowell, Stanley, etc.) expressly states:

“God’s justification of those who trust in him, according to the gospel, is a decisive transition, here and now, from a state of condemnation and wrath because of their sins to one of acceptance and favour by virtue of Jesus’ flawless obedience culminating in his voluntary sin-bearing death.”

It later adds:

“We affirm that Christ’s saving work included both his life and his death on our behalf (Gal. 3:13). We declare that faith in the perfect obedience of Christ by which he fulfilled all the demands of the law of God on our behalf is essential to the gospel. We deny that our salvation was achieved merely or exclusively by the death of Christ without reference to his life of perfect righteousness.”

Clearly, this statement perpetuates the erroneous idea that our justification is based upon Christ’s legal obedience in life as well as His death and resurrection.

Note: Not all Reformed men have held this view.  Mitchell, who wrote a history of the Westminster Assembly (the group of Bible scholars who created the Westminster Confession of Faith), states: “The main question on which the long debates on the Article of Justification turned was whether the merit of the obedience of Christ as well as the merit of his sufferings was imputed to the believer for his justification. Several of the most distinguished members of the Assembly, including Twisse the Prolocutor, Mr. Gataker, and Mr. Vines maintained…that it was the sufferings or passive obedience only of Christ which was imputed to the believer” (Alexander F. Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly: Its History and Standards, 1992 reprint from the 1883 edition, Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, p. 149).

In answering this theory, we must first strongly affirm that the Lord Jesus Christ lived a perfect, sinless life and that He perfectly obeyed God’s commandments, always doing those things that pleased the Father. He was the spotless, sinless Lamb of God. No Bible believer could deny the flawless, sinless life of our Saviour. These facts are indisputable. He kept the law perfectly.

However, the righteousness by which we are justified does not flow from the earthly Jesus, but it becomes ours because of the risen and glorified Son of God and our union with Him. Please notice that Romans 4:25 does not say this: “Who was delivered for our offenses, and who obeyed the law for our justification.” Reformed theology, in this case, looks for righteousness on the wrong side of the cross. We do not find our righteousness in the law or even in Christ’s keeping of the law, but we find our righteousness only in Him, the risen Christ (2 Cor 5:21).

Our righteous standing in Christ is due to the fact that we have been united to the risen Christ, and He has become our righteousness (1 Cor 1:30). The righteousness of God, which we receive by faith, is “without [apart from] the law” (Rom 3:22), and has no legal basis whatsoever. In Romans 3:24 we learn that the basis of our justification is found at Calvary: “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”. The verse says nothing of His law-keeping as being the basis for our justification. Likewise, Romans 5:9 declares that we are justified by His blood, not by his pre-cross obedience. And having been justified by His blood, we are saved by His life (Rom 5:10), even His resurrection life (Rom 4:25). Remember, if Christ had not been raised from the dead, we would still be in our sins (1 Cor 15:17), in spite of Christ’s perfect pre-cross obedience.

The above article by George Zeller, used with his kind permission, has been abridged to focus on soteriology. His original article, which has more than double the 5 points listed above, includes helpful material on eschatology. To read the larger article see here

George Zeller’s two excellent books – The Eternal Sonship of Christ and God’s Gift of Tongues are available from Amazon