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Whose Legalism?
Which Works-Righteousness?
The 2002 Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference and the Assurance of Grace

by Mark Horne

copyright © 2003

Recently, there has been some controversy over the presentations of four speakers at the Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference. Accusations have been made including a denial of justification by faith alone and something close enough to “baptismal regeneration” that it deserves to be called heretical. One does not need to read very far to see that the accusers are claiming that these ministers are teaching legalism or works-righteousness.

However, what has not received much mention or discussion is that these men seem to have exactly the same concern. They believe that there is legalism or works righteousness infecting American Reformed and Presbyterian churches and they want us to out-grow it.

Perhaps the first thing to be said is that the the conference took place in a PCA Church, Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church. The pastor and session there have voluntarily taken vows to uphold the system of doctrine of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. While this paper will only deal with a few specifics, I will state for the record that I believe that the approach of these four men according to their presentations (I say “approach” because they are not all identical), were well within the bounds of the system of doctrine that is articulated in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.

More than this, the four ministers explicitly affirmed Reformed doctrine at the conference–specifically that justification is only by faith. Thus, Doug Wilson, one of the four speakers, stated:

Now there may be some people listening to the tapes of this conference so they hear about us and they say, oh, these guys are abandoning the reformation. These the guys, they’re walking away from the solas. I am not walking away from any solas, I want to add more solas… I don’t think it is going to make anybody feel any better but I am a black coffee Calvinist. I believe that God in a mighty work in the reformation restored the gospel in a wonderful and a powerful way and I don’t think we should back off of that…
Likewise, Steve Schlissel stated quite plainly that he was only opposed to the way the solas of the Reformation could be misused as slogans, but not to their doctrinal substance:
Remember that in Amos God says, “I hate, I despise, your religious feasts. I cannot stand your assemblies.” Who authorized those assemblies? God did. Why does He say that He hates them? Because they were not accompanied by a whole-hearted fear of God in conformity to His Word. It is just as easy for God to say today, “I hate, I despise, your confessions of faith. Take them out of my sight. I am disgusted by your solas.” Why? Are they not true? Of course, they are true in a proper context, but they are not substitutes for the fear of the Lord. They are not substitutes for whole-hearted, biblical, covenantal religion.
Whatever one thinks about this analogy it clearly puts the
solas on a high level. The festivals were from God and so are the solas (I assume that if we remember that Amos was speaking about Northern Kingdom shrine feasts, we will still find plenty of statements that apply to the Southern Kingdom such as the first chapter in Isaiah). Furthermore, lest one misapply the analogy, Schlissel explicitly stated “Of course the solas are true.”

But more than simply affirming salvation by grace through faith, the speakers specifically targeted what they viewed as legalism and advocated a higher view of the grace as the only antidote. Steve Schlissel for example stated:

But what kind of faith is sola fide faith? There is a certain quality to this saving faith, and there is the spurious faith and there is the pretentious faith. Then the pulpits want us to begin examining our faith. Then we have to “bring up” our faith. Before you know it, everybody thinks that he or she is not saved. “How can I really and truly be saved?” To find out, come back next week and the preacher will make you feel guilty, by golly. Week after week the people are berated, bullied, and tortured in their consciences on the presupposition that God is as niggardly as the preacher believes Him to be. God only saves with the greatest possible reluctance. When somebody manages to squeak into the kingdom, He snaps His fingers and says, “Shucks! Another one made it. I was hoping that he would be deceived into thinking that he had saving faith when he really didn’t have it.” The whole notion of God is distorted, as if Paul preached a Gospel so full of qualifiers that faith becomes a new work–and outdoes what the most wicked, abominable, self-righteous Pharisee (as our own Reformed fathers viewed the Pharisees) ever taught about works that had to be performed to enter the kingdom of God.
Schlissel also quotes an unnamed author (who I believe is Joel Beeke) as proof that we need to reconsider the way we speak of faith:
One of the greatest struggles of the theologian and pastor of the post-Reformation churches lay with the area of personal assurance of faith and its relationship to saving faith. Their labor for theological precision in this area gave rise to a rich technical vocabulary in which they distinguished between assurance of faith and assurance of sense; the direct, actus directus, and reflexive, actus reflexus, acts of faith; assurance of the uprightness of faith and assurance of adoption; the practical and mystical syllogisms; the principle and acts of faith; objective and subjective assurance; assurance of faith, understanding, and hope; discursive and intuitive assurance; the immediate and mediate witness in assurance; and the being and well being of faith.

Such terminology was used within the context of a series of correlative issues such as possibilities, kinds, degrees, foundations, experiences, times, obstacles, qualifications, and fruits of assurance–all placed within a word regulated, Christologically controlled, and Trinitarian framework. With such scholastic distinctions the modern church and most scholars have little patience.

For Schlissel, all this often amounts to the functional equivalent of works righteousness.

[Note to reader: I would like to think that it would go without saying that disagreement with Beeke or with anyone else does not represent a dismissal of the great value of his ministry as a whole. I hope this essay will be regarded by all as a contribution to an ongoing discussion, not as a personal attack.]

John Barach expressed similar concerns. For example:

When you read some books, even some reformed books about assurance, they will say something like this, that anyone can have assurance provided he continues in godliness for a certain space of time. How long? Five minutes good? Does it have to be ten? Does it have to be a year or two of godliness before you can have any assurance? And I began to wonder what do you do with somebody who has struggled against sin, who falls into sin, terrible sin, wants to flee from them, finds himself terribly attracted to them, can a person like that have assurance of salvation or does that wait until much later on after he has already conquered his terrible sins that he is struggling against? But then how do you conquer sin when you have no assurance? How do you battle against sin when you are not sure that God loves you? When you are not really sure that Christ died for you? And when you’re not really sure that you are one of his people, how could you ever fight against sin? What power would you have to fight with if you are not really sure that he has given you his Holy Spirit?
Doug Wilson expressed this concern especially when we deny our Christian children are indeed Christians:
When we say that all of God’s word is perfect, converting the soul. When we don’t divide it up into law and gospel, when we don’t say law over here, gospel over there, when we say it’s all gospel, it’s all law, it’s all good, when we say that, someone is going to accuse us of phariseeism or legalism. What does Jesus say about this pattern? Matthew 23: “Then spake Jesus to the multitude and to his disciples saying, the scribes and the pharisees set in Moses’ seat. All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do, but do not ye after their works, for they say and do not.” I want you to notice this next thing and ask yourself whether you see any Reformed preaching in this, particularly with our little ones. “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”

You want to come to the Lord’s table you had better be, in short, you need to be close to ordination. If you want to come to the Lord’s Table, you’ve got to pass a theology exam and you’ve got to be grilled by the elders, and well, we have to fence the table. The bible teaches that the table fences us, we don’t fence the table. The table defines us. The table fences us, we don’t fence the table. We say, for example, well we want to make sure this kid really understands the Lord’s Supper before he partakes. Oh, like you really understand it? Who understands it? Who fully understands the Lord’s Supper? Raise your hand, I dare you. Little Johnny, you grow up big and strong and after you have grown up big and strong, then we will give you some food. And then, of course, he keels over. He dies of starvation, wonders off, apostatizes and then we say, “Oh, see? He died of starvation. It’s a good thing we didn’t give him any food! What a waste!” He died. He died because you weren’t feeding him.

And again:
I’ve be in situations where many times I’ve had occasion to speak to Christian young people, covenant young people who have grown up in evangelical homes, good church kids, well established, well taught and there are a hand full of topics that can get a room full of young kids to go deathly quiet, deathly quiet. And one of them, one of the two, is assurance of salvation. Because we have 350 years of our tradition requiring people to twist in the wind for an appropriate period to time before they can go through a crisis, convulsive experience and say, “I’m saved.” This model has been developed. We take a snippet from the Bible: The Apostle Paul was converted that way. He has a convulsive, Damascus road experience and it is wonderful when that happens. But we have made the Damascus road, convulsive, conversion experience the norm. And all over America you will have somebody come in to a special Sunday evening service, the former Hell’s Angel who has $300 a day crack cocaine, killed three people, scrambled his brains with a little egg whisk, he was on death row and the governor pardoned him and then led him to the Lord and now he is traveling around the country telling people about Jesus. And he is a mess. All right? He is a forgiven mess but he [is a mess]. And all these covenant kids are thinking “Ah man why can’t I have that?”

Because your parents were obedient! Your parents brought you up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Your testimony is supposed to be boring. It is! Glory to God for boring testimonies.

Steve Wilkins expressed the same concern in the his lecture on the Half-Way Covenant in American history:
So your son will say, “You mean Jesus has loved me this much to embrace me, bring me into union with him and I don’t have to do anything but just kind of love him back and stay where I am and seek by his mercy to be faithful to him all my days and he has promised to give me that strength and mercy. That’s it?”

You say? “That’s it. That’s grace.”

“I don’t have to ride a bicycle and get really hurt and be near death and then come back and have an after death experience and then be converted?”

“No. No, you just have to love him because he has loved you.”

“I don’t have to…?”
“No. It’s grace we are talking about here–grace, not works.”

Now you see, half-way covenant–and this is my last point–undermines the grace of God. It focuses on you and your experience over and over and over again! And that’s were we are! The vast majority of Protestants focus on their experience not on Christ. And when you ask them, “Are you saved?” What do they tell you?

“Yea.”

You say “Why?”

“Because I was there at this wonderful meeting on this mountaintop, you can’t believe how pretty it was, and in the evening we were told to throw our little pinecones on a fire. I threw one, it was a big one. I still remember how it burned. I took a picture of it and I’ve got the picture right here. I know I’m saved.”

Okay, that’s pinecone salvation. We’ve got all kinds. But it is not salvation by grace. You, we have encouraged salvation by works in the name of trying to present the grace of God and trying to preserve the purity of the church and all the things we are trying to do, we have ignored Christ. By means of the half-way covenant thinking and acting we have inadvertently undermined the grace of God and in many cases have fallen from it altogether. And certainly our children have fallen from it.

Much more could be quoted, and online readers are encouraged to listen for themselves. But enough has been presented to at least say that it is prima facie plausible to think that these four ministers are trying, in their own minds, to defend the grace of God in salvation and encourage people to actually trust God for that grace rather than trying to produce some sort of work that will win God’s hard-to-obtain favor.


These men are not unique in their concern that some sort of specialized meaning of the word “faith,” and/or a conversion experience has become a new work which one must strive to acheive in order to be saved. Richard Hays, in his The Faith of Jesus Christ makes this argument and quotes several authorities who back up his observation.

Since Luther’s time, Protestant theology has found in Galatians the classic prooftexts for the doctrine that individuals are saved not by performing works, but by believing in Jesus Christ. As popularly understood, however, this doctrine has always carried with it the risk of turning faith into another kind of work, a human acheivmement. In pietistic-enthusiastic circles, this justifying “faith” has often been understood as a psychological disposition; in scholastic circles “faith” has been equated with intellectual assent to propositionally formulated dogma… “faith” is understood as an activity of the human individual, a means (putatively alternative to “works”) of securing our acceptance before God… (p. 120)
To circumvent this objection, “Most typically it has been argued that faith is not the product of the human will but of divine agency, that it is a gift planted in the human heart by God” (p. 121). But that doesn’t really help much since it can be acknowledged, and often is, that all our good deeds are gifts not of human will but of divine agency:
It should be pointed out that a precisely parallel argument could be mounted in defense of “works” as a means of justification: good works are not our creation, but they are God’s work in us. Indeed, just such an affirmation may be found in Ephesians 2.10 (pp. 120-121).
Hays does acknowledge, however, that more sophisticated accounts of faith have been offered by Martin Luther, wherein he explicitly realizes that faith could become merely a new work and offers a way of understanding faith that will keep it free of such a problem.
Luther protested against the Anabaptist practice of “believer’s baptism” precisely on the ground that it turned “faith” into a “work,” (“Concerning Rebaptism: A Letter of Martin Luther to Two Pastors,” p. 248 in Luther’s Works 40 (trans. and ed. C. Bergendorff; Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1958). In Luther’s view, the remedy for this error was to understand faith as a response to the grace of God objectively given as verbum visibile in preaching and the sacraments. He spells this view out in a passage that illustrates in illuminating fashion how Luther’s own theology differs from the post-Kantian interpretation of it which has been popularized by Bultmann and his followers: “But these leaders of the blind are unwilling to see that faith mush have something to believe–something to which it may cling and upon which it may stant… These people are so foolish as to separate faith from its object to which faith is attached and bound on the ground that the object is something external. Yes, it must be external so that it can be perceived and grasped by the senses and thus brought into heart, just as the entire Gospel is an external, oral proclamation. In short, whatever God effects in us, he does through such external ordinances” (“Larger Catechism,” p. 440 in The Book of Concord [trans. and ed. T. G. Tappert; Philadelphia: fortress, 1959]).
One can’t help but notice that this exactly parallels the content of the Auburn Avenue’s Pastor’s Conference. The Conference speakers made much of an objective status and objective promises given by God, which we should trust God to be faithful to. The trustworthiness of God, and thus his worthiness as an object of faith, was repeatedly emphasized. The certainty that the covenant promise came from a trustworthy source, having come from God through Christ in the Spirit, was established over and over again.

Much could and, arguably, should be said here, but I only have time for one line of evidence. Time and again it seems that text we (rightly) apply to the question “How may I know that I am right with God?” are actually dealing with a different question: “How may I know that someone else is right with God and thus must be right with me?”

The most glaring example of this is found in Galatians. The classic Protestant proof for justification only by faith is framed by the issue of table fellowship:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel… (Galatians 2.11-14a).
The fact that justification is only by faith is used as an argument that there can be no divisions among the people of God. There is much that could be said about this, but for the purposes of this essay only one thing needs to be pointed out: The fact that one has been justified is a status that is recognizable to other Christians. Paul presupposes that he and Peter should both know who is righteous in God’s sight and have obligations in how they treat such people.

This same issue comes up in Romans 14:

Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One man has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. 3 Let not him who eats regard with contempt him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died (Romans 14.1-10, 15).
Notice that, for Paul, there is no mystery in who has faith, who is accepted by God, or who is a brother or sister. Indeed, Paul presupposes that we know for whom Christ died. Paul may acknowledge and teach there there is the “wheat” and the “tares” are both in the church (c.f. Second Timothy 2.19) but he did not allow his knowledge of what might happen according to God’s eternal decree to restrain him from claiming that professing believers were indeed the recipients of God’s grace, adopted into his household the church, and the people for whom Christ suffered and died.

Paul’s letters to the Corinthians both show the same rule and provide the exception which proves it. Paul begins his correspondance stating categorically to the Corinthian congregation:

I thank my God always concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (First Corinthians 1.4-8).
These are remarkable words for a congregation that is so corrupt and full of sin. But Paul reiterates such statements even when he sometimes warns them of temporal and eternal judgments if they continue in sin. First Corinthians 11.27 is perhaps the most startling of all: “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.” Each one of the Corinthians is told here that he has been incorporated into Christ by the Spirit (c.f. context, especially vv. 12, 13).

At the very end of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he asks them to examine themselves. “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you=-unless indeed you fail the test?” (Second Corinthians 13.5). So here we have what could be a prooftext for claiming that Christ might not indwell a professing believer. However, the context of this statement is a threat of impending excommunication:

This is the third time I am coming to you. “Every fact is to be confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” I have previously said when present the second time, and though now absent I say in advance to those who have sinned in the past and to all the rest as well, that if I come again, I will not spare anyone, since you are seeking for proof of the Christ who speaks in me, and who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you (Second Corinthians 13.1-3).
Thus, the only time Paul raises questions about the status of some of the Corinthians is when he is ready to excommunicate them. Until that point he assures them that they are members of Christ and that God is faithful to confirm them to the end.

How do some popular practices in modern presbyterianism (as well as broad evangelicalism) comport with the Apostle Paul’s pastoral style? How can we tell the members of our churches that they might or might not be saved and that they need to make sure they have been properly converted if we believe that Paul’s letters are inspired by the Holy Spirit? Paul demands that we accept one another. How is that compatible with doubting whether one among us is truly regenerate? Paul says that we must not destroy the brother for whom Christ died. How can we take such precautions if we don’t know for whom Christ died?


When I remember hearing the words below at the conference, I can only think of what the two men on the Road to Emmaus exclaimed to one another: “And they said to one another, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?’”

In Samuel it says, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

“To do what is right and just,” says Solomon. “is more acceptable to the lord and sacrifice.”

The conclusion of Ecclesiastes in his ruminations about life is this, “All has been heard, here is the conclusion: Fear God and keep his commandments for this is the whole duty of man.”

And yet, if someone says that today, they are accused of legalism! This borders on apostasy, in and of itself, to make the charge. It’s a wholesale departure from the word of God in order to serve an abstract conception of what the word ought to teach, based upon what I want it to teach–which is how I can personally be saved. Which, again, puts God in the position of being the debtor to man because somehow we are going to bring to him something good enough. If it is not our works, then it the quality of our faith.

But what if we begin with the idea that we really need grace from God? And what if we begin with the radical idea that he has given it to us? And the even more radical idea that he has given it to our children? Then where do we begin? Teaching our children to doubt God afresh in every generation? Or to take what he has given us and to move it into action and into application in the world? “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight. Stop doing wrong; learn to do right; seek justice.” (Steve Schlissel, “Covenant Reading”).

copyright © 2003



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