The Current Justification Controversy in the OPC

by Bob Wilkin

Mark W. Evans is a minister in the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC) denomination. He recently wrote an article decrying the establishing of an ecclesiastic relationship between the BPC and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) denomination. At the 68th general synod of the BPC in August of 2004 the delegates narrowly voted to form this alliance. The alliance indicates that there is unity in essential doctrines and principles between the two denominations. Evans says that this is not true and so the alliance should not have occurred:

Those in the OPC who are strong in the Reformed truth face those who promote doctrinal innovations, including the Framework Theory of Genesis 1 and 2, that reduces the creation account to a metaphor. There has also appeared a new system of interpreting and preaching God’s Word, called the Redemptive-Historical method, understood as an improvement upon the Reformers. Another innovation concerns the doctrinal pillar of the church, justification by faith alone.1

Here is what Evans says about the issue of justification by faith alone:

This deviant theology seeks to harmonize Rome and Protestantism. At the 2004 OPC General Assembly, a committee was created to study the justification question. Although the error within the OPC may be traced back to Norman Shepherd, his name was not mentioned in the committee’s assignment. It will likely take an official rejection of Shepherd’s theology to rid the denomination of the dark cloud hovering over it. The OPC Assembly adopted a “Declaration on Justification.” It is a good statement, quoting the Westminster Standards, but it does not solve the difficulty. No statement, short of a point- by-point repudiation of Shepherdism, will suffice. Proponents of the new view on justification can look the most orthodox creedal statement in the face and declare that they are in accord with their views. This mystical ability is accomplished by redefining terms. For example, “faith” is understood as an “active faith,” which includes works. Thus, to say “I believe in justification by faith alone” means “I believe in justification by faith and works.” These pioneers of a new theology are able to make Shepherdites out of the Westminster divines.

Evans has identified a problem that has concerned me for years. There are many within Reformed circles who formally acknowledge justification by faith alone, but who in reality believe in justification by faith plus works. Their definition of faith is such that works become a condition of justification.

Evans went on to discuss a specific current example of his concern about justification, a heresy trial of an OPC ruling elder, John Kinnaird:

Another event evidences the presence of Shepherd’s teachings within the OPC. A Ruling Elder in the OPC, John Kinnaird, was put on trial for teaching a doctrine of justification by faith and works contrary to the Word of God and the Westminster Standards. The Interim Session of Bethany OPC, Oxford, Pennsylvania, found him guilty. Kinnaird appealed to his presbytery, and the presbytery sustained the session’s verdict. He appealed to the OPC General Assembly (2003), and his conviction was reversed. The General Assembly even declared his views to be compatible with Scripture and the Westminster Standards. A transcript of the session’s trial is available to those who have access to the internet at The Trinity Foundation’s website.

Evans then cites the refutation of John Robbins to Kinnaird’s views:

In his book, A Companion to The Justification Controversy, Dr. John Robbins provides an analysis of Elder Kinnaird’s teachings:

[Kinnaird:] If communion with God is to be restored, righteousness of a real and personal nature must be restored.

[Robbins:] According to Kinnaird, it is our “real and personal righteousness” that “restores communion with God,” not the perfect imputed righteousness of Christ.

[Kinnaird:] On that Great Day of Judgement, God’s righteous judgement will be revealed. God will then give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good (we Presbyterians call this perseverance) seek glory, honor, and immortality, He will give eternal life. For those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be eternal wrath and anger (Romans 2:6-8) and destruction from before the face of the Lord. It is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous on that Day of Judgment.

[Robbins:] Note that Kinnaird says the judgment according to works will decide whether one receives eternal life or death. Those who will be “declared righteous,” that is justified, and given eternal life will be “those who obey the law.” He is not discussing degrees of reward, but salvation and damnation. In fact, he explicitly denies he is discussing degrees of reward:

[Kinnaird:] Those who teach that the purpose of the Day of Judgement is not to reveal God’s righteousness in His judgements (judgments that will be unto eternal life or death in accord with what men have done on this earth), but rather only to determine types and degrees of rewards to be given to Christians, are in error.

[Kinnaird:] These good works are a required condition if we would stand in the Day of Judgment and they are supplied by God to all His people...Who are these people who thus benefit—who stand on the Day of Judgment? They are those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.

[Robbins:] Good works are a “required condition” of salvation. The imputed righteousness of Christ is insufficient. Those who will be “declared righteous,” that is, justified, will be “those who obey the law.”

[Kinnaird:] Neither the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, which all Christians receive at justification, nor the infusion of the righteousness of Christ (a false and non- existent concept taught by the Roman Catholic Church) can suffice for that purpose. Christ does not have an imputed righteousness. His righteousness is real and personal. If we are to be conformed to His image, we too must have a real and personal righteousness.

[Robbins:] Kinnaird asserts that the imputed righteousness of Christ cannot suffice for making us brothers of Christ or allowing us to stand in the presence of God. Kinnaird makes our “real” and “personal righteousness” sufficient for both those things—adoption and communion with God. Among other things, his language suggests that Christ’s imputed righteousness is not “real.”

[Kinnaird:] On the Day of Judgement I will hear God declare me to be righteous. As to the reason for that, it is not because of the works, even though it will be in accord with the works. The reason will be: first, because it [God’s declaration that John Kinnaird is righteous] will be true because God will have changed me so that I am really and personally righteous. After all, we will be crowned with righteousness. This is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in my sanctification in this life.

[Robbins:] According to Kinnaird, God’s declaration of righteousness is not made because of the imputed righteousness of Christ, but because “God will have changed me so that I am really and personally righteous...” Kinnaird will be declared righteous because of his sanctification and the work of the Holy Spirit, not because of the imputed, alien righteousness of Christ. The imputed righteousness of Christ is depreciated in Kinnaird’s soteriology, for he apparently thinks imputed righteousness is unreal and impersonal: He always contrasts it unfavorably with a righteousness that is “real” and “personal” [54-57].

Frankly, I find this discussion sad and exciting. It grieves me to know that the OPC General Assembly accepts Kinnaird’s views. However, I am relieved to know that there are people like Robbins and Evans who are Reformed and who have a great burden for clarity on the gospel.

If you wish to read the entire Evans transcript, you can do so by going to The Trinity Foundation website.


1This article quotes extensively from Mark Evan’s article “Saving the Bible Presbyterian Church,” which appeared in the November 2004 issue of The Trinty Review (and the September-October 2004 issue of The Pilgrim’s Watch). Used by permission.


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