“Reformed” Is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the Covenant. By Douglas Wilson. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2002, 2010. 208 pages. Paper, $17.00.
What does it mean to be a Christian? In “Reformed” Is Not Enough, Douglas Wilson argues that theologians should think of the covenant in more objective terms, where being a Christian means belonging to a mixed covenant community composed of baptized believers and baptized unbelievers.
Wilson defines a covenant as a solemn bond, “sovereignly administered, with attendant blessings and curses” (p. 65). They are objective in that they have physical aspects and clear boundaries that tell us who is in it and who is outside of it (pp. 66, 81), and the blessings or curses associated with it have real effects.
According to Wilson, a Christian is someone who is baptized in the name of the Trinity by “an authorized representative of the Christian church” (p. 21). Upon baptism, they enter into covenant with Jesus Christ and become a part of the historical (but not eschatological) church. Not every covenant member is saved (or elect), but there is a link between every member and the covenant’s promises and curses (p. 91). Whether or not a member experiences blessings or curses depends, proximately, on their faith and obedience, but ultimately, on whether or not God has elected them to eternal life (pp. 30-31, 39, 66). When a baptized person believes, they become regenerate, and all of the covenantal blessings apply to them. But when an unbeliever is baptized, you get more than a wet pagan. As Wilson explains,
“When you baptize an unrepentant pagan, what you actually get is a covenant-breaker. His baptism now obligates him to live a life of repentance, love, and trust, which he is refusing to do” (p. 101). If any member refuses to live by the covenant they incur its curses, because they are still members despite their unbelief (pp. 85, 90). According to Wilson, there is no such thing as a nominal Christian. Instead, there are only faithful or unfaithful Christians, meaning there are only covenant keepers or covenant breakers (p. 99). The eschatological church, which will only be composed of believers, will only be revealed at the last day, which Wilson would understand to be the Great White Throne judgment.
Although this is a thought-provoking work, it was written for a Reformed audience, and assumes many beliefs and practices that a Dispensational readership would find unconvincing (e.g., infant baptism, applying Israel’s covenantal model of citizenship to the Body of Christ, applying the New Covenant to the Church, the idea that God predestines everything including sin, or that the warning passages address professing Christians and speak of loss of salvation). However, even given these differences, there are two very serious errors dealing with justification and assurance that need a response.
First, Wilson clearly (but inadvertently?) denies the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This was a charge made against him by many in the Reformed community. In chapter four, Wilson attempted to defend his belief in justification, only to affirm that works are necessary for our salvation. For example, Wilson denied that faith in the propositional truth of the gospel is enough to be saved: “I do not deny the propositional truth the solas refer to, but I do maintain that to limit them to mere propositions is to kill them. Faith without works is dead…Propositions without works are dead—even if the propositions are true” (p. 46). As a proponent of unconditional election, Wilson believes that the faith of the elect will always be accompanied by works: “We are saved through faith alone, but never through a faith that is alone. Saving faith is never lonely” (p. 47). Since faith is a gift from God, it always expresses itself in obedience:
Faith is the only instrument God uses in our justification. 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 (p. 48).
In other words, Wilson denies that simply believing in Jesus’ promise of everlasting life (or believing that we are justified through faith apart from works) is the sole condition for having everlasting life. You also need works because they are essential to the nature of saving faith. This puts Wilson in the absurd position of saying that two people can believe in Jesus for justification, but with two different kinds of faith. The one who has faith plus works is justified, while the one who has faith without works is not justified. Wilson apparently doesn’t think it is blatantly self-contradictory to say that we need works in order to be justified by faith apart from works.
Second, Wilson also misunderstands and undermines assurance. On the one hand he correctly says that all believers should have assurance and he wants to avoid “morbid introspection” (p. 127). But his criteria for having assurance makes it impossible. He says the elect have certain marks of being elect, including such things as: holding fast to Christ in our confession; seeing the “unmistakable” presence of the Spirit in our lives in putting to death our bodies’ misdeeds (p. 128); having love for our brothers; humility of mind; delighting in the means of grace and seeking spiritual food (p. 129); understanding spiritual things; walking in obedience (p. 130); and being chastised for disobedience (p. 131). Although Wilson says that objective assurance is never found through peering “into the murky recesses of one’s own heart” (p. 131), he evidently thinks it can be found by evaluating our behavior, which is consistent with his insistence that saving faith requires works. The question is, who on earth has confessed enough, loved enough, understood enough, put to death enough, obeyed enough, or delighted enough to be sure they are eternally saved? And how can anyone be sure they will go on doing those things without falling away? Although Wilson later warns his readers not “to look inside themselves for assurance” (p. 136), that is exactly what he suggests. And the only result of such introspection is monstrous doubt. The Biblical basis for assurance lies outside of us, by simply believing in Jesus’ promise. It does not lie in reflecting upon our behavior.
Let me end on a positive note. One helpful aspect of Wilson’s book is the way he calls attention to the temporal consequences that believers can experience by rebelling against Christ. Putting those consequences in terms of covenantal blessings and curses may shed some light on the doctrines of eternal rewards and temporal wrath which are prominent aspects of Free Grace theology, and key to understanding the books of Romans, Hebrews, and James. I recommend this books for discerning readers only.
Shawn C. Lazar
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society