Sinclair Ferguson's Critique of Norman Shepherd's The Covenant Context for Evangelism

by Sinclair Ferguson


Reproduced with permission from the Banner of Truth Magazine, July-August, 1977.
This was originally part of a book review of The New Testament Student and Theology. After commenting on other articles contained in the book, this review follows.


Of the hitherto unpublished articles, the one most likely to attract attention and provoke comment comes from the pen of Norman Shepherd, Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary and John Murray's successor as the chairman of the department. He gives us a twenty-five page paper on "The Covenant Context for Evangelism", and his thesis merits more prolonged description and discussion. He has in view the much-discussed notion that reformed evangelism appears to be so much less successful than its Arminian counterpart.

Professor Shepherd proposes, as the solvent of this shameful situation, that "The Covenant affords the perspective from which the evangelistic task of the church ought to be approached"(p 53). There follow from this three basic theses which ought to provide some kind of truly biblical solution to this problem.

1. The Great Commission arises out of and is patterned after the Covenant with Abraham.
2. Reformed evangelistic methodology must be consciously oriented to the covenant of grace rather than to the doctrine of election.
3. Baptism, rather than regeneration is the point of transition from lostness in death to salvation in life.

In the exposition of these three theses, Shepherd offers a great deal to challenge and stimulate thought and reaction, and this must be regarded as one of the primary functions of the paper in view of the original context at which it was given, in a conference of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. But there are a number of criticisms of his position which must be mentioned.

Dr. Shepherd makes no attempt to define his concept of covenant, and yet it is imperative, in view of its centrality to scripture, theology , and history, that this term should be defined, and used with the utmost precision.

Furthermore, it will be readily recognized that the reformed constituency is very conscious, indeed self-conscious, of the criticisms which are leveled at its apparent lack of evangelistic thrust and success. We need to examine ourselves, but there is a very important difference between self-examination and self-consciousness and introversion. We need to remember, when comparisons are drawn between reformed evangelism and that of other Christians, that the statistics of evangelical religion indicate that the reformed constituency is numerically swamped by the multitudes of other persuasions. It is inevitable that the evangelism of Arminianism appears to be more frequent and more successful. Any comparison is faulty, because it is between things that differ to considerably statistically to be properly correlated.

Turning more closely to the thesis which Professor Shepherd enunciates, some further comment is necessary. He assumes that passages like Ephesians 1:1-14 are "suffused with covenantal language". The present reviewer agrees with this contention, and regards it as important. But Shepherd does not sustain his case by demonstration. He gives no indication as to what covenantal language is, and this is a great deficiency. It might be thought that this would belong to the essence of his task in view of the all-pervasiveness of covenant for which he is arguing.

This brings us to one of his major points. He writes that "The prophets and apostles viewed election from the perspective of the covenant of grace, whereas Reformed theologians of a later day have tended to view the covenant of grace from the perspective of election"(p 60). The result of this, it is argued, is that the reformed preacher no longer says "Christ died for you" - but, when these words are construed, not from the point of view of election, but of the covenant, then "The Reformed evangelist can and must say on the basis of John 3:16, Christ died for you."

This demands comment. First, Shepherd appears to adopt the view of the prevailing academic critique of the covenant theology of the seventeenth century (forcefully presented decades ago by Perry Miller), which suggests that the doctrine of covenant somehow makes God's secret counsels less harsh. We ought therefore to look at covenant, and not at election. This analysis, both historically and biblically we reject. It is clear that, in fact, covenant theology arose in a variety of circumstances - sacramental, in the case of Zwingli, biblical and theological, in the case of Calvin, expository and pastoral, in the case of the Puritans. Doubtless, in the case of some writers, Shepherd may be right. But it is an extreme view to charge all reformed writers with this confusion of thought, and to suggest that they have turned the order of scripture on its head. To use Shepherd's own citation - the fact is that some passages, e.g. Ephesians 1:1-14, do employ the mode of looking at covenant from the viewpoint of election. Indeed, in that passage it is necessary for the reader to look for covenant in the context of election. From a more practical point of view - was it because Whitefield and Edwards, Spurgeon and M'Cheyne managed to escape the old reformed straitjacket and discover election it its covenant perspective that they were such great evangelists? It seems highly doubtful. And therefore we are justified in wondering whether this is really the true solution at all.

Shepherd has had the courage to state to the reformed reader that a question mark hangs over the commonly accepted notion that the preacher cannot say: "Christ died for you." In fact Shepherd goes so far as to say that, from this covenantal perspective, the reformed preacher is under obligation to say "Christ died to save you." But that cannot possibly be a proper assessment, for no evangelist in the New Testament shows himself to have been under an inescapable burden to say that. In fact Shepherd is surely confusing two things in John 3:16, to which he refers - the truth that it was the loved world to which God gave his Son (which is affirmed), and the statement, "Christ died to save you" (which is not confirmed). Not only does the reformed evangelist not say this, the apostle John does not say it either.

But most eyebrows will be raised by Professor Shepherd's comment that "Baptism rather than regeneration is the point of transition from lostness in death to salvation in life" (p 66) - to which, it must be added, he provides a note to the effect that "The position here advocated should not be confused with the sacra mentalist doctrine of baptismal regeneration" (ibid). His point is that when evangelism is election-oriented, it is also regeneration-oriented, so that the whole thing is viewed from the standpoint of the secret work of God. The problem with this approach is that, "Judgments have to be made which belong properly and exclusively in the hands of God." Just because such judgment belongs to God, the evangelist should not attempt even an approximation" (p 67). This whole view, according to the author, leads to the tension in reformed evangelism of works of preparation for grace, to which he objects: "Even the exhortation to ask for a new heart does not square with insistence on total inability. There is nothing the unregenerate man can do or will do in the direction of his conversion" (p 69). "In contrast to this regeneration - evangelism a methodology oriented to the covenant structure of Scripture and to the Great Commission presents baptism as the point of transition from death to life" (p 71). This, he argues, is demonstrated by the emphasis in the New Testament, not on people being converted, but on their being baptized, and he cites Acts 2:41 and Acts 16:33 as illustrative of this very principle.

There are a number of strands here, and each must be criticised separately. First of all, Professor Shepherd does not seem to give due allowance to the fact that regeneration is not the only work of God. It may have precursors. Jesus said that men, unregenerate as they were, should strive to enter in by the narrow gate that leads to life. Then, in the second place, Shepherd is somewhat guilty of mishandling the tests he quotes in favour of the priority of baptism over conversion. On the one hand the verses do say what he states; but he fails to remind us of other things they state. Thus, for example, that the 3000 who were baptized were those who "gladly received the word", and that Paul and Silas baptized the jailer because he believed in God. They must have borne the distinguishing marks of a work of the Spirit of God. The apostles must have judged these men to be truly regenerate. Rather than draw attention away from conversion, these instances simply highlight that, for the adult, a profession of faith in Christ, and of conversation was a prerequisite for baptism.

Thirdly, Shepherd is guilty at least of confusion of expression, if not more. It is true that baptism is what "should mark the passage from death to life"(p 72), but it is another thing to suggest that it actually constitutes "the point of transition from lostness in death to salvation in life"(p 66). This is to confuse the sign and the thing signified, and to be guilty of an offence against reformed teaching. Surely Professor Shepherd means something different from what he says? It is perhaps not surprising that, while critical of the current expressions that a man is "truly converted" or "really born again", and emphatic that in the New Testament the phraseology was that he was "baptised", and that these other expressions were redundant, he does not himself manage to escape an addition to baptism as the expression of fruitful evangelism, when he says that "All who have been baptized and are seeking to do the will of God are to be regarded as Christian brothers"(p 74, emphasis mine).

These expressions of Professor Shepherd may be seen by Baptist brethren as playing into their hands. The current baptist polemic has made much capital out of the differences and disagreements among paedobaptists over the meaning and place of baptism. The fact that the baptist position is equally out of sorts with itself and that its apologetes present diverse views of the nature of baptism and its relationship, or otherwise, to both covenant and church, is beside the point! Shepherd's position does not clarify matters. Perhaps, in view of the originality which the author is obviously seeking to inject into an important area of discussion, it is inevitable that he has not, apparently, thought through some of the implications of his teaching. For this reason it would be a pity if baptist brethren were to employ his case as typical of the position which aped Baptists are now adopting! In any event, the article leaves us somewhere in the air, and does not convey to this reviewer that the answer to a pressing predicament has been made clear, and that the gospel may now be carried by reformed men to a lost world with a freedom and power that is sadly lacking.

It would be our hope that, for the welfare of the reformed churches, Professor Shepherd would return to the drawing board, and come again, so that we may hear him further on these matters.


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