Meredith G. Kline, “Of Works and Grace” Presbyterion 9:1-2 (Spring/Fall 1983): 85-92

The angle of approach in Daniel P. Fuller’s Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? is indicated by the subtitle, The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology.

[1] In a 1957 doctoral dissertation, “The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism,” Fuller criticized dispensationalism from the standpoint of his own acceptance of a form of covenant theology. He traced the dispensationalist hallmark — their disjunction between the eschatological programs and destinies of Israel and the church — to a desire to insulate the new covenant from the old, lest the grace principle of the former be contaminated by the law (works) principle operative in the latter. In his present book he chronicles a shift within dispensationalism towards a view of the relation of grace and works in the old and new covenants approximating that of covenant theology, as he understands it. However, his primary purpose is to register a shift in his own thinking: he now believes that the divine government of man has never been informed by a principle of kingdom inheritance on the ground of human works. His current contention is then that law, in the sense of works-inheritance, was not present under the old covenant and hence all efforts (whether of dispensationalism or of covenant theology) to interpret the old and new covenants in terms of a law-gospel contrast are completely misguided.

Perhaps Fuller’s thinking would not have taken this unfortunate turn if he had distinctly discerned and taken account of the explanation of the combination of the principles of grace and works within the Mosaic economy which as held central place in the covenant theology tradition. As is properly perceived in this traditional view, under the old covenant a typological kingdom was superimposed as an overlay on the stratum that constitutes the continuity of all redemptive administrations and issues in the eternal antitypical kingdom. At the level of the underlying stratum, the Ievel of individual attainment of the eternal kingdom in Christ, the principle of inheritance under the old covenant as under all redemptive covenants was the principle of sovereign soteric grace. But the administration of the provisional earthly kingdom, the typological overlay peculiar to the old covenant, was informed by the principle of works in that the Israelites’ compliance with the covenant stipulations was made the ground of tenure with respect to the kingdom blessings. [2]

Had Fuller reckoned with the additional option presented by this distinctive form of covenant theology, the exegetical possibilities would have been radically altered for him as he dealt with such key contexts as Romans 10 and Galatians 3. As it is, he makes his way by a process of tortuous exegesis to conclusions in flat contradiction of the teaching of these passages that a works principle was in effect within the Mosaic economy. Clearly it was Paul’s recognition of the presence of this works principle at the typological overlay level of the old covenant that made him raise the question whether this “law” arrangement annulled the earlier Abrahamic Covenant of promise. And it was his recognition of the simultaneous presence, within the Mosaic economy, of the underlying stratum with its principle of grace controlling the reception of the eternal kingdom that made it possible for him to affirm that the Mosaic Covenant had not annulled God’s promise to Abraham.

The contrast between the old and new covenants repeatedly drawn by the apostle Paul is the same works-grace contrast found in Jeremiah’s familiar prophecy of the new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34). Identifying the old covenant as one that could be and was broken, the prophet declared that the new covenant would not be like the old covenant, a breakable covenant. It does of course happen that individuals prove false to the new covenant, but Jeremiah is referring to the kingdom order as such. The eternal antitypical kingdom of the new covenant, the kingdom of the righteous knowledge of God in the Spirit, is attained on the ground of the meritorious accomplishment of Christ, and its realization is thus made sure as a matter of guaranteed grace to Christ’s people, God forgiving their iniquity and remembering their sin no more. But the prototypical kingdom immediately in view in the old covenant obviously lacked that unbreakable guarantee, for once and again, and at last irrevocably, that kingdom was taken away from the covenant people by their removal into exile. Indeed, the kingdom order as such was ultimately terminated in a devastating divine infliction of the curse of the covenant. The principle operating here was manifestly altogether different from the promise-faith principle of God’s sovereign grace in Christ. Apart from a recognition of the operation of the principle of works in the old covenant it is impossible to account for Jerusalem’s desolation. As Moses had solemnly warned in the constitutional documents of the old covenant, the continuance of the Israelite kingdom in Canaan was conditioned on their covenant-keeping; corporate disloyalty against the Lord of the covenant would result in the catastrophic ending of the whole kingdom order.

The experience of even the true children of God within the old covenant exemplified the operation there of the works principle at the typological level. Although they did not lose their inheritance of the eternal kingdom, guaranteed by sovereign grace in Christ, they too, along with the mass of the covenant breakers, did lose possession of Canaan when the Lord enforced the works principle of the old covenant and drove the nation into Babylonian captivity as Lo-Ammi, Not-My-People. Moreover, while the nation Israel was in the kingdom land, even true believers could individually forfeit their place in that typological kingdom by serious violations of the civil laws. In the case of the individual Israelite, including the elect, as in the history of the nation corporately, tenure with respect to the typological kingdom had obedience as its ground and even faith in the Christ of promise would not prevent the loss of the typological blessings when the works condition was not satisfied.

We must conclude that between the old covenant and the new covenant there is contrast as well as continuum. There is a continuum of sovereign soteric grace in Christ with respect to eternal salvation and the inheritance of heaven. But there is a contrast in that the old covenant involved a secondary, typological sphere in which a principle was introduced quite the opposite of the grace-promise-faith principle. By reason of the presence of this different principle of works, the old covenant was breakable — and in that respect stood in contrast to the new covenant, not in continuum with it, asserted God’s prophet Jeremiah (31:31-34).

If Fuller’s error were limited to a failure to perceive the works principle within the old covenant, even that would be serious enough since it would involve a major misunderstanding of the nature of the old covenant and the function of the Mosaic law, not to mention the misinterpretation of many a relevant biblical passage. But Fuller’s repudiation of the works principle goes far beyond denying its presence in the Mosaic Covenant. His position, as already indicated, is that law as something in polar contrast to gospel has never existed in God’s kingdom transactions with man. Indeed, he avers that for man, including sinless man, to entertain the idea that his obedience to God might serve as the ground of his receiving the kingdom inheritance would be to succumb to devilish pride. Hence Fuller rejects covenant theology’s concept of the Covenant of Works with Adam and, necessarily also, the traditional understanding of the meritorious nature of the work of Christ, the second Adam. Fuller’s failing then is not simply a flaw in his biblical theological reconstruction of one redemptive economy but an error of massive proportions in his systematic theology, involving the totality of God’s covenantal administration of his kingdom.

In this radical assault on the traditional law-gospel contrast, Fuller, sad to say, can claim, to enjoy the company of some who profess allegiance to the theology of the Reformed confessions, Norman Shepherd is one of these. As he develops the thesis that God’s covenants are characterized by a continuum of governmental principle rather than by a works-grace contrast Shepherd affirms the unity of all these covenants, preredemptive and redemptive, specifically proposing that they all have in common both demand and promise. We are thus conducted into a world of theological obscurities where basic terms, like promise and grace, no longer have their customary meanings. Fuller, at least, recognizes that with this radical move, denying the possibility of meritorious works, he has abandoned covenant theology.

The necessity of affirming the traditional works principle becomes clear if we concentrate on the subject of justification in God’s covenantal dealings with Adam and Christ. If the first Adam had obediently fulfilled the stipulations of God’s covenant with him, then assuredly he would have been worthy of being declared righteous by his Lord. Adam’s justification would have been on the grounds of his works and would have been precisely what those good works deserved. God’s declaring Adam righteous would have been an act of justice, pure and simple. In fact, any other verdict would have been injustice. There is absolutely no warrant for obscuring the works character of such an achievement of justification by introducing the idea of grace into the theological analysis of it. Indeed, to do so would be in effect to suggest that God has the capricious capability of behaving like the Devil, declaring evil what is good and good what is evil.

Yet that is evidently what is done in the Fuller-Shepherd theology. The works principle is emphatically rejected. Moreover, in the alleged homogenized demand-promise unity of preredemptive and redemptive covenants, whatever the common feature “promise” (grace?) is, it must apply to the justification of an obedient Adam as much as it does to the justification of believers under the gospel. The justification of Adam cannot be a matter of simple justice or works in contrast to grace. There is no law-gospel contrast, but some sort of continuum – a continuum in which the justice of God gets lost.

Rejection of the works principle extends in the logic of the Fuller-Shepherd theology to the second Adam. This can be shown from the argument Shepherd urges against the recognition of that principle in covenant administration. He notes that the covenantal relationship is a father-son relationship and from this concludes that parental grace, not any claim of strict justice, accounts for any favorable treatment man receives from God, his Father. But if the elimination of simple justice as the governing principle is thus due to the presence of a father-son relationship, mere justice could no more explain God’s response to the obedience of his Son, the second Adam, than it could his dealings with the first Adam. This means that in the Fuller-Shepherd theology, consistently developed, the work of obedience performed by Jesus Christ did not merit a verdict of justification from his Father. The justification of the second Adam was not then according to the principle of works in contrast to grace, but rather found its explanation in the operation of a principle involving some sort of grace — a grace required because of the inadequacy of Christ’s works to satisfy the claims of justice. We will reflect further below on the devastating implications of such a denial of the full meritoriousness of the work of Christ for the doctrine of soteric justification through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers.

If, in spite of all impressions to the contrary, the Fuller-Shepherd theology intends to take the position that the justification of an obedient Adam would have been by works without any admixture of grace, then the repudiation of the law-gospel contrast would encounter difficulties in the other direction. For to say justification was by works under the preredemptive covenant and simultaneously to assert the unity of all covenants (over against the traditional view that preredemptive and redemptive covenants are distinguished by a works-grace contrast) would imply the conclusion that the justification of believers under the gospel is also by their works. We must assume that nothing so blatantly contrary to the gospel message that the Lord is our righteousness is intended. Apparently then, this leaves the Fuller-Shepherd theology in the other dilemma mentioned above, the dilemma deriving from the denial of the justification of the first and second Adams by works.

Opposition to the recognition of the presence of a works principle in God’s covenants often takes the form of an appeal to the greatness of the blessings bestowed on the covenant keeper. The argument is that such a reward goes beyond mere justice and can be accounted for only in terms of a grace principle. Thus it is alleged that for Adam to have been confirmed in a state of righteousness and to have been endowed with the felicity of the consummated kingdom of the eternal Sabbath would have been something beyond justice, something beyond the merit of his obedience. And the logic of this viewpoint obliges it to add that the same is true in the case of the reward of kingdom glory granted to the second Adam. But such a notion of merit and of justice is speculative, not biblical. It is traceable to the abstract Roman Catholic doctrine which distinguishes condign from congruent merit and teaches that condign merit is possible for man with a view to eternal benefits only through participation in the grace level of their nature-grace schematization of human existence. Ironically, the theologians who advocate this approach which appears to be ensnared at its roots in the nature-grace fallacy see themselves as breaking loose from lingering scholastic elements in Reformed theology.

If our theology is truly biblical we will certainly insist that no righteousness of any mere man is an autonomous possession or achievement. We will not, however, define justice abstractly but in accordance with created reality as God actually constituted it, according to the biblical revelation. We will then reckon with the fact that man’s hope of realizing the state of glorification and of attaining to the Sabbath consummation belonged to him by virtue of his very nature as created in the image of the God of glory. This expectation was an in-created earnest of fullness and to be denied that fullness would have frustrated him to the depths of his spirit’s longing for God and God-likeness. Whatever he might be granted short of that would be no blessing at all, but a curse. To reward him with less than that would be to render him evil for good. It would not have been a just recompense. If we are to define justice not speculatively but in the light of God’s creational structuring of reality, we will so define it that if man does good, not evil, in terms of the covenant stipulations, it will be a matter of justice that he receives from God good, not evil, in terms of the covenant’s eschatological sanctions. And a non-speculative biblical theology will identify such a covenantal transaction as one of works, not grace.

By virtue of God’s creational ordering it is a necessary and inevitable sequence, in preredemptive covenant as well as in redemptive history, that “whom he justified, him he also glorified” (Rom 8:30). Within the framework of this judicial-eschatological bonding of glorification to justification as its necessary expression, once it has been determined on what principle justification operates under a given covenant, the principle governing the grant of the eschatological blessings in that covenant has also been determined. If justification is secured on the ground of works and as a matter of simple justice (as in the preredemptive covenant), glorification will not be by grace. And if justification is by grace through faith (as it is under the gospel) glorification will not be by works. Therefore, with respect to God’s total dealings with the first Adam and (in the eternal covenant of the Father and Son) with the second Adam, the operative principle is works not grace and God’s response to obedience is one of justice, no more, no less. To suggest that God’s reward might have been something less than was proffered is to suggest that God might have acted unjustly.

If the Fuller-Shepherd assessment of the works principle were sound, the prayer of Jesus as he gave himself in obedience to fulfill his mission in sacrificial death should have been very different than it was. On their view, Jesus should have prayed to the effect that though he had not really earned the reward of glorification with the Father, he desired to have it nevertheless, as a gift of the Father’s grace. What our Lord actually did was to point to his obedient accomplishment of his assigned work as constituting a just claim on the reward; “I have glorified thee . . . And, now, O Father, glorify thou me” (John 17:4, 5). According to Fuller’s rhetoric, the spirit of the prayer of Jesus was inspired by the Devil. Surely, such an implication of their formulations, so utterly abhorrent to them as devout Christian believers, must constrain Fuller and Shepherd to stop and reconsider their abandonment of the law-gospel contrast and their rejection of the works principle.

Closely related to the problem dealt with above but calling for special attention is another major departure of the Fuller-Shepherd theology from Reformed orthodoxy. Entailed in their denial of the works principle is a drastic revision of the fundamental theological construct of federal representative probation and forensic imputation. According to the biblical data, the probationary role of the two Adams called for a performance of righteousness that was to be imputed to the account, of those they represented, serving as ground for justification arid inheritance of the consummate kingdom of God. What was in view was not, merely the transmitting from the one to the many of a subjective condition of righteousness but the judicial imputation to the many of a specific accomplishment of righteousness by the federal representative. This decisive probationary accomplishment involved the obedient performance of a particular covenantal service, arid accordingly it is characterized as “one act of righteousness” (Rom 5:18). (Included in this one act of the second Adam was the additional dimension of the passive obedience of suffering the penalty of the sin of the many.) The specific, unitary nature of the act of active obedience assumes sharper focus when we see that it had the character of a victory in battle. An encounter with Satan was a critical aspect of the probationary crisis for each of the two Adams and to enter into judicial combat against this enemy of God and to vanquish him in the name of God was the covenantal assignment that must be performed by the servant of the Lord as his “one act of righteousness.” And it was the winning of this victory of righteousness by the one that would be imputed to the many as their act of righteousness and as their claim on the grant of the kingdom proffered in the covenant.

The doctrine of probation and imputation just delineated and the position that repudiates human works as a ground of divine reward are obviously incompatible. On that position, as we have already observed, a declaration of justification and the bestowal of the promised eschatological blessings of the covenant in consequence of a successful probation, whether of Adam or of Christ, would not have been a matter of simple justice (as maintained by traditional Reformed theology) but a matter of grace. The significance of this for the understanding of the gospel is that there would then be no meritorious achievement of active obedience on the part of Christ to be imputed to the elect as the ground of their justification and inheritance of the kingdom. Indeed, it is in general the case within the Fuller-Shepherd position that the rationale of the imputation arrangement becomes obscure, if the whole point of it is not in fact lost, inasmuch as there is allegedly no accomplishment of righteousness by either the first or second Adam that could serve as the just judicial ground of justification and eschatological blessing for those to whom it would be imputed.

As was only to be expected then, in the out-working of this position with reference to the doctrine of justification the forensic element gets short shrift. The negative aspect of justification may receive due expression in the recognition of Christ’s bearing the penalty of the sin of his people and so securing forgiveness for them. But the active obedience of Christ does not come into its own. One is left with the impression that where one expects the active obedience of Christ to be expounded one finds instead in Shepherd’s teaching a heavy emphasis on union with Christ. We are thus led to suppose that in this rewriting of the doctrine of justification the crucial point is that the many experience union with Christ and thus qualify to be blessed along with him, this being substituted for the rejected forensic idea that a decisive meritorious act of the one is imputed to the many as the ground of their justification. The affinities of such a doctrine of justification would be with the theology of Rome. This reading may be disputed, but meanwhile the fact remains that these obscurely formulated teachings are tragically confusing the church with respect to doctrines central to the Christian faith.

In concluding, we return for a final comment on Fuller’s book, which was our formal starting point. The revision of covenant theology which, by denying the law-gospel contrast, levels off and thus unifies all covenants, not just the old and new redemptive covenants but the preredemptive and redemptive covenants too, might give the appearance of affording the most consistent possible answer to dispensationalism. But that formal and quite illusory advantage is obtained at the cost of contravening the biblical teaching on God’s covenants in such vital respects that this revised version of covenant theology must itself be regarded as at least as serious an error as the dispensationalism Fuller originally undertook to straighten out.


[1] These comments originated as a review (unpublished) of Fuller’s 1980 book. Even in that form, the perspective was widened in the interests of relevance to include an assessment of the currently controversial teachings of Norman Shepherd. Fundamental to Shepherd’s position is the same kind of obliteration of the biblical contrast between law (works) and gospel (grace) that Fuller argues for as he answers the question posed in the title of his book in favor of “continuum”. The present revision of the study has moved somewhat further in the direction of making it a critique of the Fuller-Shepherd theology.

[2] For a comprehensive treatment of this view and especially its place within the history of covenant theology, cf. the articles by Mark W. Karlberg in The Westminster Theological Journal 43,1 (1980), 1-57, and 43,2 (1981), 213-246. These articles also include trenchant comment on Fuller’s book.

* Dr, Kline is professor of Old Testament, Westminster Theological Seminary, Escondido, California, and Gordon-Conwell TheologicaI Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts,