Norman Shepherd: What’s All the Fuss? [Brandon Adams]

Norman Shepherd
Norman Shepherd

For those who may have heard of Norman Shepherd but don’t know the problems with his theology, Brandon Adams has provided a helpful summary using quotes from Shepherd’s own lectures. These issues are not restricted to Presbyterianism, however, but have surfaced in the writings of some who claim the 1689 Confession. Adams writes,

Norman Shepherd taught a false gospel of works righteousness at Westminster Theological Seminary in the 70s by arguing good works are instrumental to justification. When asked in their ordination exam how we are justified, graduates were answering “by faith and works”. When asked who taught them that, they said Professor Shepherd. He paved the way for the Federal Vision.

In 2002, Shepherd delivered 4 lectures titled “What’s All the Fuss?” regarding his views on justification:

  1. What’s All the Fuss? (Part 1): The Biblical Doctrine of Justification
  2. What’s All the Fuss? (Part 2): The Church Doctrine of Justification by Faith
  3. What’s All the Fuss? (Part 3): Job Justified by Faith
  4. What’s All the Fuss? (Part 4): A Parable About Three Men

The thrust of his lectures is to show that the Bible does not teach a works-merit paradigm. He presents his position as the “faith-grace” or “covenantal” paradigm and he opposes this to the “works-merit” paradigm.


In lecture 1 he insists that the biblical doctrine of justification consists in forgiveness of sins only… It does not provide a righteousness not our own, it only forgives our sins. And forgiveness alone is insufficient to eternally save anyone. It merely makes us eligible for eternal life… We are in the same position as Adam in terms of our need to obtain eternal life. The only difference is that when we sin, it is forgiven. But our works play the same role as they did for Adam before the fall. This is contrary to the London Baptist Confession.


Greg Nichols
Greg Nichols

With all of that in mind, it is particularly troubling to see people continue to recommend Greg Nichols’ book as a faithful representation of the system of doctrine taught in the London Baptist Confession. Nichols’ book is idiosyncratic and not representative of the confession, nor its signatories (see, for example, here and here). Confessional Reformed Baptists should stop recommending his book as representative of our confessional views.


The similarities between much of what Nichols writes and what Shepherd teaches is striking…


Read the rest of Adams’ post here.

25 Replies to “Norman Shepherd: What’s All the Fuss? [Brandon Adams]”

  1. Another book to scare people away from? Sigh.

    This article seems to be based on a very tenuous connection. It suggests a lot, but seems to prove little. I am not expert on this topic, but call me unconvinced.

    I’d be curious to see what James White thinks about this article, which brings up an accusation against a book he regards as “a very timely addition on a vitally important topic and adds much to a growing Reformed Baptist literary body”.

    Do we really need more of this going on in our community? For what it’s worth, count me in as unamused.

      1. Brandon, thanks for the clarification. I’ll generally leave it at that, bit would just add that a comparison to NS in a RB context might be the functional equivalent of telling people not to read it

  2. Since Greg Nichols teaches for Reformed Baptist Seminary, I thought it would be helpful for me to point out that Pastor Nichols affirms and teaches federal headship as well as the historical doctrine of justification by faith alone on the basis of Christ alone, that is, on the basis of Christ’s passive and active obedience.

    It might be also helpful to note that Nichols’ aim in writing his book on covenant theology wasn’t simply to write a historical theology that parroted the 17th century Particular Baptists. Rather, Nichols attempts to survey and collate the biblical data and to present “a” (not “the”) Reformed and Baptist covenant theology. And he would be the first to concede that his work isn’t inspired, infallible, or inerrant.

    Some of us, however, believe Nichols has offered a helpful contribution despite the fact that we may not agree with every conclusion he draws.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Bob. Thank you for noting that Nichols is not attempting to represent 17th century particular baptists. Unfortunately, his book suggests he is doing precisely that when he calls upon the confession for support for his views. The point of my post was to make it clear to people precisely what you said: his views are unique and they are his.

      Also, I am thankful that Nichols is not consistent and that he still affirms justification by faith alone and IAO. But the point is that he cannot do so consistently, given his system. If his students take up his teaching and choose not to affirm those doctrines, there are no grounds to object. As Sam Waldron notes:

      A rejection of the very concept (“basic notion”) of human works, however, as ever meritorious leads directly to the conclusion that Christ’s works were not meritorious. No distinction can be made, then, between Christ’s obedience to the law as meritorious and our obedience as non-meritorious… The problem for Shepherd is he wants to distinguish Christ’s work of faith from our work of faith, but in denying the very concept of merit, and without affirming some form of the covenant of works with Adam, he has no category by which to make such a distinction.

      -Faith, Obedience, and Justification p. 182-3

      We see this in Nichols’ book when he equates obedience under the Adamic, Mosaic, and New covenants. Without our personal obedience, we will forfeit heavenly rest just as Adam did. “The law is gracious because it teaches us that if we live a holy life, mortify the deeds of the body, and keep evangelically the commandments of God, we will go to heaven, not to hell.”

      1. Frankly, Brandon, I find your attempt to discredit Greg Nichols’ book unconvincing and unhelpful. You obviously have stock in the so-called “1689 Federalism” so it seems that you’re trying to commend your views by means of uncharitably discrediting others. Those who’ve familiar with Nichols teaching on the doctrine of man, Christology and soteriology (including Sam Waldron) know that he believes and teaches that the believer’s justification is based on the saving merit of Jesus Christ. Nichols puts it this way:

        [Christ’s] saving merit, by which he makes sinners right with God. Paul calls Christ’s saving merit, “the righteousness of God” (Rom.1;17, 3:21-22; 2 Cor.5:21). Christ’s saving merit accrues from his active obedience in his perfect life and from his passive obedience in his atoning death. His merit fully satisfies the demands of divine justice for all his posterity. It provides everything believing sinners need to be accepted with God and pardoned by God. It supplies all his people lack, and pays all they owe (emphasis added; cited from his lecture notes on the Doctrine of Christ).

        Nichols reservations about construing Adam’s obedience in terms of strict merit arise from his reading of the Confession’s teaching about God’s covenant condescension:

        The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he has been pleased to express by way of covenant (2LCF 7.1).

        Whether or not one agrees with Nichols interpretation of the creation covenant and his understanding of precisely how Adam’s obedience might have attained life for him and his posterity, he should refrain from false insinuations that suggest Nichols views necessarily undermine federal headship or the biblical teaching that the believer’s justification is grounded on the meritorious work of Christ.

        1. One more thing. Reformed Baptist Seminary is confessional in that the 2LCF is our doctrinal standard. However, RBS’s position on confessional subscription doesn’t require that its dean or its professors cross every “t” and dot every “i” in precise lockstep with the 17th century Particular Baptists. That is, we require a kind of “full subscription” that allows for non-substantial exceptions. We believe this approach to the Confession is consistent with the Confession’s own doctrine of sola Scriptura and with the reality of the Spirit’s ongoing work of illumination in the church. Thus, to borrow C. H. Spurgeon’s language about the Confession, we use it as a “guide” and “assistance” rather than as a “rule” (tantamount in authority to Scripture) by which our exegesis and systematic theology must be “fettered.” So unlike some in RB circles, we don’t believe one must receive and venerate the Confession like the Church of Rome receives and venerates the Decrees of Trent in order to be “confessional.”

          1. “So unlike some in RB circles, we don’t believe one must receive and venerate the Confession like the Church of Rome receives and venerates the Decrees of Trent in order to be ‘confessional.'”

            While we’re on the topic of misrepresenting others’ views…

          2. A few years back a friend who was a full preterist (he’s not anymore) accused me of making the 1689 a “paper pope”. While I’ve had disagreements with people I don’t think I’ve ever been offended until and since that remark.

          3. I never said anything about Reformed Baptist Seminary, or it’s dean. Neither did I say anything about subscription. You appear to be bringing your own baggage to this conversation.

            If you or Nichols want to take exception to the confession in what you teach or write, then go ahead. But I can’t find anywhere in Nichols’ book where he says he is taking exception to the confession. Instead I find him claiming to be representing the confession. So again, that was the point of my post. Again, correct me if I’m mistaken or mis-read.

          4. Brother Bob, This may seem like it is outside the core of this discussion but I find language like this;

            “So unlike some in RB circles, we don’t believe one must receive and venerate the Confession like the Church of Rome receives and venerates the Decrees of Trent in order to be “confessional.””

            to be very difficult to receive.

            If this is true, then tell us who these extra-canonical Reformed Baptists are so they can be properly corrected. Show your proof so the accusation is not simply a slander on unnamed brothers. I, for one, have never heard nor seen in writing any Reformed Baptist who views or claims to view the Confession in canonical terms.

            If it is not true then you have miss-characterized some of your brethren in a most offensive manner. This does not comport with fair representation nor the gentle correction that Paul calls us to in 2 Tim. 2:24-26.

          5. Ron, I didn’t name you or anyone for that matter, but it is interesting that my remark caught your attention. You yourself come pretty close to what I’ve described above when you refer to the Confession as “inerrant.” I’ve also heard some in ARBCA refer to the 1689 as the Reformed Baptists’ doctrinal textus receptus. Personally, I find those kinds of statements very difficult to receive and unhealthy. But in deference I’ve removed the offending statement from my remark.

          6. Brother Bob, Please know that I was fully aware that you did not name me or any others in your comments. I did not view this as a personal attack but an inappropriate way of addressing the issues you were debating. Thank you for removing the mis-characterization of our Reformed Baptist brothers. As far as my inerrantist views go, we can discuss that more fully another time if you like. For now let me say that if I thought the Confession was errant I would not subscribe it. But believing and “owning” the Confession as “containing the doctrine of our faith and practice” and therefore to be, as far as I know inerrant, I can fully subscribe to it as a faithful summary of those things taught in Scripture, Which is light years apart from Rome’s canonization of the Council of Trent. Blessings, Ron

        2. You nailed me Bob. I’m just trying to promote myself and my theology. I don’t actually care about this issue at all. It’s just a game to get attention.

          Using logic is not “false insinuation”. If Nichols denies the concept of merit, but still claims Christ merited something, that’s contradictory, which is precisely what I said. I am thankful he affirms that, but I am concerned because he has no foundation from which to affirm it. No need to get uber-defensive and claim “false insinuations”. All you have to do is demonstrate the error in the logic. Pretty simple thing to do. If I have misunderstood Nichols at any point, please correct my misreading.

          Nichols is not denying “strict merit”. He is denying merit, period. 7.1 says that natural man could not earn anything by merit, but that the “reward of life” was offered by way of covenant, above and beyond natural duties. Thus the reward of life was earned or lost by merit. Nichols argues against the idea that God could “contract” with Adam in this way.

          Adam did not merit his hope by works – but he could sin and forfeit his hope. The covenant of works motif seems to say that Adam had to earn the hope of eternal rest that God gave him freely as a privilege… if [Adam] had complied with the condition, he would simply have done what was required. He would not have merited or earned anything
          p. 341

          Can you please tell me which page of Nichols’ book distinguishes between strict merit and covenantal merit? Please also include which page number he affirms the latter. The above quote seems to pretty clearly deny covenantal merit, not simply strict merit.

  3. Is there a quote or example from Greg Nichols’ book on Covenant Theology that makes the same statement as his Doctrine of God class as to Christ’s saving merit in justification? Seems the post is about what is and is not in the book specifically. So my question, related specifically to the book, is it deficient in this important area? Those who may invest in the book likely will not take the class.

      1. Given that Nichols’ aim in writing his book on covenant theology “wasn’t simply to write a historical theology that parroted the 17th century Particular Baptists” but instead “to survey and collate the biblical data and to present “a” (not “the”) Reformed and Baptist covenant theology” it still allows the book as a work to be considered as to it’s standalone value as a Reformed and Baptist covenant theology”.

        Whether 17th century or any century it would be a surprising omission of any work of reasonable size to leave out a clear view of Christ’s merit in justification. While I am sure all of us would be first in line to concede that any of our own writings are not “inspired, infallible, or inerrant” it would overstating obvious shortcomings such as those if one were to use them to understate the importance to a book of this type to omit a doctrine of this kind. I certainly appreciate it when making a purchasing decision between books as to which is not only helpful but which is most helpful.

        If that is the case it should be ok for some of us to believe that while Nichols’ himself is not deficient in this area, the book he authored is (if indeed it is). Perhaps it is as simple and objective as that.

    1. Some of the comments have been edited by their author. The Confessor-mods (including the Bapti-bot of legend) have not altered anything.

  4. Brothers, I asked one of the moderators to delete all my comments. I don’t regret defending Greg Nichols. And I remain concerned about what I perceive to be hyper-confessionalism, which manifests itself in a hyper-critical spirit toward Reformed Baptist pastors (like myself) who have scruples concerning some of the language in the Confession. Even so, my comparison of what I perceive to be hyper-confessionalism with Rome’s veneration of ecclesiastical dogma was unwarranted and incendiary. I wrote Pastor Ron Baines a private apology, but felt that I should also make a public apology for other readers. Please forgive me. Bob G.

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