Norman Shepherd has taught that, in the act of justification, faith is not simply “a certain knowledge and a hearty trust” or “resting” or “receiving” but it involves more than that. In light of the endorsement by two CanRC theologians of Shepherd’s theology, how to CanRC theologians and pastors speak about the nature of faith in the act of justification? In other words, do the CanRCs agree with the URC declaration that “we reject the errors of those…who define faith, in the act of justification, as being anything more than “leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified” or “a certain knowledge” of and “a hearty trust” in Christ and His obedience and death for the elect”?
From my reading, Shepherd's burden is to reconcile the seeming contradiction between Paul and James by underscoring the vitality of justifying faith. In this connection, Shepherd has talked about justification by an "obedient faith." Understandably, this occasions alarm in the minds of many and the question is posed: How obedient must faith be in order to justify? But this misses Shepherd's point, which is: "A faith without obedience does not justify." Put still differently, a faith which does not obey is not justifying faith. Because of the confusion occasioned by Shepherd's formulation I much prefer the language of "living faith" or "true faith."
[Incidentally, the same problem could be posed of Scott's language (borrowed, I realize, from the Belgic Confession, article 23): How much must one lean and rest on Christ's work?]
I've been helped tremendously in my own understanding of justification sola fide by the Reformers, not least John Calvin, who in his commentary on Galatians 5:6 writes: "There would be no difficulty in this passage, were it not for the dishonest manner in which it has been tortured by the Papists to uphold the righteousness of works. When they attempt to refute our doctrine, that we are justified by faith alone, they take this line of argument. If the faith which justifies us be that “which worketh by love,” then faith alone does not justify. I answer, they do not comprehend their own silly talk; still less do they comprehend our statements. It is not our doctrine that the faith which justifies is alone; we maintain that it is invariably accompanied by good works; only we contend that faith alone is sufficient for justification."
Similarly, in his commentary on 1 John 3:22, Calvin writes, "By saying,
An inseparable addition is sometimes mentioned as a cause. The heat of the sun always accompanies its light, but it does not follow that we see by the sun's heat. Works always accompany faith, but it does not follow that we are justified by works. Put in Shepherd's words: we are justified by obedient faith, but it does not follow that we are justified by obedience.In answer to the question whether faith alone justifies, Francis Turretin writes: “The question is not whether solitary faith [fides solitaria], that is, separated from the other virtues, justifies, which we grant could not easily be the case since it is not even true and living faith; but whether it alone concurs to the act of justification, which we assert: as the eye alone sees, but not when torn out of the body. Thus the particle alone does not modify the subject but the predicate, that is, faith alone does not justify, but only faith justifies; the coexistence of love with faith in him who is justified is not denied, but its coefficiency or co-operation in justification [Ita particula sola non determinat subjectum, sed praedicatum, id est, sola fides non justficat, sed fides justificat sola: non negatur coextistentia charitatis in eo qui justificatur, sed coefficientia vel cooperatio in justificatione].
Mark Horne explains: "Turretin is saying that “alone” must not be understood as an adjective modifying “faith” so that justifying faith would have to be viewed as “solitary,” or in isolation from its working or from its manifestation in obedience to Christ. Rather, “alone” is to be understood adverbially as pointing to the distinctive role played by faith in relation to the other gifts and graces with which it is invariably associated. Only faith justifies. Only faith to receive, accept, and rest upon Christ for justification and salvation from eternal condemnation. This is what Turretin means when he says that faith alone concurs to the act of justification."
Lastly, this is what the Belgic Confession itself teaches us in article 24: "It is therefore impossible for this holy faith to be inactive in man . . . This faith induces man to apply himself to those works which God has commanded in His Word . . . Nevertheless, they do not count toward our justification."
So in short, I suspect all Canadian Reformed folk warmly embrace what the confessions teach about justification sola fide.