Don Fortner claims that the Reformed Faith, especially the Westminster Confession, promotes heresy. Manuel Kuhs answers him.
Don Fortner is a Baptist preacher from the United States. Apart from his erroneous Baptistic views, he holds to the historic Five Points of Calvinism, including a denial of the 'Free Offer of the Gospel' and 'Common Grace'. I have listened to some of his sermons on the Atonement which I thoroughly enjoyed.
However, a sermon which Fortner preached in 1997, entitled 'Five Subtle Heresies of Reformed Doctrine', was recently brought to my attention by a friend on Facebook. Fortner takes these supposed 'heresies' from the Westminster Confession (with which we would agree nearly 100%) and the 1689 Baptist Confession.
I wrote the below review and refutation of Fortner's charges for that friend on Facebook. However, considering that Fortner is a famous enough preacher, the LRF decided to publish this article for the good of all His children everywhere and for the glory of His Name.
The 'Five Subtle Heresies of Reformed Doctrine' are as follows, with refutations beneath each heading.
- The heresy of necessary consequence.
By this Fortner means the idea expressed in the Westminster that “the whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture”. Fortner maintains that we ought only believe that which is “expressly set down in Scripture” - everything else is a product of man's logic – which apparently is inherently unspiritual. [Click here for a pamphlet entitled 'Logic and Scripture']
The refutation of this is very simple – if Fortner believes that God is Triune, then Fortner himself believes the “heresy of necessary consequence”. For nowhere in Scripture does it explicitly say that there is one God in Three Persons – rather, this is “deduced from Scripture by good and necessary consequence”.
With the same logic (yes, he uses logic all the time!) he demands of paedobaptists that we give an explicit example of a baby being sprinkled as baptism. Since Scripture nowhere gives an explicit example of a woman partaking of the Lord's Supper, one nearly wonders whether his congregation have only men partaking? If we understand the meaning of the Lord's Supper, and the catholicity of the New Testament church (“there is neither male nor female...”, Gal. 3:28), we do not need an explicit example, however. Rather, we “deduce from Scripture by good and necessary consequence” that believing women ought to partake equally with believing men. In a similar manner, we deduce from the meaning of circumcision and baptism and the unity of the covenants that we ought to baptise the children of believers. [Click here for an introduction to the biblical, Reformed teaching on baptism]
Regarding his rant against creeds and confessions of faith, claiming that he has the 'Bible alone' as opposed to those who have written creeds, this is laughable. He has a creed. He believes that the Bible teaches certain things. His church has a confession of faith. Theirs is merely not written down. His church's position, for example, is that baptism is for adult believers only and only by immersion. This is a creed. But they don't write it down, thinking somehow that this is more spiritual. [Click here for a pamphlet entitled 'A Plea for Creeds']
- The heresy of conditional grace.
This part is so bad that I could barely believe my ears. He said that faith is “not an instrument of justification”! Instead our justification was finished when Christ died.
He does not understand what the Bible means by justification – justification is declaring someone righteous (Pr. 17:15). It is NOT the imputation of righteousness (which is how Fortner apparently understands it). When the Bible and the Reformed creeds teach that faith is the instrument whereby we are justified, it means that it is by faith that God declares TO US, IN OUR CONSCIENCE that we are justified. It is not saying that our faith is the LEGAL GROUNDS of that justification. The legal ground is ONLY the blood of Christ imputed to us. To state it more fully, justification by faith alone refers to God declaring us righteous only on the basis of Christ's righteousness imputed to us, which declaration we hear and receive into our conscience by faith.
This (correct) view of justification by no means denies that God has always loved the elect and viewed them as righteous (Jer. 31:3; Rom. 9:11-13; Num. 23:21).
As part of this same heading, he claims that the Westminster Confession and the 1689 Baptist Confession teach that sanctification DEPENDS on man. This is completely ridiculous. These confessions do not teach that sanctification depends upon us. Rather, they state that believers are sanctified “by Christ's Word and Spirit dwelling in us” (WCF & BCF 13:1). They teach monergistic sanctification.
- The heresy of self-righteous assurance
By this he means the false doctrine that assurance is based primarily on seeing within ourselves the work and progress of sanctification, i.e. that a believer may only be assured of his salvation insofar as he sees within himself true good works. Fortner correctly condemns this as a terrible doctrine that enslaves Christians to fear and doubt. For indeed true justifying faith always gives peace of conscience (Rom 5:1ff) which is assurance. That is, assurance is an essential part of faith.
Sadly, in the case of the Baptist Confession, he is certainly correct in that they deny this:
“This infallible assurance is not so joined to the essence of faith that it is an automatic and inevitable experience. A true believer may wait long and fight with many difficulties before he becomes a partaker of it.' (BCF, 18:3)
The Westminster indeed seems to have a similar wording (18:3), though the exact meaning of this passage is disputed by Presbyterians, some holding the correct view and others not.
This is one of the reasons that we rejoice in the Three Forms of Unity, which explicitly make assurance part of the essence of faith and grants assurance to every believer (e.g. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1).
However, since believers are not yet free from sin, so they equally are not yet free from a lack of faith. And where there is lack of faith, there is unbelief. And where there is, at times, unbelief, there is (at times) lack of assurance, such that as God’s children walk in disobedience, they grieve His Spirit and often lose His inner testimony of their adoption. For this reason all the Reformed Confessions correctly teach that assurance (and faith) is ordained by God to grow and be strengthened through the use of the means of grace, namely the preaching and the sacraments in a true Church. [Click here to read a pamphlet entitled 'The Gift of Assurance']
- The heresy of legalism
Don Fortner claims that the Reformed faith holds that believers must still keep the Mosaic Law. Again, this is simply laughable. He quotes the Westminster: “The moral law doth forever bind all...” (19:5) However, the Westminster does NOT say “The Mosaic Law doth forever bind all...”
This “moral law” that 'forever binds all' is summed in the 10 commandments – does Fortner think that today one may kill, steal, worship idols or commit adultery? Is this moral law no longer valid for believers in Fortner's opinion?
Fortner claims he has “studied” the Westminster Confession; did he not read the preceding 2 articles, which state that all the ceremonial (e.g. animal sacrifices, jubilee years) and political (e.g. stoning disobedient children) laws of the Old Testament have been “abrogated”?
Having quoted Rom. 6:14 and 7:4, Fortner concludes, “there is absolutely no sense in which believers are under the law”. If Fortner is right, when believers murder, they are apparently not transgressing the law.
And if he is right, then the Apostle Paul was guilty of heresy when he reminded the elect, believing children of the congregation at Ephesus of the 5th commandment (Eph. 6:1-2). Equally the Apostle of Love reminds us, “this is love, that we walk after his commandments”, 2 John 7.
No; believers are no longer under the law in the sense that they are no longer condemned because they fail to keep it, and believers ought never to obey the law in order to merit salvation; rather, as the Westminster says in the succeeding article, the (moral) law is of great use to believers by showing them how they may express gratitude for their free salvation and pointing out their sins so they might flee to Christ continually.
As Jesus said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
If Fortner had more closely studied the Scriptural proofs provided in Westminster Confession, he would have found reference to ample statements in the New Testament that make clear that believers still ought to keep the moral law – though not in order to merit, which motivation is strongly condemned by the Westminster Confession.
And about his denial that the 4th commandment is valid today: The wording of the 4th commandment makes it clear that this commandment is not rooted in the Mosaic covenant, but rather in the creation of the world, and as such is universally valid for all men. And Christ reinforced this (Mark 2:27). In light of this, Col. 2:16 is clearly referring to the various special Sabbaths which were added under the Mosaic covenant as part of the ceremonial laws, and which believers certainly are no longer under obligation to observe.
- The heresy of sacramentalism
The two Confessions correctly state that the sacraments are a means of grace. Fortner denies that they “seal” grace to believers. They only “signify” it. Fortner correctly sees that if the sacraments are “seals”, then they are means of grace – and not merely symbolic.
What does Scripture say? “And [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a SEAL of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised...” (Rom. 4:11). And the Apostle Paul identifies circumcision with baptism (Col. 2:11-12) and also says that in the Lord's Supper we actually (and not merely symbolically) commune with Christ (1. Cor. 10:16).
This is not, as Fortner claims, Romish doctrine. Rome teaches that everyone who physically partakes of the sacraments partake of the reality, whereas the Reformed doctrine and holy Scripture teach that only the elect partake of the reality, and that not through the physical eating and drinking, but through the eating and drinking of faith (John 6:53-58). But the sacraments are without doubt a “seal of the righteousness of faith” to the elect – a means of grace. To the rest, they are a savour of death unto death – like preaching, the other means of grace (2Co. 2:16). [For a further explanation of the biblical, Reformed view of Baptism, see Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Days 25-27 and Belgic Confession Article 34]