Thomas Shepard: Emphasis Upon Conditional and Gradual Growth
Thomas Shepard was the leader of the majority party throughout the Antinomian Controversy. Shepard first wrote to John Cotton, querying him regarding his views and warning him that he “may meet in time with some such members (though I know none nor judge any) as may doe your people and ministry hurt, before you know it.” Shepard’s church in Cambridge hosted the 1637 elections, synod, and trial of Anne Hutchinson.
Further, at the beginning of the Controversy, Shepard began a sermon series entitled The Parable of the Ten Virgins, in which he repeatedly interacted with the claims of the Antinomians. These sermons evinced a tension within Shepard himself, as Janice Knight noted: “Shepard is the most complex of the preachers in this group—a man whose experiences bound him to both the Intellectual Fathers and to the Spiritual Brethren, and whose temperament remained divided throughout his lifetime.” Shepard was “quite literally embodied in nearly equal measure the competing affections marking the two fellowships.” As a result, Shepard “serves as an important reminder that the issue of difference does not involve binary oppositions, even though the act of description sometimes presses in that direction.”
During the controversy, Shepard resolved his tension in favor of order and against Cotton. While Cotton’s emphasis was upon the end, Christ and his benefits, Shepard’s emphasis was upon the means to that end, Christian practice. Whereas Cotton wooed the sinner and the hypocrite by reminding of Christ’s love, Shepard persuaded the hypocrite by showing the deceitfulness of the heart. Cotton believed assurance came when the light of God’s Spirit caused the saint to see her soul’s union with Christ; Shepard held that assurance was a gradual and arduous process, gained through the consistent application of the means of grace and the regular inspection of the soul.
Shepard’s aim in his sermon series on the ten virgins was to enable his audience to discover whether or not they were “wise virgins” or “foolish,” whether they were saved or lost. Two themes were apparent in Parable: first, assurance developed gradually; second, assurance was gained through the use of means and consistent Christian practice. Against the antinomians’ suggestion that assurance came through the immediate revelation of the Spirit, he labored to prove that assurance was a gradual process. He believed that “the Spirit, when it comes, clears all doubts, not fully, but gradually.” The Spirit provided assurance, but it came slowly, as the saint labored to be cleansed of sin. “The Lord reveals not all of himself at once; the day dawns before the sun riseth, and there is a further manifestation of the Lord in this life to his people, not for, but when they, indeed, maintain such works before him,” he argued. “Sin does and will grieve God’s Spirit, that he will only accuse, not speak peace to you, till all is mended.” Gradual growth in assurance meant that sin had to be rooted out. Shepard’s searching sermons spent much time exposing the conscience’s hiding places as a means of promoting assurance.
Not only was assurance a gradual process, but it also came through the diligent use of means. In a key statement, Shepard argued that “it is true the Spirit only can do it; but yet the same Spirit that seals the elect, the same Spirit commands the elect not to sit idle and dream of the Spirit, but to use all diligence to make it sure; and you shall never have it (unless you lay hold on a fancy for it) on those terms. Though there is an immediate witness of the Spirit of the love of Christ, yet it doth most usually and firstly witness by means.” This was in stark contrast to Cotton’s emphasis upon the Spirit’s illumination of the believer’s union with Christ as the basis of assurance for the believer.
Instead, Shepard declaimed that the Spirit generally granted assurance to the soul by the use of means. Therefore, he placed a strong emphasis attendance at preaching services, prayer, scripture reading, and most importantly, the sacraments. If the saint did not, he was characterized as slothful and as a potential hypocrite. “The gospel yields the fairest colors for a man’s sloth, and the strongest props for that. Hence you see them walking in this garden; for the last sin God conquers in a man is his sloth,” he preached. “The gospel shows all fullness in Christ, and that he must do all; a slothful, false heart, therefore, closeth with Christ as the end, but neglects him in the means.” The Gospel provided the promise of freedom from sin’s power and guilt; yet the slothful soul used that promise to excuse itself from the demands of the Law.
Those who were not diligent in the use of means, those who were slothful and used the Gospel to excuse sin, Shepard denominated “evangelical hypocrites.” Evangelical hypocrites were those who did not “rest in the law, or in a covenant of works”; rather, “they had escaped those entanglements.” Now these hypocrites “pleade their interest in, and their communion, and fellowship, and love-knot with Christ”; yet, in truth, “these are your carnal gospelers, that cry down their own righteousness, and cry up Christ, and see nothing in themselves, as there is good cause so to think, and look for all from Christ.” These, who were not diligent in Christian practice, would be “found false” at that time “when the Lord comes to search” because they were simply “denying [their] own righteousness, to establish [their] sin.” These hypocrites were “advancing Christ to advance their lust.” In order for the saint to be approved by himself and the larger community, he had to use the means of grace diligently; for looking to one’s practice was the way to gain assurance.
Shepard claimed that the use of means applied the conditional promises to the soul in order to gain assurance of one’s spiritual standing. Unlike Cotton, whose testamental view of the covenant held that the soul was passive in the reception of salvation and that the reception of assurance was based on Christ’s absolute promises, Shepard argued for the efficacy of conditional promises to evidence the absolute ones; the individual’s spiritual actions evidenced the spiritual root from which those actions sprung. In refuting the claim that Christians should take no assurance from conditional promises, he proclaimed, “For those that have to do with them [conditional promises] as their inheritance not to apply and make use of them for their comfort, it is to trample under foot Christ’s blood, that has purchased them for that end, and it is to raze out in our practice the greatest part almost of the covenant of grace.”
He believed that the witness of the Spirit meant that the Spirit evidenced a work that it was already present in the soul of the individual through practice. If the individual “looks to no work, nor no condition promises, nor to find the condition in you, (which yet Christ must and doth work,) Lord, what abundance of sweet peace do you lose!” It was “plain hypocrisy” not to “bring works to the light.” Like Cotton, Shepard collapsed the distinction between conditional and absolute promises; however, whereas Cotton collapsed all promises into the category of absolute, Shepard collapsed all promises into the category of the conditional.
In Shepard’s Parable, then, we find two key ideas. First, Shepard developed the idea that assurance developed gradually. Indeed, it must come gradually for it was dependent upon the second idea: that assurance resulted from the application of the means of grace in consistent Christian practice. The individual who cried down the use of means was an evangelical hypocrite, seeking to remain in sloth in order to cover up his true problem, an inordinate love for sin. Therefore, the basis for assurance must be Christian practice that the Spirit used to give the soul the assurance of peace with God.