Section navigation

Gordon Clark and Sandemanianism

Category Articles
Date January 10, 2005

The fascinating error of Sandemanianism was opened up again at the Westminster Conference in London in December. Sandeman defined saving faith as bare assent. In four issues of the Canadian paper ‘Christian Renewal’ during November and December Doug Barnes the pastor of the URC in Hills, Minnesota, examined the erroneous teaching of the late Gordon Clark on ‘Saving Assent.’ The following is Doug Barnes’ final article which he entitled, “Trust – the Missing Element.”


In a recently released book combining two earlier works, the late Gordon Clark seeks to answer just that question – and he does so in quite a unique way. For Clark, faith was none other than intellectual assent. Believe the proper things about God and Christ, and you were saved. Misunderstand, and all is lost.

No heartfelt emotion or trust needed … or even involved.

We have examined Clark’s central thesis, his (empty) claims to be echoing Calvin and Machen, and the animosity between Clark’s view and Scripture. We can do no other than to conclude that Clark’s contention about the essence of faith is wrong. Salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone, but “faith alone” is not “belief alone.”

All that is left to do is to set beside Clark’s view the proper view set forth in Scripture, that the depth of this error might be readily seen!

We have noted that Clark believes the traditional threefold definition of faith as notitia (understanding), assensus (assent) and fiducia (trust) is improper and, in the end, makes no sense.

The crux of the difficulty with the popular analysis of faith into notitia (understanding), assensus (assent), and fiducia (trust), is that fiducia comes from the same root as fides (faith). Hence this popular analysis reduces to the obviously absurd definition that faith consists of understanding, assent, and faith. Something better than this tautology must be found (‘What Is Saving Faith?’ [Unicoi, Tenn.: Trinity Foundation, 2004], 47).

Ignoring the root fallacy inherent to the argument above, it appears that Clark simply has no place in his system for trust or a trusting reliance. Indeed, when Clark does approvingly discuss trust, he reduces it to a calculated intellectual activity, saying that confidence in another is gained through experiencing the other’s truthfulness. “After I have observed his habit of always telling the truth, I can have confidence in him. But this is also an intellectual belief that he constantly tells the truth” (79).

What Clark seems unable to grasp is that trust, while it may indeed be gained through experiencing an individual’s truthfulness and trustworthiness, is more than an intellectual calculation of the likelihood that the trusted individual will speak true propositions. The most truthful person in the world may see you running down the street with your clothes on fire and refuse to lift a finger to save you. The most honest man may stab you in the back, betraying your confidence and turning others against you. Perhaps the man does tell the truth; lying may never be a temptation for him. But that doesn’t necessarily qualify him as one who ought to be trusted.

Yet time and again, Clark demonstrates that he has little or no grasp of this distinction between belief in another’s honesty, and trust in another for one’s well-being.

This mistake is avoided by the Reformed Confessions and the spiritual leaders of Christ’s Church through the ages. Westminster Confession of Faith 14.2 declares that saving faith involves not merely believing God’s Word and accepting Christ’s claims, but also “receiving and resting upon Christ alone” for all that salvation entails. Likewise, the Westminster Larger Catechism defines justifying faith as a saving grace whereby the sinner “assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel,” but also “receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness.” Therein is an element of trust demonstrated that extends well beyond the separately named element of knowledgeable assent.

Much the same is seen in the Three Forms of Unity. Belgic Confession of Faith Art. 23 declares that we do not presume to trust anything in ourselves or any of our merits, “relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours when we believe in Him.” Of course, this necessarily involves intellectual belief; this, no significant figures in the orthodox Reformed tradition deny! But such “relying and resting” involves something more, as is indicated by the fact that Belgic 23 concludes that such a response to God frees one’s conscience “of fear, terror, and dread” -emotions which rather clearly transcend the intellect!

But Heidelberg Catechism Ans. 21 offers perhaps the clearest demonstration of this distinction.
True faith is not only a sure knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also a firm confidence which the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

It would be difficult to find a clearer testimony to the necessity not merely of knowledge and assent, but also of an assured trust or personal conviction that what has been promised in the Scripture and accomplished by Christ is effectual and, moreover, is mine as one of God’s children! Thus Bavinck declares that faith “is not only a firmus assensus but also a certa fiducia; faith is the central, personal, religious relationship of man with God. … The Reformation had conceived of faith as cognito or fiducia certa, that Christ is my Deliverer and that the forgiveness sent is mine” (Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, Vol.3 [Kampen: Kok, 1898], 522-3).

Kuyper remarks that there can be no doubt that faith must begin with acknowledging the testimony of Scripture to be true – but maintains that it must go beyond this.

This is not saving faith, only faith in the testimony. To believe that it will prove true in our case, in our own persons, is quite different. This depends, not upon the testimony, but upon whether we will submit ourselves to Him of whom it speaks. .. We must submit. And this requires the laying aside of all our self-conceit, the utter casting out of self (The Work of the Holy Spirit, trans. Henri De Vries [Chattanooga: AMG, 1995], 420).

So too John Murray, who in his landmark work on Christ’s redemption presents the essence of faith not as belief of propositions about the Savior – which also is utterly necessary – but as trust in that Savior. “Faith is trust in a person, the person of Christ, the Son of God and Saviour of the lost. It is entrustment of ourselves to him. It is not simply believing him; it is believing in him and on him” (Redemption Accomplished and Applied [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955], 111-12). Charles Hodge concurs, adding, “Protestants with one voice maintain that the faith which is connected with salvation, is not a mere intellectual exercise” (Systematic Theology, Vol.3 [Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2003], 65).

And finally Brakel, who declares that knowledge is an element of faith, but that faith is not equivalent to knowledge (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol.2, trans. Bartel Elshout [Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1982], 271). Rather, on the basis of the promises of the gospel, to which he has assented, the believer embraces Christ trustingly – and therein lies faith! Brakel writes:

Someone may have a very clear comprehension of all the mysteries of the faith, both as far as the truths and their desirability are concerned. Let him assent with full assurance to these truths as truths and to their desirability – it is nevertheless not true faith. It is indeed true that believers also have knowledge and assent, but they cannot rest in this. They know and experience that this does not cause them to be partakers of Christ, and therefore they go beyond this and appropriate Christ. They rest in Him, entrusting their soul and body to him in order that He would justify them (277).

More authorities could be quoted, just as more passages from Clark’s books could be trotted out, dissected and critiqued. But the conclusion is inescapable: Belief alone is not enough. Man being utterly fallen in Adam, his intellect is just as polluted and helpless as his conscience and emotions.

And so we must hear the Word: how God has declared His desire to call a people for Himself out of the nations; how He has acted in Christ to deliver that people; what He has promised for that people in the future. Hearing, we must believe that this Word is true.

But while necessary, this is insufficient. Like the Philippian jailer of Acts 16, the sinners of Luke 15, the revolutionary on the cross at Jesus’ side in Luke 23, or the woman at Jesus’ feet in Luke 7, we come to Christ as those who recognize the glorious truth about Christ and the hopeless truth about ourselves. And so, looking to Christ, we must trust. We must cast off all reliance on ourselves, despise our abilities and strength, and turn hopeful eyes to Christ. For we recognize that our hope, if hope we are to have, must be found only and always in Christ.

And so we hunger and we thirst, knowing that relief can be found only in the spiritual food and living water that Christ provides (John 7:37-38; 6:50-58). We come by faith, worked in us by the Spirit, being counted righteous only because we trusted Him who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). We come as those born again not only into a saving knowledge, but into a living hope (1 Pet. 1:3), an assured trust (Jer. 17:7), and a fearless confidence (Heb. 3:6; 1 John 2:28).

We come as those who are triumphant – not merely convinced of propositions, but utterly assured that our God will save us through Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we trust.

It is this element of trust which Gordon Clark’s weak form of faith lacks. It is our sincere hope that his heart was more true to the Scriptures than his writings; and may it be our unending passion to ensure that those who read his words recognize, “while it is day,” the deficiency of a faith that fails to trust. For the night is coming, and woe be unto him who lacks a trusting faith when the night falls!

[Christian Renewal, Vol. 23 #7, December 15, 2004 by permission]


Following the publication on our website of the above article, John Robbins, who describes himself as Dr Clark’s literary heir, editor and publisher, sent the following article in defence of Dr Clark’s position.

Readers, we are sure, will be able to draw their own conclusions.

What Is Saving Faith?

John Robbins, Ph. D.

Recently The Banner of Truth published two essays [this one above and the one entitled Sandemanianism at the Westminster Conference, dated 17/12/2004, ed] linking the names of Robert Sandeman, the 18th-century Scots preacher, and Gordon Clark, the 20th-century American theologian and philosopher. This is most unfortunate, for several reasons.

First, neither author of these essays, Douglas Barnes and Geoff Thomas, is qualified to make this comparison. At the time of their writing, neither had read the relevant works of Robert Sandeman, and one of them had not even read Gordon Clark’s book What Is Saving Faith? (Whether they have tried to do their homework since they wrote, I do not know.) Despite not having read Dr. Clark’s book, Thomas dismisses Clark’s view as “the erroneous teaching of the late Gordon Clark.” When I was a college professor, any student who made such claims, not having read the sources, would have flunked the course. Apparently seminary graduates and ministers are not expected observe even minimum standards of scholarship.

Second, these authors, Thomas and Barnes, have used Sandeman as a bogeyman to scare people away from reading Dr. Clark. In so doing, they have not only dragged a red herring through the discussion of Clark’s views, but they have libeled Dr. Clark.

Third, the authors of these essays, both seminary-trained men, both claiming to be Reformed, ought to know that the question is not, Does Clark agree with Sandeman, but, Does Clark agree with Scripture? For all Protestants that is the question to ask. To ask the question, Does Clark agree with Sandeman, and to answer it, Yes, he does, not having read Sandeman (or even Clark), is less than honest and worse than unscholarly. The long-term effect is even more serious: Such a question introduces into readers’ minds a standard other than Scripture for evaluating theological opinions. Tradition, regarded as either negative or positive, becomes the standard, and the Protestant rule of faith is eclipsed.

Let us turn to the body of Barnes’ essay. In his opening paragraph he describes Clark’s view: “For Clark, faith was none other than intellectual assent. Believe the proper things about God and Christ, and you were saved. Misunderstand, and all is lost. No heartfelt emotion or trust is needed…or even involved.”

In his essay, Barnes does not define the word “trust,” making it distinct from assent (which is crucial to his argument), so the reader must guess what he means. Unlike Dr. Clark’s careful definition of terms in What Is Saving Faith? Barnes makes undefined terms central to his argument. The result is that Barnes, quite literally, doesn’t know what he is talking about.

When he uses the phrase “heartfelt emotion or trust” that seems to be about as close as he comes to defining “trust.” Trust is a “heartfelt emotion.” Which emotion Barnes does not say. Perhaps it is a feeling of absolute dependence, as the German Liberal Schleiermacher said. (Barnes uses the phrase “trusting reliance,” which makes him sound like Schleiermacher.) Whatever it is, this heartfelt emotion, Barnes says, is what makes belief saving, for Barnes denies that believing the truth (see the quotation above) saves anyone. To be saved, one must also feel an emotion. But neither Christ nor the Apostles ever demanded that sinners have an emotional experience; they demanded that they believe the truth.

Barnes flatly asserts: “Faith alone is not belief alone.” Faith and belief are two different things in Barnes’ soteriology. It follows, does it not, that when Christ said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life,” that he was misleading Nicodemus? And when the Apostle Paul said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved” he was misleading the jailer? One might quote scores of similar verses, but these two will do to show how far Barnes is from Christian soteriology. According to the Scriptures, belief of the Gospel, and only belief of the Gospel, saves.

This point deserves some emphasis, for in his emotional zeal to charge Clark with error, Barnes attacks, repeatedly and emphatically, the notion that belief of the Gospel saves the sinner. This is a frontal attack on the Gospel itself.

In denying that belief of the Gospel saves, Barnes has apparently been misled by the Latin fides, a word not found in Scripture. Barnes refers to the “traditional threefold definition of faith as notitia (understanding), assensus (assent) and fiducia (trust).” He correctly describes this definition as “traditional,” but he fails to show that it is Biblical. And that is what he must show, if we are to accept his argument.

Contrary to Barnes’ preoccupation with Latin terms, Dr. Clark disposed of the misleading Latin definition by showing it to be tautologous, and then he examined the Greek terms of the New Testament, demonstrating by the meticulous exegesis of scores of verses exactly what the Holy Spirit meant by the words “believe” and “belief”: Belief is assent to a proposition. For example, John 4:50: “The man believed the word that Jesus had spoken to him.” John 2:22: “They believed the Scripture.” John 9:18: “But the Jews did not believe…that he had been blind.” And so on. Saving faith is not belief of any stray proposition, such as “he was born blind,” but belief of the propositions of the Gospel.

Furthermore, saving belief is a species of the genus belief, and unless one knows what belief is, one cannot understand what saving belief is. What distinguishes saving belief/faith from generic belief/faith is not some additional subjective psychological factor, as Barnes asserts, but the object, the propositions, believed. It is not our subjective emotional state that saves us, but the objective truth. Saving belief is belief of the Gospel truth. Barnes’ subjectivism is subversive of Christianity.

Barnes asserts: “Clark simply has no place in his system for trust.” Well, Clark has no place in his system for undefined terms, and if trust remains undefined, then there is no place in Christian theology for it. But Barnes apparently did not read page 76 of What Is Saving Faith?: “If anyone wish to say the children [of Matthew 18:6 and Mark 9:42] trusted in him, well and good; to trust is to believe that good will follow.” Here Clark defined “trust” as belief of a proposition in the future tense, in this case, the proposition “good will follow.” To trust a person is to believe the proposition, “he always tells the truth.” To trust God is to believe the proposition: “God will be good to me forever.” Or as Paul put it more eloquently in Romans 8: “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” But an undefined psychological state called “trust” has no place in the Gospel or in Biblical theology.

Barnes next misquotes and misinterprets the Westminster Confession: “Westminster Confession of Faith 14.2 declares that saving faith involves not merely believing God’s word and accepting Christ’s claims, but also ‘receiving and resting upon Christ alone for all that salvation entails.'”

Once again, Barnes’ un-Biblical view of faith leads him to assert that “believing God’s word and accepting Christ’s claims” is inadequate for salvation because it is different from “receiving and resting upon Christ alone.” When one recalls that Christ’s claims include this one, “No one comes to the Father but by me,” it is obvious that Barnes’ alleged distinction collapses. Believing Christ’s claims is ipso facto “receiving and resting on Christ alone.”

Here is what 14.2 actually says: “By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and [he] acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains, yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.”

A careful reading of this paragraph shows that the Westminster Assembly first asserted that the Christian believes to be true whatever Scripture says, simply because God says it; and then Assembly identified the “principal acts of saving faith” as belief of the Scriptural propositions about Christ. Barnes imagines a contrast between belief (which he says does not save) and an emotional experience, but there is none in the Confession. It is all belief, all intellectual assent, and the contrast in 14.2 is between believing all the propositions of Scripture, and the “principal acts of saving faith,” which is believing the specific propositions about Christ.

Barnes makes a similar blunder with regard to the Larger Catechism, which in question 72 is not burdened with drawing a distinction between “assent” (a literal term) and “receiving and resting” (figurative terms), but with making clear that it is not merely the promise of the Gospel (eternal life) that the sinner believes, but also the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ as the sole basis for pardon and salvation. Because of his subjectivist bias, Barnes misreads both these passages in the Westminster Standards, trying to make the effectiveness of saving faith depend on something inside the sinner, rather than on the objective work of Christ.

Barnes’ bias leads to his misreading of the Belgic Confession as well. He quotes Article 23, which contradicts his views: “We do not presume to trust anything in ourselves [that includes emotions] or any of our merits, ‘relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours when we believe in him.'” Admitting that this statement teaches “intellectual belief,” Barnes asserts that “relying and resting” involves “something more.” What this “something more” is, Barnes does not say. He asserts this because “Belgic 23 concludes that such a response to God [that is belief] frees one’s conscience ‘of fear, terror, and dread’ , emotions which rather clearly transcend the intellect!”

This is a most bizarre argument. First, Barnes told us that heartfelt emotion was necessary for salvation; now he claims the Belgic Confession supports him, even when it says that belief of the Gospel ends emotions!

Second, Barnes asserts that emotions “transcend the intellect,” a statement that betrays his fundamentally Antichristian and secular psychology. Barnes has absorbed more Freud that he cares to admit. He simply does not understand that emotions are reactions to beliefs, and that beliefs are more fundamental than emotions. That is why, as the Belgic Confession says, belief of the Gospel frees the sinner from these emotions.

Barnes’ appeal to the Heidelberg Catechism rests on the same subjectivist misreading of the document. Answer 21 is concerned to state first a general principle (“all that God has revealed to us in his word”) and then the specific propositions of the Gospel. Like 14.2 of the Westminster Confession, it does not use the word “trust.”

Barnes also cites several confused statements from a number of theologians. One of the benefits of reading Dr. Clark’s book is that he shows how the theologians speak out of both sides of their mouths, contradicting on one page what they had asserted on the page before. Clark easily can and does cite a Reformed tradition supporting his views, just as Barnes cites a tradition supporting his view. Such quotes settle nothing. Only Scripture is decisive, and Scripture says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” To go beyond this, to assert that belief is not enough, is to deny the Gospel.

Therefore, when Barnes concludes, “Belief alone is not enough,” he denies the Gospel. And when he cites as a reason for this “inescapable conclusion” that man’s “intellect is just as polluted and helpless as his conscience and emotions,” one can only conclude that he has not understood anything in Dr. Clark’s book. His essay is merely an emotional rant against Clark.

Note: This section of the article was written by John Robbins, not Doug Barnes, and is a response to Doug Barnes

Latest Articles

The Life of R. B. Kuiper: a Brief Summary November 21, 2023

The following first appeared in the February 1991 issue of the Banner of Truth Magazine (Issue 329). Over the years, the Trust has published several books by Dr R. B. Kuiper. However, there are many readers throughout the world who are more familiar with the titles of Kuiper’s books than with the man himself. It […]

Was Jesus a Great Teacher or God Incarnate? November 16, 2023

Many think that Jesus was a “great teacher,” but often such people do not know what He taught about Himself: Jesus Christ said that He was the Messiah the Jews had awaited for over 700 years. John 4:25–26: ‘The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When […]