A Review of the Manhattan Declaration

Tuesday, 01 Dec 2009

The Manhattan Declaration, released November 20, 2009, firmly yet winsomely takes the stand in defense of truths that are increasingly undermined in contemporary Western societies, including our own.  Drafted by Princeton law professor Robert George and evangelical leaders Chuck Colson and Timothy George, this declaration focuses on three issues: (1) the inherent dignity and rights of each human life (including the unborn) by virtue of being created in God’s image; (2) the integrity of marriage as a union of one man and one woman, and (3) religious liberty, also anchored in the image of God.

There is a lot of wisdom in this document.  For one, it does not breathe the vitriol that is often too common on the religious right and left.  In this declaration one will find more light than heat, yet a sense of personal concern for the humaneness of the common culture, even for those who are pursuing antithetical agendas.  May this more thoughtful approach to public engagement become more characteristic!

The framers wisely appeal to natural law as well as to Scripture and its revealed doctrines.  After all, these three issues are grounded in creation.  They are deliverances of the law that God inscribed on every human conscience, not of the gospel that God announced beforehand through his prophets and fulfilled in his incarnate Son’s life, death, and resurrection.

However, it is just for that reason that I stumbled over a few references to the gospel in this declaration.  It took me back to the old days of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” when I joined others in raising concerns with Chuck Colson, Richard John Neuhaus, J. I. Packer, and others that this 1996 document announced agreement on the gospel while recognizing remaining disagreement over justification, merit, and the like. Many true and wonderful things were affirmed in that ECT document, but the gospel without “justification through faith alone apart from works” is, as I said then, like chocolate chip cookies without the chips.

This declaration continues this tendency to define “the gospel” as something other than the specific announcement of the forgiveness of sins and declaration of righteousness solely by Christ’s merits.  The document recites a host of Christian contributions to Western culture, adding, “Like those who have gone before us in the faith, Christians today are called to proclaim the Gospel of costly grace, to protect the intrinsic dignity of the human person and to stand for the common good.  In being true to its own calling, the call to discipleship, the church through service to others can make a profound contribution to the public good.” The declaration concludes, “It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.”  In an interview, Mr. Colson repeatedly referred to this document as a defense of the gospel and the duty of defending these truths as our common proclamation of the gospel as Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and evangelicals.

Having participated in conversations with Mr. Colson over this issue, I can assure readers that this is not an oversight.  He shares with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI the conviction that defending the unborn is a form of proclaiming the gospel.  Although these impressive figures point to general revelation, natural law, and creation in order to justify the inherent dignity of life, marriage, and liberty, they insist on making this interchangeable with the gospel.

The error at this point is not marginal.  It goes to the heart of the more general confusion among Christians of every denominational stripe today, on the left and the right.  The law is indeed the common property of all human beings, by virtue of their creation in God’s image.  As Paul says in Romans 1 and 2, unbelievers may suppress the truth in unrighteousness, but the fact that they know this revelation makes them accountable to God.  However, in chapter 3, Paul explains that a different revelation of God’s righteousness has appeared from heaven: God’s justification of the ungodly through faith alone in Christ alone.

When we confuse the law and the gospel, there is inevitably a confusion of Christ and culture, and there is considerable evidence in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and evangelical histories to demonstrate the real dangers of this confusion.  In this otherwise helpful declaration, the confusion is evident once more.  Alongside the theological claims that witness to the dignity of all people created in God’s image, Christianity seems to be defended as a major stake-holder in Western culture and society.  By tending to confuse the gospel with the law, special revelation with general revelation, and Christianity with Western civilization, the document actually undermines its own objective—namely, to defend the dignity of human life as a universal moral imperative.  Not only Christians, but non-Christians, are recipients of this general revelation.

The church has a responsibility to proclaim the gospel of free justification in Christ and to witness to God’s universal rights over humanity in his law.  This law is sufficient to arraign us all before God’s court, pronouncing every one of us guilty for failing to love God and our neighbor, and it remains the rule for all duties and responsibilities that we have to contribute to the flourishing of our culture and the good of our neighbors.  Yet the gospel itself is the testimony to God’s act of redemption in Jesus Christ, which delivers us from guilt, condemnation, and the tyranny of sin.  The commands of the law, both natural and clarified in Scripture, ring in the conscience of everyone, but the gospel is the only “power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16).

-Mike Horton



  • 01 Dec 2009
    iMark says:

    Thanks, Dr. Horton. Many of us have taken the same position as reasons not to sign.

  • 01 Dec 2009
    Gary Marble says:

    Dear Dr. Horton,
    Thank you for your helpful comments. There are some respectable men on both sides (those who signed and those who did not) who do get the gospel right. But I fully agree with you on this.
    Years ago I heard the W.H.I. discussing the ECT and it was helpful to me back then. It seems like this is just a repeat. I for one am hopeful for perhaps a better document (if we must have one) that defines the gospel with clarity and then obtains signatures from those who agree with that statement first and then the other important moral issues.

    Unity at the cost of the truth (the gospel) is no real unity! The gospel is the only power from God for salvation.

  • 02 Dec 2009
    Reg Schofield says:

    Excellent. These kind of declarations hide the vary thing that changes mens hearts , the gospel. The fact remains that the gospel of Rome and Orthodox is not the “gospel” .

  • 02 Dec 2009
    Carl Vehse says:

    “There is a lot of wisdom in this document. For one, it does not breathe the vitriol that is often too common on the religious right and left.”

    Well, that statement seems a little vitriolic. And for a Declaration “seeking justice,” which refers to the euphemistic “horrors of the mid-20th century,” yet fails to specifically note the 50 million unborn infants slaughtered by abortionists and abortion leaders since 1973, a little bit of vitriol, if not seeking justice, would have been in order.

    In confusing Law and Gospel, the Manhattan Declaration also demonstrates being wishy-washy in the Law.

  • 02 Dec 2009
    sdechert says:

    The MD seem to deal with issues partly on the basis of the the dignity of man due to the imago Dei principle. What would a proper Reformed response to such an argument be?

    I ask this in light of the Rev. Angus Stewart’s essay The Image of God in Man: A Reformed Reassessment. He seems to argue (though I may be reading him wrong) that the TFU lean heavily toward the image of God as a spiritual condition specifically seen in holiness and righteousness. If this is so, how should Reformed folk view the “image of God” arguments outside of the specific redemptive process brought about by the Gospel of Christ?

  • 02 Dec 2009
    Reed DePace says:

    Well said. Thank you for the irenic and focused critique.

  • 02 Dec 2009
    hawk says:

    Colson is a wonderful man who has served the Lord for 35 years big time. I dont agree with him on ECT and there may be things in the Manhattan Declaration that are incongruent but this is about world view. this is about the regenerate and the reprobate. I dont like faith plus works for salvation as Catholics believe but t belittle the Declaration is akin to saying Arminians are barely christian because the dont believe in monergism and emphasize free will. there has to be some level of unity for those in the light and those who are wicked. Horton is nitpicking again just like he does in the Calvinist/Arminian debate. If a Catholic accepts the trinity, the resuruction, the coming again and the substitutionary atonement, then he is my ally. I will disagree with him on works and mariology and a whole host of other things, but if he professes Christ as his Lord and savior he is on my side.Is this legalism a form of pharistical thinking?

  • 02 Dec 2009
    Matthew Pancake says:

    Thank you Mike Horton. I was beginning to think I was the only one in my circles who noticed this. There is so much confusion of Law and Gospel these days, even among Lutherans who should know better, and the result is that people are walking towards social endeavors with increased tempo.

    Where is a Manhattan Declaration on the Gospel? This alone would have more of an impact that just saying “we’re against this and that”… Here’s what we’re FOR! Here is what we’re about!

    Thanks for all your hard work.

    Matthew Pancake, Radical Grace Radio

  • 02 Dec 2009
    Pat T. says:

    I do not take The Manhattan Declaration as a theological treatise on Justification by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone. Criticize its “theological correctness”, if you will, but support it for wanting to help turn around this culture of death in which we are surely immersed.

  • 02 Dec 2009
    Beau McKinley Boyd says:

    Mr. Hawk has seriously misunderstood Dr. Horton’s argument. To attempt to reduce Horton’s criticism of the Manhattan Declaration to Calvinist/Arminian debates is, honestly, quite silly. The simple fact of the matter is that Romanists and Orthodox do not in fact possess the Gospel, and those of us who do profess the Gospel need to be careful in the alliances that we make. The Gospel is in no way, shape, or form reducible to a social movement, Mr. Hawk. While Reformed believe Arminians to be inconsistent in their beliefs (i.e. synergism does not equal salvation by faith alone in Christ, it equals a cooperative effort between God and man to accomplish the goal of one’s salvation) we do, generally speaking, still consider them to be among the redeemed. Taking the principle of salvation by faith alone in Christ out of the Gospel does not leave you with a minor nuance, Sir, it leaves you with a truncated and false “Gospel” that falls victim to Paul’s anathema in Galatians 1:8,9. I’m not really sure what pharistical thinking means (I assume you meant pharisaic?), but until and unless you could actually see Paul signing a document against slavery in the first century alongside the Judaizers he so strongly opposed in Galatians, you need to be more thoughtful of who you decide to become bedfellows with. Otherwise, stop “nitpicking” the people who stand up in defense of the Gospel and set your priorities straight.

  • 03 Dec 2009
    Sebastian Heck says:

    Thanks, Mike. Helpful analysis, indeed. Would you have (potentially) signed without the law/gospel confusion, i.e. if it had simply been a document reasoning along the lines of creation order/natural law?

  • 03 Dec 2009
    Matt Holst says:

    Well stated Dr. Horton.
    After reading the Manhattan Dec., I came away with the sense that once again the culture can only be saved if we turn the City of Man in the proper direction. That has never worked and never will until the return of our Lord and Savior. What the church needs to do is get the Gospel right and preach that to this (and every other) culture of death.

  • 05 Dec 2009
    Andrew Meredith says:

    Thank you, Dr. Horton, for explaining your reasons for not signing this document. After reading the declaration, I applauded the stand for social justice that the signers are taking, but I am also glad to hear that you have not given your endorsement to a document that muddies the line between the gospel and what social justice.

  • 06 Dec 2009
    Benjamin Bosch says:

    Thank you Dr. Horton! There is a constant blurring and confusion of the “Two Kingdoms”. Thanks for your work and all of you at WHI for calling the church back to her calling, to Preach the saving Gospel of Christ, and to administer the sacraments. We may just be surprised to see changes in our culture when men and women are brought under conviction of their sins and to be fully absolved by Christ and His work. The church has nothing better or more precious to give than Christ and His work for us.

  • 07 Dec 2009
    Lou Brink says:

    Should I not, in concert with Muslims and Jews, sign a document declaring that God condemns homosexuality? Muslims and Jews assign a different meaning to the word “God” (in its fulness). Would that mean that I was agreeing with them on some sort of lowest-common-denominator concept of God. I don’t see it that way. I was not a fan of ECT. I do not think that the Declaration makes quite the same mistakes. I do not think it seeks to define the gospel. I would not have chosen some of the weasel wording in the document, but I think it makes sense to draft a document like this in such a way that it can be endorsed by a range of people. I agree that the main argument is an argument about law, and that the law will not change human hearts. But it can influence the culture. I thought it was a good thing to say, in essence, “We make this statement on the basis of law, but recognize that the primary responsibility of ministers is to the proclamation of the gospel.” But ministers and others also have a responsibility as Christian citizens to influence the culture, right?

  • 08 Dec 2009
    The Rev. Eric W. Jorgensen says:

    How very sad to read. Too many in the “reformed” camp continue to fight the Reformation not recognizing that trenches have moved. That Christians could not agree to the three tenants of the document reveals why our Lord tarries. Your sectarianism keeps the protestant church impotent, but at least you are saved because you have got your solas in order. You have replaced works righteousness of doctrinal statement righteousness.

  • 08 Dec 2009
    michael horton says:

    If I may, I’d like to respond to a couple of these e-mails. First, thanks to all for taking the time to join me in thinking through these matters.

    Yes, I would have happily signed the document if it took its stand on God’s moral law, whether natural law arguments or explicit biblical commands. Even where there is genuine doctrinal agreement, I am happy to stand with members of other communions. My concern is that the document (like ECT) confuses the gospel with the law. That confusion is intrinsic to the official teachings of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but seems increasingly characteristic of Protestantism as well.

    We are not justified by doctrinal accuracy, but we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Believers may believe that wonderful gospel confusedly, but to deny it–even to anathematize it–is an act of apostasy (Gal 1:8-9).I wish that the authors had left the word “gospel” out of this document, but I know well why they included it. Many evangelicals today apparently believe that to appeal to the consciences of the public with the precepts of God’s law is to proclaim the gospel.

    Christians should be “salt” and “light” in the world, to be sure, making their voices heard in the public square on behalf of the unborn, victims of today’s slave-trade, the environment, justice and peace. But it is the gospel that “salinates” us and salt that has lost its savor is good for nothing but to be cast underfoot.

    Let’s stand up for the law AND the gospel, love of neighbor AND faith in Christ, the Great Commandment AND the Great Commission. However, we confuse them at our peril–and at the peril of the very neighbors we are trying to bless.

    Michael Horton

  • 08 Dec 2009
    Pastor Nick says:

    All I would say is that the Gospel without “justification through faith alone apart from works” is like chocolate chip cookies with rat poison in place of the chips.

  • 09 Dec 2009
    RevK says:

    I still prefer the Declaration of Righteousness on account of Christ’s law keeping. I too, believe the document confuses the mission of the church, “…Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”

  • 09 Dec 2009
    S.M.P. says:

    Indeed, the law was put into place in order that there was no denying our need for our most holy and just God and the apostles did continue to use it in their preaching of the gospel. However, one thing of utmost importance has not been mentioned… the ministry of the Holy Spirit (the very means by which the apostles operated and the gospel truth was revealed) which far exceeds anything the law was able to accomplish and without which the “veil” cannot be lifted or real, permanent change take place (2 Corinthians 3). It would seem here that the only way for the problem (sin) and the solution (the good news of Jesus Christ, gospel) to even be “seen” is by the work of the Holy Spirit, both in us and outwardly through us.

  • 09 Dec 2009
    KK says:

    Rev. Jorgensen,
    I hope you realize our God is not hindered by the ignorance of his children nor by the depraved heart of man. Our Lord doesn’t tarry – and I would hope if there was a slight chance he did it wouldn’t be based on his creation but his on sovereign will!

  • 09 Dec 2009
    rich hamlin says:

    Rev. Horton,
    The document was not trying to define the gospel but merely state its necessary outworkings, as in the 3rd use of the law. As you said, “let’s stand up for the law AND the gospel.” This is an opportunity to for you to stand up for the law of the LORD, which is perfect.

  • 10 Dec 2009
    David Waltz says:

    >> Mr. Hawk has seriously misunderstood Dr. Horton’s argument. To attempt to reduce Horton’s criticism of the Manhattan Declaration to Calvinist/Arminian debates is, honestly, quite silly. The simple fact of the matter is that Romanists and Orthodox do not in fact possess the Gospel…>>

    Two significant “problems’ with the above: first, if Catholics and the Orthodox “do not in fact possess the Gospel”, then pretty much no Christian from Clement of Rome until Martin Luther possessed the Gospel [see HECKEL’S informative essay for important insights on this issue].

    Second, Dr. Charles Hodge (one of the greatest reformed theologians of ALL time), shoots some serious holes in the above so-called “fact”: SEE THIS THREAD.

  • 11 Dec 2009
    Mark B says:

    Those who hold to the two-kingdom view surely are not saying that Christians should not, with informed consciences, fight the expressions of injustice that prevail in our day.

    As a related question, what are the good books out there on the neo-kuyperian vs. the two-kingdom way of thinking?

  • 13 Dec 2009
    David Waltz says:

    Hmmm…seems that my links did not take; here they are again for those who may be interested:

    Heckel essay (“Is R.C. Sproul Wrong About Martin Luther?”) link:

    Hodge thread link:


  • 15 Dec 2009
    Beau McKinley Boyd says:

    Mr. David Waltz says:
    Two significant “problems’ with the above: first, if Catholics and the Orthodox “do not in fact possess the Gospel”, then pretty much no Christian from Clement of Rome until Martin Luther possessed the Gospel [see HECKEL’S informative essay for important insights on this issue].

    Beau Reply: Wow, Sir, you have quite the omniscient ability to know the mind and hearts of a whole lot of people you’ve never even met. I certainly can’t compete with that. I wonder, would you tell the Orthodox folk: “from the time of the early Greek Fathers to the 11th century no one believed like you!” I get the feeling you would not. I do believe that the Gospel has existed throughout the history of the church, during the evolution of Romanism (btw, which branch of Roman Catholicism do you think I would have to reply to? The post-Vatican II Catholics or the Council of Treat Cathoics?). I’ve read quite a few instances of such beliefs in my history studies at Westminster Seminary (see any of the recommended course reading list for that time period if you’re interested). So no, Mr. Waltz, you are incorrect in your allegations of my “significant problems.”

    Mr Waltz again:
    Second, Dr. Charles Hodge (one of the greatest reformed theologians of ALL time), shoots some serious holes in the above so-called “fact”: SEE THIS THREAD.

    Beau Reply: This isn’t an argument, it’s a foot note. I’m not interested in doing your homework (believe me, I’ve got plenty of my own to do, and then some). If you want to present an argument I’ll respond, but merely pointing to something else that “shoots some serious holes” in my claims is simply just dancing around the issue.

    Beau McKinley Boyd

  • 26 Jan 2010
    Rev. Dave Kinney says:

    Okay, since we couldn’t agree on the ECT document, and we’re having trouble with the Manhatten Dec., is it possible to compose one of our own?

    Are we straining at theological gnats, while we allow our culture to swallow camels?

  • 28 Jan 2010
    Gregory says:

    Babies are being killed by the thousands daily. the right to speak out against homosexuality is threatened. And what do we do, Christians? We argue about the soldiers’ different uniforms! How petty! Think clearly. Would Jesus Christ be more concerned about the people attending or the ones in need of healing? The Bible is clear on this issue. Jesus protected the innocent, healed the sick and admonished the sinner. He did not mind if His followers were of varying degrees of understanding the Gospel. He taught them all. He healed them all. Why must we squabble about which version of the Gospel might or might not be mentioned, while babies die and we lose our rights to speak openly about our faith.
    THis is what is wrong with Protestantism- it refuses to embrace anyone except those that agree with each new doctrine it creates. This is why the only way to unite Christians is to bring them back to the shepherd and faith they left so long ago. Protestantism has failed. It’s time to swim the Tiber before it is too late. I did so 15 years ago and am so glad to finally be home. You see, our shepherd warns us about the dangers- like contraception that led to the mass killings of unborn children. Christ left us the Church; it’s time to humble ourselves and accept His way, not our own failed methods.

  • 31 Jan 2010
    Beau McKinley Boyd says:

    “THis is what is wrong with Protestantism- it refuses to embrace anyone except those that agree with each new doctrine it creates. This is why the only way to unite Christians is to bring them back to the shepherd and faith they left so long ago. Protestantism has failed.”

    He’s right, guys, we are clearly not as embracing as he is of those who disagree with us….

  • 31 Jan 2010
    Beau McKinley Boyd says:

    Interesting side note for us Protestants who aren’t united under the Romanist “shepherd” we left:

    Quite a few of these unified Romanists voted for…. dun dun dun: Obama. Hmmm, “Babies are being killed by the thousands daily. the right to speak out against homosexuality is threatened,” so Catholics unite under the Protestan’s lost Shepherd and vote in favor of these things!! Yeah, it’s only the Protestants who aren’t united boys. Guess we’d better pack up our uniforms and swim the Tiber back to Trent. Good thing that good old Avignon Papacy issue cleared up all the confusion! Gerry Matatics is definitely confirmation of the unification of Rome!


  • 03 Feb 2010
    Yarb says:

    I appreciate the article and the comments. I heard James White (on Dec 17 2009 podcast) give a very good response to comments by Dr.Ligon Duncan on signing. While being enriched by the ministries of many of the evangelicals who signed, I can’t help but wonder if this is a creeping, slow seduction to, if not to ‘cross the Tiber’, then at least to get signers’ feet wet, thereby paralyzing their witness to the Gospel.
    One cannot fight for the benefits of the Gospel by allying with those who don’t have the Gospel.It is the salt that preserves.
    I can’t imagine what I would say to Jesus if I had to tell Him “I was trying to save the things that pass away by giving up the thing that saves!”

  • 14 Feb 2010
    Beau McKinley Boyd says:

    Yarb, I think you hit the nail right on the head. That is exactly why the reformed are opposing this. James White is a personal friend of mine and I think both he and Dr. Horton have done a great service to the Kingdom by exposing this Tiber-foot-watering that COlson and the others are trying to pawn off as “gospel.” I loved your last comment about answering Jesus, Bro! It makes me proud to know that I share the Gospel with others who actually care about our Lord and His Kingdom and aren’t willing to paddle around in the Tiber as if social Gospel issues were at stake here. Lord bless you, Bro!

  • 26 Jun 2010
    FNF says:

    Excellent article. I wonder if you are aware that others have taken a similar stance. Pastor and author Ted Weiland of MissionToIsrael.org recently preached a similar sermon called “Why I’m Not Signing the Manhattan Declaration” – ‘Why, in light of 2 Corinthians 6:14-18, I refuse to sign The Manhattan Declaration, despite its excellent points.’
    If interested one can hear it at:

  • 20 Nov 2010
    Manhattan Declaration | to sign or not says:

    […] Michael Horton […]

  • 27 Dec 2010
    NOT Signing Manhattan Declaration | Sovereign Joy Community Church says:

    […] the entire statements from R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, Alistair Begg, Michael Horton, and James White on why they would NOT sign The Manhattan […]

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