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Posts Tagged ‘justification’

Are Good Works More Than Fruit?

October 27, 2016 11 comments

D. Patrick Ramsey regularly writes the most direct and helpful summaries of a view I disagree with. While most discussions on the role of good works quickly devolve into confusion and endless circles and talking passed one another, Ramsey’s posts cut to the chase – which makes dialogue much more meaningful.

In a post over at Meet the Puritans, he explains that when he and others (like Mark Jones) argue against “Antinomianism,” what they are arguing against is the idea that our good works are only a fruit of our faith. The role of the law as a guide in the believer’s life is not the issue. Both sides agree on that. Rather, Ramsey argues “We don’t engage in good works merely because we live or are saved, we are to do them in order to live or to salvation.”

The “narrow way” is not Christ, but your good works (which they would say is Christ’s work in us).

Another common way the puritans articulated this same point was by covenant conditions. Sincere obedience is a consequent condition of justification and an antecedent condition of glorification… Good works, therefore, are more than fruit in that they are necessary for salvation as the way to eternal life and as an antecedent condition of glorification.

You will not merely have fruit when you are glorified, your fruit is a condition of whether or not you will be glorified. He says Tobias Crisp was wrong when he said that true Christians ought and will produce good works, but they are not required to and indeed they shouldn’t pursue holiness in order to avoid damnation and to possess heaven.

I don’t think it can be stated any clearer. Now go study Leviticus 18:5 and decide what you believe. Here are two posts that explain why I agree with Crisp and the “Antinomians”

OPC Report on Republication – Background

October 24, 2016 8 comments

The OPC Report on Republication was the culmination of several decades of dispute within the OPC. The dispute is particularly interesting because it represents two divergent schools within Presbyterianism that are both fighting to uphold a particular doctrine at the expense of another particular doctrine. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Westminster Confession is contradictory in what it says about the Mosaic Covenant. It’s a very detailed argument, so please read that post. In short, it is not possible to affirm both that the Mosaic Covenant is the Covenant of Grace and that there was a Covenant of Works made with Adam.

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John Murray

In the previous post, I suggested that Murray’s rejection of the Covenant of Works was driven by his attempt to resolve this contradiction. Thus he retained the Westminster teaching that the Mosaic Covenant was the Covenant of Grace at the expense of the Westminster doctrine of the Covenant of Works.

One of Murray’s students, Meredith G. Kline demurred from Murray early on (listen to the first few episodes of the Glory Cloud Podcast for some timeline on Kline). Kline began to

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Kline at bottom

move in the opposite direction, seeing the Covenant of Works as essential to the law/gospel distinction and therefore rejecting the Westminster doctrine of the Mosaic Covenant as the Covenant of Grace, arguing instead that it was a separate covenant that operated on the works principle for life in the land of Canaan. There was development in Kline’s thought over the decades on this. The OPC Report notes that

At least two controversies helped Kline sharpen his conception of the unique typological function of Abraham and national Israel, and those controversies pertain to the covenant theology of Norman Shepherd, on the one hand, and the theonomic ethics of Greg Bahnsen, on the other… Kline’s development of the typology of both Abraham and Israel depends in significant ways on his response to these controversies, as he seeks to clarify the unique features of redemptive typology pertaining to both Abraham and national Israel…

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Greg Bahnsen

Kline offers an integration of the historia salutis and the ordo salutis, seeking to give a biblically nuanced account of the way in which the obedience of key figures in redemptive history relates to the eschatological inheritance (Adam or Christ) or the typal kingdom (Abraham and national Israel). He adds nuance and clarity to his views based in part on his polemical engagement with the theology of Norman Shepherd and theonomic ethics of Greg Bahnsen, even if those figures are not always identified…

The development from Treaty of the Great King to Kingdom Prologue and God, Heaven and Har-Mageddon turns on clarifying the works principle in Israel as it finds its genesis in Abraham and his unique obedience as a type of Christ. The controversies with Shepherd and Bahnsen supplied polemical contexts for developing the unique features of redemptive typology that extend many of the insights from Vos, but in a way that does not undermine Murray’s insistence on a substantially gracious Mosaic covenant. The development of Abraham as the historical figure who supplies the redemptive historical prototype for the works principle that will come to apply to national Israel develops after the controversies with Shepherd and Bahnsen in the 1970s and 1980s, but in a way that bears organic continuity with his earlier work from the 1960’s.

For an elaboration on Bahnsen in this context, see Theonomy, Greg Bahnsen, and the Federal Vision?

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Norman Shepherd

Who exactly was Norman Shepherd? He too was a student of Murray’s. He was selected by Murray as his successor as professor of systematic theology at Westminster Seminary. Controversy arose when he students began failing their ordination exams. When asked how we are justified, they answered “through faith and works.” When asked where they were taught that, they said “Professor Shepherd.” Thus began a decade long battle to rid the seminary and the church of Shepherd’s false gospel. Surrounded by politics, Shepherd was eventually dismissed, but not officially for any theological reasons. Charges were scheduled to be brought against him in the OPC, but he fled to the CRC beforehand, where he remains today. I strongly recommend reading O. Palmer Robertson’s careful account of everything that occurred at Westminster regarding Shepherd titled The Current Justification Controversy. Shepherd is considered the godfather of the Federal Vision.

Some want to paint Shepherd as an oddity that came and went but had no lasting impact on Westminster or the OPC. However, it’s not that simple. As I said, Shepherd was selected by Murray as his successor. When Shepherd left, he was succeeded by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Gaffin is three years younger than Shepherd and was a student of Murray’s as well. He taught alongside Shepherd and was his primary defender during the controversy (see Gaffin’s open letter from 1981). In fact, he continued to support Shepherd long after he left, endorsing his 2002 book The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism with these words:

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Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

This lucid and highly readable study provides valuable instruction on what it means to live in covenant with God. God’s covenant is the only way of life that fully honors both the absolute, all-embracing sovereignty of his saving grace and the full, uninhibited activity of his people. The Call of Grace should benefit anyone concerned about biblical growth in Christian life and witness.

Gaffin theoretically distanced himself from Shepherd by participating in the OPC Report on Justification in 2006 which was critical of Shepherd, but no explicit statement and recanting of his support for Shepherd has occurred. The basis of Shepherd’s false gospel of justification through faith and works is his rejection of the “works-merit paradigm” in favor of the “faith-grace” or “covenantal” paradigm. In a 2002 lecture titled “What’s All the Fuss?”, Shepherd explains

Well the preceding is only a sampling of the problems we run into on the works-merit paradigm. We become uncomfortable expressing biblical doctrines using biblical language. Texts get bent out of shape in order to make them fit into a paradigm that does not arise out of Scripture and is foreign to Scripture. And without meaning to do so or wanting to do so we can find ourselves compromising the integrity of what is written in the Word of God.

The biblical paradigm, I would suggest to you, is one that is consistently covenantal without the schizophrenic antithesis between the covenant of works and an antithetical covenant of grace.

The 1982 Reason and Specifications Supporting the Action of the Board of Trustees in Removing Professor Shepherd states

Mr. Shepherd rejects not only the term “covenant of works” but the possibility of any merit or reward attaching to the obedience of Adam in the creation covenant. He holds that faithful obedience is the condition of all covenants in contrast to the distinction made in the Westminster Confession. The Westminster Confession states in Chapter Vll that the first covenant “was a covenant of works wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” In contrast, in the second covenant, the covenant of grace, the Lord “freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved.”

Shepherd was clearly building upon Murray’s rejection of the Covenant of Works. As we saw in the last post on Murray, he slammed on the breaks when his revisions lead him straight towards a justification by faith and works, particularly in Romans 2:13, but he had no consistent reason for doing so. Murray argued 2:13 (“the doers of the law will be justified”) was hypothetical in direct contradiction to his argument in v6 that the judgment was not hypothetical. Shepherd continued the logically trajectory, further working out the implications of a rejection of the Covenant of Works. 1978 he wrote 34 Theses on Justification in Relation to Faith, Repentance, and Good Works. Note thesis 20

20. The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are no persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified (Compare Luke 8:21; James 1:22-25).

Many will object that Shepherd’s theology was entirely different than Murray’s. As this is not intended to be a full treatment of the issue, and it is a very detailed topic, I encourage you to look into it yourself and make up your own mind. However, for our present purpose, it is worth recalling what we read from Ligon Duncan in the post on Murray.

Murray held to his objections [to the Covenant of Works] and to this day, Westminster Seminary has tended to be a little bit skittish about the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace framework.

There is no indication that Gaffin rejected Murray and Shepherd’s rejection of the Covenant of Works and every indication that he agrees with them. A fuller treatment of Gaffin will have to await another day (something I intend to get to, Lord willing). However, I do want to mention an important point regarding continuity with and progression of Murray’s revisionism. We saw before that Murray added Leviticus 18:5 and Matthew 19:17 as proof texts for WCF 19.6. The OPC continued that work.

The Sixty-sixth General Assembly (1999) elected a Committee on Proof Texts for the Larger Catechism (consisting of Stephen A. Pribble [chairman], George W. Knight III, Steven F. Miller, and Peter J. Wallace). It presented a list of proof texts to the Sixty-seventh General Assembly (2000), and the Sixty-eighth General Assembly (2001) approved the proof texts (with corrections) for publication.

http://www.opc.org/documents/Preface.pdf

The list included the addition of Romans 2:6,7,13,16 as proof-texts for WLC90, which states

Q. 90. What shall be done to the righteous at the day of judgment?

A. At the day of judgment, the righteous, being caught up to Christ in the clouds, shall be set on his right hand, and there openly acknowledged and acquitted, shall join with him in the judging of reprobate angels and men, and shall be received into heaven, where they shall be fully and forever freed from all sin and misery; filled with inconceivable joys, made perfectly holy and happy both in body and soul, in the company of innumerable saints and holy angels, but especially in the immediate vision and fruition of God the Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, to all eternity. And this is the perfect and full communion, which the members of the invisible church shall enjoy with Christ in glory, at the resurrection and day of judgment.

Note particularly that v13 was included, which says it is “the doers of the law who will be justified.” Recall that Murray stopped short and claimed this was only hypothetical, not actual – but this contradicted his comments earlier in the passage. The OPC apparently recognized this and carried Murray’s logic through to v13, just as Shepherd did. At the day of judgment, the righteous will be justified because they are doers of the law and not hearers only. (Note that the OPC has since reversed this position and deleted the proof-text. See comment box below).

1416327524kinnairdsAnother Westminster Seminary graduate (same age as Shepherd) was John Kinnaird. Kinnaird very publicly defended Shepherd during the controversy and continued to support him long after. As an elder, he taught that “It is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous on that Day of Judgement.” “Inside the city are those who do righteousness and outside are those who do evil.”

Romans 2 puts it this way.  “God will give to each person according to what he has done.  To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.  But for those who are self seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil there will be wrath and anger.”   Now by this we know the decision, the judgement as to who enters the city and who stays outside for eternity will be made on that great day of judgement in accordance with what you have done in this life.   In fact our scripture lesson says the very same thing at verse 12.  Behold I am coming soon!  My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done….

These good works are a required condition if we would stand in the Day of Judgement and they are supplied by God to all His people.

Every description of the Judgement events speak of these good works. Without them, no one will see God.  Our God is not unjust.  His judgements are always righteous and in accordance with the facts of the case

Who are these people who thus benefit ‑ who stand on the Day of Judgement? They are those who obey the law who will be declared righteous…

There will be glory, honor, and peace on the Day of Judgement for everyone who does good. [Romans 2] verse 10. Who are these people who thus benefit – who stand on the Day of Judgement? They are those who obey the law who will be declared righteous, verse 13. When God declares them righteous, that is a forensic declaration of righteousness…. This is a judicial scene, the Day of Judgement. It is an act of God sitting as Judge. It is justification – a forensic act of God whereby he declares a person righteous. God is able to make this declaration on That Day because it is a truth. Something has happened to change those who were once sinful. What is it?… Paul says, verses 14 and 15, these are those who by nature, a new nature, do the things required by the law.

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(Note the verbatim wording of Murray with regards to God’s judgment and the principle of equity).

An elderly couple in Kinnaird’s congregation brought charges against him for teaching justification by faith and works. The congregation (“session”) found him guilty. He appealed to his presbytery, which upheld the guilty verdict. So he appealed to the OPC General Assembly. The General Assembly determined that the session and presbytery had erred in convicting him. A main point in the GA’s decision to overturn the prior verdicts was that Kinnaird’s language was in keeping with the OPC’s standards – specifically WLC 90’s reference to Romans 2:13, which had just been added 2 years earlier. “There is strong evidence that it is allowable in the OPC to interpret Romans 2:13 (as Mr. Kinnaird does) as a description of something that will be done to the righteous at the day of judgment.” (GA Advisory Committee)

I encourage you to read through the trial documents yourself.

During the original trial, Gaffin was called to testify as an expert witness in defense of Kinnaird. I encourage you to read the transcript. Keep in mind Gaffin’s defense did not save Kinnaird in trial. He was still found guilty. One section is particularly pertinent.

RG: We could point up that as to the Romans (I believe Dr. Lillback did this last week if I am correctly informed) that at the …. so far as the Romans 2 passage is concerned, while a large number of Reformed exegetes have understood the scenario there, the final judgment scenario there,  on the positive side, in verse 7 and 10 and 13.  Have understood that in a hypothetical sense – or as we might put it – as a genuine offer of the law – not the gospel – a genuine offer of the law as a means of justification, or salvation which no one, in fact, can fulfill. While that is an established reformed understanding,  there have also been other exegetes, within the reformed tradition, that have questioned that hypothetical understanding.  And you see that at least for verses 6 to 11 very clearly in John Murray’s Romans commentary.  And I would refer us to that discussion,  if none other in that regard…

RG : Murray in his Romans commentary, the passage in Romans 2 that runs, particularly the segment that runs through verse 11.   2:6 to 11.  He understands that to be describing what will actually be the case for believers.  At the day of judgment they will … when God’s righteous judgment will be … when God will give to each person according to his works … that will, in terms of verse 7 … believers will be those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality.  And they will receive eternal life.  That is John Murray’s teaching on that passage.

AW :   John Murray in commenting on Romans 2:13 … I believe probably to 15 … but it’s at least on 2:13.  Here’s a quotation from his commentary. He says

It needs to be noted, however, that at this point the apostle restricts himself to the judgment of condemnation.  And this advises us that he is dealing now with the equity of God’s judgment of damnation as it is brought to bear upon men who fall into these two categories.  This is significant.  Whatever is meant by those who are >without law’ there is no suggestion to the effect that any who are >without law’ attain to the reward of eternal life.

It’s page 69 of  The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Romans as published by Eerdmans.

So … on the one hand … can you reconcile the two statements by John Murray here?

RG : Yeah,  I think … Sorry.  I didn’t bring my commentary along and … [Mr. Gaffin is given a copy of the commentary from one of the panel members.]   This is from page 71 on 2:13.  Let me read it, what Murray says and then comment.

It is quite unnecessary to find in this verse any doctrine of justification by works in conflict with the teaching on this epistle in later chapters.  Whether any will be actually justified by works either in this life or at the final judgment is beside the apostle’s interest and design at this juncture.

That … I think is to my mind,  what needs to be highlighted here.  My own view would be that following … well, my own view would be … that … I think Murray is leaving it an open question here.  He’s not addressing … he is saying two things.  Number one, no conflict with what Paul teaches later in the letter.  Number two, whether or not there will be anyone at the final judgment justified by works – as Paul expressed there – is beside the apostle’s interest and design at this juncture.  I think really it’s regrettable we don’t have Professor Murray here to ask this question because I think … my own view in the light of what he has said,  and said so clearly about the judgment according to works in two … in verse six … that… it … that would argue for understanding verse 13 here in the same way as describing an actual positive outcomeBut he does, as you are pointing out,  back away from that.  But I can’t … see I think in my own view … it is Professor Murray that is in a bit of a tension here … and the question really needs … I can’t reconcile Murray for you on that regard,  which is the question I heard you asking me.  And I would just accent again that in his understanding of verses 6-11,  he has broken with a large number of Reformed interpreters in arguing that that describes a real judgment scenario with a positive outcome.  Which is also how I would understand verse 13 … and well, you can ask Mr. Kinnaird how he understands it.

AW :  I guess my point would simply would be that John Murray did not definitively use this chapter in Romans 2 to teach … you know, a judgment for … let me say it this way, that John Murray did use his understanding in this to affirm a more traditional – if you want to say –  a traditional or long held view that Romans chapter two was affirming universal condemnation more than any particular manner in which believers are justified.

RG :  Sorry about that, I do have to differ with  Y

AW : O.K., that is fine …

RG :  I think in verses 6 to 11 he does break,  if you will with others, Charles Hodge, Haldane, in arguing that the judgment according to works is not hypothetical on it’s positive side… but will have a positive … it’s describing a positive, a real positive scenario in the case of believers.  And see that I think is really the issue here.  Let’s concede what Murray says about the verse 13 which … this is not … this is not a … this is a point that I am willing to be corrected on, that verse 13 does not describe an actual, an actual scenario at the final judgment.  You still have the final judgment according to works as a reality, according to Murray.

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Meredith G. Kline

So there we see the consequences of Murray’s rejection of the Westminster Confession’s doctrine of the Covenant of Works. Meredith Kline was one of the most vocal critics of Shepherd. In 1994 he penned a very important essay for the OPC magazine New Horizons titled “Covenant Theology Under Attack” in an attempt to defend the doctrine of the Covenant of Works and its corresponding works-merit principle. However, its content was deemed too controversial and was edited for publication. The original essay can be read in full here. Kline said

Recounted in the lore about the founding of our movement is the stirring testimony of the dying Machen in a telegram sent to John Murray: “I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”…

The assault on classic covenant theology of which [Daniel] Fuller has become a vociferous spokesman is being endorsed by some prominent leaders within even the broadly Reformed wing of evangelicalism. And the sad fact is that this theology, which undermines the biblical truths that provided Machen with his dying comfort, has had its aiders and abettors within the very movement that Machen founded. Strangely, it was the one who received Machen’s deathbed telegram who opened the door a considerable crack for the views inimical to the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ…

The door left ajar by Murray was thrown wide open to Fuller’s theology by Murray’s successor… Though the ensuing controversy over Shepherd’s views led to his departure, his teaching was not officially renounced by ecclesiastical or seminary arms of our movement, and key elements of the Fuller-Shepherd theology continue to be advocated among us.

Regretfully, in this same essay, Kline argues that in order to defend the Covenant of Works, the concept of God’s voluntary condescension in rewarding Adam’s obedience (WCF 7.1) must be rejected. So Murray rejected 7.2 and in order to refute Shepherd, Kline rejected 7.1.

But the primary manner in which Kline sought to defend the law/gospel distinction was by recognizing the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of works. Contrary to Murray, Leviticus 18:5 was in fact a statement of the principle of works in antithesis to the principle of faith – but it was limited to life and blessing in the land of Canaan, not eternal life. Thus to retain the Covenant of Works, Kline recognized it was necessary to jettison the Mosaic Covenant of Grace (thus rejecting WCF 7.5-6, 19.2).

Kline’s revisionism began to cause a stir. One of Kline’s disciples, Charles Lee Irons was brought to trial for his Klinean view of the Mosaic Covenant, specifically the relationship between the Decalogue and the moral law [Irons helpfully corrected the original wording of this section – see comment section below]. Irons lost the trial and his appeal to the GA was rejected. He chose to withdraw from the OPC and said the following in his letter of withdrawal:

I am not prepared to say that the OPC has fallen into irreparable apostasy, but something is terribly amiss with a denomination that is willing to indefinitely suspend me from the ministry for holding a position that is part of “a significant and vital stream of Reformed, Presbyterian, and confessional thought,” and then turns right around the very next day and fails to censure a man who teaches a doctrine of justification that has never been part of any stream within the orthodox Reformed tradition, indeed, that denies the very reason for the Reformation itself. The implication is staggering:  Murray’s recasting of covenant theology is now an essential test of orthodoxy in the OPC, but the historic Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone is not.

These two rulings of the 70th GA have caused me great sadness, but perhaps they will become a wake-up call to the OPC. I hope and pray that the OPC corrects its course and renews its commitment to the doctrine of justification as clarified by the Law-Gospel contrast taught by Paul and reaffirmed by the Reformers.

Several men began working to demonstrate historical precedent for Kline’s view. In his popular thesis paper “WORKS IN THE MOSAIC COVENANT: A REFORMED TAXONOMY” Brenton C. Ferry explains that he began working on the thesis

during the time of the Lee Irons’ trial in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Lee was proposing and affirming Samuel Bolton’s (1606-1654) view of the Mosaic Covenant, creating the assumption that this was Meredith Kline’s view, which it is not. Worse, Lee was portrayed by men in our denomination as an antinomian, which he is not. The result: he was wrongly deposed. I was a delegate at the General Assembly when Lee lost his appeal. It was most disheartening, but also confirmation that the church needs an accessible outline which reflects the contours of our tradition’s conception of the Mosaic Covenant.

He also recounts his ordination exam.

The research for this thesis began following my ordination exam by the Presbytery of the Southeast in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in October 2000. Towards the end of an otherwise mundane exam, a minister named Patrick Ramsey asked if the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of works or a covenant of grace.1 “A covenant of works,” I answered. The room became enlivened. My exam was sustained on condition that I study this issue.

A simplified summary of Ferry’s thesis became a chapter in the Westminster Seminary California-led book “The Law is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant” (2009). The book opens with a 6-page “fictional” narrative of the ordination examination of someone who follows Kline’s view (the intro is written by Westminster Seminary California faculty Bryan Estelle, David VanDrunen, and J.V. Fesko). “The preceding fictional narrative introduces the real issue with which the book deals, namely, the doctrine of republication, which holds that the covenant of works was, in some sense, republished in the Mosaic Covenant at Sinai.” Thus “republication” became code for Kline’s view, even though Kline never used the term, and at the same time introduced considerable confusion by the qualifier “in some sense.” Because it was “in some sense” republished, they could call upon historic support from men who were diametrically opposed to Kline’s view, yet who also affirmed the works principle in the Adamic Covenant of Works in opposition to John Murray. Thus “republication” became the historic idea that Murray rejected, and at the same time the new revision Kline introduced. The book caused more heat than light, largely because of its intentionally vague thesis (“in some sense”).

Many, many more writings have been published that are either directly or tangentially related to this dispute in the OPC over the works principle and the corresponding law/gospel distinction. Just as Ferry and others sought to find historical precedent for Kline’s theology, Mark Jones and others took on the task of finding historical precedent for Gaffin’s theology. The debate has largely centered around Westminster Theological Seminary (representing Murray) and Westminster Seminary California (representing Kline) – or East vs. West as it is referred. The debate often becomes quite heated.

So that is what has led to the OPC Report on Republication. Two leading reformed theologians of the 20th century attempted to retain different aspects of Westminster’s contradictory view of the Mosaic Covenant and the Covenant of Works, leading each theologian to reject other essential aspects of Westminster’s system of theology. In an attempt to save their own confessional skin, Klinians have mistakenly conceded that Murray’s rejection of the Covenant of Works did not affect Westminster’s system of theology.

Murray did not accept the Standards’ teaching regarding the Covenant of Works… Murray did not believe that he held to the common Reformed position that was historically advocated by Reformed theologians or by the Westminster Standards. In fact, he saw himself as a self-avowed revisionist on the subject of covenant theology…

Recall that the principle of Old School subscription states that a subscriber may take exception to propositions in the Standards. The subscriber may take exceptions to propositions so long as those exceptions do not undermine the overall system. With this in mind, we can see that though Murray reconstructs the Confession’s doctrine of the covenant, his reconstruction still retains the integrity of the overall system…

This is how, then, Murray can still subscribe to the Standards—his conclusions, though through a reconstructed and revised route, do not affect the overall system.

-J.V. Fesko The Legacy of Old School Confession Subscription in the OPC

Opponents of Kline have not made the same mistake. They recognize that his rejection of several points of the Westminster Standards do affect the system of theology. The OPC Report states

One may hold that the Mosaic covenant differs in substance from the covenant of grace, without necessarily compromising the idea of the one way of salvation throughout history. The question our report is addressing is whether one can hold to such positions without compromising the system of doctrine taught in our standards…

in the case of substantial republication, an aggregation of tensions has arisen at times such that, when taken together, they create dissonance that begin to reverberate system-wide

Jones on Conditions

October 14, 2015 23 comments

Mark Jones recently responded to Lee Irons on the question of faith as a condition of justification. In light of my last two posts, I just want to make one short comment. Jones rightly notes that Owen permits faith to be a condition of justification (after spending a couple of pages carefully qualifying what that can and cannot mean, and noting it is liable to confusion), but then he goes on to imply Owen therefore thought faith was the antecedent condition to interest the believer in Christ and the covenant of grace itself. That was not Owen’s position, though it was the position of others.

In his commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13, Owen carefully distinguished between conditions for obtaining an interest in the covenant and conditions for certain blessings within the covenant. He said faith is a condition for justification, but not a condition of the covenant itself. Rather, faith is a blessing of the covenant. For Owen, the covenant of grace itself was entirely unconditional and unbreakable.

[I]n the description of the covenant here annexed, there is no mention of any condition on the part of man, of any terms of obedience prescribed unto him, but the whole consists in free, gratuitous promises…

It is evident that there can be no condition previously required, unto our entering into or participation of the benefits of this covenant, antecedent unto the making of it with us. For none think there are any such with respect unto its original constitution; nor can there be so in respect of its making with us, or our entering into it… It is contrary unto the nature, ends, and express properties of this covenant. For there is nothing that can be thought or supposed to be such a condition, but it is comprehended in the promise of the covenant itself; for all that God requireth in us is proposed as that which himself will effect by virtue of this covenant…

It is evident that the first grace of the covenant, or God’s putting his law in our hearts, can depend on no condition on our part. For whatever is antecedent thereunto, being only a work or act of corrupted nature, can be no condition whereon the dispensation of spiritual grace is superadded. And this is the great ground of them who absolutely deny the covenant of grace to be conditional; namely, that the first grace is absolutely promised, whereon and its exercise the whole of it doth depend.

Unto a full and complete interest in all the promises of the covenant, faith on our part, from which evangelical repentance is inseparable, is required. But whereas these also are wrought in us by virtue of that promise and grace of the covenant which are absolute, it is a mere strife about words to contend whether they may be called conditions or no. Let it be granted on the one hand, that we cannot have an actual participation of the relative grace of this covenant in adoption and justification, without faith or believing; and on the other, that this faith is wrought in us, given unto us, bestowed upon us, by that grace of the covenant which depends on no condition in us as unto its discriminating administration, and I shall not concern myself what men will call it…

The covenant of grace, as reduced into the form of a testament, confirmed by the blood of Christ, doth not depend on any condition or qualification in our persons, but on a free grant and donation of God; and so do all the good things prepared in it.

Owen was also clear that we have an interest in Christ prior to faith, and, in fact, our faith presupposes an interest in Christ:

No blessing can be given us for Christ’s sake, unless, in order of nature, Christ be first reckoned unto us… God’s reckoning Christ, in our present sense, is the imputing of Christ unto ungodly, unbelieving sinners for whom he died, so far as to account him theirs, and to bestow faith and grace upon them for his sake. This, then, I say, at the accomplishment of the appointed time, the Lord reckons, and accounts, and makes out his Son Christ, to such and such sinners, and for his sake gives them faith, etc. (X, 626-27)

In this regard, Owen sided with Crisp (though Owen made important corrections to what Crisp thought were necessary implications on this point).

For more, see my last two posts:

Neonomian Presbyterians vs Antinomian Congregationalists?

October 14, 2015 13 comments

In current debate over the role of good works in salvation, appeal is made to “the Puritans.” The problem is, “the Puritans” included a vast range of beliefs. Some were orthodox, some were not. Thus there is usually a qualifier “the best of the Puritans” which is code for “the Puritans that agree with me.” (And when quotes are marshaled forth, it’s often a mix from various men with one key quote establishing a point, with the effect that it seems like they all agreed). For those of us who haven’t had time to studying the 17th century, it’s easy to get the impression that it was a glory day of orthodox theology where all the theologians in England sat around drafting the greatest confessions of faith and faithfully proclaiming the gospel in a nation full of Christians. The reality is the WCF never became the official confession in England, orthodox pastors frequently bemoaned the dark spiritual state of the nation, and dispute arose amongst Puritans over the heart of Christianity: justification by faith alone.

baxter

The controversy over justification centered around Richard Baxter. Yes, the Reformed Pastor, whom J.I. Packer describes as “the most outstanding pastor, evangelist and writer on practical and devotional themes that Puritanism produced.” Baxter was appalled by licentiousness he saw while serving in Cromwell’s army and he made it his life’s mission to refute the error of Antinomianism. In the process, he wound up modifying his doctrine of justification. The problem, according to Baxter, was the idea that Christ has fulfilled all the conditions necessary for our salvation by fulfilling the law of works and then freely granting us salvation in the covenant of grace. Baxter wound up rejecting the orthodox view of the atonement, imputation, and justification. (See Michael Brown’s helpful overview)

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The debate centered on theologians who argued that the New Covenant, unlike the Old, was unconditional. Tobias Crispe was the prime example. Crispe did err on a number of points in what he thought were the implications of an unconditional New Covenant, such as holding that we are justified prior to faith (see Owen’s correction here – note that first generation particular baptists William Kiffin and Samuel Richardson agreed with Crispe).

Baxter’s solution was to argue that the New Covenant was conditional. Christ’s obedience did not earn salvation for us. Christ’s obedience earned the New Covenant for us, and the New Covenant is a new law (“Law of Grace”) with a lower standard that we are able to meet. The requirement of the New Covenant is not perfect obedience, but sincere obedience flowing from faith. Thus Baxter argued that we need both Christ’s righteousness and our own inherent (“evangelical”) righteousness in order to be saved. Baxter said “faith is imputed for Righteousness…because it is an Act of Obedience to God…it is the performance of the Condition of the Justifying Covenant.” He argued that faith and works “Both justifie in the same kinde of causality, viz. as Causae sine quibus non…Faith as the principal part; Obedience as the less principall. The like may be said of Love, which at least is a secondary part of the Condition.” He summarized his view in an analogy:

A Tenant forfeiteth his Lease to his Landlord, by not paying his rent; he runs deep in debt to him, and is disabled to pay him any more rent for the future, whereupon he is put out of his house, and cast him into prison till he pay his debt. His Landlord’s son payeth it for him, taketh him out of prison, and putteth him in his house again, as his Tenant, having purchased house and all to himself; he maketh him a new Lease in this Tenor, that paying but a pepper corn yearly to him, he shall be acquit both from his debt, and from all other rent from the future, which by his old lease was to be paid; yet doth he not cancel the old Lease, but keepeth it in his hands to put in suite against the Tenant, if he should be so foolish as to deny the payment of the pepper corn. In this case the payment of the grain of pepper is imputed to the Tenant, as if he had paid the rent of the old Lease: Yet this imputation doth not extoll the pepper corn, nor vilifie the benefit of his Benefactor, who redeemed him: nor can it be said that the purchase did only serve to advance the value and efficacy of that grain of pepper. But thus; a personall rent must be paid for the testification of his homage.

Aphorisms on Justification (republished by John Wesley)

If one denied that Christians must pay their pepper corn (sincere obedience), they were denounced as Antinomian. Thus Antinomian became (as we will see below) equated with justification by faith alone and a rejection of justification by faith and works. The Antinomian controversy was not about the third use of the law as a guide for Christian living. It was debate over the role of works in justification.

Sounding like a modern day Federal Visionist (perhaps modern day Federal Visionists are really neo-Baxterians?), Baxter uses the exact same argument as Doug Wilson: our marriage union with Christ depends upon our faithfulness as his spouse.

Barely to take a Prince for her husband may entitle a woman to his honours and lands; But conjugal fidelity is also necessary for the continuance of them; for Adultery would cause a divorce…Covenant-making may admit you, but its the Covenant-keeping that must continue you in your priviledges.

-Baxter, Of Justification: Four Disputations Clearing and amicably Defending the Truth, against the unnecessary Oppositions of divers Learned and Reverend Brethren (London, 1658), 123-4. See also his End of Doctrinal Controversies, 252ff.

Faith, Repentance, Love, Thankfulness, sincere Obedience, together with finall Perseverance, do make up the Condition of our final Absolution in Iudgement, and our eternal Glorification.

-Baxter, Confession, 56.

And that the Law of Grace being that which we are to be judged by, we shall at the last Judgment also be judged (and so justified) thus far by or according to our sincere Love, Obedience, or Evangelical Works, as the Conditions of the Law or Covenant of free Grace, which justifieth and glorifieth freely in all that are thus Evangelically qualified, by and for the Merits, perfect Righteousness and Sacrifice of Christ, which procured the Covenant or free Gift of Universal Conditional Justification and Adoption, before and without any Works or Conditions done by Man Whatsoever. Reader forgive me this troublesome oft repeating of the state of the controversy; I meddle with no other. If this be Justification by Works, I am for it.

-Baxter, Treatise, 163.

Covenant Conditions

Perhaps Baxter’s strongest opposition came from congregationalists. In 1674, Samuel Petto wrote “THE GREAT MYSTERY OF THE COVENANT OF GRACE: OR THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE Old and New Covenant STATED AND EXPLAINED.” The thrust of Petto’s book was a rejection of Westminster Federalism’s claim that the Old Covenant and the New Covenant are two administrations of the same Covenant of Grace. Instead, he argued that the Old Covenant was the Covenant of Works that Christ fulfilled and that the New Covenant was therefore unconditional. This is a variation of the subservient covenant view. (See also Michael Brown’s Christ and the Condition, and a shorter article).

1. The new covenant presupposes obedience unto life to be performed already by Jesus Christ, and so is better than the Old (Sinai), which requires an after performance of it… Hence in opposition to that Sinai law, which ran upon those terms, do and live, under the dispensation of the new, we hear so often of Believe and be saved, and he which believeth hath everlasting life, Mark xvi. 16. John iii. 16, 36…

2. The new covenant represents the Lord as dealing with his people universally in a way of promise; and so is better than the old, which represents him as treating them in a way of threatening…

3. The new covenant consists of absolute promises, and therefore is better than the old Sinai covenant, which ran upon conditional promises, indeed, had works as its condition… The apostle, in the text (Heb viii. 10-13), is purposely putting a difference between these; and, seeing the old covenant was unquestionably conditional, and the new here in opposition to it, or distinction from it, is as undoubtedly absolute; must it not needs be concluded, that herein stand much of the excellence of the new above the old?…

And note, if some privileges of the covenant were dispensed out properly in a conditional way (as suppose justification were afforded upon faith as a condition, or temporal mercies upon obedience), yet this would be far from proving any thing to be the condition of the promise, or of the covenant itself. Indeed even faith is a particular blessing of it, and therefore cannot be the condition of the whole covenant; for what shall be the condition of faith?… Nothing performed by us, then, is conditio faederis, the condition of the covenant itself; Jesus Christ has performed all required that way

That this might not be a strife of words, I could wish men would state the question thus, Whether some evangelical duties be required of, and graces wrought by Jesus Christ in, all the persons that are actually interested in the new covenant? I should answer yes; for, in the very covenant itself, it is promised that he will write his laws on their hearts, Heb viii. 10., and that implies faith, repentance, and every gracious frame…

There is no such condition of the new covenant to us, as there was in the old to Israel. For, the apostle comparing them together; and, in opposition to the old, he gives the new altogether in absolute promises, and that to Israel, Heb. viii.; and, showing that the new is not according to the old, he discovers wherein the difference lay, verse 9. Because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not; saith the Lord; and, Jer. xxxi. 32. which covenant they broke, &c… If their performing the condition had been as absolutely promised, as the blessings of the new covenant are, then Israel would have continued in it (which they did not), and could not have forfeited what was promised thereupon, as diverse times they did, and were excluded out of Canaan upon that account. – Jurists say, a condition is a rate, manner, or law, annexed to men’s acts, staying or suspending the same, and making them uncertain, whether they shall take effect or not. And thus condition is opposed to absolute.

-See Petto: Conditional New Covenant?

Petto specifically argues against Baxter’s pepper corn analogy:

We claim Salvation not in the right of any act of ours, not upon the Rent of Faith (as men hold Tenements by the payment of a Penny, a Rose, or such like) no such thing here; all is paid to the utmost Farthing by our Surety, and we hold and claim upon the obedience of Jesus Christ alone.

John Owen, a fellow Congregationalist, wrote the foreword to Petto’s book wherein he says it is the best thing that had yet been written on the difference between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. That’s quite a bold statement, given the vast amount that had been written by orthodox theologians that century. It informs us of the fact that covenant theology was still a matter of development and progress, rather than a settled doctrine. Owen states his agreement with Petto’s rejection of Westminster’s formulation that all post-fall covenants are the covenant of grace and says the Old Covenant was one that mixed the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace so-as to reveal how the “first Covenant was through the Law conferred upon Christ, and in him fulfilled and ended.”

Owen’s The Doctrine of Justification was published 3 years later (1677). His excellent treatment of the subject rests upon his argument that the Covenant of Works was fulfilled in Christ as our surety. This is precisely what Baxter argued against. Owen addresses Baxter’s arguments throughout the work. In particular, Owen quotes from his yet unpublished exposition of Hebrews 7:22 to explain his view of Christ as surety and how it relates to the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace. That exposition was published 3 years later (1680) wherein Owen strongly argued that the New Covenant is unconditional.

[I]n the description of the covenant here annexed, there is no mention of any condition on the part of man, of any terms of obedience prescribed unto him, but the whole consists in free, gratuitous promises…

It is evident that there can be no condition previously required, unto our entering into or participation of the benefits of this covenant, antecedent unto the making of it with us. For none think there are any such with respect unto its original constitution; nor can there be so in respect of its making with us, or our entering into it… It is contrary unto the nature, ends, and express properties of this covenant. For there is nothing that can be thought or supposed to be such a condition, but it is comprehended in the promise of the covenant itself; for all that God requireth in us is proposed as that which himself will effect by virtue of this covenant.

Owen finally states his opinion in words very similar to Crisp.

It is evident that the first grace of the covenant, or God’s putting his law in our hearts, can depend on no condition on our part. For whatever is antecedent thereunto, being only a work or act of corrupted nature, can be no condition whereon the dispensation of spiritual grace is superadded. And this is the great ground of them who absolutely deny the covenant of grace to be conditional; namely, that the first grace is absolutely promised, whereon and its exercise the whole of it doth depend.

Unto a full and complete interest in all the promises of the covenant, faith on our part, from which evangelical repentance is inseparable, is required. But whereas these also are wrought in us by virtue of that promise and grace of the covenant which are absolute, it is a mere strife about words to contend whether they may be called conditions or no. Let it be granted on the one hand, that we cannot have an actual participation of the relative grace of this covenant in adoption and justification, without faith or believing; and on the other, that this faith is wrought in us, given unto us, bestowed upon us, by that grace of the covenant which depends on no condition in us as unto its discriminating administration, and I shall not concern myself what men will call it.

Again:

The covenant of grace, as reduced into the form of a testament, confirmed by the blood of Christ, doth not depend on any condition or qualification in our persons, but on a free grant and donation of God; and so do all the good things prepared in it.

Do this and live

A central aspect of the debate was the meaning of “Do this and live,” which is a paraphrase of Leviticus 18:5. Paul, quoting Lev 18:5, contrasts this principle with faith in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12, both of which are proof texts in WCF 7.2 for the covenant of works. Interestingly, Leviticus 18:5 is not a proof text (Patrick Ramsey explains). The dilemma for the WCF is how the Mosaic Covenant can be the Covenant of Grace (WCF 7.5-6) while Leviticus 18:5 remains a condition of it. This tension was not resolved at the time the WCF was written, hence Owen’s statement that Petto’s book was the best treatment of the Covenant of Works that had yet been written, because he resolved the tension (by rejecting Westminster’s view of the Old and New Covenants).

Writing on Hebrews 4:9, Baxter says

Sect 6 But it is a great doubt with many whether the obtainment of this glory [eternal rest] may be our end; nay, concluded that it is mercenary; yea that to make salvation the end of duty is to be a legalist and act under a covenant of works whose tenour is ‘Do this and live.’…

2. It is not a note of a legalist neither: it hath been the ground of a multitude of late mistakes in divinity, to think that ‘Do this and live,’ is only the language of the covenant of works. It is true, in some sense it is; but in other, not. The law of works only saith, “Do this,” that is, perfectly fulfil the whole law, “and live,” that is, for so doing: but the law of grace saith, “Do this and live” too; that is, believe in Christ, seek him, obey him sincerely, as they Lord and King; forsake all, suffer all things, and overcome; and by so doing, or in so doing, as the conditions which the Gospel propounds for salvation, you shall live…

how unsavoury soever the phrase may seem, you may, so far as this comes to, trust to your duty and works

In contrast, in The Doctrine of Justification, Owen says

We can never state our thoughts aright in this matter, unless we have a clear apprehension of, and satisfaction in, the introduction of grace by Jesus Christ into the whole of our relation unto God, with its respect unto all parts of our obedience. There was no such thing, nothing of that nature or kind, in the first constitution of that relation and obedience by the law of our creation. We were made in a state of immediate relation unto God in our own persons, as our creator, preserver, and rewarder. There was no mystery of grace in the covenant of works. No more was required unto the consummation of that state but what was given us in our creation, enabling us unto rewardable obedience. “Do this, and live,” was the sole rule of our relation unto God. (70)

though the law is principally established in and by the obedience and sufferings of Christ, Romans 8:3,4; 10:3,4, yet is it not, by the doctrine of faith and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ unto the justification of life, made void as unto believers. Neither of these does exempt them from that obligation unto universal obedience which is prescribed in the law. They are still obliged by virtue thereof to “love the LORD their God with all their hearts, and their neighbors as themselves”. They are, indeed, freed from the law, and all its commands unto duty as it abides in its first considerations “Do this, and live”; the opposite whereunto is, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the law to do them.” For he that is under the obligation of the law, in order unto justification and life, falls inevitably under the curse of it upon the supposition of any one transgression. But we are made free to give obedience unto it on gospel motives, and for gospel ends; as the apostle declares at large, chap. 6. (483)

In his exposition of Hebrews 8, Owen again notes

God had before given the covenant of works, or perfect obedience, unto all mankind, in the law of creation. But this covenant at Sinai did not abrogate or disannul that covenant, nor any way fulfill it… It revived the promise of that covenant, —that of eternal life upon perfect obedience. So the apostle tells us that Moses thus describeth the righteousness of the law, “That the man which doeth those things shall live by them,” Romans 10:5; as he doth, Leviticus 18:5. Now this is no other but the covenant of works revived. Nor had this covenant of Sinai any promise of eternal life annexed unto it, as such, but only the promise inseparable from the covenant of works which it revived, saying, “Do this, and live.”

The old covenant, in the preceptive part of it, renewed the commands of the covenant of works, and that on their original terms. Sin it forbade, — that is, all and every sin, in matter and manner, — on the pain of death; and gave the promise of life unto perfect, sinless obedience only: whence the decalogue itself, which is a transcript of the law of works, is called “the covenant,” Exodus 34:28. And besides this, as we observed before, it had other precepts innumerable, accommodated unto the present condition of the people, and imposed on them with rigor. But in the new covenant, the very first thing that is proposed, is the accomplishment and establishment of the covenant of works, both as unto its commands and sanction, in the obedience and suffering of the mediator. Hereon the commands of it, as unto the obedience of the covenanters, are not grievous; the yoke of Christ being easy, and his burden light.

Round 2: Presbyterians vs Congregationalists

By 1664 Baxter considered his fight against Antinomianism complete, stating that this “Sect” was extinct. Thus he was shocked near the end of his life when Tobias Crispe’s works were re-published in 1690 (by his son Samuel), noting “But I see the corrupting Design is of late, grown so high, that what seemed these Thirty Four Years suppressed, now threatneth as a torrent to overthrow the Gospel.” However, things were quite different this time around.

In round 2, the debate had come to be represented by Presbyterians on one side and the Congregationalists (Independents) on the other side. Following the Act of Toleration, the two had formed a Happy Union to work together in various ways, but the resurgence of the Antinomian problem split the groups.

Presbyterian pastor Robert Traill, who was in the minority in siding with the Congregationalists, explains what had happened in the intervening years:

You know, that not many months ago there was fair-like appearance of unity betwixt the two most considerable parties on that side; and their differences having been rather in practice than principle, about church-order and communion, seemed easily reconcilable, where a spirit of love, and of a sound mind, was at work. But how short was the calm! For quickly arose a greater storm from another quarter; and a quarrel began upon higher points, even on no less than the doctrine of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and the justification of a sinner by faith alone. Some think, that the re-printing of Dr. Crisp’s book gave the first rise to it. But we must look farther back for its true spring. It is well known, but little considered, what a great progress Arminianism had made in this nation before the beginning of the civil war. And surely it hath lost little since it ended. What can be the reason why the very parliaments in the reign of James I. and Charles I. were so alarmed with Arminianism, as may be read in history, and is remembered by old men; and that now for a long time there hath been no talk, no fear of it; as if Arminianism were dead and buried, and no man knows where its grave is? Is not the true reason to be found in its universal prevailing in the nation?

But that which concerneth our case, is, that the middle way betwixt the Arminians and the Orthodox, had been espoused, and strenuously defended and promoted by some Nonconformists, of great note for piety and parts

A VINDICATION OF THE PROTESTANT DOCTRINE CONCERNING JUSTIFICATION

In short, Baxter’s view, explicitly drawing from Arminian views of the atonement, had gained dominance. James Renihan, referencing the work of C.F. Allison, notes

Baxter must be viewed as the logical culmination of a process, gaining momentum in the 1640s and led by several highly significant Church of England authors, who moved away from a doctrine of justification based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as its formal cause, to one incorporating human works. The broader context of theological ferment indicates that Baxter was hardly an anomaly – he was in fact part of a growing movement.

Elaborating on this theological shift, referring to it as the “new divinity,” Traill notes:

If we say that faith in Jesus Christ is neither work, nor condition, nor qualification, in justification, but is a mere instrument, receiving (as an empty hand receiveth the freely given alms) the righteousness of Christ; and that, in its very act, it is a renouncing of all things but the gift of grace: the fire is kindled. So that it is come to that, as Mr. Christopher Fowler said, “that he that will not be Antichristian must be called an Antinomian.” Is there a minister in London who did not preach, some twenty, some thirty years ago, according to their standing, that same doctrine now by some called Antinomian? Let not Dr. Crisp’s book be looked upon as the standard of our doctrine. There are many good things in it, and also many expressions in it that we generally dislike. It is true that Mr. Burgess and Mr. Rutherford wrote against Antinomianism, and against some that were both Antinomians and Arminians. And it is no less true that they wrote against the Arminians, and did hate the new scheme of divinity, so much now contended for, and to which we owe all our present contentions. I am persuaded, that if these godly and sound divines were on the present stage, they would be as ready to draw their pens against two books lately printed against Dr. Crisp, as ever they were ready to write against the doctor’s book. Truth is to be defended by truth; but error is often and unhappily opposed by error under truth’s name.

Traill notes that the issue is not about Crisp’s writings per se. They disagreed with him on many points. The issue was the doctrine of justification by faith alone and its relation to the covenant of grace. In this regard, Benjamin Keach said “‘Tis a hard case that any of those who maintain the old doctrine of justification should be branded with the black name of Antinomians. As for my part, if Dr. Crisp be not misrepresented by his opposers, I’m not of him in several respects, but I had rather erre on their side, who strive to exalt wholly the Free Grace of God, than on theirs, who seek to darken it and magnifie the Power of the Creature.” Arnold notes that “Other theologians who were branded as Crispians included the Particular Baptists Hanserd Knollys (1599?-1691) and Thomas Edwards (d. 1699).” Note that John Gill was a successor to Keach’s pastorate when he re-published Crisp’s sermons in 1791.

Traill continues the emphasis on the unconditional covenant of grace:

But, on the other hand, we glory in any name of reproach (as the honourable reproach of Christ) that is cast upon us for asserting the absolute boundless freedom of the grace of God, which excludes all merit, and everything like it; the absoluteness of the covenant of grace, (for the covenant of redemption was plainly and strictly a conditional one, and the noblest of all conditions was in it. The Son of God’s taking on him man’s nature, and offering it in sacrifice, was the strict condition of all the glory and reward promised to Christ and his seed, Isaiah 53:10, 11), wherein all things are freely promised, and that faith that is required for sealing a man’s interest in the covenant is promised in it, and wrought by the grace of it (Eph. 2:8).

A VINDICATION OF THE PROTESTANT DOCTRINE CONCERNING JUSTIFICATION

Isaac Chauncy, a successor to Owen’s pastorate, was the primary proponent of the Congregationalists:

[faith and repentance] belong to the promise … and therefore are no Conditions; they are benefits … And therefore Pardon is not promised to Faith and Repentance, as things distinct from the Promise; but Pardon is promised together with Faith and Repentance to the Sinner.

Neonomianism Unmask’d: Or, The Ancient Gospel Pleaded Against the Other, called, The New Law

What is worth noting is that by this time, Antinomianism had become readily equated with justification by faith alone while the Neonomians readily owned justification by faith and works. David Williams, the leading Presbyterian proponent arguing against the Congregationalists, notes that “the Debate is about the Instrument of Donation” and says:

Obj. But sure there is a vast difference be∣tween those who think we are justified by Faith only, and those who think we are justified by Works as well as by Faith.

Answ. 1. Not so very great; when both mean that we are justified neither by Faith nor Works, as the word justified is commonly taken: for both agree that we are absolved, accepted as righteous, and entitled to eternal Life only for Christ’s Death and Obedience, as the only meriting, satisfactory and atoning Righteousness.

An End to Discord

Witsius the Mediator

D. Patrick Ramsey explains how the two groups called upon Witsius to mediate between them in an effort to resolve the issue. Witsius criticizes various points from each side and then attempts to emphasize their common ground. Worth noting, however, are his comments on the principle of “Do this and live.”

At first, Witsius seems to agree with the Congregationalists, to a degree.

The law of works is that which demands works to be done by man himself, as the condition of life, or the cause of claiming the reward: the tenor of which is this, The man who doeth these things shall live in them, Rom. 10:5. Such a law was given to Adam of old, who, if he had persevered in his integrity, would have obtained a right to eternal life by his works of righteousness.

The same doctrine Moses repeated in his ministry. For he also inculcated the same precepts upon which the covenant of works had been built: he both repeated the same solemn saying, He who doeth these things shall live in them, Lev 18:5 and also added another, Cursed be he who shall not perform the words of this law in doing them, Deut 27:26. That this is the curse of the law, as it stands opposed to the covenant of grace, Paul teacheth, Gal 3:10, which, however, is not so to be understood, as if God had intended, by the ministry of Moses, to make a new covenant of works with Israel, with a view to obtain righteousness and salvation by such a covenant. But that repetition of the covenant of works was designed to convince the Israelites of their sin and misery, to drive them out of themselves, to teach them the necessity of satisfaction, and to compel them to cleave to Christ: and thus it was subservient to the covenant of grace, Rom 10:4.

Conciliatory or irenical animadversions on the controversies agitated in Britain : under the unhappy names of antinomians and neonomians, 86-87

However, his words have to be carefully understood. He did not agree with the Congregationalists that the Mosaic Covenant itself operated upon a works principle. Instead, he said Leviticus 18:5 was a proclamation of the law of works separate from the Mosaic Covenant, intended to convict Israelites of their sin and drive them to Christ. The Mosaic Covenant itself, according to Witsius, operated upon the principle of faith, or rather, sincere obedience flowing from faith. Witsius did not believe it was formally the Covenant of Works (because it required sincere, not perfect obedience) or the Covenant of Grace (because it did not provide the work of the Spirit to produce the sincere obedience it required).

What was it then? It was a national covenant between God and Israel, whereby Israel promised to God a sincere obedience to all his precepts, especially to the ten words; God, on the other hand, promised to Israel, that such an observance would be acceptable to him, nor want its reward, both in this life, and in that which is to come, both as to soul and body. This reciprocal promise supposed a covenant of grace. For, without the assistance of the covenant Of grace, man cannot sincerely promise that observance; and yet that an imperfect observance should be acceptable to God is wholly owing to the covenant of grace, It also supposed the doctrine of the covenant of works, the terror or which being increased by those tremendous signs that attended it, they ought to have been excited to embrace that covenant of God. This agreement therefore is a consequent both of the covenant of grace and of works; but was formally neither the one nor the other. A like agreement and renewal of the covenant between God and the pious is frequent; both national and individual. Of the former see Josh. xxiv. 22. 2 Chron. xv. 12. 2 Kings xxiii. 3. Neh. x. 29. Of the latter, Psal. cxix. 106. It is certain, that in the passages we have named, mention is made of some covenant between God and his people. If any should ask me, of what kind, whether of works or of grace? I shall answer, it is formally neither: but a covenant of sincere piety, which supposes both.

The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man

Commenting on this two centuries later, A. W. Pink notes

Herman Witsius took the view that the Sinaitic compact was neither, formally, the covenant of grace nor the covenant of works, but a national covenant which presupposed them both, and that it promised “not only temporal blessings . . . but also spiritual and eternal.” So far so good. But when he states (bk. 4, sec. 4, par. 43-45) that the condition of this covenant was “a sincere, though not, in every respect, a perfect obedience of His commands,” we certainly cannot agree. Witsius held that the Sinaitic covenant differed from the covenant of works—which made no provision or allowance for the acceptance of a sincere though imperfect obedience; and that it differed from the covenant of grace, since it contained no promises of strength to enable Israel to render that obedience. Though plausible, his position is not only erroneous but highly dangerous. God never promised eternal life to men on the condition of an imperfect but sincere obedience—that would overthrow the whole argument of Romans and Galatians.

-The Divine Covenants

While Witsius does not agree with Baxter on numerous points, including his view of justification by faith and works, his view of the Mosaic Covenant certainly sounds very similar to Baxter’s view of the New Covenant. With this in mind, Witsius seeks to address “the utility of holiness.”

We must accurately distinguish between a right to life, and the possession of life. The former must so be assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded. But certainly our works, or rather these, which the Spirit of Christ worketh in us, and by us, contribute something to the latter…

Neither because Christ is the way to life, is the practice of Christian piety therefore not the way to life. Christ is the way to life, because he purchased us a right to life. The practice of Christian piety is the way to life, because thereby we go to the possession of the right obtained by Christ…

In fine, it is not inconsistent to do something from this principle, because we live, and to the end, that we may live. No man eats indeed but he lives, but he also eats that he may live. We both can and ought to act in a holy manner, because we are quickened by the Spirit of God. But we must also act in the same manner, that that life may be preserved in us, may increase, and at last terminate in an uninterrupted and eternal life. Moses said excellently of old, Deut 30: 19,20 “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that i have set life and death before you: therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, in loving the Lord they God, obeying his voice, and cleaving unto him, for he is they life.” Deut 8:1 “Observe to do, that ye may live.” And 30:6 “The Lord they God will circumcise thine heart to love the Lord thy God, that thou mayest live.” Truly these speeches are not legal, but evangelical.

Conciliatory or irenical animadversions on the controversies agitated in Britain : under the unhappy names of antinomians and neonomians, 161-163

First, despite Witsius’ claim, it is inconsistent to say that Christ has purchased our life and that we have to work for it. Second, notice that Witsius seeks to prove this point by quoting from the Mosaic Covenant. Now, ask yourself, what is the difference between “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live” (Deut 8:1), and “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them” (Lev 18:5)? There is no difference. It’s stating the same thing. But Witsius says one is referring to the covenant of works and is thus a “legal” statement of the principle while the other refers to the gospel and is therefore an “evangelical” statement of the same principle.

The problem is that it’s the exact same principle. Witsius confused the role of our works in possessing eternal life because he confused the Mosaic Covenant principle of works. Because of this, Witsius is in agreement with what Baxter says about “Do this and live.”

Why Congregationalists?

Certainly many different reasons could be given for the abandonment of the gospel during this time, but a glaring question is why the debate became divided along denominational lines. What on earth does hierarchy in church government have to do with justification by faith alone?

5 members of the Westminster Assembly were Congregationalists (the Five Dissenting Brethren). They wrote An Apologetical Narration in which they said “we do professedly judge the Calvinian Reformed Churches of the first reformation from out of Popery, to stand in need of a further reformation themselves. And it may without prejudice to them, or the imputation of Schism in us from them, be thought, that they coming new out of Popery (as well as England) and the founders of that reformation not having Apostolic infallibility, might not be fully perfect the first day.” In other words, Presbyterians still had to shake off Rome’s influence.

During the Assembly debate, they argued that we cannot look to Israel and the Old Covenant as a foundation for church government because in the Old Covenant there was a mixture of church and state. If we follow the New Testament pattern, we see churches organized by voluntary congregations of visible saints called out of the world. The Presbyterians pointed out that if the Jewish model of the church is given up, paedobaptism goes with it. But the Congregationalists did not budge.

In light of this, the Westminster Confession holds that the Old Covenant and the New Covenant are the same covenant (the covenant of grace). Therefore Westminster interpreted the Mosaic law as graciously given as a rule of righteousness, and not as a covenant of works (19.1-2). Thus Lev 18:5 was interpreted as consistent with a gospel command.

Congregationalists, on the other hand, not holding to the same commitment on the Old Covenant, removed “as such” in 19.2, thus opening the door to allow the Mosaic law to have been given as a covenant of works – which is precisely the view articulated in Petto, Owen, and others. Therefore Lev 18:5 could be properly understood as enunciating the works principle of the Covenant of Works, not as a gospel command.

Furthermore, because the Congregationalists were not committed to Westminster’s view of the Old and New Covenant as the same covenant, they were free to contrast the question of conditionality between the two covenants, which is precisely what Petto and Owen did. In whatever way Westminster theologians might say the covenant of grace was unconditional, that had to be qualified with the fact that it was also conditional and had covenant breakers, according to the Old Covenant. Congregationalists had no such restraint, and thus they strongly proclaimed the unbreakable nature of the absolute, unconditional promises made to every member of the New Covenant.

Owen recognized this was a point of departure from Westminster and the reformed, which is why he says in his exposition of Hebrews 8 that he sides with the Lutherans on the question of the Old Covenant and rejects the opinion of the reformed divines. Yes, those same Lutherans that some reformed men mock for their emphasis on the law/gospel antithesis. Robert Traill noted:

Let us carefully keep the bounds clear betwixt the law and gospel, which, “whosoever doth, is a right perfect divine,” saith blessed Luther, in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians,—a book that hath more plain sound gospel than many volumes of some other divines. Let us keep the law as far from the business of justification as we would keep condemnation, its contrary; for the law and condemnation are inseparable, but by the intervention of Jesus Christ our surety (Gal. 3:10-14).

In this regard, it is disappointing to see historians unwilling to acknowledge the real differences between Presbyterian and Congregational covenant theology. In a foreword to Petto’s book, Mark Jones does his best to obliterate the very point of Petto’s book:

The history of Reformed covenant theology has not always been well understood. Richard Greaves refers to Petto, as well as Owen, Goodwin, and Ussher, as “strict Calvinists” who belong to one of three different groups in the covenant tradition. Greaves mistakenly posits a tension between the Calvin-Perkins-Ames tradition, which supposedly distinguished itself by promulgating an unconditional character to the covenant of grace, and the Zwingli-Bullinger-Tyndale tradition, which is characterized by the conditional nature of the covenant of grace. Graves is wrong to place these two groups in tension with one another. The truth is that both ‘groups’ understood the covenant of grace as having conditions; namely, faith and obedience. However, because the faith and obedience that is required in the covenant of grace is the “gift of God” it may also be said that the covenant of grace is some sense unconditional. These nuances have often been missing in the twentieth-century historiography.

It’s worth reading material from Jones very carefully (don’t take his word for it).

(Note: Read Baxter’s comments about the Savoy Declaration’s additions to 11.1, which further strengthened justification by faith alone)

Conclusion

Long story short, do not try to understand debate over justification and the place of our good works apart from understanding the underlying covenant theology. First, find out what a person believes about the Covenant of Works (many “reformed” today deny its substance). Second, find out how they interpret Leviticus 18:5 and Paul’s use of it in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12 (as well as all the echoes of it throughout the OT). Those two things will clear away just about all of the debate & confusion. Find out where you stand on those and you will find out where you stand on the role of good works.

With this in mind, it is no surprise that debate amongst Presbyterians today regarding the abandonment of justification by faith alone is focusing in on debate over the interpretation of Leviticus 18:5. The OPC is currently debating in the General Assembly whether Meredith Kline’s interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant as a Covenant of Works is consistent with the Confession’s view that it is the Covenant of Grace (hint: it’s not).

Furthermore, recognize that “the Puritans” are a mixed bag. They do not represent a uniform view, even on the gospel itself. Neither is there a uniform testimony from theologians of the reformed tradition on every point. Some (like the Congregationalists discussed here) worked out the implications of justification by faith alone more consistently and systematically than others who were stunted by their view of the Mosaic Covenant. So don’t rest content with a quote from a reformed theologian. Instead, seek to understand the place of that quote in the covenant structure of the person quoted, and then ask yourself if that position is consistent with what you believe the bible teaches.

And as baptists read books like Jones’ Antinomianism, they need to consider where their particular baptist (congregational) forefathers stood on the issue. As we saw above, Keach said he would side with Crispe and the “Antinomians.” In the intro to his The Covenant of Peace Opened, he notes “By the Baxterian Party I expect to be called an Antinomian, for that hath been their Artifice of late, to expose the True Ancient Protestant Doctrine about Justification.” Two first generation particular baptists, William Kiffin and Samuel Richardson, were in even stronger agreement with Crispe. Do your due diligence before coming to a conclusion.

Further Reading

John Gill: Good Works Necessary for Salvation?

October 13, 2015 2 comments

John Gill faced a controversy in his day (as Christians have faced in every generation) as to whether or not good works are necessary for salvation. He had a quite clear answer.

It may be proper next to inquire what is the meaning of the word necessary, and in what sense good works are so. That they are necessary to be done, or ought to be done, by all that hope to be saved by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is readily granted; but not in point of salvation, in order to that, or with a view to obtain it…

True indeed, I cannot say that good works are necessary to salvation, that is to obtain it; which is the only sense in which they can be said with any propriety to be necessary to it, or in which such a proposition can be understood; and which I charge as a Popish and Socinian tenet, and hope I shall ever oppose, as long as I a have tongue to speak, or a pen to write with, and am capable of using either…

Nor, lastly, are they necessary to the consummate enjoyment of salvation in heaven, no, not as the antecedent to the consequent; that is, as an antecedent cause to a consequent effect, which is the easy, common and natural sense of the phrase; for who can hear of an antecedent to a consequent, unless by way of illation, but must at once conceive of that consequent as an effect depending upon the antecedent as a cause? Wherefore if good works are antecedent to glorification as a consequent, then glorification must be, and will be considered as an effect depending upon good works as its cause.

And as it will be difficult to fix any other sense upon the phrase, and persons are and will be naturally led so to conceive of it, this, and this alone, is a sufficient reason why it ought to be rejected and disused

I readily own, that good works are necessary to be performed by all that are walking in the way to heaven, and expect to be saved by Christ, and glorified with him, who are either capable or have an opportunity of performing them; but then they are not necessary as causes, conditions, or means of procuring glory and happiness for them; nor are they necessary as the antecedent to the consequent, to pave their way to heaven, to prepared and make them meet for it; or to put them into the possession of it…

THE NECESSITY OF GOOD WORKS UNTO SALVATION, CONSIDERED: OCCASIONED BY SOME Reflections and Misrepresentations of Dr. Abraham Taylor, in a Pamphlet of his lately published, called, An Address to young Students in Divinity, by way of Caution against some Paradoxes, which lead to Doctrinal Antinomianism.

Note that Gill’s position is charged with Antinomianism.

One of Gill’s points is that regardless of how much a theologian tries to qualify his use of the phrase, it should be avoided because of what it inevitably communicates to those who hear it. He mentions that Melanchthon faced this issue in his day in what is called the Majoristic Controversy.

This was occasioned by George Major (1502-74), professor at the University of Wittenberg. Major taught that “good works are necessary to salvation” and that “it is impossible for a man to be saved without good works.” He was attacked especially by Matthias Flacius.* Before this, Flacius had attacked Major because he had subscribed to the Augsburg Interim* (1548) in which the sola had been omitted in the phrase “sola fide justificamur.” In the controversy Justus Menius sided with Major, both of them contending that faith alone justifies, but that faith is not present without confessing and persevering. In the seven propositions of the Synod of Eisenach (1556), Menius repudiated the proposition “good works are necessary to salvation.” Major maintained that “good works are necessary.” Nicholas von Amsdorf* opposed Major, saying “good works are harmful to salvation.” Article IV of the Formula of Concord* (1577) repudiated both Amsdorf and Major, teaching that good works should be excluded from the question concerning salvation and the article about justification, but that regenerate man is bound to do good works.

https://www.biblicaltraining.org/library/majoristic-controversy

Gill explains:

The first among the reformed divines that vented it, was George Major, contemporary and familiar with Luther and Melancthon: He has been represented by some, from whom one should not have expected to have had such a character of him on this account, as satelles Romani Pontificis, a person employed by the Pope of Rome; a tool of the Popish party to create divisions and disturbances among the Reformed. The Papists finding they could not maintain with success their notion, that good works were meritorious of salvation, instead of the phrase, meritorious of salvation, substituted the other phrase, necessary to salvation, as being a softer one, in order to gain upon incautious minds; when one and the same thing were designed by both. And this man was thought to be the instrument they made use of for this purpose. But however this be, certain it is, that the broaching of this doctrine by him gave great offence, and occasioned much disturbance. The writer of his Life intimates, that the consequences of it gave Major himself some concern; and that he declared in so many words, that “whereas he saw that some were offended, for the future he would no more make use of that proposition.” Among the chief of his opposers was Nicolaus Amsdorfius, who in great heat and zeal asserted, in contradiction to Major’s notion, that “good works were hurtful and dangerous to salvation ;” a position not to be defended unless when good works are put in the room of Christ, and are trusted to for salvation: But it is not doing of them, that is or can be hurtful to salvation, but depending on them when done. This controversy raised great troubles in the churches and gave Melancthon a good deal of uneasiness; who at first was ensnared into the use of the phrase, though he afterwards rejected it, as improper and dangerous. Amsdorfius did not deny that good works were to be done, but could not be prevailed upon to own that they were necessary. Melancthon at length allowed that “good works were not necessary to salvation;” nor did he dare to assert it: “For these reasons,” says he, “we teach that good works; or new obedience, are necessary; yet this must not by any means be tacked to it, that good works are necessary to obtain salvation and eternal life.” In his answer to the pastors of Saxony, he has these words: “Nevertheless, let us not use this phrase, good works are necessary to salvation.” And, in another place, “Verily I say, that I do not make use of this phrase, good works are necessary to salvation; but I affirm, that these propositions are true, and properly and without sophistry thus to be declared; new obedience is necessary, or good works are necessary; because obedience is due to God, according to that saying, Debtors we are.” Now these were the sentiments, and which are exactly ours of the great Melancthon, that peaceable man, who never was charged within running into extremes in controversy; his greatest fault, and which has been complained of by some of his friends, who have had a great regard to him and hi is memory, was, that he was for composing differences, almost at any rate, sometimes, as was thought, to the injury of truth, and with the hazard of losing it.

The Formula of Concord addressed the Majoristic Controversy:

1] A disagreement has also occurred among the theologians of the Augsburg Confession concerning good works, one part employing the following words and manner in speaking of them: Good works are necessary for salvation; it is impossible to be saved without good works; likewise, no one has been saved without good works; because, they say, good works are required of true believers as fruits of faith, and faith without love is dead, although such love is no cause of salvation.

2] The other part, however, contended, on the contrary, that good works are indeed necessary; however, not for salvation, but for other reasons; and that on this account the aforecited propositiones, or expressions, which have been used (as they are not in accord with the form of sound doctrine and with the Word, and have been always and are still set by the Papists in opposition to the doctrine of our Christian faith, in which we confess that faith alone justifies and saves) are not to be tolerated in the Church, in order that the merit of Christ, our Savior, be not diminished, and the promise of salvation may be and remain firm and certain to believers…

22] But here we must be well on our guard lest works are drawn and mingled into the article of justification and salvation. Therefore the propositions are justly rejected, that to believers good works are necessary for salvation, so that it is impossible to be saved without good works. For they are directly contrary to the doctrine de particulis exclusivis in articulo iustificationis et salvationis (concerning the exclusive particles in the article of justification and salvation), that is, they conflict with the words by which St. Paul has entirely excluded our works and merits from the article of justification and salvation, and ascribed everything to the grace of God and the merit of Christ alone, as explained in the preceding article. 23] Again, they [these propositions concerning the necessity of good works for salvation] take from afflicted, troubled consciences the comfort of the Gospel, give occasion for doubt, are in many ways dangerous, strengthen presumption in one’s own righteousness and confidence in one’s own works; besides, they are accepted by the Papists, and in their interest adduced against the pure doctrine of the alone-saving faith. 24] Moreover, they are contrary to the form of sound words, as it is written that blessedness is only of the man unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Rom. 4:6. Likewise, in the Sixth Article of the Augsburg Confession it is written that we are saved without works, by faith alone. Thus Dr. Luther, too, has rejected and condemned these propositions…

29] Accordingly, and for the reasons now enumerated, it is justly to remain settled in our churches, namely, that the aforesaid modes of speech should not be taught, defended, or excused, but be thrown out of our churches and repudiated as false and incorrect

http://bookofconcord.org/sd-goodworks.php

(Note that the Formula fully affirms the third use of the law).

New Covenant Union as Mystical Union in Owen

October 9, 2015 32 comments

Throughout church history, whenever justification by belief alone is proclaimed the charge of “legal fiction” is heard. God cannot declare someone righteous who has nothing righteous within himself. This false theology will take a variety of forms, but the recurring theme is that we are made righteous by what Christ does in us, not declared righteous because of what Christ did for us. Modern proponents of this view take the form of N.T. Wright and NPP or Federal Vision, for example.

The response is to emphasize the priority of what Christ does outside of us as the foundation of the gospel. This often takes the form of giving priority to justification over sanctification, or even saying that justification is the source or cause of sanctification. For example, John Robbins argues:

Our own consciences demand justice and cannot be pacified unless God’s fellowship with us is grounded on justice… Sanctification is living a life of fellowship with God. Justification is its legal basis, and without justification no fellowship with a holy God can exist… There is a direct relationship between the guilt of sin and the power of sin. If the guilt of sin is removed, the power of sin is broken. This is Paul’s point in Romans 6:14…

The way of justification by faith alone is the only way of receiving the Spirit of God. To be justified means to be declared righteous. It means that God not only regards us as righteous, but also can proceed to treat us as righteous. How does he treat the forgiven sinner as righteous? By giving him the gift of the Holy Spirit. Nothing more and nothing less than perfect righteousness is necessary for the outpouring of God’s Spirit. As every believer has this perfect righteousness imputed to him, he may on this one infallible basis have the Holy Spirit imparted to him.

The Relationship between Justification and Sanctification

The obvious problem, however, is that we are not justified until we believe, and we do not believe until we have been born again by the Spirit. Therefore our justification cannot be the cause of what God does in us, and in fact, our justification must be, in some way, dependent upon what God does in us.

Active & Passive Justification

This is nothing new. It has been an ongoing dilemma. In his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus explains:

IV. WHAT IS OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS BEFORE GOD?

The righteousness with which we are here justified before God, is not our conformity with the law, nor our good works, nor our faith; but it is the satisfaction which Christ rendered to the law in our stead…

V. HOW DOES THE SATISFACTION OF CHRIST BECOME OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS, SEEING THAT IT IS WITHOUT US?

At first view it seems absurd that we should be justified by any thing without us, or by something that belongs to another. It is necessary, therefore, that we should explain more fully how the satisfaction, or obedience of Christ becomes ours; for unless it be made ours, or be applied unto us, we cannot be justified by it, just as little as a wall can be white, if whiteness be not applied, or fixed upon it. We remark, then, that there are two ways in which the satisfaction of Christ is made over unto us: 1. God himself applies it unto us, that is, he makes the righteousness of Christ over unto us, and accepts of us as righteous on account of it, as if it were ours. 2. We apply it also unto ourselves when we receive the righteousness of Christ through faith, that is, we rest assured that God will grant it unto us, that he will regard us as righteous on account of it, and that he will free us from all guilt. There is, therefore, a double application; one in respect to God, and another in respect to us. The former is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, when God accepts of that righteousness which Christ wrought out, that it might avail in our behalf, and accounts us as righteous in view of it, as much so as if we had never sinned, or had at least fully satisfied for our sins. The other side of this application which has respect to us, is the act itself of believing, in which we are fully persuaded that it is imputed and given unto us. Both sides of this application must necessarily concur in our justification; for God applies the righteousness of Christ unto us upon the condition, that we also apply the same unto ourselves by faith. For although any one were to offer another a benefit, yet if he to whom it is offered does not accept of it, it is not applied unto him, and so does not become his. Hence without this last application the former is of no account. And yet our application of the righteousness of Christ is from God; for he first imputes it unto us, and then works faith in us, by which we apply unto ourselves that which is imputed; from which it appears that the application of God precedes that which we make, (which is of faith) and is the cause of it, although it is not without ours, as Christ says, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” (John 15:16)

This became known as the difference between active and passive justification and can be seen in various reformed theologians through history, with Berkhof providing a clear recent example:

This [objective/active justification] is justification in the most fundamental sense of the word. It is basic to what is called subjective justification, and consists in a declaration which God makes respecting the sinner, and this declaration is made in the tribunal of God. This declaration is not a declaration in which God simply acquits the sinner, without taking any account of the claims of justice, but is rather a divine declaration that, in the case of the sinner under consideration, the demands of the law are met. The sinner is declared righteous in view of the fact that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to him. In this transaction God appears, not as an absolute Sovereign who simply sets the law aside, but as a righteous Judge, who acknowledges the infinite merits of Christ as a sufficient basis for justification, and as a gracious Father, who freely forgives and accepts the sinner. This active justification logically precedes faith and passive justification. We believe the forgiveness of sins…

Passive or subjective justification takes place in the heart or conscience of the sinner… When the Bible speaks of justification, it usually refers to what is known as passive justification. It should be borne in mind, however, that the two cannot be separated. The one is based on the other. The distinction is simply made to facilitate the proper understanding of the act of justification. Logically, passive justification follows faith; we are justified by faith.

Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 517

Eternal Justification

This position lends itself very readily to the idea of eternal justification. Since God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4), and active justification occurs in God’s tribunal and precedes our faith, then we must have been justified from all eternity. Our subjective justification is merely our believing/realizing this to be true. Tobias Crisp (17th century) argued:

A man is justified, and that by Christ alone, but it is not known to him, it is an unseen thing. Well, how shall he see this, and know that it is so? The Text saith, Faith is an evidence, Faith gives evidence to this thing, Faith makes it known, by Faith we come to apprehend it… he is first justified before he believes, then he believes that he is justified.*

Christ Alone Exalted: The New Covenant of Free Grace

First generation particular baptist William Kiffin agreed. In a foreword to fellow particular baptist Samuel Richardson’s Justification by Christ Alone (1647; these two men were signatories of the First London Baptist Confession, and likely had a hand in editing it), Kiffin said:

[T]here is an aptness in men to miscarry in the knowledge of this rich grace of God. Some being apt to conceive that there is no Justification of a creature in no sense before and without faith, and so make Faith a joint-partner with Christ in the business of Justification… That the Scripture holds forth justification by faith in a sense is very clear, but yet under no other consideration, but by way of evidence, Heb. 11:1, 2.

In the essay, Richardson argues

[T]he elect were ever in the love of God, and did ever so appear to Him as just and righteous in and by Christ… Justification in the conscience is not justification itself, but only the knowledge of it. It is necessary to our comfort. Justification depends not upon our knowledge of it, nor assurance of it.

18th century particular baptist John Gill republished Tobias’ sermons in 1791 with explanatory notes throughout. Gill adds the following note to the previous quote:

*Justification before faith, though caviled at by many, is certain; since God justifies the ungodly, and since faith is the fruit and effect of justification, and the act which is conversant about it, and the object must be before the act; and besides justification took place at the resurrection of Christ; yea, from all eternity, as soon as he became the surety of his people; and which has been embraced, affirmed, and defended by Divines of the greatest note for orthodoxy and piety, as Twisse, Pembla, Parker, Goodwin, Ames, Witsius, Maccovius, and others. (See my Doctrine of Justification, p. 36-38, 42-47, 50, 54).

Because this was a point of dispute, the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith addresses it very clearly (with the Savoy and LBCF following it):

God did, from all eternity, decree to justify the elect; and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins and rise again for their justification; nevertheless they are not justified until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them. (XI.4)

(On a personal note, this paragraph in the Confession helped pull me back from embracing eternal justification several years ago.)

Justified at the Cross?

Note Gill’s mention of justification at the cross. The Confession identifies three key points in time: 1) God’s decree 2) Christ’s satisfaction 3) our regeneration and faith. This is typically referred to as decretal union (Eph 1:4), federal/legal union (Romans 6:6), and vital/mystical union (1 Cor 6:17).

Gill’s argument is not easy to refute. Anyone recognizing the biblical truth that Christ’s death was a penal substitutionary atonement limited to the elect has to wrestle with the implication that we were justified at the cross (also here and here), or more specifically, as Gill says, at Christ’s resurrection (which was God’s declaration of Christ’s successful obedience/fulfillment of his covenant). In fact, neonomian Richard Baxter accused Owen, and thus orthodox reformed theology, of necessarily teaching eternal justification because of his doctrine of limited atonement.

Samuel Richardson’s essay was actually arguing that we are justified at the cross.

The time when He washed their sins away, which was then when He shed His blood…

The sum of all is, that Jesus Christ, by once offering the Sacrifice of Himself when He was upon the cross, took away, put to an end, blotted out and utterly destroyed all the sins of His people for ever, and presented them just, righteous and holy, without spot, before God…

All The Elect Were Made This Way Upon the Cross. All the elect were made these by Christ upon the Cross. Therefore, they were then justified. They were justified before they believed…

The material and instrumental cause is Jesus Christ by His death, in dying for us…

We say the same; only the difference betwixt us is, when the time of Justification is. It seems by your discourse that you judge that time to be after we believe. We judge that we were justified by Christ upon the Cross…

Objection: Evermore say the godly learned Schoolmen (we call not the Papists in) put a difference between God’s decree, and the execution of it. Answer: So do we, but not because they say so: if the Scriptures be clear, why call you in any at all, we will not believe men: therefore spare that labor when you write again. We do not say, we were actually justified from all eternity; we say we were in the knowledge and love of God from all eternity: we say we were actually justified in time when Christ upon the Cross presented us holy to God without spot, etc., Eph. 5:27.

Owen’s Solution

How did Owen resolve this extremely knotty issue that has perplexed reformed theologians from the beginning, and continues to today? One of the best things I have read on this issue is a paper written by Matthew W. Mason titled The Significance of the Systematic and Polemical Function of Union with Christ in John Owen’s Contribution to Seventeenth Century Debates Concerning Eternal Justification. I highly recommend reading it to unpack the details of what I will touch on.

Owen affirms these three basic stages of our relationship to Christ, but he nuances them very carefully, arguing that the union is truly the third, mystical union:

The principal foundation [of the imputation of sin to Christ] hereof is, — that Christ and the church, in this design, were one mystical person; which state they do actually coalesce into, through the uniting efficacy of the Holy Spirit. He is the head, and believers are the members of that one person, as the apostle declares, 1 Corinthians 12:12,13. Hence, as what he did is imputed unto them, as if done by them; so what they deserved on the account of sin was charged upon him.

-The Doctrine of Justification (PDF 232)

Note that Gill says “from all eternity, as soon as he became the surety of his people.” In Chapter 8 of The Doctrine of Justification, Owen discuses at length the nature of Christ’s suretyship and how it relates to union, and thus imputation. “This, then, I say, is the foundation of the imputation of the sins of the church unto Christ, — namely, that he and it are one person; the grounds whereof we must inquire into.” (235) He then lists the various ways Scripture refers to this union: husband and wife (Eph 5:25-32), head and members of a natural body (1 Cor 12:12), political head (Eph 4:15; Col 2:19), vine and branches (John 15:1-2), Adam’s federal headship (Romans 5:12). He concludes “And the Holy Ghost, by representing the union that is between Christ and believers by such a variety of resemblances, in things agreeing only in the common or general notion of union, on various grounds, does sufficiently manifest that it is not of, nor can be reduced unto, any one kind of them.” (236)

Owen notes that “The first spring or cause of this union, and of all the other causes of it, lies in that eternal compact that was between the Father and the Son concerning the recovery and salvation of fallen mankind.” Notice he does not call this itself our union with Christ, but rather the first spring or cause of that union. He continues:

[6.] On these foundations he undertook to be the surety of the new covenant, Hebrews 7:22, “Jesus was made a surety of a better testament.” This alone, of all the fundamental considerations of the imputation of our sins unto Christ, I shall insist upon, on purpose to obviate or remove some mistakes about the nature of his suretiship, and the respect of it unto the covenant whereof he was the surety. And I shall borrow what I shall offer hereon from our exposition of this passage of the apostle in the seventh chapter of this epistle, not yet published, with very little variation from what I have discoursed on that occasion, without the least respect unto, or prospect of, any treating on our present subject. (238-39)

Owen analyzes the lexical meaning of surety in both Greek and Hebrew and concludes:

bræ[; originally signifies to mingle, or a mixture of any things or persons; and thence, from the conjunction and mixture is between a surety and him for whom he is a surety, whereby they coalesce into one person, as unto the ends of that suretiship, it is used for a surety, or to give surety. And he that was or did bræ[;, a surety, or become a surety, was to answer for him for whom he was so, whatsoever befell him.

And after analyzing various passages (Proverbs 6:1; 17:18; 20:16; 27:13; Neh 5:3; Gen 43:9; 44:32,33; Job 17:3; Philemon 1:18; Is 36:8; Eph 1:4) he concludes “A surety is an undertaker for another, or others, who thereon is justly and legally to answer what is due to them, or from them; nor is the word otherwise used.” (240)

Note: Owen is here explaining that our mystical union with Christ, whereby we coalesce into one person, is a legal union. In doing so, Owen corrects the distinction we saw above between our decretal, legal, and mystical unions. He says the first is the source of our union, but is not itself our union. Mason explains:

In contrast to Crisp and Saltmarsh, he insists that although prior to the cross the elect are beloved, elected, and ordained to eternal life, their actual condition, which they share with all people, remains unchanged by the decree of election alone… God’s eternal purpose is not the same as the mighty act of his power. God’s decrees guarantee the certain futurition of the events decreed, but they do not accomplish their actual existence. In so distinguishing God’s decrees from his actions, Owen stands in the western catholic mainstream…

Owen offers an exegetical argument. Scripture places all humans, prior to faith, in the same condition: guilty and under God’s wrath (citing Rom. 3:9, 19; Eph. 2:3; Jn. 3:36). Commenting on this, he explicitly addresses the claims of advocates of eternal justification: ‘The condition of all in unregeneracy is really one and the same. Those who think it is a mistaken apprehension in the elect to think so, are certainly too much mistaken in that apprehension.’ (45-46)

Owen then combines the second two unions, arguing that the mystical union is our legal union with Christ. But if this second union (legal/covenant) has been used by others to separate our mystical union from Christ’s satisfaction, and thereby separate our justification in time from his satisfaction, how does Owen avoid this problem?

Mason explains:

At the time of Christ’s death, he and the elect are one mystical person, not in the sense that they have already been knit together by the Spirit, but only in the plan and intention of God. As Christ died, God knew for whom he was dying, and so counted their sin to Christ as though they were already one person. Yet, only at the point of faith are the elect actually inserted into Christ’s mystical body; thus, only then is his suffering and obedience imputed to them. In all of this, the integrating factor is the will of God…

Owen, however, acknowledges that full, mystical union occurs at the point of faith. Prior to that, the relationship between Christ and the elect exists in the intention and will of God, but does not exist as an actual union. (48-49)

Owen:

The imputation of sin unto Christ was antecedent unto any real union between him and sinners, whereon he took their sin on him as he would, and for what ends he would; but the imputation of his righteousness unto believers is consequential in order of nature unto their union with him, whereby it becomes theirs in a peculiar manner; (V, 449)

Owen explains this by distinguishing between the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace.

But yet some will not distinguish between the covenant of the mediator and the covenant of grace, because the promises of the covenant absolutely are said to be made to Christ, Galatians 3:16; and he is the prw~ton dektiko>n, or first subject of all the grace of it. But in the covenant of the mediator, Christ stands alone for himself, and undertakes for himself alone, and not as the representative of the church; but this he is in the covenant of grace. (V, 251)

In dying on the cross, Christ was fulfilling the Covenant of Redemption agreement with the Father (and thereby purchasing his people), but he is not the federal head of the church in the Covenant of Redemption. He is the federal head of the church in the Covenant of Grace. Mason explains:

According to Owen, although God’s will toward the elect was not changed upon the death of Christ, for he is immutable, Christ’s death nevertheless changed the status of the elect. On the basis of Christ’s merit, founded on God’s free engagement in the covenant of redemption with his Son, God is obliged to deliver them from the curse ipso facto. Therefore, because of Christ’s satisfaction, God is able to make out the benefits Christ purchased, without any other conditions needing to be fulfilled. In particular, Christ also purchased the condition of the covenant, faith; hence, from the time of the atonement, the elect have an absolute right to justification. Nevertheless, although they have a right to justification, they do not yet have a present enjoyment of it. To establish this, Owen makes a number of distinctions…

[T]here are two different kinds of right to something: ius in re and ius ad rem. Ius in re is the right a father has to his estate: it is a present possession, of which he cannot justly be deprived. Ius ad rem is the right a son has to his father’s estate; he does not yet possess it, but he will do on his father’s death. Upon the death of Christ, the elect do not yet have a right to justification in re. However, they do have a right to justification ad rem and sub termino. Thus, they have an absolute right, with no further conditions required, Christ having done all that is necessary for their justification. Nevertheless, they are not yet in possession; (49-51)

So on the cross, Christ is acting on our behalf, or with us in mind, but he is not yet legally ours as our covenant head, and therefore we do not yet have the benefits of his death. Owen:

No blessing can be given us for Christ’s sake, unless, in order of nature, Christ be first reckoned unto us… God’s reckoning Christ, in our present sense, is the imputing of Christ unto ungodly, unbelieving sinners for whom he died, so far as to account him theirs, and to bestow faith and grace upon them for his sake. This, then, I say, at the accomplishment of the appointed time, the Lord reckons, and accounts, and makes out his Son Christ, to such and such sinners, and for his sake gives them faith, etc. (X, 626-27)

Mason elaborates:

Thus, Christ is, in some sense, given to sinners before they believe, ‘Else why is faith given [to one sinner] at this instant for Christ’s sake, and not to another, for whom he also died?’ Faith, purchased by Christ, is given to the sinner for Christ’s sake, and so Owen ‘cannot conceive how any thing should be made out to me for Christ, and Christ himself not be given to me, he being “made unto us of God, righteousness”, 1 Corinthians 1:30’. Again, ‘That we should be blessed with all spiritual blessings in Christ, and yet Christ not be ours in a peculiar manner before the bestowing of those blessings on us, is somewhat strange. Yea, he must be our Christ before it is given to us for him to believe’. Thus, it seems that for Owen some kind of union with Christ takes place [logically] prior to faith. (52)

Unconditional Covenant of Grace

This view places Owen in a very interesting position. One of Crisp’s arguments for eternal justification was that faith is not a condition of union, but a fruit of it.

faith is not the instrument radically to unite Christ and the Soul together, but rather is the fruit that follows and flows from Christ the root, being united before hand to the person that do believe… Is faith the gift of Christ or no?… Doth Christ beget faith in us by vertue of our being united unto him? and shall this faith beget that union of which it was but a fruit? From whence shall persons that do believe before they are united unto Christ, receive this faith of theirs?

THE ACT OF BELIEVING IS NOT OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS

Mason explains

Crisp argues that John 15:4-5 demonstrates that faith is a fruit of union with Christ, the Vine, and thus must follow union with him. If faith came before union, the branch would bear fruit before being in the Vine, which directly contradicts Christ’s words…

Crisp’s point is simple. Owing to the bondage of the will, no-one can exercise faith in and of themselves. At Calvary, Christ effectually merited salvation for the elect, and this necessarily includes the gift of faith. The elect receive every spiritual blessing in Christ, including the blessing of faith, otherwise whence is faith? Thus, it would seem that, on Crisp’s Reformed assumptions about human inability and the receipt of all blessings in Christ, faith must be a gift of God that follows and rests upon union with Christ. (29)

Much of Crisp’s position was based on the nature of the New Covenant.

For Crisp, the New Covenant is different from other biblical covenants because the others all have stipulations, conditions on both sides. However, on humanity’s side, the New Covenant is entirely unconditional. All conditions having been met in Christ, the justified sinner has no part to play in his salvation, and faith is not the condition of the covenant.

Samuel Richardson agreed with Crisp.

That faith or any thing in us is not a cause, means, or condition, required to partake of the Covenant of Grace, justification or salvation, but only fruits and effects of the Covenant…

If faith be a condition required to partake of the Covenant of Grace, then there is a condition required. The Covenant of Grace is not absolute, nor free. If it be said, “God gives what he requires.” I answer, that makes the condition easy to be performed. But still, if faith be as a condition required, there is a condition. But the Covenant of Grace is absolute and free,and unconditional on our part. And that this appears:

Why The Covenant of Grace Is Absolute And Free Is Seen From Psalms 89:20-28.

1. Because the Covenant of Grace is not made with man, but is only between God and Christ: “Thou spakest in a vision to thy holy One, thou saidst, I have laid help upon one that is mighty, I have exalted one chosen out of the people. My faithfulness and my mercy shall be with him: I will make him my first born, higher than the Kings of the earth. My mercy will I keep for him, my Covenant shall stand fast with him,”i Psal. 89:24, 27, 28. So that all the conditions of the covenant did only belong to Christ to perform; seeing Christ had undertaken it, and he only was engaged to it, and he did it to the utmost, which was, that Christ “should be made a sacrifice for sin, and he should see his seed, and prolong his days: and the pleasure of the Lord should prosper in his hands,” Isa. 53:10,11. See also Psal. 89:35-37…

Faith is a fruit of the Covenant, and a branch of the Covenant, but not a condition on our part to perform.

In response to this, many reformed theologians argued that faith was the condition of the covenant of grace (the condition of entering it).

Faith is the necessary antecedent [prior] condition—the causa sine qua non—of the covenant. Many Antinomians denied that faith was an antecedent condition of the covenant, and thus they held to a personal justification either from eternity or from the time of the death of Christ.

Beeke, Joel R.; Jones, Mark (2012-10-14). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Kindle Locations 12208-12210). . Kindle Edition.

One example is found in Obadiah Sedgwick (1599/1600-1658) “one of the most respected and influential of the English Presbyterians of the seventeenth century. He was a leading member of the Westminster Assembly and took a prominent part in its debates.”

That faith which brings us into the covenant is that faith which doth unite us unto Christ, which makes us one with him: And we being thus united to Christ, we are thereupon, and therefore in the Covenant: Faith considered as justifying, doth not bring us into the Covenant; for our justifying follows our being in the Covenant, we must first be in the Covenant before we can have Righteousnesse and forgiveness of sins. Neither doth faith as drawing any grace from Christ bring us into the Covenant; Forasmuch as all the fruits of communion are consequences unto us being first in the Covenant. But it is faith considered only as uniting us unto Christ which brings us into the Covenant

3. Our interest in the Covenant necessarily follows from this union with Christ. Being brought by faith into Christ, you are now in the Covenant: And that I shall clear unto you thus…

Though Faith be the only condition as to entrance in the Covenant, yet this faith will bring you to holiness as a fruit of the Covenant…

If faith be the condition of the Covenant, If faith be necessary to bring us into the Covenant; Then no unbeliever is yet in the Covenant, for no unbeliever hath faith…

The Bowels of Tender Mercy Sealed in the Everlasting Convenant (185-189)

We saw above that Owen sided with Crisp on the question of faith and union: union logically precedes faith. Where did Owen fall on the question of the conditionality of the covenant? Surprisingly, Owen sided with Crisp.

John Owen (1616–1683) argued that berith could refer to a single promise without a condition, as in the Noahic covenant (Gen. 6:18; 9:9). According to Owen, this idea is no doubt present in the New Testament when the writer to the Hebrews calls the covenant a “testament,” and in a “testamentary dispensation there is not in the nature of it any mutual stipulation required, but only a mere single favor and grant or concession.”

Beeke, Joel R.; Jones, Mark (2012-10-14). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Kindle Locations 12158-12161). . Kindle Edition.

In his exposition of Hebrews 8:10, Owen elaborates. First, we see his agreement with Crisp that the New Covenant is different from other biblical covenants. Owen specifically contrasts the Old Covenant with the New Covenant on the question of conditionality. In doing so, he was consciously rejecting “the opinion of most reformed divines” as articulated in the WCF which sees the Old and New as two administrations of the same Covenant of Grace (for which he gives rigorous argument in his comments on Hebrews 8:6-13).

Wherefore these three verses give us a description of that covenant whereof the Lord Christ is the mediator and surety, not absolutely and entirely, but as unto those properties and effects of it wherein it differs from the former, so as infallibly to secure the covenant relation between God and the people. That covenant was broken, but this shall never be so, because provision is made in the covenant itself against any such event… the covenant which God would now make should not be according unto that, like unto it, which was before made and broken.

He then explains that there are no antecedent conditions of the New Covenant on our part.

[I]n the description of the covenant here annexed, there is no mention of any condition on the part of man, of any terms of obedience prescribed unto him, but the whole consists in free, gratuitous promises…

It is evident that there can be no condition previously required, unto our entering into or participation of the benefits of this covenant, antecedent unto the making of it with us. For none think there are any such with respect unto its original constitution; nor can there be so in respect of its making with us, or our entering into it… It is contrary unto the nature, ends, and express properties of this covenant. For there is nothing that can be thought or supposed to be such a condition, but it is comprehended in the promise of the covenant itself; for all that God requireth in us is proposed as that which himself will effect by virtue of this covenant.

Owen finally states his opinion in words very similar to Crisp.

It is evident that the first grace of the covenant, or God’s putting his law in our hearts, can depend on no condition on our part. For whatever is antecedent thereunto, being only a work or act of corrupted nature, can be no condition whereon the dispensation of spiritual grace is superadded. And this is the great ground of them who absolutely deny the covenant of grace to be conditional; namely, that the first grace is absolutely promised, whereon and its exercise the whole of it doth depend.

Unto a full and complete interest in all the promises of the covenant, faith on our part, from which evangelical repentance is inseparable, is required. But whereas these also are wrought in us by virtue of that promise and grace of the covenant which are absolute, it is a mere strife about words to contend whether they may be called conditions or no. Let it be granted on the one hand, that we cannot have an actual participation of the relative grace of this covenant in adoption and justification, without faith or believing; and on the other, that this faith is wrought in us, given unto us, bestowed upon us, by that grace of the covenant which depends on no condition in us as unto its discriminating administration, and I shall not concern myself what men will call it.

Again:

The covenant of grace, as reduced into the form of a testament, confirmed by the blood of Christ, doth not depend on any condition or qualification in our persons, but on a free grant and donation of God; and so do all the good things prepared in it.

In short, faith is not the condition of entering the covenant, but is rather a fruit of it.

Crisp argued, from this point, for eternal justification because

this union with Christ is not effected in time; rather the elect are united to him from before creation, for although redemption was accomplished in time, the elect were chosen in Christ before time. Therefore, the elect, being united to Christ from eternity past, are justified from eternity past; actual justification is collapsed into the decree of election, and this on the basis of union with Christ. (Mason, 30)

As we saw above, Owen rejects this view of union with Christ. Owen’s solution is that we are mystically united to Christ when the New Covenant (Covenant of Grace) is made with us. And it is not made with us until the effectual call.

Entering the New Covenant

The covenant may be considered as unto the actual application of the grace, benefits, and privileges of it unto any personal whereby they are made real partakers of them, or are taken into covenant with God; and this alone, in the Scripture, is intended by God’s making a covenant with any… He thereby underwent and performed all that which, in the righteousness and wisdom of God, was required; that the effects, fruits, benefits, and grace, intended, designed, and prepared in the new covenant, might be effectually accomplished and communicated unto sinners. (V, 253)

According to Owen, the New Covenant is not made with anyone who is not a full partaker of its blessings.

The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant. (Hebrews 8:6)

Where there is not some degree of saving knowledge, there no interest in the new covenant can be pretended… Persons destitute of this saving knowledge are utter strangers unto the covenant of grace; for this is a principal promise and effect of it, wherever it doth take place. (Hebrews 8:11)

[A]ll with whom this covenant is made are effectually sanctified, justified, and saved… The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ in the new covenant, in its being and existence, in its healing, repairing efficacy, is as large and extensive as sin is in its residence and power to deprave our natures. — This is the difference about the extent of the new covenant, and the grace of it: Some would have it to extend unto all persons, in its tender and conditional proposition; but not unto all things, as unto its efficacy in the reparation of our natures. Others assert it to extend unto all the effects of sin, in the removal of them, and the cure of our natures thereby; but as unto persons, it is really extended unto none but those in whom these effects are produced, whatever be its outward administration, which was also always limited: unto whom I do subscribe. (Hebrews 8:10)

Returning to union with Christ:

The foundation of the imputation asserted is union. Hereof there are many grounds and causes, as has been declared; but that which we have immediate respect unto, as the foundation of this imputation, is that whereby the Lord Christ and believers do actually coalesce into one mystical person. This is by the Holy Spirit inhabiting in him as the head of the church in all fullness, and in all believers according to their measure, whereby they become members of his mystical body. That there is such a union between Christ and believers is the faith of the catholic church, and has been so in all ages. (V, 272)

Union with Christ is the principle and measure of all spiritual enjoyments and expectations… Because it is itself, in the order of nature, the first truly saving spiritual mercy, the first vital grace that we are made partakers of…  It is the first and principal grace, in respect of causality and efficacy. It is the cause of all other graces that we are made partakers of; they are all communicated unto us by virtue of our union with Christ…

Our union with him is the ground of the actual imputation of his righteousness unto us; for he covers only the members of his own body with his own garments, nor will cast a skirt over any who is not “bone of his bones, and flesh of his flesh.” And so he is “of God made unto us righteousness,” 1 Corinthians 1:30. Hence also is our sanctification, and that both as to its principle in a new spiritual nature, and as unto its progress in fruitfulness and holiness. The principle of it is the Spirit itself of life, holiness, and power. This God sheds on us through Jesus Christ, Titus 3:6, or on the account of our interest in him, according to his promise, John 7:38,39. And for this cause is he said to be “our life,” Colossians 3:4, because in him lie the springs of our spiritual life, which in and by our regeneration, renovation, and sanctification is communicated unto us. And its progress in fruitfulness is from thence alone (Hebrews 3:14)

Recall Owen’s list of ways in which our union with Christ is described. He listed Romans 5:12ff. Our union with Adam is legal, and so is our mystical union with Christ. We are born under Adam, as our federal head. We do not come under Christ’s federal headship until we are born again, at which point we become part of the mystical body, of which Christ is the head, and we therefore pass from wrath to grace.

Notwithstanding this full, plenary satisfaction once made for the sins of the world that shall be saved, yet all men continue equal to be born by nature “children of wrath;” and whilst they believe not, “the wrath of God abides on them,” John 3:36; — that is, they are obnoxious unto and under the curse of the law. Wherefore, on the only making of that satisfaction, no one for whom it was made in the design of God can be said to have suffered in Christ, nor to have an interest in his satisfaction, nor by any way or means be made partaker of it antecedently unto another act of God in its imputation unto him. (V, 281)

Finally, this mystical union is accomplished by the Spirit, but this work of the Spirit is a blessing of the New Covenant, and therefore it logically depends upon our legal union with Christ as head of the New Covenant.

God communicates nothing in a way of grace unto any but in and by the person of Christ, as the mediator and head of the church…. Whatever is wrought in believers by the Spirit of Christ, it is in their union to the person of Christ, and by virtue thereof. (III, 626)

In the words of the Holy Spirit:

For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.

(Hebrews 8:10 ESV)

This finds confirmation in John Murray’s understanding of the effectual call as establishing our union with Christ, from which all the blessings flow.

It is calling that is represented in Scripture as that act of God by which we are actually united to Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:9). And surely union with Christ is that which unites us to the inwardly operative grace of God…

[T]here is good warrant for the conclusion that the application of redemption begins with the sovereign and efficacious summons by which the people of God are ushered into the fellowship of Christ and union with him to the end that they may become partakers of all the grace and virtue which reside in him as Redeemer, Saviour, and Lord…

[I]n the teaching of Scripture it is calling that is given distinct emphasis and prominence as that act of God whereby sinners are translated from darkness to light and ushered into the fellowship of Christ. This feature of New Testament teaching creates the distinct impression that salvation in actual possession takes its start from an efficacious summons on the part of God and that this summons, since it is God’s summons, carries in its bosom all of the operative efficacy by which it is made effective. It is calling and not regeneration that possesses that character. Hence there is more to be said for the priority of calling…

Sanctification is a process that begins, we might say, in regeneration, finds its basis in justification, and derives its energizing grace from the union with Christ which is effected in effectual calling…

It is by calling that we are united to Christ, and it is this union with Christ which binds the people of God to the efficacy and virtue by which they are sanctified.

  • John Murray. Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Kindle Locations 963-967). Kindle Edition.

And in WLC 66

Q. 66. What is that union which the elect have with Christ?

A. The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God’s grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband; which is done in their effectual calling.

Therefore Richardson and others err when they argue “All the elect were ever in this Covenant, for they were ever in Christ” and thus their argument for eternal justification fails while their argument for an absolute unconditional covenant stands.

Imputation vs Declaration

In what we have seen above, Owen makes a very careful distinction between the imputation of Christ as ours and our subsequent declaration as righteous (justification). George Hunsinger has a very helpful chapter in The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology titled Justification and Mystical Union with Christ: Where Does Owen Stand? He notes

A good case that Calvin based his idea of imputation on union with Christ has been made recently by Richard B. Gaffin Jr*. Gaffin distinguished between the “imputation of righteousness” and the “reckoning of righteousness.” lmputation arose from the “underlying and controlling” idea of union. Imputation was therefore antecedent to being reckoned righteous by God [justified]. The believer was reckoned [declared] as righteous, because of already being righteous through mystical union. Imputation involved what Gaffin called a ”juridical transfer” of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, and declaration took place on that basis.

*Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Justification and Union with Christ,” in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis 248-69

[…]

[According to Owen] To be “reputed” righteous, he said, was not the same as having Christ’s righteousness be “imputed” to us. “To be reputed righteous and to have righteousness imputed, differ,” explained Owen, “as cause and effect.” Imputation was set forth as something prior to being declared or reckoned righteous. The view that Gaffin found in Calvin, as previously mentioned, would seem to have been Owen’s view as well. Being imputed righteous and being reckoned righteous were not the same. Imputation was the cause, of which being reckoned righteous was the effect. Owen continued:

For that any may be reputed righteous ‐ that is, be judged or esteemed to be so ‐ there must be a real foundation of that reputation, or it is a mistake, and not a right judgment; as any man may be reputed to be wise who is a fool, or be reputed to be rich who is a beggar. Wherefore, he that is reputed righteous must either have a righteousness of his own, or another antecedently imputed unto him, as the foundation of that reputation. Wherefore, to impute righteousness unto one that hath none of his own, is not to repute him to be righteous who is indeed unrighteous; but it is to communicate a righteousness unto him, that he may rightly and justly be esteemed, judged, or reputed righteous.

A clearer statement of how imputation and declaration were related would be hard to imagine. Declaration was clearly a consequence of imputation, and imputation was clearly the foundation of declaration. One could not be reputed as righteous unless one really were righteous. Imputed righteousness was logically antecedent to being reckoned as righteous before the divine tribunal. Only as one was indeed righteous, because righteousness had already been communicated, could one then, on that basis, “rightly and justly be esteemed, judged, or reputed righteous” before the judgment seat of God.

A few pages later this interpretation is confirmed. lmputation was “not a naked pronunciation or declaration of any one to be righteous,” insisted Owen, “without a just and sufficient foundation, for the judgment of God declared therein. God declares no man to be righteous but him who is so; the whole question is how he comes to be!” Declaration without a prior imputation would be meaningless. Only imputation as a prior transaction could provide declaration with a “sufficient foundation.”…

Imputation through mystical union was the prior basis of justification. Along with Calvin and the mainstream of the Reformed tradition, Owen espoused the moderate view of forensic justification.

I highly recommend reading the whole chapter wherein Hunsinger distinguishes between the “moderate view of forensic justification” wherein “declaration of acquittal was not the cause but the consequence of imputation” and the “thoroughgoing forensic doctrine.” He notes “Let this typically Lutheran view of imputation by declaration be called the unqualified or thoroughgoing forensic doctrine. It was thoroughgoing, because every phase of it could be set forth in terms of a courtroom setting.”

Hunsinger’s one great error is that he does not adequately understand Owen’s doctrine of mysitcal union as legal covenant union. Thus he draws some incorrect conclusions. He says

Just as participatio Christi counteracted the notion that imputation was merely a legal fiction, so imputation counteracted the notion that saving righteousness depended on regeneration. Mystical union was the precondition for the grace of imputation, and imputation was the precondition of acquittal. Calvin’s doctrine of justification was not forensic in the thoroughgoing sense, because Calvin understood imputation to depend on participation, not merely on pronouncement.

This is correct so far as it goes, but it must be kept in mind that Owen defined participation as being in the New Covenant. That is, participation is legal, not something in distinction from legal (as Hunsinger suggests).

Legal Fiction

Returning to our original comments regarding “legal fiction,” we can see that when people identify our legal union with Christ as effective at the time of his satisfaction (“historia salutis”) then they often wind up viewing that legal union as insufficient grounds for our justification. What is necessary, they will say, is the participatory. Without our participation in Christ, his work outside of us is legal fiction. However, if we recognize the truth of Owen’s account of Scripture, we are in no position to claim the legal union is insufficient. We are legally united to Christ in the effectual call and that union is sufficient to provide us with everything we have in Christ.

Mason does not draw out the full implications of Owen’s view of the New Covenant, as we have above, but he notes “Owen seems to conceive of some kind of forensic union with Christ prior to faith, perhaps better described as an imputation of Christ.” (53) This use of “forensic” as equivalent to “legal” is common in discussions about union with Christ and the ordo salutis. Because of this, “justification” is often used synonymously with “legal.” But this is inaccurate. Forensic is a sub-category of legal that has to do with court-room verdicts. Something may be legal while not being forensic. The forensic (court room) is grounded in the legal. Covenants are, by definition, legal. They are not forensic. In an effort to emphasize the legal foundation of our salvation in Christ’s work outside of us, many argue for the logical priority of our justification. But this introduces a labyrinth of logical contradiction into the ordo. However, this difficulty is resolved when we recognize that our mystical union is our covenant union and thus our legal union. The charge of legal fiction is not answered by appeal to our inherent participation via the Spirit, but by appeal to the legal union that is established between us and Christ in the effectual call. It is therefore not a legal fiction because Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us on the basis of a legal union, and we are declared righteous (justified) on the basis of that imputed righteousness, apart from all our works.

Timeline Snapshot of Justification Debate

October 4, 2015 19 comments

Reading the comments online over the role of our works following John Piper’s words in his foreword for Thomas Schreiner can be a little confusing. The reality is, the comments you read are the tip of an iceberg. Under the water there is a vast labyrinth of debate over biblical, systematic, and historical theology. My goal, in this post, is to give you a snapshot of that labyrinth, as succinctly as I can. The end will include a recommended bibliography.

(Dates are approximate)

The list could go on for pages and pages, but hopefully this helps give a snapshot of what’s going on below the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t included here any of the response to this view, particularly that of Kline and his followers. Kline was the most vocal critique. However, Kline made some fundamental errors and intentionally rejected parts of the confession regarding the Covenant of Works. Thus his followers, though correct of justification by faith alone, are off the mark on other areas that make their response somewhat ineffective. A lot of what you’ll see online is argumentation between these two schools of thought, focused in WTS and WSC. I don’t fully side with either, though WSC does get sola fide correct.

In a subsequent post I will be reviewing Gaffin’s book and referring to this timeline. The key issue in this debate is the Covenant of Works/covenantal merit. The law/gospel antithesis is the Covenant of Works/Covenant of Grace distinction. When that is rejected, one must re-interpret what justification apart from works means. These men do so by arguing that the works Paul has in mind are works done with a sinful motive to earn reward. We are justified apart from those works, not because they are imperfect, but because we cannot earn anything from God. However, as James says, we are not justified by faith alone apart from works. What James is referring to is “the obedience of faith.” Paul and James are referring to the same justification, but they are referring to different works. Justification is apart from self-wrought works of merit, but not apart from Spirit-wrought works of faith (so they say).

It all starts with the rejection of the Covenant of Works.

[T]here is no place in Shepherd’s theology for anything like the dichotomy between law and gospel that lays at the foundation of justification sola fide for the Reformation. If there is no such thing as meritorious works, if Christ’s work was believing obedience, if the obedience of faith is the righteousness of faith, then we are clearly dealing with a system of doctrine that has no way to express the Reformation’s contrast between law and gospel. Such a system cannot consistently affirm the justification sola fide squarely built on this contrast.

Allegiance to The Westminster Confession is often understood as subscription to its “system of doctrine.” The Westminster Confession accurately represents the Reformation system of doctrine when it grounds its soteriology on a contrast between the law (“the covenant of works”) and the gospel (“the covenant of grace”). Shepherd has no place for such a structure in his theology and cannot, therefore, affirm consistently the “system of doctrine” taught in the Confession he cites so often in his writings.

Faith, Obedience, and Justification: Current Evangelical Departures, p. 186

Recommended Reading:

  1. The Current Justification Controversy O. Palmer Robertson
  2. A Companion to the Current Justification Controversy John W. Robbins
  3. Faith, Obedience, and Justification Samuel E. Waldron
  4. The Doctrine of Justification John Owen
  5. Can the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Be Saved? John R. Robbins
  6. Can the Presbyterian Church in America Be Saved? Sean Gerety
  7. The Changing of the Guard Mark W. Karlberg
  8. Christianity & Neo-Liberalism Paul Elliot
  9. The Emperor Has No Clothes Stephen Cunha
  10. Not Reformed At All John W. Robbins & Sean Gerety