Weekly Update 27 – Justification: James Durham v Richard Baxter

Yes, I know I’m late but I managed to get thirteen thousand words of my thesis done last week so I hope I’ll be forgiven!

It were exceedingly profitable to be more in the study of justification, that is of the very marrow of the gospel, and is deservedly called articulus stantis, aut cadentis ecclesiae…
Christ Crucified, p592

Let’s heed Durham’s advice to be “more in the study of justification” which is “the very marrow of the gospel” and look at what he teaches on this subject.  I want to do this primarily through his essay on justification in his Commentary on Revelation [there is also much material on justification in Christ Crucified].  In order to understand Durham’s essay it is important to note that it is in reality a polemic against the views of Richard Baxter.  This may come as a bit of a surprise to some readers of the blog but Richard Baxter got his doctrine of justification all wrong.  A helpful summary of Baxter’s view is found in Von Rohr’s work, The Covenant of Grace in Puritan Thought (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986):

Baxter… [in] his distinctive view of justification… envisaged it as perfected by the good works of the believer…

Baxter affirmed that Christ satisfied the Lawgiver and so procured a change in the law. This new law is the law of the new covenant, which requires faith and brings justification to those who exercise it. So two kinds of righteousness are necessary for entrance into the new covenant: the righteousness of Christ… and the faith of the believer which is then imputed to him for righteousness… The former he considered “legal” righteousness and the latter “evangelical,” and they must remain together.

Baxter developed a view of justification as a continuous process which likewise drew criticism for its involvement of human effort. If one decisive moment in justification was its time of beginning in faith, “constitutive justification” in his terminology, an equally decisive moment will come at the culmination of life’s journey in the “declarative justification” of the last day when final judgement takes place. And through the journey there is “executive justification,” the bestowal of promised rewards along the way.

Durham’s essay Concerning the Way of Covenanting with God, and of a Sinner’s obtaining justification before Him. (Commentary on Revelation, 295-313) is where he tackles the views Baxter was advocating head on.

Durham states his own position clearly, in that given the existence of sin, “There being no remedy possible upon man’s side… there is an external righteousness provided, to wit, the satisfaction of the Mediator, which being imputed to the sinner, is in law to be accepted as satisfactory for him by virtue of the Covenant of Grace; and by virtue thereof, he is to be absolved, and discharged as if he himself had satisfied: this is the meritorious cause of our justification” (p195).

A number of points should be noted: 1) The righteousness required for justification is “external” to us 2) This righteousness becomes ours by “imputation” 3) The Covenant of Grace is key to understanding this 4) The meritorious cause of justification is not faith but Christ’s righteousness made over to us in the CoG.

Because God uses means to bring about our justification, faith receiving “the Gospel, as it is contained in the Word, and the Preaching thereof, is commonly called the external instrumental cause of our Justification” (p295).  Faith therefore can be called “the condition of the Covenant: because it is on this condition that Justification is offered to us” (p295).  Despite this “the immediate meritorious cause of our Justification, is Christ’s righteousness” (p296).  Thus Durham stands in direct line with Calvin, “Properly speaking, God alone justifies… we compare faith to a kind of vessel; for unless we come empty and with the mouth of our soul open to seek Christ’s grace, we are not capable of receiving Christ… faith, even though of itself it is of no worth or price, can justify us by bringing Christ, just as a pot crammed with money makes a man rich. Therefore, I say that faith… is only the instrument for receiving righteousness.” (Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.7).

Given that faith is the condition of justification, for Durham, it is absurd to talk of an eternal justification, “That faith is necessary for Justification, so that none can expect to be justified but Believers, hath been hitherto almost among all uncontroverted till that of late Antinomians have opposed it; But the Scripture is very express… in cursing all that believe not, and declaring them to be under the curse…” p298.

For Durham the true position on justification can be ascertained by rightly distinguishing between “the righteousness of the two covenants”.  For the covenant of works the righteousness in justification is “inherent and consisteth in works” but in the covenant of grace it “is without us, and cometh by imputation… Philip. 3.9” (p297).  (Thus if you deny a CoW for Adam it may well lead to errors in justification!)

As well as stating his own position Durham “takes on” Baxter’s doctrine.  Durham is about the most irenic character you can come across in the 17th C so he gives Baxter all the benefit of the doubt he can.  Durham’s advice can be paraphrased as, “Learned Baxter, if in using these new terms and ways of expressing things about justification you really mean the same thing as I mean by my tried and tested terms then stop using your new expressions.  It isn’t big and clever, it is confusing, unclear and therefore harmful to the people of God.  If, however, by using different language you are indicating an underlying dissatisfaction with the standard doctrine of justification, then we have a real problem on our hands. ”

In Durham’s own (much longer – come on, he was writing in C17!) words, “there needeth be no great debate for terms of condition, imputation, instrument, etc. yet these still being used among Divines, we conceive there is no just reason to cease them, the use of them having now of a long time made them to pass in this matter without mistake… much less is their reason to cry down the matter expressed by them: And it cannot but be sad, that such new controversies should be moved.  We are persuaded, that reflecting on many worthy men, the obscuring of the trodden path by new Questions and Objections, the confounding of Readers by proposing, as it were, of a different strain of the Covenant, from what formerly hath been preached, the giving of an open door to propose new draughts in all things, and that not in expressions only, but also (as is alleged) in fundamental material things, etc. shall be more prejudicial to edification… for if by all this [your new expressions] the former Doctrine of Justification be enervated [weakened], where are we till now?  … what is the use of this … new mould [pattern] with so much professed danger in, and dissatisfaction with, the former? will it not be welcome to Papists, to have Protestants speaking in their terms, and homologating them in condemning the former language of the most eminent Reformers?” (p299).

How different is Durham’s attitude to the “arrogance of the modern” abounding today.  No delight in innovation here.  In its place a contentment with the terminology currently “used among Divines” and a distrust of anything that “condemns the language of the most eminent Reformers.”  His distinction between “terms” and “the matter expressed by them” is also helpful.  For instance, although I don’t agree with John Murray’s dislike for the term “covenant” in reference to Adam, his writings reveal that he held to the substance of what the older divines meant by that language and therefore there is no need to question his essential orthodoxy.

Moving particularly to Baxter’s errors, Durham argues that works properly cannot be a condition for our justification because “it obscureth the difference of the two Covenants, to wit, the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Grace: for so works would still be the condition of the Covenant of Grace” and because “it doth propose something in ourselves as the immediate ground of our justification before God” which is anathema to Durham (p307-308).

He also argues that there is no distinction between legal and evangelical righteousness.  There is only one righteousness recognised in scripture, and that is perfect righteousness.  Further, the difference between the CoW and the CoG is not “that one requireth works perfectly holy as the condition thereof, and the other Evangelic works not perfectly holy… But the difference lieth in this, that our working is not to be the ground of our right to the inheritance, nor actually to preceed our right as in the Covenant of Works it was necessary, but believing and consenting only” (p301).  Besides, “When the Apostle opposeth the righteousness of the Law and Gospel, he opposeth not as it were a thousand talents to a penny, or one set of works to another, but the righteousness of Christ, or to be found in Him, to all kinds of works whatsoever…” (p301).

Durham also argues, contra Baxter, that justification is a once for all (as opposed to a continued) act.  He argues, “If instant upon believing one be justified and freed from the curse, and instated into friendship with God then it cannot be a continued act…” (p306).  Further, justification being viewed a continual act, implying future justification is pastorally dangerous.  Durham argues that if our justification is not complete and perfect (i.e. finished) then we do not have a “shield against all challenges, and a righteousness that can abide the trial in justice” (p306).

There you have it then.  James Durham v Richard Baxter on justification.  Needless to say, I believe Durham won the theological fight hands down.  I’ve tried to make the above as digestible as possible.  Durham’s essay contains many nuanced theological distinctions which are hard to condense accurately.

As to the contemporary value of this dispute – see http://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/ if you doubt that a robust reaffirmation of Durham’s doctrine of justification is necessary in Reformed circles.

8 Responses to “Weekly Update 27 – Justification: James Durham v Richard Baxter”

  1. covenantedliberty Says:


    Seems to me your thesis would make a good book.

  2. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Maybe – in time! But I have the small matter of writing my thesis to do first 🙂

    Every blessing
    Donald John

  3. Steven Carr Says:

    I really appreciated this post. It is good to read about past controversies because they shed light on current ones. I’ve been meaning to read more about Baxter and his views on justification; this has been a good introduction for me.
    It is also good to read those who have an irenic spirit like Durham. His Concerning Scandal should be required reading before entering into controversial debates.

  4. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Steven

    Thanks for your kind words and for your own post linking through to this one. Justification is such an important doctrine.

    Concerning scandal is a wonderfully balanced work. It was the second Durham work I read after his Song of Solomon commentary.

    Every blessing
    Donald John

  5. rjs1 Says:

    Does Baxter relate one individual justification to union with Christ?

  6. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Dear rjs1

    I’ll get back to you middle of next week as I’m tied up working on a talk on Luther at the moment for the Churches YF and I’m away for a couple of days at the beginning of next week. Baxter is a tough cookie to summarise as a) he is not always clear b) he wrote so much c) responded to critics so frequently d) personally I’m more familiar with his “practical” than his “theological” works.

    Every blessing
    Donald John

  7. rjs1 Says:

    Dear Donald,

    I look forward to it.

    Kind regards,


  8. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Dear Richard

    I haven’t been able to locate anything specific in Baxter on this; though I’m sure there will be plenty material in his many works on Justification. I imagine union must be as part of the initial so called “constitutative justification” because this involves “receiving Christ” (Packer, The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Through of Richard Baxter, 251). I’m not sure how Baxter’s doctrine of 3 stage justification fits with his doctrine of perseverance and how that relates to union. The man is a theological minefield. In trying to piece him together I am continually overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what he wrote. I only have access to most of his controversial material in .pdf which make working through his writings hard work.

    Mark Jones over at the Thomas Godwin blog I link to might be able to give a better answer as he has written a number of insightful posts on Baxter and has reviewed Boersma’s book on Baxter’s doctrine of justification (A hot Pepper corn). I think I have seen you comment on there before?

    Sorry my answer hasn’t been more helpful.

    Every blessing
    Donald John

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