Eternal Justification Again (Rutherford v Crisp)

One thing that is good about reading Rutherford is that he is clear about what he believes and does not believe, about theologians he finds helpful and those he does not.  One of those theologians he finds unhelpful is Tobias Crisp of Christ Alone Exalted fame.  According to Rutherford, Crisp is a “libertine,” an “antinomian”, and in his sermons “you will find grace turned into wantonness” and “much … to depress and cry down holiness.”  Now I have not read Crisp, and I know the accuracy of Rutherford’s reading of Crisp has been challenged but, leaving that to one side, I want to pick up on Rutherford’s use of Crisp as a springboard to critique “eternal justification.”

The theme of “eternal justification” recurs at various points in Rutherford’s corpus but I’m limiting myself to The Trial and Triumph of Faith at this point.  Anyway, he makes his position clear, “justification is a real favour applied to us in time, just as sanctification … We cannot be justified before we believe.”  He continues:

Paul, in the Epistle to the Romans, to the Galatians, taketh for granted, that justification is a work done in time, transient on us, not an immanent and eternal action remaining, either in God from eternity, or performed by Christ on the cross, before we believe … we are justified by faith, which certainly is an act performed in time … Satisfaction is indeed given to justice, by Christ on the cross, for all our sins, before we believe … but … that is not justification, but only the meritorious cause of it … Justification is a forensical sentence in time pronounced in the gospel, and applied to me now, and never till the instant now that I believe.

Accordingly, justification is not “formally an act of the understanding, to know a truth concerning myself.”  Rather, it is “an heart-adherence of the affections to Christ, as the Saviour of sinners, at the presence of which, a sentence of free absolution is pronounced.”  Rutherford explains how the work of Christ on the cross relates to justification:

Christ taketh away our sins on the cross, causatively, and by way of merit, while as he suffereth for our sins on the cross … Now, this was the paying of a ransom for us, and a legal translation of the eternal punishment of our sins; but it is not justification, nor ever called justification.  There is a sort of imputation of our sin to Christ, and a sum paid for me; but with leave, no formal imputation, no forensical, and no persona law-reckoning to me, who am not yet born, far less, cited before a tribunal and absolved from sin.  When Christ had completely paid the sum, Christ was justified legally, as a public person, and all his seed fundamentally, meritoriously, causatively, but not in their persons.

So, when in time the believer is justified by faith “the believer’s person is accepted, reconciled, justified, and really translated by a law change from one state to another … There is a real removal of all sins…”  What Rutherford is doing is steadfastly refusing to collapse time into eternity and turn life into nothing more than a “tale that is told, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Like I said before, the blog will probably be focused on Rutherford for a few more posts now.

7 Responses to “Eternal Justification Again (Rutherford v Crisp)”

  1. Marty Foord Says:

    Hey Donald John,

    I hope you’re doing well and have settled in Cambridge. I’ve just arrived back in Australia, to sun, blue sky, clear water, and shorts. It’s wonderful!

    Concerning Rutherford on Crisp it’s important to recognise that Rutherford doesn’t faifthfully represent Crisp. Antinomianism was not monolithic; some of them were crazy some were more orthodox. Crisp is one who is almost a standard Puritan. It’s also doubtful whether he believed in eternal justification, but he certainly believed in justification before faith. Crisp is not too different from people like Twisse and Bunyan.

    All the best brother,


  2. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Marty

    Good to hear from you. Glad you are enjoying the good weather! It was -4 here in the middle of the day last Saturday! We are enjoying being down here very much – we are just hoping our Yorkshire house sells soon so we can buy down here!

    Thanks for that important clarification. I’m open to Rutherford being wrong on Crisp which is why I put the qualifier in at the start. I think Trueman said something similar in the WTS volume on justification.

    Shifting to Durham his big problem was, not so much with the language of eternal justification, but with faith becoming the realisation that we are already justified rather that being “justified by faith alone”. On my reading a lot of the discussion over “eternal justification” boils down to people using different terms to talk about the same things (but language does matter which is why I have posted a few times on it) but in the redefinition of faith there is, I think, something of greater significance.

    Curt Daniel’s thesis on Gill spends a lot of time on this. I’m actually only reading it through in its entirety just now having reads bits and pieces of it in the past.

    BTW did you get the email I sent just before New Year?

    Every blessing

  3. jm Says:

    Rutherford was wrong about Crisp as Marty posted. I posted some of Crisp quotes about the law on my blog a little while ago:

    Also, be warned about Daniel’s thesis, he seems to draw a line and call everyone “higher” in terms of soteriology hyper.

  4. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi JM

    Thanks for commenting. I guess it depends what we mean by “antinomian.” The 17th issues are more complex that what we would understand by that label today. As I said I’m open to Crisp not deserving all that Rutherford said about him – although Rutherford was of course not alone in him view.

    Daniel’s is right that the denial of the free offer is inconsistent with historic Calvinism. Other areas of his thesis are possibly not so strong and I don’t line up with him on everything. I’m not convinced TF is necessarily the best guide on matters related to the free offer. From my perspective John Murray was faithful to the reformed tradition on the free offer.

    Every blessing

  5. jm Says:

    I would agree, John Murray does a good job at a traditional Reformed view of the free offer, Job Hupton would be the best particular Baptist on the subject of spiritual offers of salvation. Thank you Donald for your reply.

  6. Raymond Kemp [RAK] Says:

    Hi Donald John,
    I have not left a comment on your Blog before, but I have ‘dropped in’ from time-to-time. I have an interest in the Scottish Puritans and their views on piety/spirituality. We cross somewhat with Durham. He is important in this kind of study. I am interested in some of Durham’s works which I cannot presently locate, and wondered if you could help. They are: The Great Gain of Contending Godliness commended in four sermons; Great Corruption of Subtile Self; and, Parliament’s Commission (Neh. 2:19,20). I believe I have all the others which are usually attributable to him, but if you have a complete bibliography I would welcome it.

    Kind regards,

  7. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Dear Raymond

    I am deeply sorry for not replying. Time flies and things get left undone. Please accept my apologies.

    As regards your queries I am not sure if you are aware of it but there is a fine theological journal published in America called The Confessional Presbyterian ( In volumes 5 & 7 the unpublished writings of Durham held in various manuscript collections are listed. This is a good resource.

    The other works you refer to have not been republished. I believe Naphtali Press ( have been working on a volume containing all Durham’s works that have not recently been reprinted. Hopefully that volume will see the light of day!

    One dissertation on Durham (The popularization of federal theology: conscience and covenant in the theology of David Dickson (1583-1663) and James Durham (1622-1658)) is available for download at

    I trust you are knowing the Lord’s blessing as you proclaim the same glorious gospel as James Durham!

    Every blessing
    Donald John

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