Archive for November, 2009

John Murray on “Justification and Good Works”

November 28, 2009

Murray was, in my view, the Reformed theologian of the 20th Century.  (Maybe as a fellow Highlander I’m biased!)  If only his voice had been listened to things would be different to what they are now.  On worship, the Lord’s Day and on the free offer of the gospel (to name but three) Murray applied historic reformed theology faithfully to the contemporary Church scene.  Another area on which Murray testifies to the church today is that of justification.  In is Collected Writings 2:219-222 Murray discusses “Justification and Good Works”.  His thoughts on this follow.

Murray begins his discussion be highlighting the potential conflict between justification by faith alone and the necessity of good works: “It has been objected that the doctrine of justification by free grace through faith alone is inimical to the interests of ethical living and of good works, that it tends to the lascivious and licentious principle, ‘let us do evil that good may come’.”  Murray meets this objection to justification by faith alone with five points of response.

First, justification “is only one part or aspect of the redemptive process and must never be viewed in disjunction from its place in the context of all the other steps of the process.”  That is, “redemption is unto holiness and justification as a part of the process cannot be to the opposite end.”

Secondly justification by faith alone “is the only basis upon which good works can be performed.”  Murray argues that without the confidence of an already complete and perfect justification by faith all works done will be tainted by a fear of guilt and alienation from God.  Justification by faith alone frees us from this and enables us to serve God.

Third, Murray argues that justification by faith alone is not inimical to good works in that “since faith is a whole-souled movement of trust in Christ, its very spring and motive is salvation from sin.  How can it be an incentive to sin?”

Fourth, Murray simply states that the faith that does not produce good works is not the faith that justifies.

Finally Murray states that while “it makes void the gospel [note the strength of this statement!] to introduce works in connection with justification, nevertheless works done in faith, from the motive of love to God, in obedience to the revealed will of God and to the end of his glory are intrinsically good and acceptable to God.  As such they will be the criterion of reward in the life to come.”  Murray refers to Mat 10:41; 1 Cor 3:8-9, 11-15, 4:5; 2 Cor 5:10 and 2 Tim 4:7 to make his case.  He argues that “we must maintain therefore, justification complete and irrevocable by grace through faith and apart from works, and at the same time, future reward according to works.”  Murray made four important clarification to his point here.  In the first place “this future reward is not justification and contributes nothing to that which constitutes justification.”  Secondly “this future reward is not salvation.  Salvation is by grace and it is not a reward for works…”  Third “the reward has reference to the station a person is to occupy in glory and does not have reference to the gift of glory itself.”  Fourth “this reward is not administered because good works earn or merit reward, but because God is graciously pleased to reward them.”

This then is how Murray defended justification by faith alone apart from works from the charge of licentiousness.  It is a tragedy that the works of Murray are not read and loved more today.

Rainbow on Calvin, the Will of God and the Gospel Offer

November 17, 2009

Here is a short section from Jonathan Rainbow’s work The Will of God and The Cross: An Historical and Theological Study of John Calvin’s Doctrine of Limited Redemption.

The Universal Offer of the Gospel

Calvin clearly articulated a universal saving will of God that was conditional on faith, which consisted of the universal offer of the gospel through preaching … Calvin stressed that the gospel, and in it the benefits of Christ’s passion and death, are offered to all men.  In such contexts Calvin made it clear that “all” means all men individually.  Calvin the Latinist provided Calvin the theologian with a variety of terms to articulate this doctrine:  the gospel is offered (offertur) to all, propounded (proponitur) to all, set forth (expositum esse) to all, and proclaimed (publicando) to all.  These terms all denoted for Calvin the public preaching of the gospel through the agency of men.  By this agency God invites (invitare) and calls (vocare) all men to salvation.  That “all” means all individual men Calvin indicated by the adverbs indifferenter, promiscue, and sine exceptione which almost always occurred in such statements.

Calvin usually coupled his affirmations of this universal gospel offer with the reminder that only the elect actually receive the gospel.  For the public offer of the gospel comes always with the demand for faith, and only the elect have faith.  So Calvin saw God here operating in two circles of human beings, one the larger circle of all to whom the gospel is publically offered through preaching, and the other smaller circle of those who believe, the elect.  This preached word is a kind of net cast into humanity at large which catches the elect and lets the reprobate slip back through.  So there was in this sense in Calvin’s theology a “twofold will” of God.  [C.f. commentaries on Ezek 18:23, 2 Pet 3:9, Matt 23:37.] … The universal offer of the gospel for Calvin was only and simply the public preaching of the gospel to all men; it was the will of God “which is manifested by the nature of the word, and is merely to invite by the outward voice of  man.”  If asked how such an offer can be made to every individual when God’s saving work and will do not extend to every individual, Calvin would not pretend to know.  It is simply how God reveals himself.


Now whilst Rainbow does not say everything that can be said in this short section he draws out a number of vital points:

  • It is impossible to say the older reformed theologians ment only present/command by offer – look at the actual terms Calvin uses (including invite).
  • For Calvin the gospel is a particular offer to every hearer.
  • For Calvin it is possible to speak of the (revealed) will of God for the salvation of all.
  • Calvin accepts the testimony of scripture and does not reject it because he cannot rationalise it i.e. he understands the finite cannot comprehend the infinite, that is the distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology.