John Murray on “Justification and Good Works”

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.


6 Responses to “John Murray on “Justification and Good Works””

  1. R. Scott Clark Says:

    I’m a big fan of Mr Murray. Bob Strimple was my systematics prof in the mid-80s and he assigned a good bit of Murray and mediated a great lot in addition. Nevertheless, there were areas where Murray didn’t help us. I doubt that his doctrine of definitive sanctification was helpful, his rejection of the internal/external distinction was confusing, and his rejection of the covenant of works and pactum salutis set the table for some of the problems we’re facing today. When Mr Murray was good, he was very good. When he was creative, well, he was perhaps not so good. Have you see David VanDrunen, ed. Pattern of Sound Doctrine? It includes some reflections on the legacy of old WTS.

  2. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Dr Clark

    Thanks, yes, I agree that Murray took some unhelpful positions on the covenant of works (although he probably affirmed the substance) and on the visible/invisible distinction (Durham is insistent that this is a vital exegetical principle) and here the traditional views need reasserted. Thanks, yes, I have the Pattern of Sound doctrine. A certain essay in there is extensively cited in the thesis 🙂

    Only a handful of his Collected Writings get sold in the UK each year which is a real shame. Brittish non conformity would in my view be in a better place if Murray’s influence had been more widely felt. I often think of Murray (rather than the recent comments about JI Packer) as the lost counterparty to Lloyd Jones as a leader of British non-conformity. But perhaps he was always too Reformed for that?

  3. greenbaggins Says:

    I would say also that to a certain extent Murray got hijacked by the FV folks. I think Dr. Clark’s points are very important. But I also think that Murray got more than a bit distorted by the FV. However, if you read T. David Gordon, he goes much further even than Dr. Clark in his attack of Murray.

  4. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Lane

    Yes, Murray on justification above is so clear “it makes void the gospel to introduce works in connection with justification” that any association with those who seek to do that is not on. The FV has tried to hijack any number of Reformed theologians (from Calvin down!) so it is no surprise they tried Murray as well.

    Murray is rightly open to criticism on the CoW and the visible/invisible distinction. I have read the article and I don’t think Dr Gordon’s criticism hits the mark though.


  5. Steven Carr Says:


    You could have just claimed Bavinck as the theologian of the 20th century and saved yourself all the trouble. 🙂

  6. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Steve

    I’m surprised you did not suggest Hoeksema 😉

    Yes, I thought of Bavinck, Berkhof and even Warfield but as a fellow Highlander I had a duty to pick Murray – even if there are areas where he is not so helpful. I’ve also read more Murray that Bavinck – maybe once I’ve worked through all of the four vols I will change my mind 🙂

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