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.