Archive for the ‘Justification’ Category

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.

“this Error of seeking Righteousness by our Works”

October 12, 2009

One doctrine the 17th century Scottish theologians got right (among many!) was justification.  While England was being troubled by both neonomianism on the one hand and antinomianism on the other the Presbyterian leaders of the Scottish church avoided both extremes.  It was the entrance of the dead faith of moderatism that paved the way for the neonomianism of Baxter to enter the Scottish Church.  It was this the Marrowmen did so much to fight against.  But among the mid 17th Century leaders of the Scottish church all was well.  Here is David Dickson opposing the error of those seeking to add “works righteousness” to justification:

Unto this Error of seeking Righteousness by our Works, after entering in the way of Justification by Grace, we are all naturally inclined; for, the Covenant of Works is so engraven in all Adam’s Children, Do this and live, that hardly can we renounce this way of Justification, and howsoever it be impossible to attain Righteousness this way, yet hardly can we submit our selves to the Righteousness by Faith in Christ, which not only the Expereince of Israel after the Flesh maketh manifest, but also the Experience of the Galatians lets us see; for, they having once outwardly renounced Justification by Works, and embraced the Covenant of gracious Reconciliation by Faith in Jesus, did turn about for a time, to seek Justification by the Works of the Law, and were on the way of falling from Grace and Communion…
David Dickson, Therapeutica Sacra (Edinburgh: Evan Tyler, 1664), 298.

Why is justification a perennial issue for the Christians?  Because we are all by nature inclined to want to add something to our justification.  Dickson’s example of the Galatians gives all a stark warning against this tendency:

…the Galatians, who having begun in the spiritual way of Justification by Faith, sought to be perfected by the fleshly way of Justification by works, and did fall in danger of falling from Grace and excluding themselves from the blessing of the promise through Christ.
Dickson, Thereputica Sacra, 746.

But what of the teaching of James.  Dickson accounts for this well:

…the Gospel doth not teach us to seek the Justification of our Persons before God by Works, but by Faith in Christ, and then teacheth us to seek the Justification of our Faith before Men in our own and others Conscience, by the sincere endeavour of new Obedience…
Dickson, Thereputica Sacra, 315-6

May we all be enabled to hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering (WLC Q&A 70):

What is justification?

Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardons all their sins, accepts and accounts their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.

Weekly Update 27 – Justification: James Durham v Richard Baxter

November 5, 2007

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 if you doubt that a robust reaffirmation of Durham’s doctrine of justification is necessary in Reformed circles.