The importance of justification for the church and the individual is intimately linked to a right view of the subject. Allow justification to have a broader meaning than the biblical one or reinterpret the biblical evidence to produce a revised definition and this will inevitably result in long-term trouble for the church and the individual. This is what happened early on in the church’s history. It led to all the terrible abuses and false teachings that arose during the medieval period. The same thing can happen again.
If the biblical truth concerning justification by faith alone is revised, widened, marginalized or denied, its importance for the life of the church and the individual will be obscured. Roman Catholicism has always played down the significance of the subject and that is to be expected. It will not allow any such biblical teaching to stand over-against it to judge and challenge its traditions, errors and false practices. What is disturbing is to find evangelical leaders and scholars indicating, by what they say or do, that justification is not the major item that Protestants of the past believed it to be.
A Central Doctrine
The whole question of the status of justification in Paul’s theology is one that is hotly debated. In 1981 Ronald Fung, who teaches theology at the China Graduate School of Theology, surveyed the scene and detected four broad positions among scholars with regard to the importance of justification: 1) that it is of subsidiary significance; 2) that it is of fundamental significance; 3) that it is one of a number of important metaphors; 4) that it is of central significance but is to be set within the wider context of God’s saving activity.1 The debate continues.
Within evangelical scholarly circles, Mark Seifrid has argued that it is ‘a central Pauline theme’ set in the context of his mission to the Gentiles.2 P. T. O’Brien of Moore Theological College, Sydney, prefers the word ‘fundamental’ or ‘foundational’. It is foundational in the sense that it deals with the basic issue of a person’s ‘entry into the Christian life’.3 Wright, on the other hand, as we saw at the close of the previous chapter does not consider justification, as he understands it, to be the principle by which to test what is authentically Christian. McGrath, worried lest the biblical concept of justification might turn out not to be of fundamental significance, argues for a broader meaning that will enable the doctrine to maintain its position as the article by which the church stands or falls.4
In this whole argument a lot depends on the meaning given to such words as ‘central’ or ‘fundamental’. If the word ‘central’ is used, it must not be thought that Paul organized his whole theology around justification. Clearly, he did not. Neither is the word ‘central’ to be thought of in a way that makes other Pauline themes like reconciliation or the work of the Spirit seem trivial. They are all important. Again, the word ‘fundamental’ can have its drawbacks by creating the false impression that all other themes are logically built upon justification. Having said all this, it is appropriate to view Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone as of central or fundamental significance when set within the context of God’s saving purposes.
It is often suggested that justification for Paul is merely a polemical or controversial doctrine, counteracting heretical views or Jewish attitudes and therefore not as central and as important as Protestants have assumed. Wright, for instance, states that ‘we must see justification by faith as a polemical doctrine, whose target is not the usual Lutheran one of “nomism” [i.e. depending on some kind of works for final salvation] . . . but the Pauline one of Jewish national pride.’5 Mark Seifrid on the other hand, from his study of Romans, has argued convincingly that Paul’s teaching on justification cannot be relegated ‘to the status of a mere polemical doctrine’. The purpose of the letter is ‘not an attack upon adversaries’, but a proclamation of the gospel in which justification by faith alone is an integral part. It assures ‘Gentile readers of deliverance from the apocalyptic manifestation of God’s wrath’ and in the light of Israel’s example ‘it has become the reason for excluding boasting in any religious pride.’ In addition, Paul’s argument in Romans 7:14-25 far from being a reference to Israel indicates the relevance of justification ‘to the existence of the believer’.6
An argument sometimes advanced is that because there is no reference to the ‘right’ word-group in 1 Thessalonians, which may have been written prior to Galatians, this is evidence for believing that Paul had not yet developed any understanding of justification by faith alone. It is quite clear from the letter, however, that Paul had preached a gospel which gave these Thessalonian believers assurance of future salvation and deliverance from the wrath to come, as Seifrid puts it, ‘without any mention of obligation to the Law’ (cf. 1:10; 2:12, 16).7
To emphasise that justification is integral to Paul’s message we can do no better than use the points made by J. I. Packer in his article on justification in the New Bible Dictionary:8
Without denying the importance of other doctrines, justification does lie at the heart of Paul’s gospel. In another place, Packer compares the doctrine of justification to Atlas, for ‘it bears a world on its shoulders, the entire evangelical knowledge of saving grace’. He concludes with these sobering words, ‘When Atlas falls, everything that rested on his shoulders comes crashing down too’.9
It is not a subject confined to the apostle Paul. Though the actual vocabulary may not always be found, the theme runs right through the Bible as we have seen in chapters three and four. It is about how sinful human beings are brought into a right legal status before God. The whole history of the working out of God’s plan of salvation recorded in the Bible has this at its core. Paul himself directs us to the one whom God called to be the father of the nation and through whom all nations would find blessing. There, in Genesis 15:6, Abraham is accounted righteous through faith alone in the promises of God, promises which find their ultimate fulfilment in the Lord Jesus Christ. John the Baptist told the Pharisees and Sadducees in no uncertain terms not to trust in their birth and background: ‘And do not think that you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father. I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9). He preached a baptism of repentance with a view to the forgiveness of sins and pointed them to Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Mark 1:4; John 1:29).
Jesus himself warned the people of his own village that while judgment came upon unbelievers within Israel in the days of Elijah and Elisha, blessing flowed out to those who humbled themselves and believed regardless of their nationality (Luke 4:25-27). The faith of the centurion is presented both as a warning to the Jews who considered themselves children of Abraham and members of the kingdom by right, and as a foretaste of the many from the Gentile nations who will sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when the kingdom is consummated (Matthew 8:10-12). It is not the self-righteous who are justified but those who acknowledge their sin and need and look only to the grace of God (Luke 18:9-14). Pious Nicodemus no doubt thought himself a member of the covenant community and hoped to be vindicated on ‘the last day’. Nevertheless, he was told by Jesus of the necessity for a radical change that would bring him to the end of himself, and that only through faith in the sacrificial death of the Son of God is there eternal life (John 3:1-15). The last book of the Bible, Revelation, which is an encouragement to all who suffer for the sake of the Lord Jesus, likewise presses home this same theme. John Sweet, in his helpful commentary on Revelation, says of the war against the devil in 12:7-12, ‘It is Paul’s doctrine of “justification by faith” in pictorial form’.10
Justification is one of a number of terms used in the Bible to describe the multi-faceted nature of God’s saving work. The good news of the gospel speaks of redemption, reconciliation, deliverance, adoption, sanctification, glorification, etc. as well as justification. In theology, all these items come under the umbrella of salvation, and they are all vitally important truths. Even so, following Paul and the rest of Scripture, and despite the modern attempts to make it a subsidiary doctrine, the mainstream evangelical view has been that the doctrine of justification is of foundational or central importance for it alone deals with the crucial matter of a person’s standing before God. It must not be confused with any other element of the saving message. Reconciliation is a glorious truth that is associated with justification and so is adoption, but they are not to be equated with justification. The same must be said of ‘membership of the covenant family’. It is a privilege that flows from our justified state with God.
The results of revising justification
If justification is redefined as a declaration of covenant membership then its significance is greatly impaired and it can no longer be described as the basic element in the gospel and the principle by which to test whether a church is true to the gospel. According to Tom Wright, as a polemical doctrine justification is not primarily opposed to ‘the heirs of the Tractarian movement’. On his understanding of justification one can see why. If it is a declaration of covenant membership it has nothing to say to Anglo-catholicism or to Roman Catholicism.
For Wright ‘justification calls us to oppose the present trend away from historical Christianity and to wake up to the treasures of membership in the historical and visible people of God.’ He states that the basic doctrines on which justification (i.e. membership of the Christian community) is built are ‘the incarnation, cross and resurrection of the one who is Lord of all.’11 Justification, Wright insists, is about who the people of God are. They are those who confess belief in historic Christianity. Justification therefore stands over-against liberalism and paganism and is important in the area of church membership and ecumenism.
This is in line with the ARCIC II statement (see chapter 8) which considers justification in the context of the church. The church is now the dominant concern and many Anglican evangelicals like Wright are happy with this trend. Justification by faith means that all who believe in the risen Christ belong to the same family and belong to the same table. If Wright’s understanding of justification is right then the Reformation was a big mistake. No doubt he himself would want to thank God for the benefits which the Reformation brought. Nevertheless, his interpretation of the Pauline theme has the effect of removing the very heart of the Reformers’ dispute with Rome, namely, the matter of justifying righteousness.
According to Wright, the gift of righteousness is the gift of covenant member status. The gift of Christ’s righteousness put to the believer’s account before God, so precious to the Reformers and to Evangelical Protestants for four centuries, we are now told simply does not exist. There is therefore neither any need to choose between the verbs ‘to impart’ or ‘to impute’ righteousness nor to decide in favour of ‘to declare’ or ‘to make’ righteous. The verb ‘to justify’ no longer highlights the truth that God declares the wicked righteous but is, instead, a declaration concerning membership of the Christian community. It is, as far as Wright and others are concerned, in the context of church membership that justification has any real significance, in that it sets the ecumenical agenda and defines who should sit at the communion table. No longer is it the cutting edge of the gospel. The one great stumbling-block between Protestants and Roman Catholics has been removed at a stroke. This revision must be very appealing to Rome at the present time.
Similarly, if justification is understood in terms of group membership then there are those who will see its importance lying more in the world of sociological concerns, politics and economics. James Dunn follows Stendahl in thinking that justification by faith alone had no real significance for Paul’s own personal salvation and instead of speaking of his conversion it would be better to speak of his ‘call’ to preach salvation to the Gentiles.12 For Paul, his ‘conversion’ was ‘a calling’ or ‘commissioning’. He was ‘converted from . . . being a persecutor of the followers of Jesus’ and ‘converted to the Gentiles. Or, to be more precise, he was converted to the equally burning conviction that the good news of Jesus was indeed, after all, for the Gentiles’. It is in this sense, according to Dunn, Paul was converted to the gospel.
In summing up he informs us that ‘justification by faith as Paul formulated it cannot be reduced to the experience of individual salvation as though that was all there is to it. Justification by faith is Paul’s fundamental objection to the idea that God has limited his saving goodness to a particular people.’13 He then goes on to emphasise the social dimensions of the Gospel, believing that Luther’s move from the ‘justice of God’ to ‘justification by faith’ needs now to be reversed in some measure. ‘Should justification by faith be so divorced from social justice?’ he asks. ‘Does the rather dated Protestant talk of “justification by faith” have more to say to contemporary needs and concerns than has been generally recognised?’ In the light of this so-called fuller understanding of justification Dunn believes that the justice of God has national and social outworkings. The views of Dunn are applied by his colleague Alan Suggate in formulating Christian responses to such matters as Hitler’s Germany, Japanese imperialism and free market Britain under Margaret Thatcher.14
This growing tendency to play down the personal nature of justification in favour of the social dimension is very disturbing. We repeat again that the biblical revelation understands justification by faith alone to be, as Carl Henry succinctly puts it, ‘the divinely provided entry to the sinner’s redemptive relationship with God in Christ.’15 It is not primarily about moving from one group to another, neither is it in essence a Pauline protest to the idea that God has limited salvation to one racial group.
Of course, justification has social implications. What is more, there need be no dichotomy between the individual’s standing before God and a concern for others. However, if, as Dunn suggests, we go into reverse in the direction of social justice, we are turning our backs on the very article, as Seifrid puts it, ‘on which all true justice flows: the wrath and love of God manifest in the justifying work of the cross which call us to account not merely for our outward deeds, but for the secrets of our hearts’.16
Justification and Sanctification
Before we proceed any further, we need to be clear concerning what is meant by sanctification. The ARCIC II statement, as we saw earlier in chapter eight, confuses two different understandings of the term. From a biblical perspective, ‘sanctification’ or ‘holiness’ refers both to a believer’s state or position in Christ and to an activity or process in a believer’s life. The dominant use of the ‘sanctification’ language in the New Testament is, in fact, positional and relational.17 Paul can describe the Corinthian believers as ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus’ (1 Corinthians 1:2; cf. also 1:30; 6:11). They have been set apart by God for his use. Christians are not seen as striving to become God’s holy people, they are God’s holy people. It is from this privileged position that the New Testament calls Christians to behave as God’s holy people and live the sanctified life (1 Thessalonians 4:7). We are called to sanctify only what God has already pronounced holy (cf. 1 Peter 1:2 and 2:9 with 1:15; 3:15). When we come to the Reformation debates and subsequent Protestant theology on the subject, sanctification is primarily understood as the believer’s progressive growth in holiness. It is in this secondary sense that sanctification is being used in all that follows.
The connection between justification and sanctification has been, and still is the subject of keen debate and concern. Luther’s bold statement that the justified person is at one and the same time righteous and a sinner has always been an obstacle to Roman Catholics. Hans Küng, in his influential work on justification, tries to divide the Reformers on the nature of justification, suggesting that Calvin accepted a relationship between justification and sanctification that was akin to the medieval tradition defined at Trent, while Luther had twisted the truth. In answering Luther, Küng claims that Trent likewise distorted the doctrine to some degree. He is also of the opinion that Karl Barth is in essential agreement with the Council of Trent’s decree on justification.
These are incredible conclusions. Barth, in fact, is very strong in his condemnation of Trent’s teaching on justification considering it to be ‘another gospel’.18 Alister McGrath questions whether Küng has done anything more than demonstrate that ‘Barth and the Roman Catholic magisterium share a common anti-Pelagian, Christocentric theology of justification.’19
As for the attempt to divide Luther and Calvin, his arguments are no more convincing. Both Reformers break with the tradition stretching back to Augustine and defined at Trent. Justification is not for them an all-embracing concept. Calvin is even more explicit than Luther in rejecting any notion of justifying righteousness being located within the person. McGrath shows how Calvin clearly distinguished between ‘the event of the divine pronouncement (justification) and the subsequent process of regeneration (sanctification).’20
The fact that Calvin opens up the theme of justification under his teaching on the Christian life does not mean he has merged justification and sanctification. What it shows is that for Calvin justification stands at the beginning of a person’s saving relationship with God. From the initial declaration by God that guilty sinners are acquitted on account of the righteous life and activity of Jesus Christ, the believer goes on to live that life in the Spirit associated with sanctification. Justification and sanctification are inseparably related but must be kept distinct. This has been the evangelical Protestant position.
Where this distinction is lost, works become linked with justification and the gospel is perverted. The ground of our acceptance now and on the day of judgment does not lie in any human activity or attitude, not even in a small way. It does not depend on sacramental observances like baptism and the Mass, physical pains and persecution, charitable deeds or even a loving disposition. If any of these things in the slightest way become associated with justification then the sufficiency of God’s action in Christ is called into question and our assurance of salvation is lost.
Even in the matter of our growth in holiness, Luther was deeply anxious that we should not lose sight of the fact that the justified person is still a sinner, ever dependent not on any personal holiness or good work, but on Christ and his good work. This concern is expressed very forthrightly when he warns, ‘Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one. . . . Accordingly you will find peace only in him and only when you despair of yourself and your own works. Besides, you will learn from him that just as he has received you, so he has made your sins his own and has made his righteousness yours.’21
17th Century Protestants
The importance of getting it right in this area of the relationship between justification and sanctification is not confined to the controversy with Rome. Justification by grace alone, as revealed in the Bible and understood by the Reformers, has been undermined within the Protestant constituency. In many cases well-meaning ministers and theologians have been the cause of distorting the doctrine in the interests of upholding other aspects of truth which they felt were under attack. The fear of sinful presumption and living without regard to God and his law (Antinomianism) have been in the forefront of the debate. Many have also been sensitive to the Roman charge of legal fiction and to the problem of reconciling present justification based on Christ’s work and the future judgment according to human works.
Two movements arose in the seventeenth century which had a devastating effect on the doctrine of justification, and in turn, on the health of the Christian Church in Britain in the second half of that century and on into the eighteenth. Their influence still pervades the older denominations and much of the evangelicalism of the twentieth century. The first was Arminianism which came from the continent and owes its origins to the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). The Arminians objected to Christ’s imputed righteousness, denied present assurance of future salvation, unconditional election, particular redemption and the penal substitutionary nature of Christ’s death, by which means he was punished for the sins of his people. Faith was seen as essentially a commitment to do something rather than self-despairing trust in Christ and what he has done. Faith, as obedience to the gospel and allegiance to Christ, was seen as God’s new law which is counted for righteousness.
Arminianism was embraced by Archbishop Laud in the days of Charles I and later by the Anglicans of the Restoration period. It led to a new legalism at the beginning of the eighteenth century where a form of justification by works was the commonly held view.22 Packer summarises the situation in these words: ‘The meaning of faith as trust in Christ’s person and work was forgotten; the experiences of conversion and assurance were dismissed as ‘enthusiasm’, dangerous to the soul; and present justification ceased to be an issue of importance or interest.’23
The other movement was called Neonomianism or Baxterianism, after the famous Puritan minister Richard Baxter (1615-1691), and did much harm amongst the English Nonconformists (Independents and Presbyterians) and the Scottish Presbyterians. Baxter’s views were greatly influenced by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), the Dutch rationalistic theologian and politician and the mediating theology of Amyraldism, named after the celebrated theologian and professor of the French Protestant Academy of Saumour, Moise Amyraut (1596-1664). The position that Baxter took on justification differed substantially from that of the Reformers, the Westminster Confession, and the teaching of his fellow Puritans.
In his work Aphorismes of Justification (1655) he states that, ‘To affirm therefore that our Evangelical or new Covenant righteousness is in Christ and not in ourselves, or performed by Christ and not by ourselves, is such a piece of Antinomian doctrine that no man who knows the nature and difference of the Covenant can possibly entertain and which every Christian should abhor as insufferable’.24 In place of the objective righteousness of Christ’s obedience and blood Baxter substituted the subjective righteousness of a person’s repentance and faith. In other words, he was advocating like the Arminians the belief that it was faith in the sense of allegiance and commitment which justifies because it makes us ‘just performers of the conditions of the covenant of grace’.25 While believing in Christ’s death as penal and vicarious, it was not strictly substitutionary because Baxter did not believe in particular redemption, that is, he believed that Christ paid the penalty for the sins of everyone, not just for the sins of the elect. What we see in Baxter is, as Packer rightly judges, an early decline in the doctrine of justification and ‘of the Puritan insight into the nature of Christianity as a whole’.26
Baxter’s revision of the Reformation teaching on justification became very popular, but this and the other rationalistic elements of his theology had disastrous results on the Christian Church and evangelical Christianity. In summary, Packer presents this devastating criticism of Baxter that he ‘sowed the seeds of moralism with regard to sin, Arianism with regard to Christ, legalism with regard to faith and salvation, and liberalism with regard to God’.27 It is a salutary reminder to us today of where one influential and dedicated minister’s ideas can lead.
There are some similarities between Baxter’s views and the revisions to the doctrine of justification that have been recently presented. Sin tends to be externalized with the result that the indwelling power of personal sin is underestimated. Faith as allegiance to Christ and the ground of justification is not dissimilar to the modern notion of faith as belief and commitment, a badge on the basis of which a person is declared to be justified. The cross becomes of peripheral importance; the wrath of God is no longer viewed as his settled opposition to human rebellion and an expression of his eternal and unchangeable holy nature. Like Baxter’s scheme the modern revision rejects the imputation of Christ’s righteous life.
Learning from Baxter
Baxter’s new understanding of justification aroused the interest of many and this in itself merits attention, for it speaks to our own situation today. lain Murray draws attention to three reasons why Baxter himself was so attracted to it.28
1 The orthodox teaching, Baxter felt, was open to abuse. ‘If people believed in a once-for-all justification on the grounds of a divine righteousness imputed to them, then the necessity for continued moral effort was surely lessened’. His experience as a chaplain in Cromwell’s Army, where he was shocked by the lax attitude to godly living on the part of those who professed faith, led him to attack the Reformation teaching on justification as Antinomian. Murray comments, ‘It was not the doctrine of justification which needed adjustment and revision to meet the threat of “easy-believism”.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his exposition of Romans 6:1 has drawn attention to the fact that ‘the doctrine of justification by faith only is a very dangerous doctrine’ in the sense that it can be so easily misunderstood in the direction of antinomianism. He continues, ‘If my preaching and presentation of the gospel of salvation does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel’.29 The teachings of Rome and legalists never result in people asking the question which Paul tackles in Romans 6, ‘What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?’ Paul does not revise his doctrine in the light of the assumption that justification by faith alone encourages people to sin more, but shows how wrong it is and gives further teaching to counteract such false deductions.
We must expect the biblical doctrine of justification as rediscovered and understood by the Reformers to be misunderstood. What we must guard against is the ever-present danger especially when seeking to overcome such misconceptions, of introducing human works as in some way contributing toward a ‘final justification’. In January 1982, Norman Shepherd was dismissed as Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, for his views on justification. This should awaken the staunchest Protestant to ‘take heed lest he fall’. In one of his statements concerning justification Shepherd said, ‘Works done from true faith . . . being the new obedience wrought by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer united to Christ . . . are necessary for salvation from eternal condemnation...’ At the same time he repudiated ‘the inference that man, by his own good works, contributes to his own salvation’. The system he fashioned was to guard against a belief that forgiveness of sins can be enjoyed without repentance and heaven attained without holiness (cf. Hebrews 12:14, ‘without holiness no-one will see the Lord.’)30
Shepherd and those who supported him had extended justification into the sphere of sanctification and had accepted the notion that the good works of Christians have a necessary part to play in their final justification. Hebrews 12:14 is about sanctification. The good works of believers are to be associated with sanctification and not with justification. Justification must never be thought of as some sort of process fused with sanctification.
Nor is it at all helpful to speak, as Don Garlington does, of justification in past, present and future categories.31 Justification is not in three stages. Even the expressions ‘initial and final justification’ or ‘first and second justification’ are misleading. The only justification of sinners the Bible speaks of is the one whereby God justifies the ungodly who put their trust in Christ alone. The righteousness of Christ in terms of his obedience and death is put to their account and that is the sole ground of their acceptability before God. Justification is a divine once-for-all pronouncement in the present which is irrevocable. It is not their ‘obedience of faith which will justify in the final judgment’, as Garlington suggests,32 but Christ’s obedience which has already been put to their account. Rather, the obedience of believers will show them to be the already justified people that they are in Christ.
More recently, R. C. Sproul, a well-respected speaker and author in the United States, has been using wording that is a regrettable lapse from his customary precision. In his admirable concern over the rampant antinomianism present in so much of the modern church, he is giving the impression that justification is on the basis of regeneration as well as of Christ’s righteousness. His views are set out in a Symposium entitled Justification by Faith Alone. The Reformed position on the forensic nature of justification is spelled out, and Sproul clearly insists that the righteousness of Christ imputed to believers, which includes both his perfect life of obedience and his atoning death, is the ground of their justification. He is also right in stating that though justification and regeneration (or sanctification) are to be distinguished they must not be separated. But when he writes that ‘Justification, technically considered, may not mean a change of human nature but it certainly involves a change in nature’ he has overstepped the mark. That this is no mere slip of the pen is evident when he uses such expressions as ‘the complex or nexus of justification’. He explains: ‘Justification in the narrow sense refers strictly to God’s forensic declaration. But the complex of justification in the wider sense involves other elements.’ These other elements include a change in the person justified. Later, he introduces quotations from John Gerstner who makes comments which imply that justification is more than a legal declaration.33
We have every reason to believe that both Sproul and Gerstner are only concerned to emphasise the close connection between justification and regeneration. To talk, however, of a wider and narrower sense to the term is not the best way of expressing this. Justification itself does not involve or include regeneration or sanctification. God does not justify the godly but the ungodly, not the righteous but the unrighteous. In justification God does not justify sinners on the basis of an inner change which has led them to believe. It is not Christ plus an inner change, but Christ alone. We must get it right and not be tempted to alter the doctrine even under the pressures of antinomianism or some other error.34
2 The second reason Murray gives why Baxter found his new ideas on justification so appealing was ‘that it seemed to offer a better basis for the preaching of the gospel to all men’. His commendable concern and love for lost sinners made him renounce the widely prevailing belief that Christ’s death for sinners, though sufficient for all, is effective for the elect alone. It may well have been, as Murray suggests, that his fellow Puritans, in their opposition to Arminianism in which he himself was involved, ‘did not give sufficient emphasis to the universal compassion of God’. In seeking to redress the balance Baxter allowed himself to philosophise and explain what Scripture leaves unexplained. It is something which human beings find difficult to accept but there are matters concerning God and his salvation where we are up against mystery and ‘where reason fails there faith prevails and love adores’.
Belief in particular redemption has never inhibited the great evangelical preachers of the church from emphasising God’s love for a lost world, offering the gospel to every person and urging them to repent and put their trust in the one and only Saviour of the world. God’s sovereignty in the salvation of sinners and the responsibility laid upon human beings both to preach the gospel to all and for them to respond believingly to its message are clearly taught in the Bible (cf. John 6:37-40; 17:2). We dare not surrender the truth or pervert it even with the best of motives. If we do, all is lost and the devil will have won.
3 The final reason why Murray thinks Baxter was carried away by his ideas ‘was his conviction that it provided a genuine via media between Calvinism and Arminianism.’ He had a great desire for unity among Christians and for an end to all sectarian interests. In this again he has much to teach us by way of warning. Genuine unity between churches and Christian groups cannot be achieved at the expense of truth. Baxter’s errors led, in fact, to even more divisions, to the end of cooperation between the Presbyterians and Independents and to a weakening of orthodox Christianity. The fact that he had a reputation for godliness and evangelism, and had suffered for his faith in the Great Ejection of 1662, gave his false views more influence and credibility.
To reduce, expand or revise the doctrine of justification in the interests of Christian unity, even when leading men, respected in the evangelical world are involved, is to be resisted at all costs. History shows the intended aim is not realised, disaster results, the church falls and Christianity suffers. The Reformers were quite right to insist how fundamentally important the subject of justification is for the believer and the very existence of the Christian church.
Its importance to the Reformers, Puritans and 18th century Evangelicals
The doctrine of justification by faith alone with its trinitarian foundations is described by Luther in the Schmalkald Articles of 1537 as the ‘first and chief article’ of faith, ‘upon which depends all that we teach and practise against the pope, the devil, and all the world. We must, therefore, be entirely certain of this, and not doubt it, otherwise all will be lost, and the pope, and the devil, and our opponents will prevail and obtain the victory’.35 The following year, in his exposition of Psalm 130:4 he maintained that ‘if this article stands, the church stands, if it falls, the church falls.’36 Later theologians expressed the matter in the well-known dictum that this is ‘the article on which the church stands or falls.’
John Calvin stressed the importance of this doctrine. In his Institutes, as he comes to open up the subject of justification, he declares that it ‘is the main hinge on which religion turns, so that we devote the greater attention and care to it.’37 He also made clear in a treatise presented to the Emperor Charles V that ‘the safety of the church’ depended upon this doctrine and ‘if the purity of this doctrine is in any degree impaired the Church has received a deadly wound’ and ‘brought to the very brink of destruction.’38 In a letter to Cardinal Sadolet Calvin wrote: ‘Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown.’39
Archbishop Cranmer, who was burnt alive at the stake in Oxford on 21st March 1556, is very forceful in his famous homily Of Salvation. He describes justification as ‘the strong rock and foundation of Christian religion: this doctrine all old and ancient authors of Christ’s Church do approve: this doctrine advanceth and setteth forth the true glory of Christ, and beateth down the vain glory of man: this whosoever denieth is not to be counted for a true Christian man, nor for a setter forth of Christ’s glory, but for an adversary of Christ and his Gospel, and for a setter forth of men’s vainglory.’40 Evangelicals, who are inclined to call those who have turned their back on justification by faith alone for the Roman system ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’, would do well to think through what Cranmer says.
The Protestant historian John Foxe (1516-1587), in his Acts and Monuments (popularly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) speaks of Luther beating down the Roman errors by the article on justification. ‘Luther gave the stroke . . . by opening one vein, long hid before, wherein lieth the touchstone of all truth and doctrine, as the only principal origin of our salvation, which is, our free justifying by faith alone, in Christ the Son of God.41 John Knox (c. 1514-1572), the great Scottish Reformer, likened the opposition between the Reformers and Rome to that of Paul and the Galatian heretics. What was at stake, he said in his debate with the Jesuit, James Tyrie, was the gospel of God’s grace, ‘for it concerneth the chief head of justification’.42
The point is that in these quotations from the Reformers this doctrine of justification is not some theoretical matter for university scholars and theologians to debate, it is one which has profound practical implications for the church and the individual. Remember too, that for believing and preaching this gospel truth and for showing people the implications of it, these men lived in danger of their lives and some paid the ultimate price in most cruel circumstances. Justification by faith alone calls into question all the errors, superstitions and abuses that have crept into the church down the centuries.
In his work A Disputation of Purgatory (1531), John Frith, the gifted Cambridge scholar clearly saw that the doctrine of justification necessarily put a question-mark over Rome’s teaching on purgatory. According to David Daniell in his recent biography on Tyndale, ‘Frith’s Purgatory is one of the finest, answering Rastell, More and Fisher on the subject of purgatory, showing its lack of biblical authority.’43 Frith was burnt for his views on 4th July 1531 at Smithfield, London. From the opposite side, Cardinal Cervini never said a truer word at the start of session VI of the Council of Trent when he declared that Luther’s doctrine of justification was at the root of his ‘errors’ on the sacraments, the power of the Keys, indulgences and purgatory.44 When the doctrine of justification by faith was grasped reformation followed. At the Council of Trent Rome closed its mind to justification by faith alone and so there could only be counter-reformation.
If a body calling itself ‘church’ loses this central message of justification, it will soon have no good news to present. It will become another superstitious, religious institution, falsely bearing the name of Christian. What is more, the people will continue to be in the dark, heading for hell, while at the same time trusting in a Jesus of faulty human thought and heretical church tradition.
John Owen, the Nonconformist leader and theologian of the seventeenth century, wished that Luther ‘had not been a true prophet, when he foretold that in the following ages the doctrine hereof would be again obscured.’ Owen points out that the doctrine of justification ‘gave the first occasion to the whole work of reformation, and was the main hinge whereon it turned’. Even the ‘papal church’ he declares is ‘comparatively at ease’ from the abuses that were prevalent before the Reformation. Yet so many wrong traditions remain ‘blinding the eyes of men from discerning the necessity as well as the truth of the evangelical doctrine of justification.’45
Both George Whitefield (1714-1770) and John Wesley (1703-1791), the Methodist leaders of the great Evangelical Revival in England, saw the importance of justification by faith alone and denounced what they saw as the moralism and legalism that prevailed in the Anglican church. Not only at grass roots level but from the Anglican hierarchy the thinking was very much in the direction of a justification that included works as well as faith.
Archbishop John Tillotson, for instance, preached that ‘the great condition of our justification and acceptance with God, is the real renovation of our hearts and lives ... and this, whether by justification be meant our first justification ... or our continuance in this state, or our final justification’.46 No wonder that Wesley and Whitefield accused him of knowing ‘no more of true Christianity than Mohamet’! Wesley was as vehement in his opposition to the prevailing Anglican thinking as Whitefield, showing the importance of keeping justification ‘wholly distinct from sanctification, and necessarily antecedent to it.’47
In his Journal for the year 1735, when he was only twenty, Whitefield wrote of how his eyes had been opened by God’s grace to ‘the necessity of being justified in His sight by faith alone’. He described it as ‘the good old doctrine of the Church of England. It is what the holy martyrs in Queen Mary’s time sealed with their blood, and which I pray God, if need be, that I and my brethren may seal with ours.’48
Summarising the state of evangelicalism within the Church of England after the Great Evangelical Awakening of the eighteenth century, Alister McGrath states that the doctrine of justification was recognised as ‘the milk of the gospel, and the salve for troubled consciences. The evangelical love-affair with the doctrine of justification gave rise to a profound spirituality, inspired and nourished by the knowledge that God had freely forgiven the sinner through Christ’s death on the cross. It is that profound spirituality which led evangelicals to proclaim the saving love of God at home and abroad.’49
The great philosopher and preacher of the Evangelical Revival in New England in the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), has a discourse on justification. In his concluding remarks he shows that the Scriptures treat the doctrine as one of very great importance and that Paul strenuously and zealously defends it by opposing justification by works of the law. The apostle, says Edwards, ‘speaks of the contrary doctrine as fatal and ruinous to the souls of men . . . as subversive of the gospel of Christ, and calls it another gospel’ and calls down a curse on those preaching it. ‘Certainly we must allow the apostles to be good judges of the importance and tendency of doctrines; at least the Holy Ghost in them. And doubtless we are safe, and in no danger of harshness and censoriousness, if we only follow him, and keep close to his express teachings, in what we believe and say of the hurtful and pernicious tendency of any error.’50
We do well to remember these words of Edwards especially at a time when it is not popular to condemn false views. Getting it right is not an optional extra for armchair theologians to debate. We are dealing with matters which affect our eternal destiny and greater will be the judgment on preachers and teachers who have presented an uncertain or false message. No wonder people of old were prepared to die for their belief in justification by faith alone!
When the ARCIC II report on justification appeared in 1987, Clifford Longley of The Times commented on ‘a certain wetness’ among modern churchmen compared with those of the Reformation period. He wrote: ‘Evidently there was something about this subject which caused hot tempers . . . salvation was perhaps more highly valued then, or damnation more feared: it mattered enormously which was the road to one, which to the other.’51
The biblical doctrine of justification brings us, as we have seen, to the very heart of the Christian message of salvation, human beings in a right relationship with God. It is often said that we are not called to believe a doctrine in order to be saved, but a Person. Surprisingly, Packer uses this argument in his support for grassroots collaboration with Roman Catholics in ministry. ‘What brings salvation, after all, is not any theory about faith in Christ, justification, and the church, but faith itself in Christ himself.’52
We thoroughly agree that faith is directed toward Christ himself and not to any statement about him. However, the link must never be severed between the Person and the truth revealed about him in Scripture. We would not know anything about the Lord Jesus were it not for the Bible. The Jesus that we trust is the Jesus revealed in the Bible. To this, Packer would concur and indeed he refers to ‘the Christ of Scripture’. Going a step further, we must say that, while it is perfectly possible to be saved through believing in Jesus Christ without having actually heard of the doctrine of justification, nevertheless the Saviour we are called to trust is the One revealed in the Bible whose blood and righteousness alone put us right with God.
The message concerning Christ presented in the Roman Catholic system of belief which the faithful are called to accept for salvation is a false gospel. It is the duty of evangelicals lovingly to challenge their belief and humbly to show them the truth of the gospel. When the biblical doctrine of justification, as rediscovered by the Reformers, is explained to those who say they have faith in Christ, and they do not accept and embrace it, neither we nor they can have any assurance that they are genuine believers. If, on the other hand, they do accept it they will be glad to put their signature to a statement on justification that includes the all-important word ‘alone’. Furthermore, those who claim to appreciate something of the wonder of justification by faith alone, will eventually see how utterly repugnant to the gospel are all the unreformed doctrines and practices of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and the aberrations that have emerged within the Protestant denominations.
Unless the church clearly understands and proclaims the biblical truth concerning justification by faith alone, individuals may well be lulled into thinking that if they do their best, become members of the church and practise all that is required of them they will be accepted by God. A church made up of people who do not know what it is to be justified by faith alone is a sad sight and one that cannot rightly be called a Christian church.
One of the famous sayings, a truth well-known in the early church, quoted by the apostle Paul, includes this emphasis on justification: ‘He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life’ (Titus 3:5-7).
In the final chapter we shall consider what this biblical truth means for us today.
A native of Wrexham, Philip Eveson obtained his initial degree in Biblical Studies at the University College of North Wales, Bangor. From there he was awarded a scholarship to read Theology at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He later gained his MTh in Hebrew and Aramaic Studies at King's College, London and is a member of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research. After a year at the Presbyterian Theological College, Aberystwyth, he served churches in South Wales before moving to London, where he has been Minister of Kensit Evangelical Church for the past twenty-three years. Since its inception in 1977, he has been Resident Tutor and Lecturer in Biblical Languages and Exegesis at the London Theological Seminary. Philip has also preached and lectured in the Far East and Ghana, is Chairman of the Red Sea Mission Team British Home Council and a Director of Go Teach. He is married to Jennifer and they have one daughter.