by Philip E. Hughes
“We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings: wherefore that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine.” So says the eleventh of the Thirty-Nine Articles. This wholesome doctrine is the cutting edge of the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. It is the heartbeat of the New Covenant. The rediscovery of the Bible as the dynamic Word of God revolved round the experience of the truth of this evangelical doctrine to which its pages bear testimony. The crucial cry of the Reformation, as it is also the radical problem of man in his fallenness, was: “How can a man be justified with God?” (Job 25:4) In view of its cardinal significance, not least in those days of renewal, it is not surprising that Luther should have called justification by faith the article of a standing or falling Church. It was, however, a doctrine which needed very careful definition and explanation if it was not to be misapplied and misrepresented. This the Reformers were soon to learn. It is not faith as such and by itself that justifies. Indeed, there can be no such thing as bare faith; for faith must have an object. And the object of Christian faith is Christ. The Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone does not mean by faith in isolation. It means that, where man’s salvation is concerned, there is, negatively, no room at all for any notion of human merit, and, positively, there is only room for the merit of Christ.
In the first place, then, it must be emphasized that the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith is entirely Christ-centred, and not in any way man-centred. Faith that is not directed upon Christ as man’s Saviour and the Bearer of his sins is neither saving faith nor Christian faith. “Catch thou hold of our Saviour,” preaches Hugh Latimer, “believe in Him, be assured in thy heart that He with His suffering took away all thy sins . . . When we believe in Him it is like as if we had no sins. For He changeth with us: He taketh our sins and wickedness from us, and giveth unto us His holiness, righteousness, justice, fulfilling of the law, and so, consequently, everlasting life: so that we be like as if we had done no sin at all; for his righteousness standeth us in so good stead, as though we of our own selves had fulfilled the law to the uttermost . . . Like as when I owe a man a hundred pounds: the day is expired, he will have his money; I have it not, and for lack of it I am laid in prison. In such distress cometh a good friend and saith, ‘Sir, be of good cheer, I will pay thy debts’; and forthwith payeth the whole sum, and setteth me at liberty. Such a friend is our Saviour. He hath paid our debts, and set us at liberty; else we should have been damned world without end in everlasting prison and darkness. Therefore, though our sins condemn us, yet when we allege Christ and believe in Him our sins shall not hurt us.”1
“The love that God hath to Christ is infinite,” writes William Tyndale in his work on The Parable of the Wicked Mammon; “and Christ did and suffered all things not for Himself, to obtain favour or aught else; for He had ever the full favour of God, and was ever Lord over all things; but to reconcile us to God, and to make us heirs with Him of His Father’s kingdom. And God hath promised that whosoever calleth on His name shall never be confounded or ashamed.2 . . . Who is righteous but he that trusteth in Christ’s blood, be he never so weak? Christ is our righteousness; and in Him ought we to teach all men to trust, and to expound unto all men the testament that God hath made to us sinners in Christ’s blood.”3
BY FAITH ALONE
“The sum and whole cause of the writing of this epistle,” says Tyndale again, in his Prologue to the Epistle to the Romans, “is to prove that a man is justified by faith only; which proposition whoso denieth, to him is not only this epistle and all that Paul writeth, but also the whole Scripture, so locked up, that he shall never understand it to his soul’s health. And by justifying, understand no other thing than to be reconciled to God, and to be restored unto His favour, and to have thy sins forgiven thee. And when I say, God justifieth us, understand thereby that God for Christ’s sake, merits, and deservings only, receiveth us unto His mercy, favour, and grace, and forgiveth us our sins. And when I say, Christ justifieth us, understand thereby that Christ only hath redeemed us, bought, and delivered us out of the wrath of God and damnation, and hath with His works only purchased us the mercy, the favour, and grace of God, and the forgiveness of our sins. And when I say that faith justifieth, understand thereby that faith and trust in the truth of God and in the mercy promised us for Christ’s sake, and for His deserving and works only, doth quiet the conscience and certify her that our sins be forgiven, and we in the favour of God. Furthermore, set before thine eyes Christ’s works and thine own works. Christ’s works only justify thee and make satisfaction for thy sin, and not thine own works . . . For the promise of mercy is made thee for Christ’s work’s sake, and not for thine own work’s sake . . . Finally, that we say, faith only justifieth, ought to offend no man. For if this be true, that Christ only redeemed us, Christ only bare our sins, made satisfaction for them, and purchased us the favour of God; then must it needs be true that the trust only in Christ’s deserving and in the promises of God the Father, made to us for Christ’s sake, doth alone quiet the conscience and certify it that the sins are forgiven.”4 This deserves to be taken as the classic definition of the Reformed doctrine of justification. It is this teaching which pervades, or undergirds, all the preaching and writing of the Reformation.
Archbishop Cranmer writes no less classically of this great doctrine when, referring likewise to the Epistle to the Romans, he points out that there are three things “which must concur and go together in our justification: upon God’s part, His great mercy and grace; upon Christ’s part, justice, that is, the satisfaction of God’s justice, or price of our redemption, by the offering of His body and shedding of His blood, with fulfilling of the law perfectly and thoroughly; and upon our part, true and lively faith in the merits of Jesus Christ, which (faith) yet is not ours, but by God’s working in us. So that in our justification is not only God’s mercy and grace, but [also His justice, which the apostle calleth the justice of God; and it consisteth in paying our ransom, and fulfilling of the law: and so the grace of God doth not exclude the justice of God in our justification, but only excludeth the justice of man, that is to say, the justice of our works, as to be merits of deserving our justification. And therefore St. Paul declareth here nothing upon the behalf of man concerning his justification, but only a true and lively faith; which nevertheless is the gift of God, and not man’s only work without God.”5
After calling attention to the fact that this apostolic doctrine is maintained in the writings of “the old and ancient authors, both Greeks and Latins”, Cranmer goes on to explain further that “this proposition, that we be justified by faith only, freely, and without works, is spoken for to take away clearly all merit of our works, as being insufficient to deserve our justification at God’s hands, and thereby most plainly to express the weakness of man and the goodness of God, the great infirmity of ourselves and the might and power of God, the imperfectness of our own works and the most abundant grace of our Saviour Christ; and thereby wholly to ascribe the merit and deserving of our justification unto Christ only and His most precious blood-shedding. This faith the Holy Scripture teacheth; this is 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 suppresseth the vain-glory of man; this whosoever denieth is not to be reputed 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 vain-glory . . . Justification is not the office of man, but of God: for man cannot justify himself by his own works, neither in part nor in the whole; for that were the greatest arrogancy and presumption of man that antichrist could erect against God, to affirm that a man might by his own works take away and purge his own sins, and so justify himself. But justification is the office of God only, and it is not a thing which we render unto Him, but which we receive of Him; not which we give to Him, but which we take of Him, by His free mercy, and by the only merits of His most dearly beloved Son, our only Redeemer, Saviour, and Justifier, Jesus Christ. So that the true understanding of this doctrine, we be justified freely by faith without works, or that we be justified by faith in Christ only, is not that this our own act to believe in Christ, or this our faith in Christ, which is within us, doth justify us, and merit our justification unto us (for that were to count ourselves to be justified by some act or virtue that is within ourselves): but the true understanding and meaning thereof is, that although we hear God’s Word, and believe it; although we have faith, hope, charity, repentance, dread, and fear of God within us, and do never so many good works thereunto; yet we must renounce the merit of all our said virtues, of faith, hope, charity, and all our other virtues and good deeds, which we either have done, shall do, or can do, as things that be far too weak and insufficient and imperfect to deserve remission of our sins and our justification; and therefore we must trust only in God’s mercy, and in that sacrifice which our High Priest and Saviour Jesus Christ, the Son of God, once offered for us upon the cross, to obtain thereby God’s grace and remission, as well of our original sin in baptism as of all actual sin committed by us after our baptism . . . So that our faith in Christ (as it were) saith unto us thus: ‘It is not I that take away your sins, but it is Christ only; and to Him only I send you for that purpose, renouncing therein all your good virtues, words, thoughts, and works, and only putting your trust in Christ.’”6
BY GRACE ALONE
The Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone cannot be understood apart from the Reformed doctrine of justification by grace alone. They are the two sides of the same coin. Together they set forth that ascription of all the glory for what we are and do to God — soli Deo Gloria — which is the hallmark of the Reformation. The importance of this emphasis cannot be overstated, because it is characteristic of fallen man to ascribe glory to himself instead of to God, to whom alone it belongs. Self-glory is vain-glory: it is an expression of the sinful desire of the creature to be as God. The twin doctrine of sola fide and sola gratia is, therefore, essential for every age; but it was, in a historical sense, especially necessary when the Reformation came, because for centuries it had been to all intents and purposes submerged and stifled under an unevangelical accumulation of doctrines of merits by works, penances, and payments, whereby men were led to hope that they might perhaps win some acceptance with God. This inevitably meant that man’s justification before God, inasmuch as it was mixed up with what man did, became a matter of uncertainty. The rediscovery of the Gospel of free grace set forth in Holy Scripture, however, involved also the rediscovery of the believer’s eternal security in Christ. Salvation in which man has even the smallest hand is thereby invested with a degree of doubt. But salvation which from beginning to end is entirely the work of God is invested with complete assurance: as God’s work, it cannot fail or be frustrated.
Within this setting of the total inability of man and the total ability of God in the work of salvation we are able to reach a proper comprehension of Article X: Of Free Will, which states: “The condition of man after the fall of Adam is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith and calling upon God: wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.” And the same thing must be said of Article XII: of Works before Justification, according to which “works done before the grace of Christ and the inspiration of His Spirit are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ; neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School-authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin”. These Articles have been misunderstood when they have been torn from their framework of justification and then misapplied to a theological background for which they were never intended. The Reformers had no wish to deny that in human society there are standards of moral behaviour by comparison with which actions may be described as either good or bad. What they were intent on denying was that fallen man, none of whose actions are performed to the glory of God, could in any way contribute to his own or anyone else’s salvation.
In his Sermon on Repentance John Bradford urges his hearers with the following exhortation: “Dearly beloved, therefore abhor this abomination, even to think that there is any other satisfaction to God-ward for sin than Christ’s blood only. Blasphemy it is, and that horrible, to think otherwise. ‘The blood of Christ purifieth’, saith St. John, ‘from all sin’.7 And therefore He is called ‘the Lamb slain from the beginning of the world’,8 because there was never sin forgiven of God, nor shall be, from the beginning unto the end of the world, but only through Christ’s death.”9 And so also with regard to the origin of the faith by which a man is justified: “Faith is so far from the reach of man’s free will that to reason it is plain foolishness. Therefore thou must first go to God, whose gift it is; thou must, I say, get thee to the Father of Mercy, whose work it is; that, as He hath brought thee down by contrition and humbled thee, so He would give thee faith, raise thee up, and exalt thee.”10
Similarly, Tyndale admonishes us that “the true faith springeth not of man’s fantasy, neither is it in any man’s power to obtain it; but it is altogether the pure gift of God poured into us freely, without all manner doing of us, without deserving and merits, yea, and without seeking for of us; and is (as saith Paul in the second to the Ephesians)11 even God’s gift and grace, purchased through Christ. Therefore is it mighty in operation, full of virtue, and ever working; which also reneweth a man, and begetteth him afresh, altereth him, changeth him, and turneth him altogether into a new nature and conversation; so that a man feeleth his heart altogether altered and changed, and far otherwise disposed than before; and hath power to love that which before he could not but hate; and delighteth in that which before he abhorred; and hateth that which before he could not but love. And it setteth the soul at liberty, and maketh her free to follow the will of God.” Nor is this faith something in isolation; for the Giver is present with the gift: “The Spirit of God accompanieth faith, and bringeth with her light, wherewith a man beholdeth himself in the law of God, and seeth his miserable bondage and captivity, and humbleth himself, and abhorreth himself . . . God worketh with His Word, and in His Word: and when His Word is preached faith rooteth herself in the hearts of the elect; and as faith entereth, and the Word of God is believed, the power of God looseth the heart from the captivity and bondage under sin, and knitteth and coupleth him to God and to the will of God.”12
Again, he describes the priority of God’s grace in the following words: “God chooseth us first and loveth us first, and openeth our eyes to see His exceeding abundant love to us in Christ; and then love we again, and accept His will above all things,, and serve Him in that office whereunto He hath chosen us.”13 And in his Prologue to the Book of Leviticus he declares that “all that repent and believe in Christ are saved from everlasting death, of pure grace, without, and before, their good works; and not to sin again, but to fight against sin, and henceforth to sin no more”. Tyndale, with the other Reformers, had learnt, from Scripture and also from experience, that “all the deeds in the world, save the blood of Christ, can purchase no forgiveness of sins”.14 So, too, in his Homily of Salvation, Cranmer insists that “our justification doth come freely by the mere mercy of God, and of so great and free mercy that, whereas all the world was not able of themselves to pay any part towards their ransom, it pleased our heavenly Father, of His infinite mercy, without any of our desert or deserving, to prepare for us the most precious jewels of Christ’s body and blood, whereby our ransom might be fully paid, the law fulfilled, and His justice fully satisfied.”15
We hear Hugh Latimer hammering home the same truth when preaching on the clause in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us”: “Do I now, in forgiving my neighbour his sins which he hath done against me, do I, I say, deserve or merit at God’s hand forgiveness of my own sins? No, no; God forbid! for if this should be so, then farewell Christ: it taketh Him clean away, it diminisheth His honour, and it is very treason wrought against Christ. This hath been in times past taught openly in the pulpits and in the schools; but it was very treason against Christ: for in Him only, and in nothing else, neither in heaven nor in earth, is our remission; unto Him only pertaineth this honour. For remission of sins, wherein consisteth everlasting life, is such a treasure, that passeth all men’s doings: it must not be our merits that shall serve, but His. He is our comfort: it is the majesty of Christ, and His blood-shedding, that cleanseth us from our sins . . . So you see, as touching our salvation, we must not go to working to think to get everlasting life with our own doings. No, this were to deny Christ. Salvation, and remission of sins, is His gift, His own and free gift.”16
The necessity of faith is not a necessity of human initiative, but a necessity of response to the divine initiative. Faith, as Latimer graphically says, is the hand wherewith we receive Christ’s benefits.17 But its consequence is even more than a receiving: it is a union. And it is this oneness with and in Christ that is the guarantee of our eternal security: the believer’s destiny is none other than the destiny of Christ Himself. “Christ is thine, and all His deeds are thy deeds,” says Tyndale. “Christ is in thee, and thou in Him, knit together inseparably. Neither canst thou be damned, except Christ be damned with thee; neither can Christ be saved, except thou be saved with Him.” It is, moreover, God the Holy Spirit who seals this assurance to the believing heart: “Whosoever repenteth, believeth the Gospel, and putteth his trust in Christ’s merits, the same is heir with Christ of eternal life; for assurance whereof the Spirit of God is poured into his heart as an earnest.”18
There is, however, a faith which is not unto salvation. The Reformers, indeed, frequently point out that there are two kinds of faith — a right faith and a wrong faith, a dead faith and a lively faith. Tyndale addresses his readers as follows: “I pray thee how many thousands are there of them that say, ‘I believe that Christ was born of a virgin, that He died, that He rose again’, and so forth, and thou canst not bring them in belief that they have any sin at all! . . . For though they believe that Christ died, yet believe they not that He died for their sins, and that His death is a sufficient satisfaction for their sins; and that God, for His sake, will be a father unto them, and give them power to resist sin.”19 And Cranmer admonishes: “That faith which bringeth forth (without repentance) either evil works, or no good works, is not a right, pure, and lively faith, but a dead, devilish, counterfeit, and feigned faith, as St. Paul and St. James call it. For even the devils know and believe that Christ was born of a virgin, that He fasted forty days and forty nights without meat and drink, that He wrought all kinds of miracles, declaring Himself very God. They believe also that Christ for our sakes suffered most painful death, to redeem us from eternal death, and that He rose again from death the third day. They believe that He ascended into heaven, and that He sitteth on the right hand of the Father, and at the last end of this world shall come again, and judge both the quick and the dead. These articles of our faith the devils believe, and so they believe all things that be written in the New and Old Testament to be true: and yet for all this faith they be but devils, remaining still in their damnable estate, lacking the very true Christian faith. For the right and true Christian faith is not only to believe that Holy Scripture and all the foresaid articles of our faith are true, but also to have a sure trust and confidence in God’s merciful promises, to be saved from everlasting damnation by Christ: whereof doth follow a loving heart to obey His commandments.”20
FAITH AND WORKS
Although the Reformers strenuously denied that by his works or dispositions man could contribute anything at all to his justification yet it is very far from being the truth that they had no place in their system of Christianity for good works (as was commonly and maliciously charged by their enemies). On the contrary, they gave particular prominence to the importance of good works. They excluded them only as a means to justification: good works do not and cannot precede justification; but they must follow it, as light and warmth follow the rising of the sun. Justification is not the reward of good works; but good works are the proof of justification. “How,” asks Cranmer, “can a man have this true faith, this sure trust and confidence in God, that by the merits of Christ his sins be remitted, and he reconciled to the favour of God, and to be partaker of the kingdom of heaven by Christ, when he liveth ungodly and denieth Christ in his deeds? Surely no such ungodly man can have this faith and trust in God . . . Therefore, to conclude, considering the infinite benefits of God, shewed and exhibited unto us mercifully without our deserts . . .: these great and merciful benefits of God, if they be well considered, do neither minister unto us occasion to be idle, and to live without doing any good works, nor yet stir us to do evil things; but contrariwise, if we be not desperate persons and our hearts harder than stones, they move us to render ourselves unto God wholly, with all our will, hearts, might, and power, to serve Him in all good deeds, obeying His commandments during our lives, to seek in all things His glory and honour, not our sensual pleasures and vain-glory; evermore dreading willingly to offend such a merciful God and loving Redeemer, in word, thought, or deed. And the said benefits of God, deeply considered, do move us for His sake also to be ever ready to give ourselves to our neighbours, and, as much as lieth in us, to study with all our endeavour to do good to every man. These be the fruits of the true faith, to do good, as much as lieth in us, to every man, and, above all things, and in all things, to advance the glory of God, of whom only we have our sanctification, justification, salvation, and redemption.”21
In his Homily of Faith Cranmer explains how “a true faith cannot be kept secret”, but “will break out and show itself by good works”. He marshals evidence to demonstrate that “all Holy Scripture agreeably beareth witness that a true and lively faith in Christ doth bring forth good works”, with the consequence that “every man must examine himself diligently, to know whether he have the same true lively faith in his heart unfeignedly, or not; which he shall know by the fruits thereof”. “Deceive not yourselves therefore,” he exhorts, “thinking that you have faith in God, or that you love God, or do trust in Him, or do fear Him, when you live in sin; for then your ungodly and sinful life declareth the contrary, whatsoever ye say or think. It pertaineth to a Christian man to have this true Christian faith, and to try himself whether he hath it or no, and to know what belongeth to it, and how it doth work in him . . . Christ Himself speaketh of this matter, and saith: ‘The tree is known by the fruit’.22 Therefore let us do good works, and thereby declare our faith to be the lively Christian faith. Let us by such virtues as ought to spring out of faith show our election to be sure and stable, as St. Peter teacheth: ‘Endeavour yourselves to make your calling and election certain by good works.’23 . . . So shall we show indeed that we have the very lively Christian faith, and may so both certify our conscience the better that we be in the right faith, and also by these means confirm other men. If these fruits do not follow, we do but mock with God, deceive ourselves, and also other men. Well may we bear the name of Christian men, but we do lack the true faith that doth belong thereunto. For true faith doth ever bring forth good works, as St. James saith: ‘Show me thy faith by thy deeds.’ Thy deeds and works must be an open testimonial of thy faith: otherwise thy faith, being without good works, is but the devil’s faith, the faith of the wicked, a fantasy of faith, and not a true Christian faith . . . Therefore, as you profess the name of Christ, good Christian people, let no such fantasy and imagination of faith at any time beguile you; but be sure of your faith: try it by your living.”24
Similarly, Thomas Becon affirms, in the Preface to his Common-places of the Holy Scripture, that “works are the fruits of faith, and good testimonies unto our conscience that our faith is true and unfeigned; but helpers unto our justification or salvation they are not . . . As the sun cannot be without light nor the fire without heat, no more can the true and Christian faith be without good works, whensoever occasion is offered either for the glory of God or for the profit of our neighbour. If such faith ceaseth to work, then it is not an evangelical but an historical faith”.25
The good works that follow and testify to a right faith are no more meritorious, however, than are works performed apart from true faith. They are, indeed, acceptable and pleasing to God, and they are required of Him; but they are performed by reason of the inward operation of the Holy Spirit in the regenerate life, and all the glory belongs to God who thus enables man to perform what He commands. “We are sure,” says Tyndale, “that God hath created and made us new in Christ, and put His Spirit in us, that we should live a new life, which is the life of good works ... The life of a Christian man is inward between him and God, and properly is the consent of the Spirit to the will of God and to the honour of God. And God’s honour is the final end of all good works.”26 Again: “Every Christian man ought to have Christ always before his eyes as an example to counterfeit and follow, and to do to his neighbour as Christ hath done to him . . . Moreover, though thou show mercy unto thy neighbour, yet if thou do it not with such burning love as Christ did unto thee, so must thou acknowledge thy sin and desire mercy in Christ. A Christian man hath nought to rejoice in, as concerning his deeds. His rejoicing is that Christ died for him, and that he is washed in Christ’s blood.”27
It is true that the New Testament speaks in terms of rewards for those who prove themselves good and faithful servants of their heavenly Master. But even so all the merit is Christ’s, and the faithful servant works not for the sake and for the love of the reward (in so far as he does, he is unfaithful and governed by self-interest), but for the sake and for the love of Christ. His work is freely rendered, and without all self-seeking. “When the Gospel is preached unto us,” says Tyndale again, “we believe the mercy of God; and in believing we receive the Spirit of God, who is the earnest of eternal life, and we are in eternal life already, and feel already in our hearts the sweetness thereof, and are overcome with the kindness of God and Christ; and therefore love the will of God, and of love are ready to work freely; and not to obtain that which is given us freely, and whereof we are heirs already . . . So let thine eye be single, and look unto good living only, and take no thought for the reward, but be content: forasmuch as thou knowest and art sure that the reward, and all things contained in Christ’s promises, follow good living naturally; and thy good works do but testify only and certify thee that the Spirit of God is in thee, whom thou has received for an earnest of God’s truth, and that thou art heir of all the promises of God, and that all good things are thine already, purchased by Christ’s blood, and laid up in store against that day when every man shall receive according to his deeds,28 that is, according as his deeds declare and testify what he is and was. For they that look unto the reward are slow, false, subtle, and crafty workers, and love the reward more than the work; yea, hate the labour; yea, hate God who commandeth the labour; and are weary both of the commandment and also of the commander; and work with tediousness. But he that worketh of pure love, without seeking of reward, worketh truly.”29
“Your reward shall be great in heaven,” quotes Latimer when preaching on the Beatitudes. “Merces, ‘reward’: this word soundeth as though we should merit somewhat by our own works,” he exclaims: “for reward and merit are correspondent, one followeth the other; when I have merited, then I ought to have my reward. But we shall not think so: for ye must understand that all our works are imperfect; we cannot do them so perfectly as the law requireth, because of our flesh, which ever hindereth us. Wherefore is the kingdom of God called then a reward? Because it is merited by Christ: for as touching our salvation and eternal life, it must be merited, but not by our own works, but only by the merits of our Saviour Christ. Therefore believe in Him, trust in Him; it is He that merited heaven for us.”30 Tyndale sums the matter up admirably when he writes (in his Prologue to the Book of Numbers): “All that I do and suffer is but the way to the reward, and not the deserving thereof”; and again: “Christ is Lord over all, and whatsoever any man will have of God, he must have it freely given him for Christ’s sake. Now to have heaven for mine own deserving is mine own praise, and not Christ’s. For I cannot have it by favour and grace in Christ and by mine own merits also; for free giving and deserving cannot stand together.”31
WORKS AND MERIT
The controversy over works and merit in the sixteenth century was, it must be remembered, a controversy concerned with the question of man’s justification. It revolved around the doctrine of salvation. The doctrine of the common grace of God, whereby a measure of social morality and civic justice is preserved in the world at large, including unregenerate society, was not debated because it was not the point at issue. (The Reformers were not unfamiliar with the doctrine of common grace, as is shown, for example, by the assertion of Bradford that “the wicked have not God’s Spirit of sanctification and regeneration to sanctify and regenerate them, though they have it concerning other gifts”.)32 The strictures of Articles XII, XIII, and XIV are not intended to deny the degrees of goodness in the social and civic realms, but to deny that good works are ever meritorious in such a way as to deserve the justification of sinful man before God. Thus Article XII, which relates to those works that are performed subsequently to salvation, declares: “Albeit that good works, which are the fruits of faith, and follow after justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily from a true and lively faith, insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.” The scope of Article XIII is defined by its title, “Of Works before Justification”: “Works done before the grace of Christ and the inspiration of His Spirit,” it says, “are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea, rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.” And Article XIV addresses itself to the assumption that there is a possibility of doing more than God requires, with the corollary of the establishment of a bank of surplus merit which may be drawn upon, at a charge, by those whose works fall short in performance. “Voluntary works,” it reads, “besides, over, and above God’s commandments, which they call works of supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety: for by them men do declare that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for His sake than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly, ‘When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, we are unprofitable servants.’”33
Pilkington explains that “although God do work all things Himself, and as He hath appointed so they fall out, yet He worketh them not without us: we must not be idle, we must show our diligence and due obedience to our God, that He hath made us, and commanded us to exercise ourselves in these things; and yet, when we have done all we can, all the praise must be given to Him, and we must say, ‘We be unprofitable servants’. We be as an axe in the carpenter’s hand,” he continues, “where the axe may not claim the praise of well-doing from his master that worketh with it: and though the axe be a dead instrument without life or feeling, and man hath life, wit, and reason given him to do things withal; yet is man as unable to work his own salvation without the free mercy and special grace of God as the axe is unable to build the house without the direction and ruling of the carpenter.”34 And Bradford preaches as follows: “As concerning satisfaction by their opera indebita, ‘undue works’, that is, by such works as they need not to do but of their own voluntariness and wilfulness (wilfulness indeed!), who seeth not monstrous abomination, blasphemy, and even open fighting against God? For if satisfaction can be done by man, then Christ dies in vain for him that so satisfieth: and so reigneth He in vain; so is He a bishop and a priest in vain. God’s law requireth love to God with all our heart, soul, power, might, and strength; so that there is nothing can be done to God-ward which is not contained in this commandment; nothing can be done over and above this. Again Christ requireth that to man-ward ‘we should love one another as He loved us’: and trow we that we can do any good thing to our neighbour-ward which is not herein comprised? . . . Dearly beloved, therefore, abhor this abomination, even to think that there is any other satisfaction to God-ward for sin than Christ’s blood only. Blasphemy it is, and that horrible, to think otherwise. ‘The blood of Christ purifieth’, saith St. John, ‘from all sin’.35 And therefore He is called ‘the Lamb slain from the beginning of the world’;36 because there was never sin forgiven of God, nor shall be, from the beginning unto the end of the world, but only through Christ’s death.”37
The conception of works of supererogation implied a two-level doctrine of Christian morality. Such supererogatory works belonged not to the sphere of the ordinary man and woman but to the small super-Christian minority who, by voluntarily living as solitary hermits or in monastic communities, by voluntarily submitting themselves to the rule of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and by voluntarily afflicting their bodies with painful indignities, were regarded as having achieved a holiness beyond what was required of them. But with ordinary-level Christianity the situation was very different. It was not long after the apostolic period when, with a’ view to the improvement of church discipline, and coupled with a particular application of passages like Heb. 6:4f. and 10:26f., the doctrine was developed that at baptism all sins were washed away by the blood of Christ, but that this blood did not avail for sins committed after baptism, with the result that such sins could be expiated only by the endurance of such penalties and penances as the Church might impose on the offender. This led to the phase in church history when it became a common practice for persons to postpone their baptism, if possible, until the hour of death, in the hope that in this way they might be assured of passing into the next world free from sin. Such, indeed, was the spiritual insecurity and uncertainty engendered by this teaching that it led further to the doctrine of purgatory, according to which, no penances, however many and severe, being regarded as sufficient to purge away all the defilements of post-baptismal sin, the Christian man would ordinarily have to pass through a prolonged period of purgation by flames before he was fit to enter into the heavenly state. For ordinary-level Christians accordingly — and that meant the great mass of church members — the Christian way after baptism became one of self-effort and self-suffering, without that assured confidence in the redeeming work and suffering of Christ in which the New Testament encourages us to trust. And for Christianity at both levels life became a preoccupation with the inescapable problem of one’s own justification and acceptance before God.
The rediscovery of the Gospel which brought in the Reformation inevitably meant the exposure of the unevangelical nature of all such teaching. Hence the statement of Article XVI, entitled “Of Sin after Baptism”: “Not every deadly sin willingly committed after baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost we may depart from grace given and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may rise again and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned who say they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.” ‘Thomas Becon uses the Apostle Peter as an example: ‘That sinners may receive remission of their sins, though they sin after they have known the truth and are baptized, it is manifest by divers places of the New Testament. Who doubteth but that Peter was both baptized and knew the truth when he confessed Christ to be the Son of the living God? . . . Yet did he fall again after that when he denied Christ . . . Did not he afterward, when he repented, obtain mercy at the hand of God? . . . Hereof doth it follow that remission of sins is not denied unto sinners, if they repent and believe.”38
“When they say that Christ hath made no satisfaction for the sin we do after our baptism,” writes William Tyndale, “say thou with the doctrine of Paul that in our baptism we receive the merits of Christ’s death through repentance and faith, of which two baptism is the sign; and though when we sin of frailty after our baptism we receive the sign no more, yet we be renewed again through repentance and faith in Christ’s blood; of which twain that sign of baptism, ever continued among us in baptizing our young children, doth ever keep us in mind, and call us back again unto our profession, if we be gone astray, and promiseth us forgiveness. Neither can actual sin be washed away with our works, but with Christ’s blood; neither can there be any other sacrifice or satisfaction to God-ward for them save Christ’s blood: forasmuch as we can do no works unto God, but receive only of His mercy with our repenting faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord and only Saviour: unto whom, and unto God our Father through Him, and unto His Holy Spirit, that only purgeth, sanctifieth, and washeth us in the innocent blood of our redemption, be praise for ever. Amen,”39
PURGATORY AND PRAYERS FOR THE DEAD
As for the doctrine of purgatory, “that fiery furnace that hath burned away so many of our pence”, as Latimer feelingly described it,40 the Reformers denounced it with one voice as unscriptural and dishonouring to Christ. Their attitude is summed up in the Homily concerning Prayer (attributed to Bishop Jewel): “The only purgatory wherein we must trust to be saved is the death and blood of Christ, which if we apprehend with a true and steadfast faith, it purgeth and cleanseth us from all our sins, even as well as if He were now hanging on the cross.”41 Article XXII dismisses “the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory” as “a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God”.
In his Answer to the Fifteen Articles of the Devon Rebels Archbishop Cranmer gives this rejoinder to the demand that prayers and masses should be offered for the souls in purgatory: “What a contumely and injury is this to Christ, to affirm that all have not full and perfect purgation by His blood that die in His faith! Is not all our trust in the blood of Christ, that we be cleansed, purged, and washed thereby? And will you have us now to forsake our faith in Christ, and bring us to the pope’s purgatory to be washed therein, thinking that Christ’s blood is an imperfect lee or soap that washeth not clean? If he shall die without mercy that treadeth Christ’s blood under his feet, what is treading of His blood under our feet if this be not? But if according to the catholic faith, which the Holy Scripture teacheth, and the prophets, apostles, and martyrs confirmed with their blood, all the faithful that die in the Lord be pardoned of all their offences by Christ, and their sins be clearly sponged and washed away by His blood, shall they after be cast into another strong and grievous prison of purgatory, there to be punished again for that which was pardoned before? God hath promised by His Word that the souls of the just be in God’s hand, and no pain shall touch them; and again he saith, ‘Blessed be they that die in the Lord. For the Spirit of God saith that from henceforth they shall rest from their pains’.42 And Christ Himself saith: ‘He that believeth in Him that sent me hath everlasting life and shall not come into judgment, but shall pass from death unto life.’43 And is God no truer of His promises but to punish that which He promiseth to pardon? Consider the matter by your own cases. If the king’s majesty should pardon your offences, and after would cast you into prison, would you think that he had sell observed his promise? For what is to pardon your offences but to pardon the punishment for the same? If the king would punish you would you take that for a pardon? Would you not allege your pardon and say that you ought not to be punished? Who can, then, that hath but a crumb of reason in his head, imagine of God that He will after our death punish those things that He pardoned in our lifetime?”44
Hooper states the Reformed position succinctly in the twenty-sixth article of his Brief and Clear Confession of the Christian Faith. “I do believe and confess”, he says, “that Christ’s condemnation is mine absolution; that His crucifying is my deliverance; His descending into hell is mine ascending into heaven; His death is my life; His blood is my cleansing and purging, by whom only I am washed, purified, and cleansed from all my sins: so that I neither receive neither believe any other purgatory, either in this world or in the other, whereby I may be purged, but only the blood of Jesus Christ, by the which all are purged and made clean for ever”.45
If purgatory is unscriptural, so also is the offering of prayers for the dead. “In Holy Scripture,” Bradford points out, “throughout the canonical books of the Old and New Testament, we find neither precept nor example of praying for any when they be departed this life, but that, as men die, so shall they arise . . . ‘Every man shall receive according to that he himself doeth in this body, while he is here alive, be it good or bad’,46 and not according to what his executors or this chantry priest and that fraternity doth for him. Whereby we may well see, if we will, that, as prayer for the dead is not available or profitable to the dead, so is it not of us allowable to be exercised. For, as they that are departed be past our prayers, being either in joy or in misery, . . . even so we, having for it no word of God, whereupon faith leaneth, cannot but sin in doing it, in that we do it ‘not of faith’,47 because we have no word of God for it.”48
“He that cannot be saved by faith in Christ’s blood, how shall he look to be delivered by man’s intercessions?” asks the Homily concerning Prayer. “Hath God more respect to man on earth than He hath to Christ in heaven? ‘If any man sin’, saith St. John, ‘we have an advocate with the Father, even Jesus Christ the righteous, and He is the propitiation for our sins’.49 But we must take heed that we call upon this Advocate while we have space given us in this life, lest, when we are once dead, there be no hope of salvation left unto us. For, as every man sleepeth with his own cause, so every man shall rise again with his own cause. And look, in what state he dieth, in the same state he shall be also judged, whether it be to salvation or damnation. Let us not therefore dream either of purgatory or of prayer for the souls of them that be dead; but let us earnestly and diligently pray for them who are expressly commanded in Holy Scripture, namely, for kings and rulers, for ministers of God’s holy Word and sacraments, for the saints of this world, otherwise called the faithful, to be short, for all men living, be they never so great enemies to God and His people.”50
Another custom condemned by the Reformers as contrary to the teaching of Scripture was that of praying to the saints. In particular, they rejected the practice as a violation of the sole mediatorship of our Lord Jesus Christ. John Bradford states the Reformed doctrine in the following terms: “Here we confess, teach, and believe, as before is said, according to God’s holy Word, that, as all and every good thing cometh only from God the Father by the means of Jesus Christ, so for the obtaining of the same we must call upon His holy name, as He by Himself commandeth very often. But, forasmuch as God ‘dwelleth in light inaccessible’51 and ‘is a consuming fire’52 and hateth all impiety and uncleanness, and we be blind, stubble, grass, hay, and nothing but filthy, unclean, and sinful; and because that therefore, as we may not, so we dare not approach to His presence; it hath pleased this God and Father of His love to send a Spokesman and a Mediator, an Intercessor and Advocate between Him and us, even Jesus Christ, His dearly beloved Son, by whom we might have free entrance ‘with boldness to come before His presence and throne of mercy, to find and obtain grace to help in time of need’.53 For this our Mediator and Advocate is with His Father of the same substance, power, wisdom, and majesty, and therefore we may weigh well with Him in all things; and with us He is of the same substance which we are of, even flesh and man, but pure and ‘without sin, in all things being tempted like unto us’, and having experience of our infirmities, that He might be merciful and faithful on our behalf, to ‘purge us from our sins’,54 and to bring us into such favour with the Father that we might be not only dearly beloved through Him, the only darling of the Father, but also obtain whatsoever we shall ask, according to His Word and will, in the name of this same our Mediator, Saviour, Intercessor, and Advocate.55 So that easy it is to see that, as it is an obedient service to God the Father to call always upon Him in all our need, so to come to His presence through Christ is the honour of Christ’s mediation, intercession, and advocateship. And therefore, as it cannot be but against the almighty God and Father to ask or look for anything elsewhere, at the hands of any that be departed this life, as though He were not the giver of all good things, or as though He had not commanded us to come unto Him, so we see it is manifestly against Christ Jesus our Lord, by any other saint, angel, or archangel to come and move anything at our Father’s hands; as though He were not our Mediator, Advocate, and Intercessor, or else not a sufficient Mediator, Advocate, and Intercessor, or at least not so merciful, meek, gracious, loving, and ready to help as others: where He only so loved us, as the very hearts of all men and angels never were able to conceive any part of ‘the height, depth, breadth, and length’56 of the same, as it is.”57
Archbishop Sandys appropriately cites the cases of repudiation of the worship offered by their fellowmen to Peter, Paul and Barnabas, and John: “The honour which Cornelius gave unto Peter was more than was fit to be given to a man. For Peter refused it with that reason: ‘I myself am a man too’.58This zeal and reverence that he had to the Word made him overreach in honouring the minister of it. So did the men of Lystra honour Paul and Barnabas; but they said in like sort: ‘O men, why do ye these things? We are men, subject to the like passions that ye be.’59 John would have worshipped the angel likewise; but the angel refused: ‘See thou do it not; I am thy fellow-servant: worship God: 60 Here we learn how dangerously religious honour is given to any creature. It cannot be thought that either Cornelius or John would rob God of His glory, and give it to angel or man. But yet they were forbidden to do that which they did, lest they should attribute more to the messenger of God than they ought, through preposterous zeal. It is not so great a danger to honour a prince with all humility: therein men cannot so easily exceed, because the honour is civil. But the danger is in a spiritual person, lest in respect of his holy office they honour him too much.”61
In his Apology of the Church of England Bishop Jewel writes: “Neither have we any other mediator and intercessor, by whom we may have access to God the Father, then Jesus Christ, in whose only name all things are obtained at His Father’s hand. But it is a shameful part, and full of infidelity, that we see everywhere used in the churches of our adversaries, not only in that they will have innumerable sorts of mediators and that utterly without the authority of God’s Word; so that, as Jeremiah saith, the saints be now ‘as many in number or rather above the number of the cities’;62 and poor men cannot tell to which saint it were best to turn them first; and, though there be so many as they cannot be told, yet every one of them hath his peculiar duty and office assigned unto him of these folks, what thing they ought to ask, what to give, and what to bring to pass — but besides this also, in that they do not only wickedly but also shamelessly call upon the blessed virgin, Christ’s mother, to have her remember that she is a mother, and to command her Son, and to use a mother’s authority over Him.”63
THE ORDER OF SALVATION
Closely linked in the Reformers’ minds with the doctrine of justification was that of predestination. The Apostle describes the spiritual state of fallen man in terms of being “dead in trespasses and sins”.64 Man, as we have seen, commensurably with this teaching, is able neither to save himself nor even to contribute in the smallest degree to his salvation. His will is enslaved; his god is the god of this world. Like Lazarus, swathed from head to foot with burial wrappings and corrupting in the tomb, he is bound by his sins and his nature is corrupted in the death of separation from the true God. Like Lazarus, too, his only hope of being raised to newness of life is through the dynamic utterance of the divine voice of his Creator. Salvation, therefore, from beginning to end is the sovereign work of almighty God. God’s bestowal of grace, however, is not capricious, haphazard, or dependent on an unpredictable development of events. Those who through His grace are brought to salvation have been chosen from all eternity and “predestinated according to the purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will”.65 They are taken up into the scheme of God’s everlasting purpose. All is of God, from eternity to eternity. It is on this truth that the Christian’s eternal security in Christ rests. Article XVII, “Of Predestination and Election”, is concerned with this theme: “Predestination to life,” it declares, “is the everlasting purpose of God whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) He hath constantly decreed by His counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom He hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour.”
This leads to a statement of the order or sequence of the whole course of salvation: “Wherefore they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God’s purpose by His Spirit working in due season: they through grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God’s mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.” This doctrine is a source of unfailing assurance to the believer and a constant spur to holy living; it also enables him to take a proper view both of himself and of God, and causes him to ascribe all the praise and the glory of his salvation to the sovereign goodness of divine grace. Thus the Article proceeds to affirm that “the godly consideration of predestination and our election in Christ is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God.”
The order of salvation is, indeed, a matter of some importance for those who wish to have some understanding of the nature and the sequence of God’s dealings with His creatures in bringing them to newness of life. This order is expressed in its fullest scope in Rom. 8:29f., where the Apostle says that whom God did foreknow “He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son; . . . moreover, whom He did predestinate them He also called; and whom He called them He also justified; and whom He justified them He also glorified.” Nothing could emphasize more effectively that God alone is the author of man’s salvation in its entirety. The Reformers teach that in the experience of justification there is a succession from repentance to faith, and from faith to love. “Note now the order,” says Tyndale in his Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue: “first God giveth me light to see the goodness and righteousness of the law, and mine own sin and unrighteousness; out of which knowledge springeth repentance. Now repentance teacheth me not that the law is good and I evil, but a light that the Spirit of God hath given me, out of which light repentance springeth. Then the same Spirit worketh in mine heart trust and confidence to believe the mercy of God and His truth, that He will do as He hath promised; which belief saveth me. And immediately out of that trust springeth love toward the law of God again. And whatsoever a man worketh of any other love than this, it pleaseth not God, nor is that love godly. Now love doth not receive this mercy, but faith only, out of which faith love springeth; by which love I pour out again upon my neighbour that goodness which I have received of God by faith. Hereof ye see that I cannot be justified without repentance; and yet repentance justifieth me not. And hereof ye see that I cannot have a faith to be justified and saved, except love spring thereof immediately; and yet love justifieth me not before God. For my natural love to God again doth not make me first see and feel the kindness of God in Christ, but faith through preaching. For we love not God first, to compel Him to love again; but He loved us first, and gave His Son for us, that we might see and love again.66 . . . And when we say, faith only justifieth us, that is to say, receiveth the mercy wherewith God justifieth us and forgiveth us, we mean not faith which hath no repentance, and faith which hath no love unto the laws of God again, and unto good works, as wicked hypocrites falsely belie us.”67
Again, in The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, Tyndale analyses the apostolic method of proclamation and instruction: “This order useth Paul in all his epistles,” he writes: “first, he preacheth the law, and proveth that the whole nature of man is damned, in that the heart lusteth contrary to the will of God . . . Then preacheth he Christ, the Gospel, the promises, and the mercy that God hath set forth to all men in Christ’s blood; which they that believe, and take it for an earnest thing, turn themselves to God, begin to love God again, and to prepare themselves to His will, by the working of the Spirit of God in them. Last of all, exhorteth he to unity peace, and soberness; to avoid brawlings, sects, opinions, disputing and arguing about words; and to walk in the plain and single faith and feeling of the Spirit; and to love one another after the example of Christ, even as Christ loved us; and to be thankful, and to walk worthy of the Gospel and as it becometh Christ; and with the example of pure living to draw all to Christ.”68
The ultimate stage in the order of salvation is the glorification of the redeemed. The doctrine of election places the believer in a position free from all doubt and uncertainty concerning his final destiny, for it reveals, as we have already been reminded by Article XVII, that in accordance with God’s everlasting purposes those who are Christ’s will at length, by God’s mercy, attain to everlasting felicity. Preaching on Lk. 1:74 (“that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve Him without fear”) Archbishop Sandys says: “Him we must serve ‘without fear’ . . . The believing Christian, the regenerate child of God, who through faith in Christ is certain of his deliverance from the devil and from hell, assured of remission of sins and of life everlasting in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Saviour, he serveth in the reverent fear of love, and not in that dreadful fear of death and everlasting damnation, wherewith the reprobate mind is daunted. He feareth not death, for he is sure of life: he feareth not damnation, for he is assured of salvation: he believeth that which Christ hath promised, and doubteth nothing of the obtaining of that which Christ hath procured for him. He is surely persuaded with St. Paul that ‘neither death, nor life, nor tribulation, nor affliction, nor anything present, or to come, shall separate him from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus’.69 He feareth therefore neither the sting of death nor the power of Satan.70 But this certainty of God’s love towards him in Christ, and the testimony of his love towards God again, casteth out all fear of eternal punishment. ‘For ye have not’, saith the Apostle, ‘received again the spirit of bondage unto fear, but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, by which we cry Abba, Father’. This Spirit testifieth with our spirit that God is our gracious Father; and if He out Father, we His children; and if His children, heirs of His glorious kingdom.71 . . . And this certainty of our salvation the Spirit of God testifieth to our spirit, whereby we put away all servile fear of punishment, being assured of God’s constant favour and eternal love towards us; who never leaveth unfinished that which He hath begun, nor forsaketh him whom he hath chosen.”72
If our salvation is altogether the work of God, then there is no possibility of its failing. “He hath begun a good work in you, He will finish it,” declares Jewel, commenting on I Thess. 5:24 (‘Faithful is He that calleth you, who also will do it’) and bringing together a chain of scriptural promises. “He will lead you from virtue to virtue, from strength to strength, from glory to glory. He hath called you, He will also keep you faithful until the day of the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ. You are Christ’s sheep. No man shall take you out of His hands. He hath not lost one of all them whom His Father had given Him. He knoweth His sheep. None shall be confounded that put their trust in Him. There is no condemnation to them that be in Christ Jesus. He is faithful, He will perform this unto you; not for your merits, but for His own name, and for His mercy’s sake. Because He is faithful, He will not despise the work of His own hands.”73 Again, commenting on II Thess. 2:13, he writes: “God hath chosen you from the beginning: His election is sure for ever. The Lord knoweth who are His. You shall not be deceived with the power and subtlety of anti-christ, you shall not fall from grace, you shall not perish. This is the comfort which abideth with the faithful when they behold the fall of the wicked . . . Although all the world should be drowned with the waves of ungodliness, yet will I hold by the boat of His mercy, which shall utterly preserve me. If all the world be set on fire with the flame of wickedness, yet will I creep into the bosom of the protection of my Lord; so shall no flame hurt me. He hath loved me, He hath chosen me, He will keep me.”74
JUSTIFICATION BEFORE CHRIST’S ADVENT
The question naturally arose concerning the justification of the Old Testament saints who lived before the coming of Christ. If salvation is through faith alone in the atoning work of Christ, what standing can they have? To this question the Reformers have but one answer, namely, that the saints of the old dispensation had the same faith in Christ as Saviour as we have, only they believed in the promises of God yet to be fulfilled, whereas we look back on, the fulfilment of these promises in Christ. Ours, indeed, is the fuller knowledge, for we enjoy the light of the new covenant; but the new covenant is identical in heart and essence with the old, and it is one and the same Redeemer in whom we trust. “They believed in Abraham’s Seed which was promised,” says Latimer: “which faith stood them in good stead, and they were all as well saved through that same belief as we now through our belief. For it is no difference between their belief and ours, but this: they believed in Christ who was to come, and we believe in Christ who is come already. Now their belief served them as well as ours doth us. For at that time God required no further at their hands than was opened unto them. We have in our time a further and more perfect knowledge of Christ than they had.”75
In his famous Sermon of the Plough Latimer declares, with reference to Christ as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”76 and as “a continual sacrifice”,77 that “all men that trusted in the death of Christ shall be saved, as well they that came before as they that came after; for He was a continual sacrifice, as I said, in effect, fruit, operation, and virtue, as though He had from the beginning of the world, and continually should to the world’s end, hang still on the cross; and He is as fresh hanging on the cross now, to them that believe and trust in Him, as He was fifteen hundred years ago when He was crucified.”78 This is genuinely biblical existentialism (to use a term of our twentieth century): while the unique once-for-all character of Christ’s redeeming death is stressed over and over again by the Reformers, yet it is a present reality “in effect, fruit, operation, and virtue” throughout every age of human history.
“All these fathers, martyrs, and other holy men whom St. Paul spoke of79 had their faith surely fixed in God, when all the world was against them,” writes Cranmer in the Homily of Faith. “They did not only know God to be Lord, maker, and governor of all men in the world, but also they had a special confidence and trust that He was and would be their God, their comforter, aider, helper, maintainer, and defender. This is the Christian faith which these holy men had, and we also ought to have. And although they were not named Christian men, yet was it a Christian faith that they had; for they looked for all benefits of God the Father through the merits of His Son Jesus Christ, as we now do. This difference is between them and us: for they looked when Christ should come, and we be in the time when He is come. Therefore saith St. Augustine: ‘The time is altered, but not the faith.’80 For we have both one faith in one Christ. The same Holy Ghost also that we have had they, saith St. Paul . . . God gave them then grace to be His children, as He doth us now. But now, by the coming of our Saviour Christ, we have received more abundantly the Spirit of God in our hearts, whereby we may conceive a greater faith and a surer trust than many of them had. But in effect they and we be all one: we have the same faith that they had in God, and they the same that we have. And St. Paul so much extolleth their faith because we should no less, but rather more, give ourselves wholly unto Christ both in profession and living, now when Christ is come, than the old fathers did before His coming.”81
It is the doctrine of justification, finally, which unlocks for us the whole purpose of Holy Scripture; for it must not be forgotten that the revelation of the Written Word is integrally connected with the divine scheme for the redemption of mankind. In the reading of Scripture we meet with two things: firstly, the laws and requirements of God, in comparison with which we stand condemned as guilty sinners and rebellious law-breakers and become aware of our urgent need for justification before God; and, secondly, we are confronted with the gracious promises of God’s covenant and Gospel, and are assured that these promises are given, as William Tyndale says, in his Prologue to the Prophet Jonah, “unto a repenting soul that thirsteth and longeth after them, of the pure and fatherly mercy of God, through our faith only, without all deserving of our deeds or merits of our works, but for Christ’s sake alone, and for the merits and deservings of His works, death, and passions that He suffered altogether for us, and not for Himself”. These two points affirms Tyndale, “if they be written in thine heart, are the keys which so open all the Scriptures unto thee that no creature can lock thee out, and with which thou shalt go in and out, and find pasture and food everywhere”82
Philip Edgcumbe Hughes was a visiting professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pa. Dr. Hughes received his B.A., M.A., and D.L.H. from the University of Cape Town, his B.D. from the University of London, and his Th.D. from the Australian College of Theology. One of the finest minds in New Testament studies today, Dr. Hughes has written the Commentary on Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians (N.I.C. NT. Series) and has contributed to and edited numerous works including Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology.
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