John H. Gerstner
Articulus stantis aut candentis ecclesiae (“the doctrine by which the church stands or falls”) – so said Martin Luther about justification by faith alone. John Calvin agreed, calling justification by faith the “hinge” of the Reformation. But was that the historic Christian view?
One may say generally of the history of the doctrine of justification that solafideanism (justification - by - faith - aloneism) was taught implicitly, but not explicitly, from the beginning of the church. That is, it was known in the early church that salvation was by faith alone, but not until the sixteenth century was the church called upon to define that teaching more precisely. Those in the church who had quietly apostatized, opposed this essential truth (adheres of Tridentine Roman Catholicism), while the faithful (Protestants) affirmed it. The Reformers defined and refined the doctrine in the fires of controversy.
The historian of doctrine, Louis Berkhof, correctly observed that in the early church faith “was generally regarded as the outstanding instrument for the reception of the merits of Christ, and was often called the sole means of salvation.”1 Faith rather than works was “repeatedly expressed by the Apostolic Fathers, and reoccur[s] in the Apologists.”2
The most influential theologian of the early church was certainly Augustine (354-430). Before we consider his teaching about our crucial doctrine, we note in passing that the standard creed of the Reformation, the Augsburg Confession (1530), found solafideanism in Augustine’s mentor and predecessor, Ambrose, under whose preaching Augustine was converted. Article VI of the Confession speaks of solafideanism: “The same [justification by faith] is also taught by the Fathers: For Ambrose says, ‘It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved freely receiving.
In spite of this, many cannot find the doctrine in Augustine. Many historical theologians interpret him as confusing justification with sanctification, of which justification is merely a part.3 This is not accurate, however. Though Augustine finds justification and sanctification inseparable, they are not indistinguishable. Augustinian justification leads into sanctification, but is not confused with it.
According to Augustine, man’s faith in Christ justifies him.4 Confession of Christ is efficacious for the remission of sins.5 We are justified by the blood of Christ,6 and we have no merits which are not the gifts of God.7 Of course, faith is active through love (fides quae cantate operatur), but this does not imply that justification is on the basis of love.
Before we leave Augustine, a relatively recent Roman Catholic work requires attention. Father P. Bergauer’s Der Jakobusbrief bei Augustinus (The Epistle of James According to Augustine) shows clearly that Luther disagreed not only with the Epistle of James but with Augustine as well.8 Luther became convinced that James was opposed to Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone and thus dismissed the epistle as non-canonical. This is well known, but Bergauer also notes that in so doing, Luther was consciously departing from Augustine as well. We sadly agree with Bergauer that Luther erred with respect to both James and Augustine. Bergauer’s work confirms, however, what we will shortly note, that Luther was clearly a solafidean, although without recognizing that James and Augustine were also. The Reformer erred, apparently because he could not find explicit forensic language in either James or Augustine.
Ian Sellers sees that it is the post Augustinian movement which “conflates the immediacy of the act of justification with the later process of sanctification.”9 Nevertheless, many post Augustinians kept their concepts clear as we will see even in the Scholastic era, though many did not.
Some Roman Catholics like to cry “Forward to the Middle Ages,” thinking that they there find authority for their anti-solafidean doctrine. But Adolf Harnack insisted that if the medieval church had followed its favorite teacher, Thomas Aquinas, on justification, the Reformation would not have been necessary. The great earlier Scholastic theologian, Anselm, was also solafidean. He wrote his belief in a tract for the consolation of the dying, quoted here by A. H. Strong!
The above quotation gives us reason to believe that the New Testament doctrine of justification by faith was implicitly, if not explicitly, held by many pious souls through all the ages of papal darkness.10
Thus medieval Scholastics still taught justification as an instantaneous act. It was not until the Council of Trent (1545-1563) that justification was officially confirmed as a process based on human merit derived through divine grace. This was the article - Session VI, Canon 7 of the Council of Trent - which led the Roman Catholic Church away from the orthodox teaching on justification.
For Luther, Romans 1:17 and Matthew 4:7 taught that the righteousness of God was his mercy and pardon. Out went all human merit from indulgences to works of supererogation. As Article IV of Melanchthon’s Augsburg Confession, of which Luther approved, phrased it “Men can be justified freely on account of Christ through faith, when they believe that they are received into grace and that their sins are remitted on account of Christ who made satisfaction for sins on our behalf by his death. God imputes this faith for righteousness in his own sight.” Luther elsewhere affirms that Christ’s righteousness is ours and our sins are his. Thus, he who was innocent became guilty of depravity, while we who were depraved became innocent.
Calvin, in his Institutes (3:11,15,20,27), citing Augustine and Peter Lombard, taught the same doctrine. Though the Genevan saw union with Christ preceding faith (whereas for Luther it followed faith), Berkhof is justified in saying “however Calvin may have differed from Luther as to the order of salvation, he quite agreed with him in the nature and importance of the doctrine of justification by faith.”11 Yet Edward Boehl (1836-1903) is correct that Calvin avoided basing justification on the mystical union which equaled intercourse with God. However, this does not justify Boehl in saying that later Reformed theologians did so identify and thus approached the Lutheran heretic, Osiander.12 (Osiander held to a belief in “essential righteousness,” where the Reformed tradition never deviated from the doctrine of “imputed righteousness.”)
Nevertheless, John Tillotson, Samuel Clarke, and some other Anglicans did introduce Tridentine thinking into the Church of England by confusing the inseparability of faith and works with the meritoriousness of each.
This same tension toward meritorious righteousness in and by the justified threatened Puritanism from the beginning. That Anglican John Donne (1573-1631) and Congregationalist John Owen (1616-1683), champions of solafideanism, admitted infused righteousness while denying any merit in it shows their sensitivity to the problem. Christopher Fitzsimmons Allison, in The Rise of Moralism, traced this English development into Arminianism and beyond in a somewhat parallel way to Joseph Haroutunian’s American sketch in Piety Versus Moralism.13
Puritanism could admit, in fact, insist upon sanctification (infused righteousness) as strenuously as imputed righteousness. It was inseparably connected with it. The one thing sanctification did not do, for the Puritans, was supplant justification. As we saw, Owen did not even hesitate to speak of justinia inhaerens. Righteousness was wrought in a man because it was first imputed to him. The evidence that it was imputed to him was its being wrought in him.
There is a sense in which Puritans saw righteousness as being wrought in before being imputed to. This was the prior union with Christ as the psychological basis of justification. “The foundation of imputation is union. Christ and believers actually coalesce into one mystical person”
How did Arminianism emerge out of solafideanism? What was the solafidean offense that led to the departure?
The offense which some found in solafideanism was that it taught acceptance by faith only. If this is so, the Arminians argued, an unsanctified man could go to heaven, and that could never be. They were partly right, since an unsanctified man can never go to heaven. But they were partly wrong, for one justified alone is not justified by the faith that is alone. Faith is inseparably connected with works, or sanctification, or inherent righteousness.
Once again, the error was in a failure to understand the truth. A correct objection was based on an incorrect apprehension. How often had the Reformers proclaimed with James (and Paul) that faith without works was dead. Justification without sanctification did not exist. As we have seen, solafideans were not opposed to inherent righteousness except as a justifying righteousness, which was precisely what Rome claimed it to be. The orthodox were as opposed – more opposed – to Antinomianism than the unorthodox.
Not understanding that solafideanism gave works a proper role, the Arminians found an improper role for them. Since works, they felt, had to justify – and sinners had none – they used faith to bring down works to a sinner’s level. That is, they saw the work of Christ as satisfying God with the imperfect works of men. “Christ brought down the market,” according to Richard Baxter.14 Our inadequate righteousness was made acceptable through Christ.15 Allison says that this was the imputation of faith of Baxter, Goodwin, and Woodbridge versus the imputation of Christ’s righteousness of Owen, Eades, Gataker, Walker, and also of the early Anglicans Hooker, Andrewes, Downame, Davenant, Donne, Ussher, and Hill.16 Commenting on Arminianism, A. H. Strong has agreed with other scholars that the “Wesleyan scheme is inclined to make faith a work.... This is to make faith the cause and ground, or at least to add it to Christ’s work as a joint cause and ground, of justification; . . .”17
This, however, is a rather infelicitous way of expressing the difference. It amounts to a pun on the word impute. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness construes imputation as a reckoning of, or accrediting to, Christ’s righteousness. The imputation of faith in this contrast means regarding faith as acceptable which, by legal definition, it is not. Even the Arminians admitted that it was not really acceptable to God (as Christ’s righteousness was); but the Son twisted his Father’s arm to make him act as if it were. This soteriological perversion was called neonomianism (new lawism) because it was not the perfect law of God which was maintained but a new, stepped down, imperfect, “lawless” law of God. So it became a lapse into justification by works which were not even works.
EDWARDS ON JUSTIFICATION
This was the Arminian import from England that was becoming fashionable in the colonies, much to the distress of the solafidean pastor of Northampton. He had already warned Boston about it in 1731: “Those doctrines and schemes of divinity that are in any respect opposite to such an absolute and universal dependence of God, do derogate from God’s glory, and thwart the design of the contrivances for our redemption.”18 In 1734 he felt constrained to bring the matter home to his own people in Northampton with his lectures on justification by faith alone.
The Nature of Justification.
For Edwards, justification means being free of guilt and having a righteousness entitling to eternal life. This is made plain at the very beginning of the dual lecture on Romans 4:5.19 Commenting on Romans 8:29, Edwards says: “In justification viz, the pardon of sins through Christ’s satisfaction and being accepted through his obedience.”20
We become “free of guilt” by receiving “pardon.” Nevertheless justification does not consist only of pardon, but, says Edwards in Miscellany 812:
Though the definition of justification is more comprehensive, the actual doctrine of the sermons on Romans 4:5 is that “we are justified only by faith in Christ, and not by any manner of virtue or goodness of our own.”21 This is, of course, the tenor of the text used “Now to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” The contrast in Edwards’ statement is between “faith in Christ” and “virtue or goodness of our own.” As Edwards develops the concept, however, the contrast is not between our faith and our goodness but between Christ’s goodness and our non-goodness. Referring to our faith is a shorthand way of referring to Christ’s righteousness, which is crucial. The “merit” is Christ’s.22
In a later sermon on Romans 4:16, Edwards seems to reduce justification to righteousness, but a “twofold righteousness”: “Nothing else seems to be intended by it in the New Testament than a persons being looked upon by God as having a righteousness belonging to him and God accordingly judging of it meet that he should be dealt with as such.”23 This twofold righteousness consists of freedom from guilt which the First Adam enjoyed – and actual fulfillment of a law – which only the Second Adam achieved. This righteousness may be performed by the person himself as the First Adam was supposed to do and the elect angels did. Or it could be by “some other person who has performed it for him whose act God sees meet to accept for him, as fallen men are justified.”24
This is important to Edwards because he sees no way of justification for a person except by righteousness. “Works are the fixed price of eternal life; it is fixed by an eternal unalterable rule of righteousness.”25 There can not be justification without righteousness. Edwards solemnly reiterates the Reformed emphasis on righteousness in justification by faith alone. God justifies the “ungodly”26 to be sure, but Edwards carefully explains this: “We must indeed be saved on the account of works; but not our own. It is on account of the works which Christ hath done for us.”27
In the sermon on Matthew 7:21, Edwards puts the matter plainly: “God acting the part of a judge determines and declares that men have a righteousness and as they are justified by works..”28
The Romans 4:5 sermon gives us the rationale of imputed righteousness:
The Basis of Justification.
So justification is righteousness, however we come by it. We do not come by it by ourselves, but by Christ. How we come by it by Christ is the question.
Edwards’ answer is clear: Christ’s righteousness belongs to the faithful by virtue of their “natural union” with him. The Reformers, especially Calvin, and the Puritans, especially Owen, also saw union with Christ as the basis of justification. Edwards is, perhaps, even more precise in two ways: First, he observes that Christ achieves his own righteousness which, second, becomes ours by union with him. Christ “was not justified ‘til he had done the work the Father had appointed him, and kept the Father’s commandments through all the trials: and then in his resurrection he was justified.”30 And in him we are justified because of the “natural fitness” of those united to him possessing what he achieved for them.
When it is said that we are not justified by any righteousness or goodness of our own, what is meant is, that it is not out of respect to the excellency or goodness of any qualifications or acts in us whatsoever, that God judges it meet that this benefit of Christ should be ours and it is not in any wise, on account of any excellency or value that there is in faith, that it appears in the sight of God a meet thing, that he that believes should have this benefit of Christ assigned to him, but purely from the relation faith has to the person in which this benefit is to be had, or as it unites to that mediator, in and by whom we are justified.31
Before a person believes, he is not possessed of this congruity.32
At this point Edwards goes further than his predecessors by distinguishing between a “twofold fitness,”33 which he calls natural and moral. He affirms the first and denies the second as belonging to the believer. The second is denied because, he reasons, it would imply an “amiableness” in the believer’s faith which it does not possess. A “natural suitableness” is always included in a “moral,” but natural suitableness “by no means necessarily includes a moral.”34
The Means of Justification.
If natural fitness or congruity is the basis of justification, the Edwardsean means to it is faith, faith alone and uniquely. This is very clear in the addresses on Romans 4:5. It is brilliantly exhibited in the later sermon on Romans 4:16, “That the grace of God in the new covenant eminently appears in this, that it proposes justification by faith.”35 Faith, according to Miscellany 1280, is not really a “condition” because Christ is the “ultimate condition” and besides, there are other “conditions.”36 “Faith is that in them which God has regard to upon the account of which God judges it meet that they should be looked upon as having Christ’s righteousness belonging to them . . . upon the account of which God in his wisdom sees it proper that they should have an actual communion with Christ in his righteousness.” Continuing he states that “though we can’t be justified without other graces and shall be justified with them yet we are not justified by them because they are not what God has regard to upon the account of which he judges it proper that men should be looked upon as being in Christ and so having an interest in his righteousness.”37 Nor are we justified by faith considered as a work (“by virtue of the goodness or loveliness of it”).
As with Luther and others, the marriage analogy was a favorite of Edwards.
As when a man offers himself to a woman in marriage; he doesn’t give himself to her as a reward of her receiving him in marriage: Her receiving him is not considered as a worthy deed in her, for which he rewards her, by giving himself to her, but ‘tis by her receiving him, that the union is made, by which she hath him for her husband: Tis on her part the union itself. The woman, by virtue of her natural union with the husband as one flesh, becomes also the possessor of all that belongs to the man: his position, wealth, and the like So with the believer: by his natural union with Christ by the Spirit he becomes the possessor of all the righteousness of Christ also.38
That faith is the means is clearest of all in the later Miscellanies 831, 877, and 1250. Almost the last Miscellany, 1354, is dedicated to this theme.
THE PROOF OF JUSTIFICATION
Granted that Edwards was correct in his analysis of the biblical doctrine of justification, what proof does he offer that it was true? For Edwards, such a question was impertinent. The Bible is the Word of God. What it teaches, God teaches. Against the deists, Edwards argued that each proposition of revelation did not have to be separately demonstrated any more than each proposition of sense or history had to be separately proven.39
In the sermon on Romans 4:20 he discusses Abraham’s faith as he had elucidated the faith of saints in general in his exposition of Habakkuk 2:4.40 The theme of this very early sermon is “That saints do live by faith.”41 The young preacher defined faith as the soul’s acquiescing in the divine sufficiency, specifically the sufficiency of Jesus Christ. He then takes up the question of how spiritual life comes by faith. Faith, he says, entitles one to life. If anyone fears the shadow of Catholicism there, Edwards hastens to explain that faith is “that by which the soul is united to Christ.” It is Christ alone who entitles to life.The inspired Word of God everywhere teaches this essential doctrine. Miscellany 725 had many references to the doctrine, even in the Old Testament, even in statements that were cited in evidence against the doctrine. His more famous lectures on Romans 4:5 abound in biblical references for this indispensable doctrine, dealing pointedly with the Roman Catholic claims to the contrary.
CRUCIALITY OF THE DOCTRINE
Thomas A. Schafer observes that Jonathan Edwards said much less about this doctrine in his last twenty years.42 He shifted his focus from this fruit of Arminianism to its root in the libertarian, voluntaristic view of the will. As Edwards concludes in his Freedom of the Will, all Reformed doctrines were subverted by the Arminian view of freedom.43 The third part is entitled: “Wherein Is Inquired, Whether Any Such Liberty of Will as Arminians Hold, Be Necessary to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Praise and Dispraise, etc.”44 In it he proved not only that Arminianism was not necessary to virtue but that it doomed the biblical way of virtue and salvation. As in “Justification by Faith” he saw the Arminian way of salvation with its stress on human righteousness as the end of human and divine virtue.
There can be no doubt that this doctrine was as essential for Edwards as for Paul and the Reformers. The contrary doctrine, he insists, citing Romans 9 and 10, is “fatal” and “another gospel,” according to Galatians 1:6. It is the substitution of man’s virtue for Christ’s, a legal system for the gospel, the covenant of works for the covenant of grace.
“I am sensible,” he concludes, “the divines of that side [Arminianism] entirely disclaim the popish doctrine of merit and are free to speak of our utter unworthiness, and the great imperfections of all our services. But after all, they maintain, it is our virtue, imperfect as it is, that commends men to God. . . . Whether they allow the term merit or not, we are accepted by our merit in the same sense as the first Adam.”45
In his discussion of James and Paul, Edwards notes that they were using the word justify in different senses, and he insists that we should alter the words there “because there is no one doctrine in the whole Bible more fully asserted.”46
Jonathan Edwards made many contributions to the historic doctrine of justification by faith alone. He continued it as the central doctrine of Christianity and American Protestantism, affirming it in God Glorified in Man’s Dependence (1731), proving it in Justification by Faith (1734), establishing its metaphysical foundation in Freedom of the Will (1754), and expounding it in numerous published and unpublished sermons.
He connected it inseparably with the covenant of grace, showing that covenant theology, so far from being “incipient Arminianism,” was the antithesis of it. In fact, he demonstrated that Arminianism was founded on a covenant of works mentality, and was essentially a denial of the gospel and purely gracious salvation.
In line with Calvin and Puritanism he saw union with Christ as the grounds of justification. And going beyond his own tradition he developed “fitness,” or natural congruity, as the corollary of union with Christ, sharply contrasting it with any “moral fitness” in faith or obedience.
More sharply than any he saw the sense in which justification by faith alone rested ultimately on justification by works – the works of Christ. He showed that faith justified works rather than works justifying faith. “Rewards” were explained thoroughly in solafidean terms, while he annihilated any concept of merit anywhere except in Jesus Christ.
He made the doctrine of justification the centerpiece in evangelism. God himself confirmed this doctrine by a great awakening following its preaching. Edwards’ prelude to his most celebrated evangelistic proclamation of “Justification by Faith Alone” cites this:
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