RPM, Volume 18, Number 35, August 21 to August 27, 2016

The Doctrine of Justification by Faith

The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, through the Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ;
explained, confirmed, and vindicated
Part 1

By John Owen

(1616-1683)
(The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1965)

Search the Scriptures �" John v. 29

Prefatory note

There is a pregnant and striking passage in one of the charges of Bishop Horsley, which may be said to embody the substance and intimate the scope of the following work on justification, �" a work which has been esteemed one of the best productions of Dr Owen. "That man is justified," says Horsley, "by faith, without the works of the law, was the uniform doctrine of our first Reformers. It is a far more ancient doctrine, �" it was the doctrine of the whole college of apostles; it is more ancient still, �" it was the doctrine of the prophets; it is older than the prophets, �" it was the religion of the patriarchs; and no one who has the least acquaintance with the writings of the first Reformers will impute to them, more than to the patriarchs, the prophets, or apostles, the absurd opinion, that any man leading an impenitent, wicked life, will finally, upon the mere pretence of faith (and faith connected with an impenitent life must always be a mere pretence), obtain admission into heaven."

Dr Owen, in the "general considerations" with which he opens the discussion of this momentous subject, shows that the doctrine of justification by faith was clearly declared in the teaching of the ancient church. Among other testimonies, he adduces the remarkable extract from the epistle to Diognetus, which, though commonly printed among the works of Justin Martyr, has been attributed by Tillemont to some author in the first century. Augustine, in his contest with Pelagian error, powerfully advocated the doctrines of grace. That he clearly apprehended the nature of justification by grace appears from the principle so tersely enunciated by him, "Opera bona non faciunt justum, sed justificatus facit bona opera." The controversy, however in which he was the great champion of orthodox opinions, turned mainly upon the renovation of the heart by a divine and supernatural influence; not so directly on the change of state effected by justifying grace. It was the clear apprehension and firm grasp of this doctrine which ultimately emancipated Luther from the thraldom of Romish error, and he clung to it with a zeal proportioned to his conviction of the benefit which his own soul had derived from it. He restored it to its true place and bearings in the Christian system, and, in emphatic expression of its importance, pronounced it "Articulus stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae." It had to encounter, accordingly, strong opposition from all who were hostile to the theology of the Reformation. Both Socinus and Bellarmine wrote against it, �" the former discussing the question in connection with his general argument against orthodox views on the subject of the person and work of Christ; the latter devoting a separate treatise expressly to the refutation of the doctrine of the Reformed churches regarding justification. Several Roman Catholic authors followed in his wake, to whom Dr Owen alludes in different parts of his work. The ability with which Bellarmine conducted his argument cannot be questioned; though sometimes, in meeting difficulties and disposing of objections to his views from Scripture, he evinces an unscrupulous audacity of statement. His work still continues, perhaps the ablest and most systematic attempt to overthrow the doctrine of justification by faith. In supplying an antidote to the subtle disquisitions of the Romish divine, Dr Owen is in reality vindicating that doctrine at all the points where the acumen of his antagonist had conceived it liable to be assailed with any hope of success.

To counteract the tendency of the religious mind when it proceeded in the direction of Arminianism, Calvinistic divines, naturally engrossed with the points in dispute, dwelt greatly on the workings of efficacious grace in election, regeneration, and conversion, if not to the exclusion of the free offer of the gospel, at least so as to cast somewhat into the shade the free justification offered in it. The Antinomianism which arose during the time of the Commonwealth has been accounted the reaction from this defect. Under these circumstances, the attention of theologians was again drawn to the doctrine of justification. Dissent could not, in those times, afford to be weakened by divisions; and partly under the influence of his own pacific dispositions, and partly to accomplish a public service to the cause of religion, Baxter made an attempt to reconcile the parties at variance, and to soothe into unity the British churches. Rightly conceiving that the essence of the question lay in the nature of justification, he published in 1649 his "Aphorisms on Justification," in opposition to the Antinomian tendencies of the day, and yet designed to accommodate the prevailing differences; on terms, however, that were held to compromise the gratuitous character of justification. He had unconsciously, by a recoil common in every attempt to reconcile essentially antagonistic principles, made a transition from the ground of justification by faith, to views clearly opposed to it. Though his mind was the victim of a false theory, his heart was practically right; and he subsequently modified and amended his views. But to his "Aphorisms" Bishop Barlow traces the first departure from the received doctrine of the Reformed churches on the subject of justification. In 1669, Bishop Bull published his "Apostolical Harmony," with the view of reconciling the apostles Paul and James. There is no ambiguity in regard to his views as to the ground of a sinner's acceptance with God. According to Bull "faith denotes the whole condition of the gospel covenant; that is, comprehends in one word all the works of Christian piety." It is the just remark of Bickersteth, that "under the cover of justification by faith, this is in reality justification by works."

A host of opponents sprung up in reply to Baxter and Bull; but they were not left without help in maintaining their position. In support of Baxter, Sir Charles Wolsley, a baronet of some reputation, who had been a member of Cromwell's Council of State, and who sat in several parliaments after the Restoration, published, in 1667, his "Justification Evangelical." In a letter to Mr Humfrey, author of the "Peaceable Disquisition," published subsequently to Owen's work and partly in refutation of it, Sir Charles, referring to Dr Owen, remarks, "I suppose you know his book of Justification was written particularly against mine." There is reason to believe that Owen had a wider object in view than the refutation of any particular treatise. In the preface to his great work, which appeared in 1677, he assures the reader that, whatever contests prevailed on the subject of justification, it was his design to mingle in no personal controversy with any author of the day. Not that his reasonings had no bearing on the pending disputes, for, from the brief review we have submitted of the history of this discussion, it is clear that, with all its other excellencies, the work was eminently seasonable and much needed; but he seems to have been under a conviction, that in refuting specially Socinus and Bellarmine, he was in effect disposing of the most formidable objections ever urged against the doctrine of justification by grace, while he avoided the unpleasantness of personal collision with the Christian men of his own times whose views might seem to him deeply erroneous on the point; and the very coincidence of these views, both in principle and tendency, with Socinian and Popish heresies, would suggest to his readers, if not a conclusive argument against them, at least a good reason why they should be carefully examined before they were embraced. His work, therefore, is not a meagre and ephemeral contribution to the controversy as it prevailed in his day, and under an aspect in which it may never again be revived. It is a formal review of the whole amount of truth revealed to us in regard to the justification of the sinner before God; and, if the scope of the treatise is considered, the author cannot be blamed for prolixity in the treatment of a theme so wide. On his own side of the question, it is still the most complete discussion in one language of the important doctrine to which it relates. Exception has been taken to the abstruse definitions and distinctions which he introduces. He had obviously no intention to offend in this way; for, at the close of chap. XIV, he makes a quaint protest against the admission of "exotic learning," "philosophical notions," and "arbitrary distinctions," into the exposition of spiritual truth. In the refutation of complicated error, there is sometimes a necessity to track it through various sinuosities; but, in the main, the treatise is written in a spirit which proves how directly the author was resting on divine truth as the basis of his own faith and hope, and how warily he strove and watched that his mind might not "be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ."

"A curious fact," says Mr Orme, "respecting this book, is mentioned in the Life of Mr Joseph Williams, of Kidderminster:�" At last, the time of his (Mr Grimshawe's, an active clergyman of the Church of England) deliverance came. At the house of one of his friends he lays his hand on a book, and opens it, with his face towards a pewter shelf. Instantly his face is saluted with an uncommon flash of heat. He turns to the title-page, and finds it to be Dr Owen on Justification. Immediately he is surprised with such another flash. He borrows the book, studies it, is led into God's method of justifying the ungodly, has a new heart given unto him; and now, behold, he prays!' Whether these flashes were electrical or galvanic, as Southey in his Life of Wesley supposes, it deserves to be noticed, that it was not the flash but the book which converted Grimshawe. The occurrence which turned his attention to it, is of importance merely as the second cause, which, under the mysterious direction of Providence, led to a blessed result."

Analysis. �" The causes, object, nature, and use of faith are successively considered, chap. I-III. The nature of justification is next discussed; �" first, under an inquiry into the meaning of the different terms commonly employed regarding it; and, secondly, by a statement of the juridical and forensic aspect under which it is represented in Scripture, IV. The theory of a twofold justification, as asserted by the Church of Rome, and another error which ascribes the initial justification of the sinner to faith, but the continuance of his state as justified to his own personal righteousness, are examined, and proved untenable, V. Several arguments are urged in disproof of a third erroneous theory, broached and supported by Socinians, that justification depends upon evangelical righteousness as the condition on which the righteousness of Christ is imputed, VI. A general statement follows of the nature of imputation, and of the grounds on which imputation proceeds, VII. A full discussion ensues of the doctrine that sin is imputed to Christ, grounded upon the mystical union between Christ and the church, the suretiship of the former in behalf of the church, and the provisions of the new covenant, VIII. The chief controversies in regard to justification are arranged and classified, and the author fixes on the point relating to the formal cause of justification as the main theme of the subsequent reasonings, IX.

At this stage, the second division of the treatise may be held to begin, �" the previous disquisitions being more of a preliminary character. The scope of what follows is to prove that the sinner is justified, through faith, by the imputed righteousness of Christ. This part of the work embraces four divisions; �" general arguments for the doctrine affirmed; testimonies from Scripture in support of it; the refutation of objections to it; and the reconciliation of the passages in the Epistles of Paul and James which have appeared to some to be inconsistent.

Under the head of general arguments, he rebuts briefly the general objections to imputation, and contends for the imputation of Christ's righteousness as the ground of justification; �" first, from the insufficiency of our own righteousness, or, in other words, from the condition of guilt in which all men are by nature involved, X.; secondly, from the nature of the obedience required unto justification, according to the eternal obligation of the divine law, XI.; and, as a subsidiary and collateral consideration, from the necessity which existed that the precept of the law should be fulfilled as well as that atonement should be rendered for the violation of it, �" in short, from the active as well as the passive righteousness of Christ; and here the three objections of Socinus, that such an imputation of Christ's obedience is impossible, useless, and pernicious, receive a detailed confutation, XII.; thirdly, from the difference between the two covenants, XIII.; and fourthly, from the express terms in which all works see excluded from justification in Scripture, XIV.; while faith is exhibited in the gospel as the sole instrument by which we are interested in the righteousness of Christ, XV. The testimony of Scripture is then adduced at great length, �" passages being quoted and commented on from the prophets, XVI.; from the evangelists, XVII.; and from the epistles of Paul, XVIII. The objections to the doctrine of justification are reviewed, and the chief objection, �" namely, that the doctrine overthrows the necessity of holiness and subverts moral obligation, �" is repelled by a variety of arguments, XIX. Lastly, the concluding chapter is devoted to an explanation of the passages in Paul and James which are alleged to be at variance but which are proved to be in perfect harmony, XX. �" Ed.

To the reader

I shall not need to detain the reader with an account of the nature and moment of that doctrine which is the entire subject of the ensuing discourse; for although sundry persons, even among ourselves, have various apprehensions concerning it, yet that the knowledge of the truth therein is of the highest importance unto the souls of men is on all hands agreed unto. Nor, indeed, is it possible that any man who knows himself to be a sinner, and obnoxious thereon to the judgment of God, but he must desire to have some knowledge of it, as that alone whereby the way of delivery from the evil state and condition wherein he finds himself is revealed. There are, I confess, multitudes in the world who, although they cannot avoid some general convictions of sin, as also of the consequents of it, yet do fortify their minds against a practical admission of such conclusions as, in a just consideration of things, do necessarily and unavoidably ensue thereon. Such persons, wilfully deluding themselves with vain hopes and imaginations, do never once seriously inquire by what way or means they may obtain peace with God and acceptance before him, which, in comparison of the present enjoyment of the pleasures of sin, they value not at all. And it is in vain to recommend the doctrine of justification unto them who neither desire nor endeavour to be justified. But where any persons are really made sensible of their apostasy from God, of the evil of their natures and lives, with the dreadful consequences that attend thereon, in the wrath of God and eternal punishment due unto sin, they cannot well judge themselves more concerned in any thing than in the knowledge of that divine way whereby they may be delivered from this condition. And the minds of such persons stand in no need of arguments to satisfy them in the importance of this doctrine; their own concernment in it is sufficient to that purpose. And I shall assure them that, in the handling of it, from first to last, I have had no other design but only to inquire diligently into the divine revelation of that way, and those means, with the causes of them, whereby the conscience of a distressed sinner may attain assured peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. I lay more weight on the steady direction of one soul in this inquiry, than on disappointing the objections of twenty wrangling or fiery disputers. The question, therefore, unto this purpose being stated, as the reader will find in the beginning of our discourse, although it were necessary to spend some time in the explication of the doctrine itself, and terms wherein it is usually taught, yet the main weight of the whole lies in the interpretation of scripture testimonies, with the application of them unto the experience of them who do believe, and the state of them who seek after salvation by Jesus Christ. There are, therefore, some few things that I would desire the reader to take notice of, that he may receive benefit by the ensuing discourse; at least, if it be not his own fault, be freed from prejudices against it, or a vain opposition unto it.

1. Although there are at present various contests about the doctrine of justification, and many books published in the way of controversy about it, yet this discourse was written with no design to contend with or contradict any, of what sort or opinion soever. Some few passages which seem of that tendency are, indeed, occasionally inserted; but they are such as every candid reader will judge to have been necessary. I have ascribed no opinion unto any particular person, �" much less wrested the words of any, reflected on their persons, censured their abilities, taken advantage of presumed prejudices against them, represented their opinions in the deformed reflections of strained consequences, fancied intended notions, which their words do not express, nor, candidly interpreted, give any countenance unto, �" or endeavoured the vain pleasure of seeming success in opposition unto them; which, with the like effects of weakness of mind and disorder of affections, are the animating principles of many late controversial writings. To declare and vindicate the truth, unto the instruction and edification of such as love it in sincerity, to extricate their minds from those difficulties (in this particular instance) which some endeavour to cast on all gospel mysteries, to direct the consciences of them that inquire after abiding peace with God, and to establish the minds of them that do believe, are the things I have aimed at; and an endeavour unto this end, considering all circumstances, that station which God has been pleased graciously to give me in the church, has made necessary unto me.

2. I have written nothing but what I believe to be true, and useful unto the promotion of gospel obedience. The reader may not here expect an extraction of other men's notions, or a collection and improvement of their arguments, either by artificial reasonings or ornament of style and language; but a naked inquiry into the nature of the things treated on, as revealed in the Scripture, and as evidencing themselves in their power and efficacy on the minds of them that do believe. It is the practical direction of the consciences of men, in their application unto God by Jesus Christ for deliverance from the curse due unto the apostate state, and peace with him, with the influence of the way thereof unto universal gospel obedience, that is alone to be designed in the handling of this doctrine. And, therefore, unto him that would treat of it in a due manner, it is required that he weigh every thing he asserts in his own mind and experience, and not dare to propose that unto others which he does not abide by himself, in the most intimate recesses of his mind, under his nearest approaches unto God, in his surprisals with dangers, in deep afflictions, in his preparations for death, and most humble contemplations of the infinite distance between God and him. Other notions and disputations about the doctrine of justification, not seasoned with these ingredients, however condited unto the palate of some by skill and language, are insipid and useless, immediately degenerating into an unprofitable strife of words.

3. I know that the doctrine here pleaded for is charged by many with an unfriendly aspect towards the necessity of personal holiness, good works, and all gospel obedience in general, yea, utterly to take it away. So it was at the first clear revelation of it by the apostle Paul, as he frequently declares. But it is sufficiently evinced by him to be the chief principle of, and motive unto, all that obedience which is accepted with God through Jesus Christ, as we shall manifest afterwards. However, it is acknowledged that the objective grace of the gospel, in the doctrine of it, is liable to abuse, where there is nothing of the subjective grace of it in the hearts of men; and the ways of its influence into the life of God are uncouth unto the reasonings of carnal minds. So was it charged by the Papists, at the first Reformation, and continues yet so to be. Yet, as it gave the first occasion unto the Reformation itself, so was it that whereby the souls of men, being set at liberty from their bondage unto innumerable superstitious fears and observances, utterly inconsistent with true gospel obedience, and directed into the ways of peace with God through Jesus Christ, were made fruitful in real holiness, and to abound in all those blessed effects of the life of God which were never found among their adversaries. The same charge as afterwards renewed by the Socinians, and continues still to be managed by them. But I suppose wise and impartial men will not lay much weight on their accusations, until they have manifested the efficacy of their contrary persuasion by better effects and fruits than yet they have done. What sort of men they were who first coined that system of religion which they adhere unto, one who knew them well enough, and sufficiently inclined unto their Antitrinitarian opinions, declares in one of the queries that he proposed unto Socinus himself and his followers. "If this," says he, "be the truth which you contend for, whence comes it to pass that it is declared only by persons nulla pietatis commendatione, nullo laudato prioris vitae exemplo commendatos; imo ut plerumque videmus, per vagabundos, et contentionum zeli carnalis plenos homines, alios ex castris, aulis, ganeis, prolatam esse. Scrupuli ab excellenti viro propositi, inter oper. Socin.'?" The fiercest charges of such men against any doctrines they oppose as inconsistent with the necessary motives unto godliness, are a recommendation of it unto the minds of considerative men. And there cannot be a more effectual engine plied for the ruin of religion, than for men to declaim against the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and other truths concerning the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, as those which overthrow the necessity of moral duties, good works, and gospel obedience; whilst, under the conduct of the opinions which they embrace in opposition unto them, they give not the least evidence of the power of the truth or grace of the gospel upon their own hearts, or in their lives. Whereas, therefore, the whole gospel is the truth which is after godliness, declaring and exhibiting that grace of God which teaches us "to deny all ungodliness and worldly lusts, and that we should live soberly, and righteously, and godly in this world;" we being fallen into those times wherein, under great and fierce contests about notions, opinions, and practices in religion, there is a horrible decay in true gospel purity and holiness of life amongst the generality of men, I shall readily grant that, keeping a due regard unto the only standard of truth, a secondary trial of doctrines proposed and contended for may and ought to be made, by the ways, lives, walkings, and conversations of them by whom they are received and professed. And although it is acknowledged that the doctrine pleaded in the ensuing discourse be liable to be abused, yea, turned into licentiousness, by men of corrupt minds, through the prevalence of vicious habits in them (as is the whole doctrine of the grace of God by Jesus Christ); and although the way and means of its efficacy and influence into universal obedience unto God, in righteousness and true holiness, be not discernible without some beam of spiritual light, nor will give an experience of their power unto the minds of men utterly destitute of a principle of spiritual life; yet, if it cannot preserve its station in the church by this rule, of its useful tendency unto the promotion of godliness, and its necessity thereunto, in all them by whom it is really believed and received in its proper light and power, and that in the experience of former and present times, I shall be content that it be exploded.

4. Finding that not a few have esteemed it compliant with their interest to publish exceptions against some few leaves which, in the handling of a subject of another nature, I occasionally wrote many years ago on this subject, I am not without apprehensions, that either the same persons or others of a like temper and principles, may attempt an opposition unto what is here expressly tendered thereon. On supposition of such an attempt, I shall, in one word, let the authors of it know wherein alone I shall be concerned. For, if they shall make it their business to cavil at expressions, to wrest my words, wire-draw inferences and conclusions from them not expressly owned by me, �" to revile my person, to catch at advantages in any occasional passages, or other unessential parts of the discourse, �" labouring for an appearance of success and reputation to themselves thereby, without a due attendance unto Christian moderation, candour, and ingenuity, �" I shall take no more notice of what they say or write than I would do of the greatest impertinencies that can be reported in this world. The same I say concerning oppositions of the like nature unto any other writings of mine, �" a work which, as I hear, some are at present engaged in. I have somewhat else to do than to cast away any part of the small remainder of my life in that kind of controversial writings which good men bewail, and wise men deride. Whereas, therefore, the principal design of this discourse is to state the doctrine of justification from the Scripture, and to confirm it by the testimonies thereof, I shall not esteem it spoken against, unless our exposition of Scripture testimonies, and the application of them unto the present argument, be disproved by just rules of interpretation, and another sense of them be evinced. All other things which I conceive necessary to be spoken unto, in order unto the right understanding and due improvement of the truth pleaded for, are comprised and declared in the ensuing general discourses to that purpose. These few things I thought meet to mind the reader of.

J. O.
From my study, May the 30th, 1677.

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