Justification and the Remonstrants

“An error in justification is dangerous, like a crack in the foundation,” said Thomas Watson.

The problem with a crack is two-fold. First, trouble easily passes through, such as swelling ground water, bringing deleterious effects upon the foundation and everything meant to be guarded by it. Second, a little crack does not heal itself. It is soon not so little.

For these reasons we now set our sights on the error concerning justification which emerged among the Remonstrants.

In 1610, followers of Jacobus Arminius, who died in 1609, presented a “Remonstrance,” an official state protest, to the civil government of Holland and Friesland. They were seeking political toleration to continue as ministers in Dutch churches. In five theological articles their protest outlined substantial divergence from the far more commonly held Calvinistic beliefs found in the Belgic Confession (1561).

Soon enough the matter came before the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), an international assembly of approximately 100 leaders including ministers, ruling elders and academic theologians. The result? The Remonstrants were utterly defeated and immediately sanctioned or dismissed from the region.

It was this synod which produced what came to be known as the Five Canons of Dort, or more popularly, the Five Points of Calvinism. The canons are not a full expression of Calvinistic doctrine, but they are sincerely confessed today by several Reformed denominations.      

Now I have suggested the Remonstrants caused a crack in the foundation of the biblical doctrine of justification. This crack is not as vivid in the five articles submitted in 1610 as it is in the writings of Arminius himself.

In a 1608 letter written to Hippolytus Collibus, the ambassador from the Elector of Palatine, Arminius states the following:  

“I affirm, therefore, that faith is imputed to us for righteousness, on account of Christ and his righteousness. In this enunciation, faith is the object of imputation; but Christ and his obedience are the impetratory or meritorious cause of justification. Christ and his obedience are the object of our faith, but not the object of justification or divine imputation, as if God imputes Christ and his righteousness to us for righteousness.”

Arminius was denying the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.

At first it sounds as if he was honoring both faith and the obedience of Christ. No doubt, in some ways he was. The crack in the foundation, however, comes from the twist he exerts upon faith, and not just in this one quote, but in his other writings as well. His predecessor, Simon Episcopius, championed the same errors, writing that it is incorrect “to say that it is Christ’s righteousness whether active of passive…[that] is imputed to us but it is the basis for imputing faith itself as righteousness for those who believe in Christ.”

The Remonstrants would not allow the imputed righteousness of Christ to be the grounds for our justification. Instead they affirmed that faith is imputed as righteousness, which the Westminster Confession would later explicitly deny: “nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing” (11.1).

The Remonstrants made faith the ground of our justification, In other words, because we have believed the right things about Christ, we are counted as righteous on the basis of our faith, which necessarily means the sinner is not counted righteous on the basis of the obedience and satisfaction of Christ imputed to us.

As we might expect, the Synod of Dort renounced this teaching forcefully: “Having set forth the orthodox teaching, the Synod rejects the errors of those who teach that what is involved in the new covenant of grace which God the Father made with men through the intervening of Christ’s death is not that we are justified before God and saved through faith, insofar as it accepts Christ’s merit, but rather that God, having withdrawn his demand for perfect obedience to the law, counts faith itself, and the imperfect obedience of faith, as perfect obedience to the law, and graciously looks upon this as worthy of the reward of eternal life.”

The correct view, according to scripture, is that God demands perfect obedience to the law from us. Jesus said: “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). Faith, however, cannot by itself be counted as the righteousness God requires from us to enter life. How then do the elect obtain the requisite righteousness? In Christ. We are justified by Christ’s merits  through faith. Faith is the instrument of our justification, not the foundation of it.

The foundation of justification is stated perfectly in Romans 5:19 – “For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.” The active and passive obedience of Christ is imputed for righteousness, not our faith, not the act of our believing.

Let us leave no cracks in the foundation. Let us not make more of faith than we ought, or we will soon be making less of Christ and his merits. Only one can be imputed for righteousness. To him, not to us, be all glory, honor and praise forever and ever.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.