Justification by Precision Alone?

"For my part, I had much rather my lot should be found among them who do really believe with the heart unto righteousness, though they are not able to give a tolerable definition of faith unto others, than among them who can endlessly dispute about it with seeming accuracy and skill, but are negligent in the exercise of it as their own duty" (John Owen).


Once upon a time, some guy said:

"The elect must seek salvation not only by faith but also by works, seeing that without doubt salvation is to be given by way of reward, by which God will reward not only our faith but also all our works. Indeed justification, namely the remission of sins, we seek by faith alone, not at all by works. But after we are justified, we seek salvation not only by faith but also by good works. For God will repay everyone according to their works."

This quote above (see here for original) is bound to make some nervous. How he managed to become Prolocutor at the Westminster Assembly is beyond me. But his definition of justification, as the remission of sins, might warrant a further question, namely:

Does he also believe in the imputation of the active obedience of Christ? It turns out he doesn't.

Unlike the learned William Twisse above, I affirm the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. I am an "active obedience boy."

Nonetheless, I am also in wholehearted agreement with John Owen's wisdom in how we deal with those who differ from us on the precise details of sola fide:

"Men may be really saved, by that grace which doctrinally they deny; and they may be justified by the imputation of that righteousness which in opinion they deny to be imputed."

Amen! Otherwise the gates of heaven are a lot narrower than we can imagine (e.g., no Arminians in heaven). But then Owen continues with another significant point:

"For the faith of it, is included in that general assent which they give to the truth of the gospel, and such an adherence to Christ may ensue thereon, as that their mistake of the way whereby they are saved by him, shall not defraud them of a real interest therein."

Owen shows that sinners are not justified by believing particular and controverted features of a polished doctrine of justification by faith alone. Rather, sinners are saved through faith alone in Christ alone. Jesus is the object of our faith. We can easily fall into a type of works-salvation regarding doctrine if we insist on a precision that even Reformed theologians have disagreed upon. 

Owen adds, 

"And for my part, I must say, that notwithstanding all the disputes that I see and read about justification...I do not believe but that the authors of them, (if they be not Socinians) do really trust to the mediation of Christ for the pardon of their sins, and acceptance with God, and not to their own works or obedience. Nor will I believe the contrary, until they expressly declare it."

Owen draws a line, but also shows a great deal of charity towards others, even others from outside the Reformed tradition. He understood that a simple trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and a readiness to not trust in our works of obedience for justification, is enough for someone to enter the kingdom of heaven. (This is why popery is so evil, because it does its best to keep people from embracing this simple truth.) 

Those are the people whom the PCA/OPC welcomes into membership, unlike some Reformed denominations that require a form of confessional subscription among its members. I think the doctrine of justification is the strongest argument for "open communion." God accepts me; shall the church do otherwise? 

Owen provides another point for us to consider carefully:

"There are indeed sundry differences among persons learned, sober, and orthodox in the way and manner of the explication of the doctrine of justification by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, who yet all of them agree in the substance of it, in all those things wherein the grace of God, the honour of Christ, and the peace of souls of men are principally concerned. As far as it is possible for me, I shall avoid the concerning myself at present, in these differences. For to what purpose is it to contend about them, whilst the substance of the doctrine is openly opposed and rejected? Why should we debate about the order and beautifying of the rooms in a house, whilst the fire is set to the whole?" (Works, 5:164)

Interesting how the most gifted polemicists were sometimes the most catholic. Consider also Edward Leigh's sentiments:

"Whether we be justified by the passive obedience of Christ alone, or also by his active? In this controversie many divines of our own differ among themselves, and it does not seem to be of that importance that some others are about justification." Body of Divinity (1657), 718. (See also Anthony Burgess on the diversity among the "learned": The True Doctrine of Justification..., 1648, [p. 17]).

I defend - and commend - the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. But I hope in defending this doctrine I don't actually miss the point and the joy of what it means for me and others. That's why my congregation need to hear about their free justification so often. 

In relation to this, someone once said (ipsissima vox), "When you question someone's faith based on an argument that most educated Christians, including many preachers, cannot comprehend, then there is a serious problem. Presbyterians and Reformed folk can go at it over things most of the Christian world can't even understand." This person makes a good point (cf. Owen [5:207] on the formal cause of justification).

Owen understood there is a place to defend this doctrine from various onslaughts. (I vehemently disagree with the Remonstrant doctrine of justification.) But Owen was not (always) an unreasonable man. He not only understood and defended sola fide, but also understood the consequences of the truth for others who may not have embraced the doctrine with the fullness or clarity that he did.

Preachers and theologians must all stand before God one day for our defence of the faith. Where people cross the line in justification by faith alone is not always easy to discern. I tend to think Owen's catholicity here is wisest (e.g., "if they be not Socinians" or "Papists"). This attitude does not, of course, mean we cannot defend justification by faith alone - "to the death," as I stated in Antinomianism - with precision. 

Yet Owen's sentiments also highlight the vibrant Reformed catholicity of the Reformation and Post-Reformation periods towards not only laymen, but ministers/theologians with whom they differed. Ministers and theologians will have to stand before God for how we have treated others who are part of the faith. To that end, I think Owen gives us all something to think about, very carefully.

Once upon a time, some guy said:

"I do not doubt but that many men do receive more grace from God than they understand or will own, and have a greater efficacy of it in them than they will believe." 

Update: a friendly correspondent from TGC sent this regarding Jonathan Edwards's views on this matter. Thanks TGC for your excellent work!

Pastor Mark Jones is so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope for himself and others without it, (even if they don't know or agree with that aspect of justification).