One Justification or Two Justifications?
October 8, 2015
"And a good work it is, no doubt, to pare off all unnecessary occasions of debate and differences in religion, provided we go not so near the quick as to let out any of its vital spirits." John Owen
Part 5: One or Two Justifications? (see below)
Part 6: Judgment According to Works (to come soon)
In the past I have discussed how Reformed theologians have historically disagreed with the Remonstrants (Arminians) on justification by faith alone. I have also discussed how the Reformed have insisted that good works are the way to life (final salvation or "heaven") (see WLC 32, "and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation"). In this way, the Reformed theologians at Westminster clearly aimed to distance themselves from the language of the Antinomian theologian, Tobias Crisp.
Crisp remarked that "they [i.e., good works] are not the Way to Heaven." He refers to the Reformed view as a "received conceit among many persons," namely, "that our obedience is the way to heaven."
We cannot deny that it is quite difficult to speak in a way that avoids several errors at once. Those who are quick to criticize need to realize that avoiding "scylla and charybdis" (Arminianism/Popery, and Antinomianism) is not quite as easy as we might think. As Joseph Hart once said,
Pharasaic zeel and Antinomian security are the two engines of Satan, with which he grinds the church in all ages, as between the upper and the [lower] millstone. The space between them is much narrower and harder to find than most men imagine. It is a path which the vulture's eye hath not seen; and none can show it us but the Holy Ghost.
Confessional statements had to take into account not just one error on either justification or sanctification, but several errors.
Against Rome, Reformed theologians were adamant that the Romish doctrine of a double justification was false. The first justification, according to Rome, is the infusion of grace through baptism, which effects grace automatically ex opere operato, whereby original sin is extinguished and the habits of sin are expelled. The second justification is the formal cause of their good works. As John Owen notes,
Paul, they say, treats of the first justification only, whence he excludes all works [...] but James treats of the second justification; which is by good works [...] Sanctification is turned into a justification [...] The whole nature of evangelical justification, consisting in the gratuitous pardon of sin and the imputation of righteousness [...] is utterly defeated by it.
Elsewhere, Owen argues that the distinction of two justifications as defended and articulated by the Catholic Church leaves us with no justification at all. Why is that?
There are only two ways by which a man may be justified according to Owen. The first justification is "By the works of the law," wherein sinners are to fulfill all the terms of the law, like Christ, and the second is "by grace," wherein Christ has fulfilled all the terms of the law on behalf of the elect. Justification is a work of God "by grace" that is once completed "in all the causes and the whole effect of it, though not as unto the full possession of all that it give right and title unto."
What this means is not that we attain to heaven by faith alone. Rather, it means that we have the full right to heaven when we first believe. As Thomas Goodwin notes: "Works of new obedience are required as necessary to the possession of salvation, but faith is that alone which puts us into a condition of having the title and right to it, by the blood and righteousness of Christ." He, like pretty much every other Reformed theologian of the period, knows how to distinguish between the right to heaven and the way we possess heaven. Similarly, Richard Sibbes: "There must be some grace between faith and the possession of heaven. I am assured of the possession of heaven in my first conversion; but I am not invested into it. It is deferred."
In other words, a man is fully declared righteous as soon as he puts his faith in Christ. Justification is an act that cannot be revoked. However, the full benefits of justification, like heaven, for example, are a future possession, even if we possess the right to heaven now. Moreover, by believing, Christians become sons of God and have a right to all the benefits of his mediation, which leaves any other justification unnecessary. Through faith in Christ, the sins of God's people are forgiven so that no one can lay charge against God's elect, for "he that believes has everlasting life" (Jn. 3:36). If justification is not at once complete and in need of a second justification, "no man can be justified in this world." This last sentence is crucial. There is one justification, not two justifications. Why?
For no time can be assigned, nor measure of obedience be limited, whereon it may be supposed that any one comes to be justified before God, who is not so on his first believing; for the Scripture does nowhere assign any such time or measure. And to say that no man is completely justified in the sight of God in this life, is at once to overthrow all that is taught in the Scriptures concerning justification, and wherewithal all peace with God and comfort of believers. But a man acquitted upon his legal trial is at once discharged of all that the law has against him.
For these reasons, Owen rejects the Catholic doctrine of a twofold justification. And, well, so should any good Reformed believer. The idea that good works are an instrumental cause of justification is utterly grotesque.
But what about a judgment according to works and how does that relate to our justification? That's a question I hope to turn to in the future, with a few present-day Reformed theologians in my sight who seem to be unnecessarily skittish about a judgment according to works.