The Doctrine of Justification Among the Puritans

by J. I. Packer

“The confession of divine justification touches man’s life at its heart, at the point of its relationship to God; it defines the preaching of the Church, the existence and progress of the life of faith, the root of human security, and man’s perspective for the future.”

So Professor G. C. Berkouwer1 evaluates justification as set forth by Paul and re-apprehended at the Reformation: a truth which all the reforming leaders in Germany, Switzerland, France, and Britain, and all the confessions which they sponsored, were at one in highlighting, and which they all saw as articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae—the point on which depends the standing or falling of the Church.

Luther, the pioneer, predicted, as a sure inference from what he knew of Satanic strategy, that after his death the truth of justification which he had been so instrumental in making known would come under stronger attack, and theology would develop in a way tending to submerge it once more in error and incomprehension. We find Puritan writers voicing a similar sense that the doctrine was very vulnerable, and only grace could keep it from being lost. It is worth setting out their reasons for thinking this.

First, they said, justification is a gospel mystery—a matter, that is, of divine revelation by grace. As such, it is doubly humbling. It humbles pride of intellect, because it could never have been guessed or worked out by unaided religious reason, and it humbles moral pride by assuming that all men are hopeless and helpless in sin. Naturally, people resent this, and, as Robert Traill said with abiding truth in his masterly Vindication of the Protestant Doctrine concerning Justification (1692), “this enmity in men to the wisdom of God, is . . . a temptation to many ministers to patch up and frame a gospel that is more suited to, and taking with, and more easily understood by such men, than the true gospel of Christ is.”2 The mystery of justification is thus threatened constantly by human pride.

Second, justification is a climatic mystery, like the top rung of a ladder which you reach via the other rungs, or the keystone of an arch supporting, and supported by, the bricks that flank it. Wrote Traill: “All the great fundamentals of Christian truth, centre in this of justification. The trinity of persons in the God-head; the incarnation of the only begotten of the Father; the satisfaction paid to the law and justice of God, for the sins of the world, by His obedience, and sacrifice of Himself in that flesh He assumed: and the divine authority of the scriptures, which reveal all this, are all straight lines of truth, that centre in this doctrine of the justification of a sinner by the imputation and application of that satisfaction.”3

Traill’s point, in context, is that to deny justification is to deny these other realities too;4 but the contrary point, that to query them is to lose justification also, is no less true. This has happened in our own day; misbelief about biblical authority, God’s wrath, and the atonement, has removed for many all basis for asserting justification in the biblical sense. Thus heretical theology becomes a second threat to the mystery of justification.

Third, justification is a spiritual mystery, which only the enlightened conscience of the man convicted of sin can appreciate. “The theme of justification hath suffered greatly by this,” complains Traill, “that many have employed their hands and pens, who never had their hearts and consciences exercised about it.”5 In the preface to his classic work, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith (1677), John Owen puts the positive point thus:

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 doth 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 . . . not seasoned with these ingredients . . . are insipid and useless.6

The “light, frothy, trifling temper” of the 1690s seemed to Traill a major hindrance to right thinking about justification. (What would he have said had he lived in our day?) Spiritual frivolity, lacking seriousness and experience in approaching God, thus threatens the mystery of justification from a third angle.

Fourth, justification is a life-giving mystery, the source of all true peace of conscience, hope, love, joy, holiness, and assurance. Therefore the Puritans, like Luther, saw Satanic hostility as a fourth threat to the mystery of justification; for they knew that the adversary of God and God’s people must wish to suppress a truth so productive of glory to God and good to men.

Fifth, justification is a contradicted mystery. Justification by works is the natural religion of mankind, and has been since the Fall, so that, as Traill says, “all the ignorant people that know nothing of either law or gospel,” “all proud secure sinners,” “all formalists,” and “all the zealous devout people in a natural religion” line up together as “utter enemies to the gospel.”7 The Puritans saw that trio of theological relatives, Pelagianism, Arminianism, and Counter-Reformation Romanism, as the bastard offspring of natural religion fertilized by the gospel. So (to take one for many)Traill writes: “The principles of Arminianism are the natural dictates of a carnal mind, which is enmity both to the law of God, and to the gospel of Christ; and, next to the dead sea of Popery (into which also this stream runs), have since Pelagius to this day, been the greatest plague of the Church of Christ.” Again: “There is not a minister that dealeth seriously with the souls of men, but he finds an Arminian scheme of justification in every unrenewed heart.”8 Natural religion is thus a fifth threat to the mystery of justification.

My personal agreement with the Puritans in all this will be clear from the way I have put their position. I believe that in equating the Reformation doctrine of justification with that of the New Testament, and in their analysis of the dangers and conflicts to which it stood exposed, they were profoundly right, and it is from this standpoint that I shall now attempt to trace out ways in which the Reformation doctrine both developed and declined in the Puritan period—that is, for our purposes, from the last quarter of the sixteenth century (the age of Perkins) to the end of the seventeenth (the last publications of Owen, Baxter, Goodwin, and others of their generation). The developments, as we should expect, come from circles where the fires of spiritual vitality burned bright; the decline took place under influences which were rationalistic, naturalistic, and in the long run hostile to evangelical piety, though claiming to operate in its interest. We take the developments first.

The Development of the Doctrine

Luther’s account of justification was not analytical. His concern was to declare the fact that the living God justifies sinners through the cross as the heart of the gospel, and he expounded justification as God’s gracious answer to man’s desperate question, “How may I find a gracious God? What must I do to be saved?” The Puritans, standing at this point in the mainstream of second and third generation Reformed theology, took over Luther’s emphasis and added to it a further interest, namely a concern to grasp accurately the place and work and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ in our salvation. If Luther’s concern was evangelical and a function of preaching, this further concern was doxological and a function of worship. (Both concerns, of course, derive directly from the New Testament, and they are complementary, not contradictory.)

The Reformers’ exposition of justification boiled down to the following seven points:

1. Every man faces the judgment-seat of God, and must answer to God for himself. The Church cannot shield him from this.

2. Every man is a sinner by nature and practice, a nonconformist so far as God’s law is concerned, and therefore can only expect God’s wrath and rejection.

3. Justification is God’s judicial act of pardoning the guilty sinner, accepting him as righteous, and receiving him as a son.

4. The source of justification is grace, not human effort or initiative.

5. The ground of justification is Christ’s vicarious righteousness and blood-shedding, not our own merit.

6. The means of justification, here and now, is faith in Jesus Christ.

7. The fruit of faith, the evidence of its reality, is a manifested repentance and a life of good works.

The occasion of the later Reformed development was controversy with Romanism and Arminianism. This prompted closer reflection on the nature of the saving union between Christ and Christians, and led to development of thought at the following three points:

1. The ground of justification. The Council of Trent had defined justification as inner renewal plus pardon and acceptance, the renewal being the basis of the pardon, and had gone on to affirm that the “sole formal cause” (unica formalis causa) of justification, in both its aspects, was God’s righteousness (iustitia) imparted through baptism as the instrumental cause.9 “Formal cause,” in the language of the schools, denoted that which gave a thing its quality (thus, heat was the formal cause of a thing being hot, or having the quality of hotness). The thesis therefore was that the ground of our being pardoned was the quality of actual divine righteousness infused into us: God declares us righteous, and not liable to punishment for our sins, because we have been made genuinely righteous in ourselves. In the more biblical terminology of Protestantism, this was to make regeneration, or the commencement of sanctification, the ground of justification. In reply, a host of Reformed divines, continental and British, episcopal and nonconformist,10 drew out at length the position already made explicit by Calvin,11 that the “sole formal cause” of justification is not God’s righteousness imparted, but Christ’s righteousness imputed; and to make their meaning more clear they drew a distinction between Christ’s active obedience to God’s law, in keeping its precepts, and his passive obedience to it, in undergoing its penalty, and insisted that our acceptance as righteous depends on the imputing to us of Christ’s obedience in both its aspects. The same point was pressed against the Arminians, who held that faith is “counted for righteousness” because it is in itself actual personal righteousness, being obedience to the gospel viewed as God’s new law. The argument against both Romans and Arminians was that by finding the ground of justification in the believer himself they ministered to human pride on the one hand, and on the other hand robbed the Son of God of the glory which was His due. It is not enough, the Reformed writers held, to say that without Christ our justification would be impossible; one must go on to say that it is on the ground of His obedience, as our representative and substitutionary sin-bearer, and that alone, that righteousness is reckoned to us, and sin cancelled.

Though the phrase “formal cause,” and the distinction between active and passive obedience, do not appear in the statement on justification in the Westminster Confession, nonetheless this statement is a classic indication of the precision and balance of thought, as well as the polemical thrusts that were learned in these exchanges.

Those whom God effectually calleth He also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God.12

2. Regeneration and justification. Roman theologians attacked the Reformers from the first on the grounds that in denying inner renewal and subjective righteousness to be any part of justification they were affirming that justification can exist without regeneration and faith without good works. Roman thinking was evidently ruled by the typical legalist assumption that if good works do not bring salvation, but salvation is given freely without them, then no reason for doing them remains. The Reformers’ reply, that it is the nature of biblical faith, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, to be active in good works all the time, made little impact: theological understanding and spiritual perception of the Holy Spirit’s work in the believer were alike lacking on the Roman side. The Puritans found themselves facing this same Roman polemic, and with it the Arminian thesis that justifying faith is, in the last analysis, not only man’s act but also his work, an independent achievement of which prevenient grace, though the necessary precondition, is not the effective source. On this basis, of course, no divine guarantee that faith will work by love can exist. Thus the Arminians appeared to Reformed thinkers to be playing into Rome’s hands at this point: Rome complained that justification according to Protestants was divorced from subjective renewal, and Arminianism admitted that faith might fail to produce good works every time.

The Puritans’ response to this situation was twofold. First, they reaffirmed the Reformers’ point, that “faith . . . the alone instrument of justification . . . is . . . not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”13 Second, they emphasized that justifying faith is given by God through effectual calling, which includes regeneration—that is, vitalizing union with the risen Christ through the sovereign work of the Spirit, from which, as a work of new creation, flows the sinner’s response to the gospel. (Rightly did George Smeaton describe Puritan divinity as “a theology of regeneration cultivated and expanded as a topic in itself,” a theology of which “it was the prominent peculiarity to bring out the distinction between nature and grace.”14) This emphasis both answered the Romans, by showing that though justification and regeneration are distinct the former cannot take place without the latter, and dealt with the Arminians by showing how completely man’s faith is God’s gift.15

3. The covenant context of justification. The Puritans developed what has been called “covenant theology”; they saw this as the scriptural setting in which the jewel of justification by faith should be exhibited. They defined the gospel as declaring “the Covenant of Grace; whereby (God) freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.”16 They valued this covenant concept, first, because it links God’s promise to save believers with His purpose to bring His elect to faith; second, because it gives justification its place in the “golden chain” of stages in God’s saving purpose (election, redemption, and effectual calling going before; sanctification and glorification coming after); third, because it brings into sharp focus the saving ministry of Christ, as mediator and federal head of His people. The Westminster Confession embodies Puritan covenant theology in its classical form. Its biblical correctness is something which the student of the Scripture proofs adduced by the Confession may safely be left to estimate for himself.

The final element in the Puritan development of the doctrine of justification was to safeguard it against misstatement within the Puritan camp. Chapter 11 of the Westminster Confession wards off two such aberrations. The first is that justification is from eternity, i.e., before faith. William Twisse, first prolocutor of the Assembly, had maintained this as part of his case against Arminianism, but in addition to being unscriptural the idea is pastorally disastrous, for it reduces justifying faith to discovering that one is justified already, and so sets seekers waiting on God for assurance instead of exerting active trust in Christ. The trouble here was the assimilating of justification to election, and the Confession deals with it by drawing the correct distinction: “God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect . . . nevertheless they are not justified until the Holy Spirit doth in due time actually apply Christ unto them.”17

The second misconception was that God takes no notice of the sins of the justified. This was the position called “Antinomian” by the orthodox, which created a major stir in the 1640s.18 In their zeal to magnify the liberty, peace, and joy of the man in Christ, the Antinomians (none of whom were front-rank theologians) had largely lost sight of two distinctions: that between God’s law as a covenant of works and as a rule of life, and that between justification and adoption, or God’s relationship to believers as Judge and as Father. Hence their failure to see, and say, with adequate clarity that the moral law still binds believers, as expressing God’s will for His adopted children, and that the Father-son relationship between Him and them will be spoiled if His will is ignored or defied. The Confession says what is necessary. “God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified: and although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may by their sins fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of His countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance.”19

The Decline of the Doctrine

Now we turn to the sadder side of the picture, and trace out those influences which distorted the doctrines of justification in England, and progressively robbed it of its proper influence, even among the Puritans themselves. This part of our story deals with two movements: Arminianism, and the Neonomianism (so-called) of Richard Baxter.

Arminianism, as broached by Jacob Hermandzoon (Arminius) at the turn of the sixteenth century, formulated in the Remonstrance of 1610, and taught by Episcopius, Curcellaeus, and Limborch at the Remonstrant Seminary in Amsterdam, was essentially a denial of some basic Reformed assertions.

The first denial relevant to our theme was that already noticed, namely that man’s act of faith is wholly God’s gift.

The second relevant denial was that there is a direct correlation in God’s plan between the obtaining of redemption by Christ’s obedience, active and passive, and the saving application of redemption by the Holy Spirit—direct, that is, in the sense that the former secures and guarantees the latter. The Arminian alternative was that the atonement made salvation possible for all but not necessarily actual for any. This involved abandoning the concept of the atonement as substitutionary¸ for substitution is, by its very nature, an effective relationship, securing actual immunity from obligation for the person in whose place the substitute acts:

Payment God will not twice demand,
First from my bleeding Surety’s hand
And then again from mine.

Grotius’ famous, or infamous, theory of the atonement as an example of punishment was one of several ways in which the Arminian conception was spelled out.

The third relevant denial was that the covenant of grace is a relationship which God imposes unilaterally and unconditionally, by effectual calling, saying to His elect, “I will . . . and you shall. . . . ” The Arminian alternative was that the covenant of grace is a new law, offering present pardon on condition of present faith and final salvation on condition of sustained faith.

The fourth relevant denial was that faith is essentially fiducial (a matter of trusting another, and what he has done). The Arminian alternative was that faith is essentially volitional (a matter of committing oneself to do something, i.e., live by the new law which Christ procured).

The fifth relevant denial was that the ground of justification is Christ’s righteousness imputed. The Arminian alternative was that faith itself is the ground of justification, being itself righteousness (obedience to the new law) and accepted by God as such. Appeal was made to the references in Romans 4:3, 5, 9 (cf. 11, 13) to faith being reckoned for righteousness, though the absence from Romans of the “new law” idea, the insistence that the Christian’s righteousness is God’s gift (5:15–17), and the repeated emphasis that sinners, though ungodly (4:5, 5:6–8), are justified through Christ’s blood irrespective of their own works, makes this exegesis really impossible.

Arminianism made small inroads into the Puritan ranks: the only Arminian Puritan of ability was John Goodwin, author of Imputatio Fidei (on Romans 4), An Exposition of Romans 9, Redemption Redeemed, and The Banner of Justification Displayed.20 But Caroline Anglicans, Cambridge Platonists, and later Latitudinarians took up with Arminianism, linked to a strong anti-Calvinistic polemic, and after the Restoration the mainstream of English Christianity flowed in this channel. Typical of the later outlook was the (unhappily) influential Bishop Bull, who interpreted Paul by James and understood both as teaching justification by works (faith being, on Bull’s view, “virtually the whole of evangelical obedience,” and thus a work in the fullest sense).21 Arminian doctrine of this kind led inevitably to a new legalism of which the key thought was that the exerting of steady moral effort now is the way to salvation hereafter. The meaning of faith as trust in Christ’s person and work was forgotten; the experiences of conversion and assurance were dismissed as “enthusiasm,” dangerous to the soul; and present justification ceased to be an issue of importance or interest.

One effect of the Arminian controversy on the Continent was to spark off the mediating theology of the “new Methodists” of Saumur seminary. This teaching, pioneered by the Scot John Cameron, who taught at Saumur from 1618 to 1621, was developed by Moise Amyraut and has gone down in history under the name of Amyraldism. A. W. Harrison calls it a “half-way house between Calvinism and Arminianism”;22 it adopts the Arminian view of the covenant of grace and indefinite (universal) redemption, but retains the Calvinistic belief in particular election, effectual calling, and final preservation. Its importance for our story is that Richard Baxter, perhaps the greatest of Puritan writers on Christian practice, advocated a version of it, which as a result of more than forty years’ campaigning by him in its interest became both popular and notorious in England and Scotland at the turn of the seventeenth century. In the 1690s it was referred to as “Baxterianism” and (because of the prominence it gave to the “new law” idea) “Neonomianism.”23

Baxter’s view sprang from natural theology; he thought Bible teaching about God’s kingdom and rule should be assimilated to contemporary political ideas, or, as he put it, that theology should follow a “political method.” God should be thought of as governor, and the gospel as part of His legal code. Our salvation requires a double righteousness: Christ’s, which led to the enacting of God’s new law, and our own, in obeying that new law by genuine faith and repentance. Faith is imputed for righteousness because it is real obedience to the gospel, which is God’s new law. Faith, however, involves a commitment to keep the moral law, which was God’s original code, and every believer, though righteous in terms of the new law, needs pardon every moment for his shortcomings in relation to the old law. Jesus Christ, who procured the new law for mankind by satisfying the prescriptive and penal requirements of the old one, should be thought of as Head of God’s government, enthroned to pardon true believers. Into this “political” frame of concepts, learned mainly from the Arminian Hugo de Groot (Grotius), Baxter fitted the Amyraldean soteriology.

Baxter was convinced that those who held the ground and formal cause of our justification to be the imputing to us of Christ’s own righteousness (i.e., his fulfillment of the precept and penalty of the moral law) were logically committed to Antinomianism, on the “payment-God-will-not-twice-demand” principle. At this point in his thinking (though not elsewhere) Baxter assumed, with his Roman and Socinian contemporaries, that law-keeping has no relevance for God or man save as work done to earn acceptance and salvation, so that if the law has been kept once in our name, no basis remains for requiring us to keep it a second time in our own persons. It is an odd mistake to find him making; but he never got his streak of legalism out of his theological system. Naturally, his conviction on this point (of which he made no secret) led to vigorous debate at several periods in his life, including, sadly, his last months on earth, when by assaulting as Antinomian the reprinted sermons of Tobias Crisp (first in a Pinner’s Hall lecture, and then in The Scripture Gospel Defended) he effectively wrecked the “happy union” between Presbyterians and Independents almost before it had been contracted.

The Crispian controversy produced much heated writing, but the best contribution was the coolest—Robert Traill’s Vindication of the Protestant Doctrine Concerning Justification, and of Its Preachers and Professors, from the Unjust Charge of Antinomianism: In a Letter from the Author, to a Minister in the Country.24 Quietly but effectively Traill made the two points which really scupper Baxter’s scheme. First, the scheme demonstrably fails to come to terms with the representative headship of Christ, the second Adam, as this is set forth in Romans 5:12ff. It is, of course, on this unique federal relationship between Christ and His people that the imputing to them of His righteousness is based. Then, second, the scheme is so artificial as to be spiritually unreal; for a sinner pressed in conscience by the burden of uncleanness and guilt finds relief, not by reminding himself that his faith is evangelical righteousness according to the new law, but by looking to the cross of Christ. “My Savior’s obedience and blood Hides all my transgressions from view.” Talk of one’s faith as one’s righteousness at such a time is at best a frivolity and at worst a snarl.

Nor is this all that needs to be said. Baxter was a great and saintly man; as pastor, evangelist, and devotional writer, no praise for him can be too high; but as a theologian he was, though brilliant, something of a disaster. On his “political” theology, viewed as an attempt to explicate Bible teaching, the following points have to be made:

1. The “political method” is itself rationalistic. To make concepts of monarchy, legislation, and ideal government, borrowed from the world of seventeenth-century political theory, into a straitjacket for the scriptural proclamation of God the King and Christ the Lord, is not merely quaint; it is theologically vicious, and has bad effects all along the line.

2. The “political” idea of sin is of transgression and guilt, analogous to crime. This externalizes sin, so that its indwelling power in the individual, and its demonic corporate influence, are under-stressed.

3. The “political” idea of Christ as Head of God’s government rather than of His people, and of His death as one presupposition of our sins being remitted rather than the procuring cause of it, and of the remission of sins itself as public pardon rather than personal forgiveness, makes the Lord Jesus seem remote to a degree, and more like a Judge than a Savior. It obscures His substitution for us on the cross, and plays down His sympathy for us from the throne.

4. The “political” idea of faith as allegiance and commitment loses sight of the dimension of self-despairing trust: faith appears less as the outstretched empty hand of a spiritual bankrupt than as the signing on of a resolute volunteer, a work of some strength and merit.

5. The “political” idea of God in a real sense loses God. It is important to see this. Baxter follows Grotius in maintaining that when God purposed to glorify Himself by restoring fallen man, He carried out His plan not by satisfying the law, but by changing it. A new law was brought in, which waived the penal requirement of the original law. This assumes that the demand for retribution in the original law was not grounded in the nature of God, but only in the exigencies of government. What is at issue here is the divine holiness. Reformed theology sees both the precept and the penalty of the law of God as a permanent expression of God’s eternal and unchangeable holiness and justice, and argues that God does not save sinners at His law’s expense; rather, He saves them by satisfying His law on their behalf, so that He continues to be just when He becomes their justifier. Baxter’s scheme makes the wrath of God against sin something less than a revelation of His abiding character, and so opens the door to the idea that benevolence is really the whole essence of his moral being: an idea made explicit by the liberalism of a later age.

Thus Baxter, by the initial rationalism of his “political method,” which forced Scripture into an a priori mold, sowed the seeds of moralism with regard to sin, Arianism with regard to Christ, legalism with regard to faith and salvation, and liberalism with regard to God. In his own teaching, steeped as it was in the older affectionate “practical” Puritan tradition, these seeds lay largely dormant, but later Presbyterianism in both England and Scotland reaped the bitter crop. It is sadly fitting that the Richard Baxter Church in Kidderminster today should be—Unitarian. What we see in Baxter is an early stage in the decline, not simply of the doctrine of justification among the Puritans, but of the Puritan insight into the nature of Christianity as a whole.


So, after more than a century of clear gospel light, Arminianism brought darkness back to the minds of conformists and Baxterianism did the same for nonconformists. Natural theology and religious moralism triumphed in England, and, just as Luther had foreseen and Traill feared, the Scripture doctrine of justification was for a time lost to view—until the day when a tremendous voice rang across the country elaborating sermon scripts such as this:

Are any of you depending upon a righteousness of your own? Do any of you here think to save yourselves by your own doings? I say to you . . . your righteousness shall perish with you. Poor miserable creatures! What is there in your tears? What in your prayers? What in your performances, to appease the wrath of an angry God? Away from the trees of the garden; come, ye guilty wretches, come as poor, lost, undone, and wretched creatures, and accept of a better righteousness than your own. As I said before, so I tell you again, the righteousness of Jesus Christ is an everlasting righteousness; it is wrought out for the very chief of sinners. Ho, every one that thirsteth, let him come and drink of this water of life freely. Are any of you wounded by sin? Do any of you feel you have no righteousness of your own? Are any of you perishing for hunger? Are any of you afraid ye will perish for ever? Come, dear souls, in all your rags; come, thou poor man; come, thou poor distressed woman; you, who think God will never forgive you, and that your sins are too great to be forgiven; come, thou doubting creature, who art afraid thou wilt never get comfort; arise, take comfort, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of life, the Lord of glory, calls for thee. . . .O let not one poor soul stand at a distance from the Saviour. . . . O Come, come! Now, since it is brought into the world by Christ, so, in the name, in the strength, and by the assistance of the great God, I bring it now to the pulpit; I now offer this righteousness, this free, this imputed, this everlasting righteousness, to all poor sinners who will accept of it. . . . Think, I pray you, therefore, on these things; go home, go home, go home, pray over the text, and say, “Lord God, Thou hast brought an everlasting righteousness into the world by the Lord Jesus Christ; by the blessed Spirit bring it into my heart!” then, die when ye will, ye are safe; if it be tomorrow, ye shall be immediately translated into the presence of the everlasting God; that will be sweet! Happy they who have got this robe on; happy they that can say, “My God hath loved me, and I shall be loved by Him with an everlasting love!” That every one of you may be able to say so, may God grant, for the sake of Jesus Christ, the dear Redeemer; to whom be glory for ever. Amen.25

Whose voice? Why, George Whitefield’s: a man who knew, and could express, what the Scripture gospel of justification by faith is all about. With him a new chapter opened in British Christianity—but that is another story, beyond the scope of this paper.



1. G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), p. 17.

2. Robert Traill, Vindication of the Protestant Doctrine Concerning Justification, in The Works of the Late Reverend Robert Traill, 3 vols. (Glasgow, 1795), 1:313.

3. Traill, Vindication of the Protestant Doctrine, p. 332.

4. “The forsaking of the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ’s righteousness, hath been the first step of apostasy in many, who have not stopped till they revolted from Christianity itself.” Ibid., p. 333.

5. Ibid., p. 332.

6. John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith (1677), in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, 16 vols. (1850; reprint ed., London: Banner of Truth, 1965), 5:4.

7. Traill, Vindication of the Protestant Doctrine, pp. 313–314.

8. Ibid., pp. 321, 329.

9. Decrees of the Council of Trent, 6.7, cf. 5.5. Both are translated in C. F. Allison, The Rise of Moralism: The Proclamation of the Gospel from Hooker to Baxter (London: S.P.C.K., 1966), pp. 213–14. Allison has assembled much thought-provoking material about the doctrine of justification in the seventeenth century.

10. Among the Anglicans were Richard Hooker; Bishops George Downame, John Davenant, James Ussher, Robert Hall, Thomas Barlow, John Bramhall, William Beveridge, and Thomas Tuloly. Among the Presbyterians and later non-conformists were Anthony Burgess, John Owen, and Robert Traill.

11. “It is entirely by the intervention of Christ’s righteousness that we obtain justification before God. This is equivalent to saying that man is not just in himself, but that the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation, while he is strictly deserving of punishment. Thus vanishes the absurd dogma, that man is justified by faith inasmuch as faith brings him under the influence of the Spirit of God, by whom he is rendered righteous.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.23. See also Calvin’s discussion of session 6 of the Council of Trent, in his Tracts and Treatises, 3 vols. (1844; reprint ed., Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1958), 3:108ff., especially pp. 114–21.

12. Westminster Confession of Faith, 11.1.

13. Ibid., 11.2.

14. George Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, 2d ed. (Edinburgh, 1889), pp. 327–28.

15. In the Westminster Confession, “Of Effectual Calling” (chap. 10) precedes “Of Justification” (chap. 11). The first two sections of chapter 10 read as follows: (1) “All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good; and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.” (2) “This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from any thing at all foreseen in man; who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.”

16. Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.3.

17. Ibid., 11.4.

18. A clear if unsympathetic summary of Antinomian tenets, viewed as so many deviations from Reformed orthodoxy, is given in James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification (Edinburgh, 1867), pp. 171ff. The main Antinomian authors were John Eaton, Henry Denne, Robert Towne, John Saltmarsh, and (in the view of some) Tobias Crisp.

19. Westminster Confession of Faith, 11.5.

20. John Goodwin: Imputatio Fidei (London, 1642); An Exposition of the Ninth Chapter of the Epistle to the Romans (London, 1653); Redemption Redeemed (London, 1840); The Banner of Justification Displayed (London, 1659).

21. George Bull, Harmonia Apostolica, Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology (Oxford, 1842), 1:58; quoted in Allison, The Rise of Moralism, chap. 6, “The Theology of George Bull.”

22. A. W. Harrison, Arminianism (London: Duckworth, 1937), p. 111. Amyraldism is evaluated (under the name “Post-redemptionism”) in B. B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1935), pp. 90–96.

23. Cf. Peter Toon, The Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism in English Nonconformity, 1689–1765 (London: Olive Tree, 1967), chap. 3, for details of the story.

24. Robert Traill, Vindication of the Protestant Doctrine Concerning Justification, and of Its Preachers and Professors, from the Unjust Charge of Antinomianism: In a Letter from the Author, to a Minister in the Countrey (London, 1692).

25. George Whitefield, Sermons on Important Subjects: By the Rev. George Whitefield, A.M. (London, 1832), pp. 207ff.


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