John Owen: Abraham’s Evangelical Obedience Excluded From His Justification

2. He infers a general conclusion, “That a man is justified by faith, without the works of the law,” chap. 3:28. What is meant by “the law,” and what by “the works of the law,” in this discourse of the apostle about our justification, hath been before declared. And if we are justified freely through faith in the blood of Christ, that faith which hath the propitiation of Christ for its especial object, or as it hath so, can take no other grace nor duty into partnership with itself therein; and being so justified as that all such boasting is excluded as necessarily results from any differencing graces or works in ourselves, wherein all the works of the law are excluded, it is certain that it is by faith alone in Christ that we are justified. All works are not only excluded, but the way unto their return is so shut up by the method of the apostle’s discourse, that all the reinforcements which the wit of man can give unto them will never introduce them into our justification before God.

3. He asserts from hence, that we “do not make void the law through grace,” but establish it, verse 31; which, how it is done, and how alone it can be done, hath been before declared.

This is the substance of the resolution the apostle gives unto that great inquiry, how a guilty convinced sinner may come to be justified in the sight of God?—“The sovereign grace of God, the mediation of Christ, and faith in the blood of Christ, are all that he requireth thereunto.” And whatever notions men may have about justification in other respects, it will not be safe to venture on any other resolution of this case and inquiry; nor are we wiser than the Holy Ghost.
Rom. chap. 4. In the beginning of the fourth chapter he confirms what he had before doctrinally declared, by a signal instance; and this was of the justification of Abraham, who being the father of the faithful, his justification is proposed as the pattern of ours, as he expressly declares, verses 22–24. And some few things I shall observe on this instance in our passage unto the fifth verse, where I shall fix our discourse.

1. He denies that Abraham was justified by works, verse 2. And,—(1.) These works were not those of the Jewish law, which alone some pretend to be excluded from our justification in this place; for they were the works he performed some hundreds of years before the giving of the law at Sinai: wherefore they are the works of his moral obedience unto God that are intended. (2.) Those works must be understood which Abraham had then, when he is said to be justified in the testimony produced unto that purpose; but the works that Abraham then had were works of righteousness, performed in faith and love to God, works of new obedience under the conduct and aids of the Spirit of God, works required in the covenant of grace. These are the works excluded from the justification of Abraham. And these things are plain, express, and evident, not to be eluded by any distinctions or evasions. All Abraham s evangelical works are expressly excluded from his justification before God.

—John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 5 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 313–314.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. As our pastor on once said in a sermon, “one of the hardest things in the ministry is to convince God’s people that the work of Christ is finished.”

    • David, your pastor is in good company – in agreement with Martin Bucer:

      The doctrine of the holy gospel is the doctrine of eternal salvation, and on account of our corrupt nature there is nothing more difficult and troublesome for us to learn; that is why this doctrine requires the most faithful, earnest and persistent teaching, instruction and admonition that anyone could ever employ.

      Concerning The True Care Of Souls, p. 181

      • Thanks, Jack, for the quote from Bucer; I forwarded it to our pastor. And thanks again to Dr. Clark for the Heidelblog and its faithful, earnest and persistant teaching, instruction and admonition!

  2. How about convincing Norman Shepherd and his followers. For that matter, the former bishop of Durham and the “New Perspectivalists.”

  3. Excellent post Dr. Clark! I so enjoy your Heidelcast. Permit me to enlarge upon the point above, if I may. “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ” and “The Doctrine of Justification By Faith” are two of John Owen’s most important titles which defend and contend for (1) particular atonement, and (2) justification by faith. I personally believe we should keep these titles next to each other on our bookshelves. Their connection cannot be overstated precisely because there is an indissoluble link between (1) and (2)—the latter depending entirely(!) upon the former. If atonement is not particular, justification is not by faith in Christ but by the faithfulness of the sinner’s response to Christ; the gift of righteousness of Christ’s perfect obedience unto death becomes a mere display of righteousness that the sinner must imitate if he would be justified; and the Gospel becomes not what Christ did for you but what He does in you. In short, if atonement is not particular, there is no atonement and all of us are going to hell. ~Alex Burroughs, Charlotte, NC (Member at Sovereign Grace Presbyterian Church [PCA])

  4. I wonder why Paul thought it was necessary to say that Abraham was NOT justified by works. One could only guess that it is because some people thought he was. There’s little point in arguing for something everyone already agrees with.

    And Cranfield says that’s what at least some explicitly stated at that time, and proceeds to cite ancient sources to that effect.

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