Judged by the mainstream of Reformed theology and particularly by confession of by the Reformed Churches, Richard Baxter (1615–91) was not Reformed. Remarkably, because many are not aware of what Baxter taught about the central issue of the Reformation, the article by which the church stands or falls. They know him as a reformer of pastoral ministry, as an advocate of catechesis, home visitation, and of a vigorous piety. Many contemporary evangelical and Reformed folk do not Baxter as, e.g., John Owen (1616–83) knew him as a moralist, i.e., as one who rejected the Protestant, evangelical doctrine of justification. Think of him as the Norman Shepherd or N. T. Wright of his day. Owen knew Baxter to be a moralist. Baxter wanted Christians to be good but he was not satisfied with the Protestant, evangelical, and Reformed teaching that the same Savior who justifies sinners by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) will sanctify them sola gratia, sola fide. He was not satisfied with the doctrine that good works are nothing but the fruit and evidence of justification salvation. He was not satisfied with the confession of the Westminster Assembly that “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 35). He was not satisfied with the confession of the Reformed churches:
These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification—for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place (Belgic Confession art. 24).
As J. I. Packer and C. F. Allison have argued, Baxter was a neonomian. He taught justification and salvation through grace and works. Like Rome, he tried to make the law do what Paul said it cannot do: serve as the ground or instrument of our acceptance with God and our deliverance from the wrath to come. (See also the relevant chapters in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry).
I start with Baxter because he serves as perhaps an important illustration and symbol of the persistence of moralism in justification and salvation. In order for us to beware of moralism we must know what it looks like, in what shape it comes, what its features are. Otherwise we shall be victimized by it again and for that to happen would be both unnecessary and tragic.
Moralism persists because of a sort of rationalism. Mind you, the rationalist rarely comes right out and says, “By the way, I am the rationalist about which you were warned.” By rationalism I mean a system whereby one replaces the authority of God’s Word with that of human reason. In this case rationalism replaces God’s order of justification and the “gospel mystery of sanctification” (Walter Marshall) with a legal system whereby unless we cooperate sufficiently with grace we shall lose what we have been given (as in Romanism and the self-described Federal Vision theology) or we shall not finally be saved. It is rationalism because it turns a mystery into a machine. The rationalist cannot see how justification sola gratia, sola fide shall ever produce enough sanctity, so he sets up what seems to him to be a more reasonable system: make our final standing with God contingent upon our performance.
It is urgent to grasp these issues as we come to Heidelberg Catechism 114. We have just finished working through the third use of God’s holy moral law. The temptation we sinners face, as we consider the law, is to put ourselves back under it as the ground or instrument of our standing before God (justification) or our final salvation. Of course this is not at all how the law is presented to the Christian in Scripture. It is presented as the norm of the Christian life. This is why we distinguish between the first or pedagogical use, wherein the law teaches us the greatness of our sin and misery and drives us to Christ and the third or normative use of the law. By nature, as sinners, we are utterly incapable of keeping the law for our standing with God or for our salvation. Were that the test then we would all be justly condemned because the law demands “perfect and personal” obedience. In Westminster Confession 7.2 we confess:
2. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.
Calvin understood this. In 1547, replying to the (Roman) Council of Trent, he argued:
I besides hold that it is without us, because we are righteous in Christ only. Let them produce evidence from Scripture, if they have any, to convince us of their doctrine. I, while I have the whole Scripture supporting me, will now be satisfied with this one reason, viz., that when mention is made of the righteousness of works, the law and the gospel place it in the perfect obedience of the law; and as that nowhere appears, they leave us no alternative but to flee to Christ alone, that we may be regarded as righteous in him, not being so in ourselves. Will they produce to us one passage which declares that begun newness of life is approved by God as righteousness either in whole or in part? But if they are devoid of authority, why may we not be permitted to repudiate the figment of partial justification which they here obtrude? (Antidote to the Council of Trent, 1547).
The moralist always implies or says that God is satisfied with our best efforts. In other words, he always seeks to dull the cutting edge of the law. He suggests that God will impute perfection to our best efforts (congruent merit) but the deal requires that we set aside the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness. In contrast, we confess the “perfect obedience” of Christ for us and imputed to us as the ground of our justification and salvation (WCF 8.5).
Instead of lowering the bar of righteousness (from performance to intent), the biblical teaching is to confess that God’s law always remains an expression of his unyielding righteousness. It always confesses that, through the law has not changed and God has not changed, our relation to the law has changed. Christ has satisfied the law for us and, as a consequence, his Spirit is working in us gradually, graciously conformity to it. Nevertheless, even in Christ we remain fallen and imperfect.
114. Can those who are converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?
No, but even the holiest men while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with earnest purpose they begin to live not only according to some, but according to all the Commandments of God (Heidelberg Catechism).
Our sanctification cannot be the ground or instrument of our standing before God or even of our salvation because it is, in this life, never perfect. Traditionally, and correctly in my view, we have appealed to Romans 7:14–15:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (ESV).
The traditional Augustinian and Reformed interpretation of this passage has been that it refers to Paul’s struggle as a Christian. The believer knows the law to be right and spiritual. He also knows himself to fall woefully short of what the law requires. In the very same epistle Paul explicitly juxtaposed law and grace as two distinct principles:
So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom 11:5–6; ESV)
The law says “do and live” (Luke 10:28) but grace says: Christ has fulfilled the law for you, as your substitute. Believe and be saved. The moralist cannot have such a clear distinction. He quickly reaches for a handful of mud to obscure the distinction and to make the one look like the other.