Heidelberg 114: Between Moralism And Antinomianism (1)

Richard_BaxterJudged 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.

Next time: Believers are not under the law but they do love the law.

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  1. But when it comes to “extra rewards for some Christians” (after they day when all Christians will have been raised from the dead), Baxter is not the only one who lowers the bar of the law. Calvin follows Augustine in this respect—“how could the Father impute righteousness to our works, did not his indulgence hide the unrighteousness that is in them? How could he deem them worthy of reward, did he not with boundless goodness destroy what is unworthy in them?

    but see John Fesko—Paul on Justification and the Final Judgment—“In recent years there has been much controversy surrounding the exact relationship between justification by faith alone and the final judgment. While it is certainly important to establish Paul’s understanding of the law, it seems that few take into account the nature of the final judgment itself. There appears to be an unchecked assumption regarding the final judgment, namely that the parousia, resurrection, and final judgment are separate events. The final judgment is not a separate event on the last day but is part of the single organic event of parousia-resurrection-final judgment. The final judgment is the resurrection.”

  2. Richard Gaffin—- where Calvin brings in the proposition, “faith without works justifies”- Calvin says …although this needs prudence and sound interpretation. For this proposition that faith without works justifies is true, yet false … true, yet false… according to the different senses which it bears. The proposition that faith without works justifies by itself is false. Because faith without works is void. But if the clause, “without works,” is joined with the word, “justifies,” the proposition will be true. Therefore faith cannot justify when it is without works because it is dead and a mere fiction. Thus faith can be no more separated from works than the sun from its heat…. Notice what Calvin says. It needs prudence and sound interpretation. It is true yet false. Now there is a paradox. True yet false, depending on the way it is read.

    Richard Gaffin, lectures on Romans 2:13:—-As that judgement decides, in its way, we’re going to wanna qualify that deciding, but as it decides the ultimate outcome for all believers and for all humanity, believers as well as unbelievers. That is, death or life. It’s a life and death situation that’s in view here. Further, this ultimate judgement has as its criterion or standard, brought into view here, the criterion for that judgement is works, good works. The doing of the law, as that is the criterion for all human beings, again, believers as well as unbelievers. In fact, in the case of the believer a positive outcome is in view and that positive outcome is explicitly said to be justification. So, again the point on the one side of the passage is that eternal life… depends on and follows from a future justification according to works. Eternal life follows upon a future justification by doing the law.

  3. Boston rightly criticized Richard Baxter’s view of justification—“As to the point of justification; no man is, nor can be justified by the law. The Neonomians turn the gospel into a law and tell us, that the gospel justifieth as a law, and roundly own what is the necessary consequent of that doctrine, namely, that faith justifieth, as it is our evangelical righteousness, or our keeping the gospel law, which runs thus: “He that believeth shall not perish.”

    “But the holy Scripture teaches, that we are justified by grace, and by no law nor deed, (or work of a law, properly so called) call it the law of Christ, or the gospel law, or what law one pleases; and thereby faith itself is excluded from being the righteousness of a sinner, Galatians 2:16, 3:11, 5:4, Romans 3:28. http://old.thirdmill.org/newfiles/dan_spencer/dan_spencer.obedient.faith.html

  4. For Richard Bax­ter, the ground of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion was NOT the imputed obe­di­ence of Christ, He held that Christ’s right­eous­ness caused a change in the demands of the law. Packer — “Where ortho­dox Calvin­ism taught that Christ sat­is­fied the law in the sinner’s place, Bax­ter held that Christ sat­is­fied the Law­giver and so pro­cured a change in the law. Here Bax­ter aligns him­self with Armin­ian thought rather than with ortho­dox Calvin­ism.”
    Bax­ter sug­gested a scheme sim­i­lar to Rome’s old law/new law dis­tinc­tion: Christ’s work makes the terms of the new covenant more lenient than the old, procur­ing a change in the law that makes obe­di­ence possible.

    In Baxter’s doc­trine of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, he has a notion of a twofold right­eous­ness. “As there are two Covenants, with their dis­tinct Con­di­tions: so there is a twofold Right­eous­ness, and both of them absolutely nec­es­sary to Sal­va­tion.” The first of these two is what Baxter called legal right­eous­ness, that is, the right­eous­ness earned under the law of works. This right­eous­ness is not per­sonal to the believer, “for we never per­son­ally sat­is­fied the law,” but is “wholly with­out us in Christ.” Baxter claimed this to be the type of right­eous­ness of which Paul spoke in Philip­pi­ans 3, jux­ta­pos­ing it to the right­eous­ness that comes by faith in Christ.

    The sec­ond type of right­eous­ness, how­ever, is evan­gel­i­cal right­eous­ness, which, accord­ing to Bax­ter, does belong to the believer, and con­sists of the believer’s faith. Bax­ter: “faith is imputed for Righteousness…because it is an Act of Obe­di­ence to God…it is the per­for­mance of the Con­di­tion of the Jus­ti­fy­ing Covenant. Alli­son: “Jus­ti­fy­ing faith, for Bax­ter, is that which is imputed and reck­oned for right­eous­ness as a con­di­tion of the new covenant.”

    Bax­ter takes the posi­tion that Christ him­self ful­filled the con­di­tions of the old covenant, and thereby pur­chased for us eas­ier terms within the new covenant. On account of Christ’s right­eous­ness, our own right­eous­ness (faith and repen­tance) is accounted, or imputed, as accept­able right­eous­ness. We are, in other words, jus­ti­fied by our own right­eous­ness on account of the right­eous­ness of Christ. Baxter thinks that Christ’s right­eous­ness makes jus­ti­fi­ca­tion by a believer’s right­eous­ness (i.e. his faith) possible.

    That the Reformed ortho­dox found this for­mu­la­tion upset­ting comes as no sur­prise, for their con­fes­sional stan­dards taught the very oppo­site about faith, namely, that it was not the ground of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion,(i.e. HC 60–61; BC 22; WCF 11.1–2; WLC 70–73). What they found even more provoca­tive in Baxter’s posi­tion was his insis­tence that jus­ti­fy­ing faith con­tained works, which is the third point we must con­sider in Baxter’s doc­trine of justification.

    For Bax­ter, faith itself is not the sole ground of a believer’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tion; rather, faith must be joined to works. “Both jus­ti­fie in the same kinde of causal­ity, viz. as Causae sine quibus non…Faith as the prin­ci­pal part; Obe­di­ence as the less prin­ci­pall. The like may be said of Love, which at least is a sec­ondary part of the Con­di­tion.”


  5. I am not sure that “congregationalism” is all that relevant to the controversy, but this recent essay about neonomianism by Brandon Adams is extremely interesting. https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2015/10/14/neonomian-presbyterians-vs-antinomian-congregationalists

    Janice Knight — Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism–”The first group, familiar to readers of The New England Mind, is composed of Perry Miller’s “orthodoxy” : Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, Peter Bulkeley, John Winthrop, and most of the ministers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony…. They identified power as God’s essential attribute and described his covenant with human beings as a conditional promise. They preached the necessity of human cooperation in preparing the heart for that promised redemption, and they insisted on the usefulness of Christian works as evidence of salvation…. Perry Miller, among others, has lamented that these religionists developed structures of preparationism and an interlocking system of contractual covenants that diminished the mystical strain of piety he associated with Augustinianism.”

    Janice Knight—”The second body closely embodies that Augustinian strain. Originally centered at the Cambridge colleges and wielding great power in the Caroline court, this group was led in America by John Cotton, John Davenport, and Henry Vane. Neither a sectarian variation of what we now call “orthodoxy” in New England nor a residual mode of an older piety, this party presented a alternative within the mainstream of Puritan religious culture. In a series of contests over political and social dominance in the first American decades, this group lost their claim to status as an “official” or “orthodox” religion in New England. Thereafter, whiggish histories (including Cotton Mather’s own) tell the winner’s version, demoting central figures of this group to the cultural sidelines by portraying their religious ideology as idiosyncratic and their marginalization as inevitable. ”

    John Cotton writes: “We must be good trees before we can bring forth good fruit. If then closing with Christ be a good fruit, we must be good trees before we can bring it forth. And how can we be good trees, before we be engrafted into Christ? 43, A Faire and Easy to Heaven, William Stoever, 1978

    John Cotton—“Grace and works (not only in the case of justification) but in the whole course of our salvation, are not subordinate to each other but opposite:as that whatsoever is of grace is not of works, and whatsoever is of works is not of grace.”

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