The magisterial Protestant churches (i.e., the Lutheran and Reformed) and their theologians did not speak of, teach, or confess a “two-stage” doctrine of justification or even a “two-stage” doctrine of salvation (justification, sanctification, and glorification). Yet, today, one sees leading evangelical and even some Reformed writers using this language. This raises the question: from where did Protestants learn to talk about “two stages” of justification or an “initial justification” in this life and a final justification through grace and works. I have provided an extensive library of articles on this topic below so I will not re-hash all of that here. Please take advantage of those resources to learn more.
One of the principal sources of the doctrine that we are initially justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) but that by good works we are “maintaining a right standing with God” (Piper, 1999), that “you are not saved through faith alone” (Desiring God, 2017), “that final salvation in the age to come depends on the transformation of life” (Bethlehem Baptist Elder Statement) was the English pastor and theologian Richard Baxter (1615–91). He is most remembered for his pastoral work in Kidderminster, which he described in his book, The Reformed Pastor (1656). I read this work in seminary because it was commended to us warmly. Like most others, I suppose, I did not know what Baxter taught about the salvation, that he utterly and self-consciously rejected the Protestant doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide. John Owen (1616–83) however, did know what Baxter taught and he devoted an entire volume of his works to refuting Baxter’s errors.
Baxter’s Definition of Faith
What did Baxter say about justification that motivated Owen to write an entire volume refuting it? He published his views in 1649 in the volume, Aphorismes of Justification, With their Explication annexed. Wherein also is opened the nature of the Covenants, Satisfaction, Righteousnesse, Faith, Works, etc.. There he considered and rejected the historic Protestant view that James was explaining the necessity of good works for vindicating one’s claim to be a believer (p. 300–03).
Let us begin with thesis 70 (pp. 280–81) where Baxter gave his definition of faith:
Faith in the largest sense, as it comprehends all the condition of the new covenant, may be thus defined: It is, when a sinner by the Word and Spirit of Christ being thoroughly convinced of the righteousness of the Law, the truth of its threatening, the evil of his own sin, and the greatness of his misery hereupon, and withall of the nature and offices, sufficiency and excellency of Jesus Christ, the satisfaction he hath made, his willingness to save, and his free offer to all that will accept him for their Lord and Savior; doth hereupon believe the truth of this Gospel, and accept of Christ as his only Lord and Saviour, to bring them to God their chiefest good, and to present them pardoned and just before him, and to bestow upon them a more glorious inheritance, and do accordingly rest on him as their Saviour, and sincerely (though imperfectly) obey him as their Lord, forgiving others, loving his people, bearing what sufferings are imposed, diligently using his means and ordinances, and confessing and bewailing their sins against him, and praying for pardon; and all this sincerely, and to the end .1
We should note first that the definition is in two parts. Because of its length the reader needs to persevere a bit. The first half seems largely uncontroversial and orthodox but this is why it is so important to keep reading. At the conjunction (and) everything changes. The effect of the definition is to say that faith is trusting and obeying.
The problem becomes clearer when we contrast Baxter’s definition with that offered by the orthodox English and Scottish Reformed divines in Westminster Confession chapter 11, adopted by the Westminster Assembly and presented to Parliament just before Baxter published his work:
2. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.
As with Baxter’s definition there are two parts but notice the relationship between the two parts. Where Baxter makes faith both believing and working, the divines distinguish between faith proper, as “receiving and resting” and works as the evidence of the existence of faith. In the Savoy Declaration 11.2 (1658), Baxter’s fellow congregationalists followed the Westminster Divines rather than Baxter. Indeed, their slight modification of the language of the WCF suggests that they saw a need to put an even finer point on the matter so as to exclude Baxter’s definition:
Faith thus receiving and resting on Christ, and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet it 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.
The phrase “alone instrument” has echoes of Belgic Confession (1561) art. 22, in which the Reformed churches confessed “faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness” and “And faith is the instrument that keeps us in communion with him and with all his benefits.” The Reformers were well aware of the medieval doctrine of “get in by grace, stay in by works.” The orthodox Reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries rejected that doctrine in favor of “get in by grace, stay in by grace” (as it were).
Baxter’s Own Account Of Faith And Works In Justification
The picture is a little clearer when we consider the following theses. In thesis 71 (p. 284) Baxter argued, “The sincere performance of the summary, great command of the Law [To have the Lord only for our God, and so to love, obey, believe and trust him above all] is still naturally implied in the conditions of the Gospel, as of absolute indispensible necessity, (2) and in order of nature, and of excellency before Faith itself: (3) But it is not commanded in the sense, and upon the terms, as under the first Covenant.” He wanted to make works necessary but he was not satisfied with the traditional Protestant approach, as represented in the Reformed confessions (e.g., Belgic Confession art. 24), that good works are necessary as fruit and evidence of true faith. Yet, he did not want to be accused of putting believers back under the old covenant. So the question is what he meant by “indispensable necessity”?
The first clue to the answer lies in his distinction between the demands of the old covenant and those of the new. “The old Covenant would have condemned us, for the very imperfection of the due degree” (p. 285). Baxter knew Deuteronomy 27″26, “Cursed is anyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the law.” Thus, he argued that under the Gospel (i.e., the covenant of grace) God accepts our imperfect good works. What matters is “the sincere performance of it” (p. 286). This was the medieval (and Romanist) doctrine of congruent merit under which God is said to be prepared to accept our best efforts toward our justification. Thus, for Baxter justification neither by faith alone (sola fide) nor by works alone (sola opera) but by faith and works.
Thesis 72 (p. 287) is quite clear on this: “As the Accepting of Christ for Lord, (which is the hearts subjection) is as essential a part of justifying faith, as the accepting of him for our Saviour: So consequently, sincere obedience, (which is the effect of the former,) has as much to do in justifying us before God, as affiance, (which is the fruit of the later.)”
In our context, thirty years after the “Lordship Salvation Controversy” it is difficult to miss the parallels. For Baxter, Christ must be accepted both as Lord and Savior, which is doubtless true, but notice how he continued. “So consequently sincere obedience has as much to do in justifying us before God as affiance,” i.e., as our engagement with Christ as Lord and Savior. For Baxter, good works could not be mere fruit and evidence of justification. They had to be co-instrumental in our justification.
In thesis 73 (pp. 289–90) he continued to explain the dual instrumentality of faith and works:
1. Faith only justifies as it implies and includes all other parts of the condition of the new covenant: and is so put in opposition to the works of the Law, or the personal Righteousness of the old covenant. 2. Faith only justifies as the great principal master duty of the Gospel, or chief part of its condition, to which all the rest are some way reducible. 3. Faith only does not justify in opposition to the works of the Gospel; but those works do also justify as the secondary, less principal parts of the condition of the Covenant.t
For Baxter, under the new covenant, faith implied works as the co-instrument in justification. The only opposition between faith and works is relative to the works of the old covenant, not the works of the covenant of grace. Again, this was essentially the medieval and Romanist view. Faith is the first part of the condition but works are the second, even if subordinate, part of the condition of the covenant of grace. Under “the Gospel” (the new covenant) justification is by faith and works.
He knew what he was saying. These were no slips of the tongue. In thesis 74 (p. 291) Baxter explained further that faith and works “both justify in the same kind of causality.” They are both equally essential, they are both sine qua non (“Causae sine quibus-non“). About this language, he wrote, “I Know this is the doctrine that will have the loudest out-cries raised against it: and will make some cay out, Heresy, Popery, Socinianism! and what not?” Baxter knew that he was rejecting the Reformation. He knew how his critics would react. His analysis was correct. His argument was heresy relative to the Reformation. It was essentially Romanist and Socinian. His defense? “I prayed about it.” He wrote, “But that I have earnestly sought the Lords direction upon my knees, before I durst adventure on it…”.
In thesis 75 he begins to bolster his case by appealing to James 2 (p. 292). As Norman Shepherd has argued since 1974, Baxter too argued that he was merely following the text, that unlike the orthodox Protestants, he was not flinching before the face of Scripture. Those familiar with the rhetoric of the English Socnians (e.g., Biddle, who was in his 30s at this point) can hardly miss the similarities. Those biblicists too argued that they were “just following Scripture.” Never mind the massive work in Scripture prior to Baxter which had convinced the Protestants that when James 2 is a response to nominalism or hypocrisy and when he says “justify” he means “to vindicate” a claim to being a Christian not “to be declared righteous on the basis of good works.” The Romanist reading of James 2 suited Baxter’s case better than the Protestant interpretation of James 2.
In thesis 76 (pp. 292–93) he agreed with the Protestants that James and Paul were agreed but he changed the basis of the agreement. Of course, for Baxter, both James and Paul were teaching justification through faith and works. He was not satisfied with the Protestant interpretation of “justify” in James 2 as meaning “vindicate.” He wrote, “Justification in James, is of greater moment” (p. 294). Again, Norman Shepherd and his followers have picked up this entire line of interpretation and reasoning. Arguing from the case of Abraham, Baxter said it was Abraham’s “person and not his faith only, which is here said to be justified by works, is as plain in the text” (p. 296). He referred to William Premble’s (1591–1623) defense of the orthodox view. He responded (pp. 297–310), to boil it down, that his view was more faithful to Scripture than Premble’s. He accused his critics of treating Scripture as if it had a “wax nose” (p. 298). Thesis 77 (p. 310) summarized his response: “That we are justified by sincere obedience to Christ, as the secondary part of the condition of our justification; is evident also from these following Scriptures. Matth. 12. 37. Mar. 11. 25. 26. Luk. 6. 37. Mat 6. 12. 14. 15, 1 Joh. 1. 9. Act. 8. 22. Act. 3. 19. & 22. 16. 1 Pet. 4. 18. Rom. 6. 16. 1 Pet. 1. 2. 22.” Baxter rejected the Protestant account of grace and works in favor of the medieval view (that when Paul says “works” he means the Mosaic religious ceremonies and not our good works). He rejected the Protestant understanding of grace (favor earned for us by Christ) and works (our good works).
Final Justification Through Faith and Works
All this brings us to the question of a “future grace” (to borrow a phrase) or future justification and to thesis 78 (p. 311) where he argued:
Our full justification, and our everlasting salvation have the same conditions on our part. But sincere obedience is without all doubt, a condition of our salvation: therefore also of our justification.
When Baxter wrote the words “full justification” he knew that he was implying stages of justification, a distinction between initial and final justification. Thus, he qualified the phrase with the modifier, “everlasting salvation.” He was talking about our entrance into heaven. For Baxter, as for some of our leading “evangelical” predestinarians today, we take possession of heaven through good works. Further, to make sure that the reader did not try to deliver him from himself, Baxter explicitly related justification to salvation. He knew that there is no salvation without justification and to talk about a future salvation through good works necessarily implies our future, “full” justification partly through “sincere obedience.”
We do not have to draw inferences or guess at Baxter’s intent. Again, he was entirely explicit about his project: “Yet here I say still, [Our full Justification] because, as I have shewed, our first possession of it is upon our mere faith or contract with Christ” (p. 311). We are affianced or engaged to Christ, in this life, through faith but we are finally justified through faith and “sincere obedience.” He explicitly used the phrase “final justification.” Our justification in this life is initial. It is necessarily provisional. “But I think our glorification will be acknowledged to have the same conditions with our final justification at the bar of Christ” (pp. 311–12). What are those conditions? “Perseverance is nothing but the same Conditions persevering…. As the sincerity of Faith is requisite to our first possession of justification; so the perseverance of faith is the condition of persevering justification. See Hebr. 3. 14” (p. 312). “That Obedience is a Condition of our Salvation is undoubted, Hebr. 5. 9” (ibid).
For Richard Baxter the Reformation understanding of salvation was plainly inadequate. They rested too much upon faith as resting and receiving and they made “sincere obedience” to be necessary only as fruit and evidence of salvation. This was not enough. For Baxter, such an approach would never produce the desired outcome: more godliness, more obedience, more sincerity. So he changed the Reformed covenant theology. The Reformed had argued that faith (resting, receiving, trusting in Christ and in his finished work for us) is the sole instrument or condition of the covenant of grace. Good works were regarded as a consequent obligation of salvation. Since we have been saved by grace alone, through faith alone, how ought we to respond? With thankfulness and good works (see the third part of the Heidelberg Catechism) beginning with Q. 86).For Baxter (as for his contemporary successors), that approach was far too close that of the Antinomians (e.g., Saltmarsh and Crisp, whom he engaged in this section. See pp. 314 et seq.). Thus, in Baxter, the instrument or condition of the covenant of grace became complex: faith and works (or faithfulness) and our justification became not a single declaration that the sinner is righteous only the sake of the righteousness of Christ imputed received through faith alone but through faith and sincere obedience. The seventeenth-century Romanist critics of the Reformation must have wondered why they did not produce such a subtle and dangerous subversion of the magisterial Protestant doctrine of salvation.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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1. I have modified the spelling and punctuation to fit modern conventions on the principle that C. S. Lewis followed in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, namely, that the use of archaic spelling and punctuation have the unintended effect of making older writers appear ignorant. I might add that it also causes modern readers to spend more time guessing at archaic words than paying attention to what is being said.