Owen: Either We Are Justified Sola Fide Or By An Inherent Righteousness

It is true, that all those who place the formal cause or reason of our justification in ourselves, or our inherent righteousness, and so either directly or by just consequence, deny all imputation of the righteousness of Christ unto our justification,are not capable of admitting faith to be an instrument in this work, nor are pressed with this consideration; for they acknowledge not that we receive a righteousness which is not our own, by way of gift, whereby we are justified, and so cannot allow of any instrument whereby it should be received.

John Owen | The Doctrine of Justification By Faith | Works of John Owen 5.112 (HT: Inwoo Lee).


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  • Inwoo Lee
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    Inwoo Lee (BA, UCSD) earned his MA (Historical Theology) in 2020 from Westminster Seminary California and is author of “Righteous Before God: William Perkins’ Doctrine of Justification in Elizabethan England” (MA Thesis, Westminster Seminary California, 2020). He lives in the Great Seoul area, in South Korea with his wife Holly.

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  1. I should phrase a question here, what Owen means by “inherent.” What does he mean by “inherent,” in light of the attempt to say that it means only what can be done before conversion? Is inherent rigteousness only my pre-conversion attempts at righteousness, or is there a righteousness that can be faulted as inherent, even if some Christians at some times, are the ones claiming it to be righteousness, but it isn’t.

    • Larry,

      He was articulating what would be the view of the Westminster Divines (and all the Protestants) that we are not justified for anything “wrought in us…”. Rome taught (and teaches) a doctrine of iustitia inhaerens (inherent, intrinsic righteousness) wrought in us by grace and cooperation with grace. Their doctrine of cooperation is what lead the divines to say “or done by us.” The Protestant doctrine is that we are justified not on the basis of a “proper” (inherent) righteousness (iustitia propria but an alien (other) righteousness (iustitia aliena) imputed to us and received through faith alone (sola fide).

      In the Roman system there is life before baptism and life after baptism, which grants initial justification. Justification is said to be progressive and, as noted, grounded upon inherent righteousness/sanctification which is gradually formed in us by grace and cooperation with grace. The Reformation was a rejection of that entire system.

  2. Very fine of Protestants then, using those phrases, “wrought in us” or “done by us” to point out that neither, although they are I suppose countable, do not count toward our justification, even though the first one is at least partially the Lord’s work. Thank you Dr. Clark. Works-counting can apply to things “wrought in us” or “done by us.” I like to remind myself of the thought-provoking saying of the Lord, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).” “Exceeds” implies something greater, but not greater in the counting sense: not a greater number of “dikaiomata” but a greater “dikaisune”: not a greater number of righteous deeds, but a greater righteousness. When God considered / reckoned righteousness unto Abraham, that’s not saying God reckoned a number of righteous deeds to him. I don’t know if that’s reflected in the Hebrew.

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