“Edwards Injects Into Faith” In The Act Of Justification The Virtues Of The Christian Life

Edwards is very clear that faith does not justify a believer as a virtue or as forming any part of the righteousness which is the basis or ground of God’s judicial verdict. In this, he clearly stands with the Reformed tradition over against the Arminian divines he explicitly opposed. Edwards does, however, state the role of faith in justification somewhat uniquely from his tradition. The Reformed tradition had been content to often refer to faith as the “instrument” of justification. Edwards, however, feels this is an “obscure way of speaking.” Instead, Edwards conceives of faith as a “qualification” for justification. While the imputed righteousness of Christ forms the sole basis of an individual’s justification, “…faith in this Mediator is that which renders it a meet and suitable thing, in the sight of God, that the believer rather than others should have this purchased benefit assigned to him.” Edwards goes on to describe faith as the “qualification wherein the meetness to this benefit consists.” How exactly does faith qualify a believer for justification? It does so, according to Edwards, “as it unites to that Mediator, in and by whom we are justified.” Faith’s role in justification is that it unites the believer to Christ. It is not as though God rewards the goodness of faith by uniting the believer to Christ; rather, faith is “that in him, which, on his part, makes up this union between him and Christ.” It is “the Christian’s uniting act.”

…How different is this understanding of the role and function of justifying faith from his Reformed predecessors? Although Calvin and Turretin did not prefer the word “qualification” for faith, these representatives of the Reformed tradition seem to agree with Edwards in positing a real faith-union with Christ as the foundation for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

…In the material covered thus far, Edwards’s thinking on justifying faith seems to fall generally in line with the Reformed tradition. As we progress and look at the essence of justifying faith, however, we begin to see Edwards deviate from his tradition significantly. The Reformed tradition has traditionally spoken of faith as having three acts which make up its essence—namely, knowledge (notitia), assent (assensus), and trust (fiducia). The Reformed tradition was clear that other Christian graces do not enter into the essence of faith; rather, all the other graces are said to flow from or grow out of faith. For Calvin, hope, love, and repentance were all viewed as proceeding from faith and not forming part of its essence. They are the fruit of faith. Likewise, Turretin rejected the blending of love into faith which the Roman Catholics traditionally did in their understanding of justifying faith as “formed faith” (i.e. assent taking on the form and power of love into its essence).

…Given its interaction with Roman Catholics over their conception of “formed faith,” the Reformed tradition historically was careful to delineate saving faith along the lines of knowledge, assent, and trust, keeping it distinct from the other concomitant graces in the soul, especially love.

Edwards’s break with the Reformed tradition over sola fide begins to show itself as he relates faith to the other Christian graces. Seeing much more in faith than notitia, assensus, and fiducia, Edwards injects into faith many of the virtues of the Christian life.

…In answering the Roman Catholic notion of “formed” versus “unformed” faith, Turretin had explicitly denied that faith is “made operative by love…as if it borrowed its universal efficacy from love.” Yet this seems to be the very position of Edwards. While no one would argue that Edwards held to an exactly Roman Catholic doctrine of “formed faith,” Edwards does share with the Roman Catholic view that love is “the very life and soul” of justifying faith. In this he is at divergence with the Reformed tradition. Distinguishing between faith and love was necessary for Turretin and others to uphold the Protestant distinction between the law and the gospel.

…Edwards sees no difficulty blurring the distinction between faith and obedience. The Reformed tradition, on the other hand, held that faith alone, apart from obedience, apprehends Christ for justification in him. While faith alone justifies, faith is “not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces.”

…For Edwards, evangelical obedience (obedience which is done in connection with gospel faith) is not excluded from the “natural fitness” which forms the foundation of our legal union with Christ. While the Reformed tradition was careful to exclude Christian obedience from what connects us to Christ, Edwards’s only concern is to exclude the merit or “moral fitness” of obedience from consideration. Once “moral fitness” is categorically excluded, Edwards sees no problem joining faith and obedience together in what makes it “naturally fitting” that we should be looked upon by God the Judge as one with Christ. So long as God is not conceived of as granting union with Christ as a “reward” for faith and obedience, Edwards is comfortable making obedience part of the soul’s justifying reception of Christ.

…In handling the apparent contradiction between James and Paul on justification by faith alone, Edwards argues that Paul and James are using the word “justify” differently—a common position common in the Reformed tradition.[9] Realizing that this answer might not satisfy everyone, Edwards reiterates his stated position on faith and obedience once again:

If notwithstanding, any choose to take justification in St. James’s, precisely as we do in Paul’s epistles, for God’s acceptance or approbation itself, and not any expression of that approbation, what has been already said concerning the manner in which acts of evangelical obedience are concerned in the affair of our justification, affords a very easy, clear, and full answer: for if we take works as acts or expressions of faith, they are not excluded; so a man is not justified by faith only, but also by works; i.e. he is not justified only be faith as a principle in the heart, or in its first and more immanent acts, but also by the effective acts of it in life, which are the expressions of the life of faith.

…[O]ne can see how clearly Edwards’s position differs from the Reformed position of sola fide. God’s acceptance and approbation of a sinner in justification is accomplished not only by faith “in the heart” but also by the fruits of faith done throughout the whole life of a believer (i.e. “works”). Read more part 1»/part 2»

Gary Steward | “What is Saving Faith Really? Jonathan Edwards’ Departure from Reformed Theology” | May 16, and 17, 2022


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  1. How do I locate the following reference?
    W. Robert Godfrey, “Jonathan Edwards and Authentic Spiritual Experience” in Knowing the Mind of God: Papers Read at the 2003 Westminster Conference (London: The Westminster Conference, 2004), 25-45;
    When I read J Edwards it seems his focus is QIRE!
    Thank you

  2. My question is, do you believe that John Piper’s new book, “What is Saving Faith?” makes the same kinds of departures that Edwards did? Is Piper out of step with the fundamental Reformed view of faith?

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