Godfrey: Edwards Rejected The Reformed Definition Of Faith In The Act Of Justification

In one area, however, the treatise is problematic, namely his understanding of the nature of justifying faith. Gerstner acknowledged that Edwards did express the doctrine of justifying faith somewhat differently from his Calvinistic forbears, “…there can be little doubt that Calvinistic theologians did not usually stress faith as uniting with Christ in the penetrating way in which Edwards did. Nevertheless, he quarrelled [sic] with his fellows mainly about their mode of expression, not seeming to feel that they fundamentally misapprehended the truth of justification.”

Is the problem, however, simply a different “mode of expression,” or is the difference more fundamental? Edwards makes answering that question somewhat difficult because he did not always use traditional categories in his discussion. For example, he rejected the Aristotelian categories of causation wanting to insist simply that God is the only cause of justification. This position on causation led him to reject the traditional and important understanding of faith as the instrument or instrumental cause of justification. He also rejected viewing repentance, obedience and perseverance simply as the sine qua non or universal concomitant of faith. He wrote,

On the whole, it appears, that the perseverance of faith is necessary, even to the congruity of justification; and that not the less, because a sinner is justified, and perseverance promised, on the first act of faith, but God, in that justification, has respect, only to the past act of faith, but to his own promise of future acts, and to the fitness of a qualification beheld as yet only in his own promise. And perseverance in faith is thus necessary to salvation, not merely as a sine qua non, or as universal concomitant of it, but by reason of such influence and dependence, seems manifest by many scriptures….

In rejecting these traditional ideas of Reformed theology he puts himself at odds with the Westminster Larger Catechism. While Edwards was not bound by this catechism, and while we do not want to imply that no improvement is possible, it does help us measure the distance that Edward put between himself and historic Calvinism. For example, Westminster Larger Catechism 73 states that faith justifies as an instrument. It also states that other graces always accompany faith but are distinct from it in justification or in the definition of justifying faith.

Edwards’ positive position is more complex. He developed his doctrine of faith’s relation to the justification as an element of the Christian’s union with Christ. He stressed that faith is the human side of that union. Union with Christ is a useful idea but its precise meaning is not always clear in Edwards (or in some other Reformed thinkers who emphasize it.) It is the character and effect of the union that is important.

The Larger Catechism 72 is clearer, more precise and more helpful in specifying how faith unites us to Christ: faith “receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein [i.e., in the promise of the gospel] held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.”

W. Robert Godfrey | “Jonathan Edwards and Authentic Spiritual Experience” in Knowing The Mind Of God: Papers Read at the 2003 Westminster Conference (Stoke-on-Trent: Tentmaker Publications, n.d.), 33–34


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