Baxter’s Neo-Nomianism, by Dante Spencer
Is There Obedience In Faith?
By Dante Spencer
I had written on Richard Baxter’s neonomianism entitled, Baxter Bewitched: The Gospel as Merely Being a New Law since many do not seem to be aware of this fundamental area of his belief. Afterwards, it occurred to me that given Baxter’s doctrine of justification, Rom 1:5 and 16:26 would be classic passages for him to have misunderstood and used as support for his works-righteousness soteriology.
For a brief discussion on neonomianism, see James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991 rpt.), 176-77, 202-203) Other scholarly studies on Baxter’s theology are C. F. Allison, The Rise of Moralism: The Proclamation of the Gospel from Hooker to Baxter (London: SPCK, 1966), 154-77, Dewey D. Wallace, Jr., Puritans and Predestination: Grace in English Protestant Theology, 1525-1695 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 136-39, John von Rohr, The Covenant of Grace in Puritan Thought (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986), 98-100, and J. Wayne Baker, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia: The Battle for Luther in Seventeenth-Century England, Sixteenth Century Journal 16 (1985): 115-33.
There can be no mixture of faith and works whatsoever in our confession of the gospel lest we deceive ourselves and die in our sins (Rom 3:28; 4:13-16; 9:30-33). Law and gospel are diametrically opposed; we cannot be under both a covenant of grace and a covenant of works because seeking justification by the law has nothing to do with faith but requires one to keep all of the law perfectly (Gal 3:12; 5:3; Rom 10:5).
In contrast, we stand by faith in Christ (Rom 5:1-2; 11:20; Eph 2:18; 3:12) because he is our covenant-keeping Head and Savior who merited redemption by his work as the Last Adam (Rom 5:14; 1 Cor 15:45). It is true that we are saved by works, but they are the works of Christ; our hope rests in him and not ourselves as Richard Baxter (1615-1691) would have it.
Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for The righteous shall live by faith(Gal 3:11 cf. 2:16). By accepting a so-called gospel that simply puts one under a new law in which they must rely on their own evangelical obedience, Baxter appears to put himself under a curse (Gal 3:10) because he did not trust in him alone who was cursed for sinners.
There is no way to justify Baxter’s alleged twofold justification because it is entirely foreign to Scripture. Jesus pronounces the poor in spirit blessed (Mt 5:3) and rebukes those who trust in themselves (Lk 18:9-14). These two passages alone utterly exclude the slightest thought that we are to fulfill a righteousness of our own, even if it is of a subordinate character, in order to be justified initially by the righteousness of Christ by faith.
Romans and 1 Peter are tied as the books that make the most use of the language of “obeying the gospel”. But it is Paul’s letter to the Romans that contains the two main verses in this matter and will therefore be the first ones we look at. When Paul writes of bringing about the “obedience of faith” among the nations as the aim of his apostleship (Rom 1:5; 16:26), he does not have in mind obedience as part of faith, making obedience to Christ’s commands and faith in Christ synonymous.
Nor does Paul write of obedience that springs from faith as fruit giving evidence to the genuineness of faith. Though both mistaken, there is an enormous difference between these two interpretations. The former is another gospel that denies grace alone while the latter is an orthodox interpretation that does not pay close enough attention to the context.
The obedience Paul has in view here is in believing the gospel; that is how the gospel is obeyed, by believing it. As an epexegetical phrase, the obedience of faith is faith itself. But by no means whatsoever is this to deny that Paul calls Christians to obedience, but what Paul is interested in communicating here with this phrase is purely justification by faith.
Paul’s apostolic ministry of the word applies to both those outside the church and believers. It is Paul’s intent for not only those who have not heard the gospel to take Christ by faith for their justification (15:26-21), but for those already united to Christ to continue walking by faith in him for their righteousness before God.
As he writes in v.17 of this chapter, The righteous shall live by faith.. When we are faced with the law of God and its perfect demands coming from the holy Judge, we know we sin against him in thought, word, and deed throughout each day of our life. But we who are in Christ by faith are called by the gospel to rest in the righteousness of Christ with which we have been clothed. This is our assurance of standing in God’s presence without blame (Col 1:22; 1 Th 3:13; 5:23; Jd 24).
This is what it means for a Christian to fulfill the obedience of faith. To live by faith means to walk before God by looking to the Righteous One (Acts 3:14; 7:52), his Son, for our righteousness. We are saints in God’s sight by imputation, not by works in either justification or sanctification.
The meaning of “obedience of faith” is not arrived at by discerning the genitive and whether it is subjective or objective, but is determined in light of Paul’s soteriology as a whole which categorically assures us that no one will be justified by works of the law in God’s sight (Rom 3:20-21, 28; Gal 2:16). Because the command of the gospel is to believe the gospel (Acts 16:31; 1 Jn 3:23), obeying the gospel is through faith in the gospel, not some additional form of obedience on par with faith. This is why Matthew Poole could say in his commentary on Rom 1:5 that faith is the great command of the gospel.
We come now to Romans 10:16.”But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us? Paul demonstrates that to not receive and believe the gospel is to disobey the Lord. “Believe” in the citation from Isa 53:1 serves to define the way in which Israel did not obey.
In Rom 15:18 Paul again speaks of his apostolic ministry. “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the gentiles to obedience by word and deed.” The obedience of the gentiles is spelled out in the following two verses. The goal of Paul�s preaching was for gentiles to believe his gospel which was attested to by signs and wonders.
Rom 11:30-32. “Just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”
From this passage we can make the following conclusions:
Gentiles were disobedient to God
God showed mercy to gentiles because of Israel’s disobedience
Israel became disobedient so that the mercy bestowed upon the gentiles would eventually lead to mercy for Israel
Jews and gentiles have been given to disobedience so God would have mercy upon all Israel’s trespass (11:11-12) as illustrated in 11:2-4 was for worshiping Baal which was a result of not knowing the true and living God. Israel was therefore cut off from the covenant (11:15,17,19) on account of their unbelief.
Jews can be grafted back into their own olive tree by faith in the Messiah (11:24) and in this way, together with gentiles brought into the new covenant by faith. Therefore, the disobedience in view at 11:30-32 is unbelief. Like the gentiles, unbelieving Jews were shown mercy to believe and come into covenant with God as his chosen people (9:18, 23-26). We apostasize if we rely on works through disbelief in the gospel (11:21-22 cf. Gal 5:4).
In Romans 10:3 Paul writes of Israel’s unbelief as an unwillingness to submit to God’s righteousness, thus seeing faith as a form of submission. We are found righteous not by attaining to the standard of God’s law (9:30), but by submitting to God’s righteousness based on faith (10:6 cf. 4:13). This is a fitting imagery for believing since both are passive.
This is entirely different from saying obedience is part of faith. This does not mean faith and obedience are routinely the same; they are distinct in their typical usage throughout the epistles and are just as far apart as are law and gospel.
One final consideration before leaving Romans. After providing an introduction in 5:12-21 to the two ages which began with the fall of Adam, Paul answers the potential objection that his gospel is licentious in chapter 6 He writes, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (v.17).
Is Paul’s reference to the Romans’ obedience from the heart speaking of their faith in the gospel? In 10:9-10 Paul links faith with our heart: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” We would not be freed from sin and slaves of righteousness if we did not believe the gospel.