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.

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18 Comments on “Baxter’s Neo-Nomianism, by Dante Spencer”

  1. fuddybuddy Says:

    I would not call MacArthur or Piper’s gospel an “orthodox interpretation that does not pay close enough attention to the context.” I would call it another gospel.

  2. markmcculley Says:

    Benjamin Keach, The Marrow of True Justification: The Biblical Doctrine of Justification Without Works, Solid Ground Books, Birmingham, Alabama USA, 2007, p 80—”None have an evangelical righteousness, but those who are justified before they have it. Christ is our legal righteousness by a proper imputation of His righteousness to us, and only then is our evangelical righteousness also.

    “Once we are justified, we need not inquire how a man is justified after he is justified. God has not appointed this personal evangelical righteousness, in order to our Justification before Him, though He has appointed it to evidence our Justification before others.

    “By that righteousness of Christ which is out of us, though imputed to us, the Justice of God is satisfied; therefore all Works done by us, or inherent in us, are excluded in our Justification before God.”


    Baxter’s neonomianism makes it worse for the sinner, not better. Baxter claims to offer a “new plan of salvation”, an easier way. Baxter says that God no longer commands to “do and live”. Baxter says that God has transferred His right to punish over to Christ, who has new terms of mercy, not the old law which condemns “in rigor of justice” Universal Redemption, 1694, p 26

    But in reality Baxter has not relaxed the terms but wants more. The satisfaction of the old law by Christ’s death is NOT ENOUGH FOR BAXTER. Baxter also has a new law (which he calls a gospel plan, and this plan will accept no obedience by a “substitute”, but will only take obedience from the sinner himself who needs to be saved. What Baxter calls the “obedience of faith” is more about obedience than faith. No salvation for the ungodly. No salvation for the disobedient.

    Baxter warns that Christ did not and cannot deliver us from the punishment of the new law for disbelief. “Christ died not for any Man’s non-performance of the conditions of the law of grace.” (p 33) Arguing from Hebrews 10, Baxter concludes that “Christ by His law has made a far sorer punishment than before belonged to them, to be due to all those that believe not on Him. Only for refusing their Redeemer shall they be condemned” (p 44)


    the imperfections too commonly cleaving to the work of grace in the redeemed, call for a certain coercive influence of the law even for them…fear being needed to awe where love has failed to inspire and animate.” Baxter/ Fairborn

  5. markmcculley Says:

    But they say this—-To live by faith is to do what Jesus says to do. Some of us are doing it. You are not doing it.

    Since our duty is not based on our ability, talking about our new ability and new regeneration (infusion, impartation, disposition) says nothing about our obligation to obey the law. Yes, we are obligated to keep the law.

    Neonomians taught that God justifies without strict obedience to the law. But the legalists on living the Christian life are not neonomians. They agree that the justification which got us started was by Christ’s satisfaction alone. But when it comes to what they call “sanctification”, they think the strictness of the law has been relaxed, so that God is angry with them only when they get too immoral but not angry with them most of the time (when they are moral).

    (I should say that some of these legalists are not neonomians. Many of them are legalists even in the matter of justification, since they teach a “not yet aspect” to justification. Some of them even think that God accepts Holy-Spirit created faith as the righteousness or in place of the righteousness, instead of teaching about the definite atonement of Christ’s death to satisfy the law for the elect.)


    No Christian is yet keeping all of God’s law. It does not matter what we say about our ability to keep the law. It is often the case that God does NOT give us to do what God commands. This is the truth, even if you are one of those who thinks that any mention of the truth of God’s foreordination leads to fatalism.

    The law is not the gospel, grace is not the law, and the ability to keep the law is not grace. It’s still too late for justified sinners to keep the law in order to sanctified. Those who are already saints are commanded to obey the law

  6. markmcculley Says:

    God does, but I don’t; God will, but I won’t; and that’s the difference between God and me.”

  7. markmcculley Says:

    If we say that there was grace for Adam to keep the law (though he didn’t), we could end up saying that there was grace for Christ to keep the law. And that could end up teaching us that the gospel is about us having (enough) grace to have (enough faith) to keep the law (enough).

  8. markmcculley Says:

    Lee Irons is correct to warn about the dangers of the confessional suggestion of grace in “the covenant of works”. If we say that there was grace for Adam to keep the law (though he didn’t), we will end up saying that there was grace for Christ to keep the law. And that could well end up teaching us that the gospel is about us having (enough) grace to have (enough faith) to keep the law (enough). Mark Jones draws some very provocativve comparisons between Christ’s pursuit of holiness and the Christian’s similar endeavor.

    Matt Perman—Since works of the law are not faith (Romans 3:28) and whatever is not faith is sin, many theologians (like Dan Fuller) generally conclude that works of the law are therefore sin. They argue that “works of the law” refers not just to sin in general, but rather to a specific kind of sin–the sin of trying to earn from God. They often point to Romans 4:6: “to the one who works his wage is not reckoned as a favor but as what is due.” From this passage they infer that “works of the law”–are things that are done in our own strength with a view to earning merit from God in the sense of doing God a favor such that God is obligated to return the favor.

    Faith can be referred to as obedience in the sense that when we believe in Christ we are doing what God tells us to. Thus is why the Scriptures sometimes speak of “obeying the gospel.” But “doing what God tells us to do” is not the definition of obedience to the law. Moral obedience does not simply mean “doing what God says” but doing what is virtuous. Faith in the gospel is not love for our neighbor.

    Romans 9:11-12 …for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything GOOD OR BAD, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘the older will serve the younger.’”

    “Anything good or bad” explains the term “works.” Consequently, “works” are “anything we do, whether good or bad.” Works are not simply acts one does without faith or to put God in one’s debt. Rather, “works” is a term used to refer to human behavior in general. This behavior can then be classified as either obedience or disobedience.

    Since faith in Christ is not a “work of the law,” it must follow that faith in Christ as Savior is not commanded in that moral standard. Faith is not a requirement of the law but of the gospel. This means that faith in Christ is not a morally virtuous thing (like telling the truth, etc), for virtue is that which accords with God’s moral law. Gospel faith is not commanded by the law, and so faith is not a virtue.”

  9. markmcculley Says:

    In his introduction to the second edition of Gaffin’s By Faith, not by Sight, Mark Jones suggests that anybody who has a different order of salvation than Gaffin is antinomian.

    Mark Jones– “The position that faith followed (imputation) was not typical of Reformed thought in his day but rather was associated with antinomianism.”.

    Mark Jones—”Any view that posits faith as a consequence of imputation (John Cotton) is not the typical Reformed position.”

    Mark Jones—”The Lutheran view that justification precedes sanctification..ends up attributing to justification a renovative transformative element.”

    Mark Mc—yes, that’s the same accusation which Tipton made. Mark Jones is dogmatic that “union” precedes imputation, and that “faith” precedes “union”. Does that not end up attributing to “union” a renovative transformative element? Does that not end up attributing to “faith” a renovative transformative element? Is the atonement imputed to us on the basis of the Spirit’s work of giving us faith?

    Scott Clark on faith as a “power”—-The English noun “virtue” is derived from the Latin noun ” the root sense of which is “power.” To speak of faith “as a virtue” tends to cause folk to locate the power of faith in faith itself.

    WCF 8.6: Although the work of redemption was not actually wrought by Christ till after his incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefits thereof were communicated unto the elect….

    WCF 13.1 .–They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them…through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection

    2 Peter 1:5 is to the point here: For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue (αρετη), and virtue with knowledge….

    Scott Clark: Neither the Three Forms nor the Westminster Standards speak of faith as a “virtue.”

    WCF 14.1 The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe…. is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts,

    Scott Clark—There is nothing intrinsic to faith that makes it powerful. The mystery of faith is that it is, in itself, empty. It is a sign of our perversity that we continually try to fill faith with something other than “Christ for us.” We want to make the power of faith to be faith itself or Spirit-wrought sanctity or something else beside Christ.
    Those whom God effectually calls, he also freely justifies: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.

    Scott Clark–Faith does not justify because it is “formed by love,” i.e. made powerful by Spirit-wrought sanctity.

  10. markmcculley Says:

    Boston criticizes Richard Baxter’s view of justification:

    “As to the point of justification; no man is, nor can be justified by the law. the Neonomians or Baxterians, to wind in a righteousness of our own into the case of justification, turn the gospel into a law, properly so called; and tell us, that the gospel justifieth as a law, and roundly own what is the necessary consequent of that doctrine, namely, that faith justifieth, as it is our evangelical righteousness, or our keeping the gospel law, which runs thus: “He that believeth shall not perish.”

    “But the holy Scripture teaches, that we are justified by grace, and by no law nor deed, (or work of a law, properly so called) call it the law of Christ, or the gospel law, or what law one pleases; and thereby faith itself is excluded from being the righteousness of a sinner, Gal. 2:16, 3:11, 5:4, Rom. 3:28. See also WLC 73 and WLC 19.6.

  11. markmcculley Says: Shepherd in effect reinvented the neonomianism of Richard Baxter in the 17th century—and from the same motive—recoil from the practical antinomianism that surrounded him, and a desire to state the gospel as to make perfectly obvious that persevering holiness is enjoined on all who hope to be welcomed by Christ the Lord on the day of judgment. Like Baxter, he never understood why was constantly being accused of reintroducing legalism into Reformed soteriology when his purpose of promoting holiness among Reformed people was so demonstrably right….—J. I. Packer (1992).

  12. markmcculley Says:

    Packer—Shepherd in effect reinvented the neonomianism of Richard Baxter in the 17th century—and from the same motive—recoil from the practical antinomianism that surrounded him, and a desire to state the gospel as to make perfectly obvious that persevering holiness is enjoined on all who hope to be welcomed by Christ the Lord on the day of judgment. Like Baxter, he never understood why was constantly being accused of reintroducing legalism into Reformed soteriology when his purpose of promoting holiness among Reformed people was so demonstrably right….

    C. F. Allison, in The Rise of Moralism: The Proclamation of the Gospel from Hooker to Baxter (1966), offered a much more accurate assessment of Baxter’s doctrine of justification as a virtual return Tridentine Romanism.

    In 1998, Carl Trueman noted the need for interpreters of Baxter’s theology to account for its medieval roots. See his essay “A Small Step Toward Rationalism: The Impact of the Metaphysics of Tommaso Campanella on the Theology of Richard Baxter,” in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment.

    Even Hans Boersma concedes that Baxter made evangelical obedience “a secondary part of the condition of the continuation of justification.” He also says that Baxter’s denial that faith receives Christ’s righteousness directly, made room for human fulfillment of the conditions of the covenant by the “pepper corn” of evangelical obedience for justification. We are declared righteous partly because we are intrinsically righteous. Our works are “a condition of continued and consummate justification.” Even according to Boersma’s sympathetic analysis of Baxter, there is enough evidence to sustain Allison’s judgment.

    Baxter’s writings are a strange theological mix. He was one of a few Puritans whose doctrines of God’s decrees, atonement, and justification were anything but Reformed. He frequently leaned towards Arminian thinking. He developed his own notion of universal redemption, which offended Calvinists, but retained a form of personal election, which offended Arminians. He rejected reprobation. He was greatly influenced by the Amyraldians and incorporated much of their thinking, including hypothetical universalism, which teaches that Christ hypothetically died for all men, but His death only has real benefit to those who believe. For Baxter, Christ’s death was more of a legal satisfaction of the law than a personal substitutionary death on behalf of elect sinners.

    Baxter’s soteriology was as damaging as Arminius’ and Amyraut’s. Yet Reformed folk continue to write about Baxter in a way they would never write about Arminius. How does this lead get buried? Judging by past experience, when readers new to the HB find this post many of them will be shocked to read that Baxter denied the Protestant doctrine of justification. How could they not know it?

    That fact has been known since the 17th century, when John Owen refuted him. The first part of the answer is that Baxter was never condemned by an international Reformed synod as Arminius was. In this respect we have roughly the same problem with Baxter that we have with Moises Amyraut (1596–1664). Amyraut’s fairly radical revisions to the doctrines of election and the atonement (as well as his rationalism) were never formally condemned. J. H. Heidegger (1633–98) and Francis Turretin (1623–87) condemned Amyraut’s revisions and the Swiss Reformed Churches confessed in the Helvetic Consensus Formula (1675) against Amyraut until the broad, non-confessional evangelicals rejected the confession in the early 18th century in Geneva. .

    This leads us to the second part of the problem. Not all of us who identify as Reformed either understand or agree that the doctrine of justification is, as Calvin wrote, the “axis” around which the Christian faith spins nor do we agree with Luther and Alsted that it is the article of the standing or falling of the church. Today’s remembrance of Baxter is a perfect example of the marginalization of the doctrine of justification. Its corruption is not presented as fatal to the church but as a source of irritation. An ill-fitting shirt is irritating but arsenic is fatal. Baxter’s doctrine of justification was theological arsenic.

    The third part of the problem is the adjective puritan. Baxter is always labelled a puritan. There are too many discrepancies between the residents in this house. They are not really a family. The adjective puritan is about as useful as the adjective evangelical is today. Do self-described evangelicals (e.g., those who attend the Evangelical Theological Society) agree about much? No. There is no common doctrine of Scripture, God, man, Christ, salvation, church, or last things. The only thing about which self-described evangelicals agree is that they love Jesus (even though they vary wildly about who and what he was and what he did). Roughly the same sorts of discrepancies are true of the adjective puritan.

    When we lead with piety we unintentionally give the impression that so long as a fellow as pious the rest of what he did and said is less important. That is false. Arius was pious. Pelagius was famous for his ascetic piety. Arminius was pious but they were all condemned for gross theological errors that ultimately overshadowed their piety. It’s past time that we stopped giving Richard Baxter a pass because of his piety.

    It was rationalism that drove Baxter’s revision of evangelical Protestant soteriology. That rationalism first manifested itself in his soteriology but rationalism, like water, always seeks its lowest level. The Remonstrants, with whom Baxter shared so much, were also rationalists and they became Unitarians even more quickly than Kidderminster did. The same rationalism that has us accepted with God because of our sanctity cannot tolerate a God who is mysteriously one in three persons nor a Christ who is one person with two natures.

    I understand that there is great concern today about the rise of a new antinomianism but Richard Baxter is not our model any more than Jacob Arminius is our model. The lead of any story about Richard Baxter must be that he compromised the article of the standing or falling of the church. Everything else we say about him must follow that lead.

    • markmcculley Says:

      Baxter was one of those “diversity” guys. Like those today who would welcome certain versions of “hypothetical universalism” into the “Reformed mainline”, Baxter created a lot of division with his “anti-division” ideas. The anti-denomination folks tend to be the very most sectarian, because what they subtract from the gospel adds up to a false gospel. When they exclude various antitheses, they thereby include the idea of salvation conditioned on the sinner.

      Baxter had a situation specific “gospel”. Believing that he lived in a day when not legalism but antinomianism was the problem, Baxter concluded that any assurance based on Christ’s death alone was presumption. For Baxter, “did you hear and agree” is not the question, because for Baxter the only “real” assurance depends on “what did you do”?

      To say that gospel depends on the situation tends to men that the gospel depends on those who hear it. In that situation, moralists need the gospel to be the law, and they even need the “gospel” to be what condemns people. Thus the moralists think even of the “conditions which can condemn” as “grace”.

  13. markmcculley Says:

    neononomian presbyterians and antinomian congregationalists

    Richard Baxter, conditional new covenant

    Tobias Crisp, unconditional new covenant

    During the Assembly debate, they argued that we cannot look to Israel and the Old Covenant as a foundation for church government because in the Old Covenant there was a mixture of church and state. If we follow the New Testament pattern, we see churches organized by voluntary congregations of visible saints called out of the world. The Presbyterians pointed out that if the Jewish model of the church is given up, paedobaptism goes with it. But the Congregationalists did not budge.

    In light of this, the Westminster Confession holds that the Old Covenant and the New Covenant are the same covenant (the covenant of grace). Therefore Westminster interpreted the Mosaic law as graciously given as a rule of righteousness, and not as a covenant of works (19.1-2). Thus Lev 18:5 was interpreted as consistent with a gospel command.

    Congregationalists, on the other hand, not holding to the same commitment on the Old Covenant, removed “as such” in 19.2, thus opening the door to allow the Mosaic law to have been given as a covenant of works – which is precisely the view articulated in Petto, Owen, and others. Therefore Lev 18:5 could be properly understood as enunciating the works principle of the Covenant of Works, not as a gospel command.

    Furthermore, because the Congregationalists were not committed to Westminster’s view of the Old and New Covenant as the same covenant, they were free to contrast the question of conditionality between the two covenants, which is precisely what Petto and Owen did. In whatever way Westminster theologians might say the covenant of grace was unconditional, that had to be qualified with the fact that it was also conditional and had covenant breakers, according to the Old Covenant. Congregationalists had no such restraint, and thus they strongly proclaimed the unbreakable nature of the absolute, unconditional promises made to every member of the New Covenant.

    Owen recognized this was a point of departure from Westminster and the reformed, which is why he says in his exposition of Hebrews 8 that he sides with the Lutherans on the question of the Old Covenant and rejects the opinion of the reformed divines. Yes, those same Lutherans that some reformed men mock for their emphasis on the law/gospel antithesis. Robert Traill noted:

    Let us carefully keep the bounds clear betwixt the law and gospel, which, “whosoever doth, is a right perfect divine,” saith blessed Luther, in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians,—a book that hath more plain sound gospel than many volumes of some other divines. Let us keep the law as far from the business of justification as we would keep condemnation, its contrary; for the law and condemnation are inseparable, but by the intervention of Jesus Christ our surety (Gal. 3:10-14).

    In this regard, it is disappointing to see historians unwilling to acknowledge the real differences between Presbyterian and Congregational covenant theology. In a foreword to Petto’s book, Mark Jones does his best to obliterate the very point of Petto’s book:

    The history of Reformed covenant theology has not always been well understood. Richard Greaves refers to Petto, as well as Owen, Goodwin, and Ussher, as “strict Calvinists” who belong to one of three different groups in the covenant tradition. Greaves mistakenly posits a tension between the Calvin-Perkins-Ames tradition, which supposedly distinguished itself by promulgating an unconditional character to the covenant of grace, and the Zwingli-Bullinger-Tyndale tradition, which is characterized by the conditional nature of the covenant of grace. Graves is wrong to place these two groups in tension with one another. The truth is that both ‘groups’ understood the covenant of grace as having conditions; namely, faith and obedience. However, because the faith and obedience that is required in the covenant of grace is the “gift of God” it may also be said that the covenant of grace is some sense unconditional. These nuances have often been missing in the twentieth-century historiography.

    It’s worth reading material from Jones very carefully (don’t take his word for it).

  14. markmcculley Says:

    Is Galatians only about justification, so that the “soft legalism” (for progress in the Christian ) can be corrected without suggesting that anybody is not yet justified, to whom Christ is of no profit?

    “In most definitions of legalism by New Testament scholars, the possibility of ‘soft’ legalism is not even considered. The ‘legalist’, for Cranfield, is the one who tries to use the law ‘as a means to the establishment of a claim upon God, and so to the defense of his self-centeredness and the assertion of a measure of
    independence over against God. He imagines that he can put God under an obligation to himself, that he will be able so adequately to fulfil the law’s demands that he will earn for himself a righteous status before God.’ For Moule, legalism is ‘the intention to claim God’s favour by establishing one’s own rightness.’ For Hübner, those who see righteousness as based on works define their existence in terms of their own activities, leave God out of consideration, and, in effect, ‘see themselves as their own creator.’ For Daniel Fuller, legalism ‘presumes that the Lord, who is not ‘served by human hands, as though he needed anything’ (Acts 17:25), can nevertheless be bribed and obligated to bestow blessing by the way men distinguish themselves.’

    in Paul’s argument it is human deeds of any kind which cannot justify, not simply deeds done ‘in a spirit of legalism’. Paul’s very point is lost to view when his statements excluding the law, and its works from justification are applied only to the law’s perversion. (Stephen Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Eerdmans, 1998, p 132)

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