Carl Trueman’s Essay on John Owen and the Timing of Justification
I quote from Carl Truman’s essay on John Owen and the timing of justification in the Westminster Seminary collection Justified in Christ.(ed by Oliphant, 2007)
Carl Trueman, p 91–“The Protestant doctrine of justification by imputation was always going to be criticized as tending toward eternal justification. Late medieval theologians (nominalists, occasionalists) had used the distinction between God’s absolute power and God’s ordained power to break the necessary connection between the priority of actual righteousness and God’s declaration that a particular person is justified. In placing the declaration in God’s will, not in the intrinsic qualities of the one justified, it would be argued that any necessary connection between justification and any chronological factors had been decisively abolished”.
mark: In other words, since “synthetic” (the imputation of another extrinsic factor) justification is not about what’s happening in the sinner now, why not say that all the elect were justified at one time, either at the cross, or before the beginning of the ages? This is what Baxter accused John Owen of doing, of simply “announcing in the gospel” that the elect had already all been justified. That’s not what Owen did, but Baxter said he should do that to be consistent. Baxter wanted to get “chronological factors” into the equation, because Baxter wanted to make “intrinsic conditions” a factor in justification.
mark: The assumption of Baxter, and even of most Protestants, is that if you remove the chronological changes (inner transformation), then you only have an appeal to God’s bare sovereignty, and then you might as well say that God justified all the elect at the same time, or even all of them before the beginning of time. But justification is NOT a matter of God’s bare sovereignty but also a revelation of God’s righteousness, and God’s justice demands that God impute in time to the elect the death which Christ earned in time for the elect. If all you have is bare sovereignty, then there is no need for imputation in time, and also there is really no need for Christ to die to satisfy justice.
John Owen used to agree with the nominalists (John Calvin on this particular question) that the death of Christ was not strictly necessary, but then John Owen changed his mind. Owen concluded that justification is not only a matter of God’s declaring the elect to be just (while yet sinners). But neither does justice demand that “justification be imputed” to all the elect at one time, either when Christ’s righteousness is actually accomplished, or when God decrees the death of Christ. Owen concluded that justice demands a connection between Christ’s death and the imputation of that death, but it does not demand that the death be imputed at the same time to all the elect. It’s not “justification” which is imputed. It’s Christ’s righteousness which is imputed.
Carl Trueman, p 92—Samuel Rutherford saw eternal justification as the foundation of an antinomian trajectory in English Puritan thought which was also connected to the sinister calls for the most un-Presbyterian tenet, liberty of conscience in religious matters. Others were quick to say that eternal justification subverted the need for the moral imperatives.”
mark: while I also oppose eternal justification (as did John Owen), it’s not because of the two reasons given above. First, I am for voluntary churches and religious liberty. Second, even though I oppose any notion of justification by “bare sovereignty” unrelated to law-satisfaction and Christ’s righteousness, I do oppose justification based on what God does intrinsically in the sinner, so any affirmation of justification by imputation (such as mine) is going to be accused of “cutting the nerve that leads to morality”. My response to that is that the motive for obedience to moral commands should not and cannot be to make justification “fitting” ( as Jonathan Edwards and his contemporary followers would have it). The motive for obedience is gratitude for a present justification and a faith that every blessing will be given to those who are already in Christ.
Carl Trueman, p 93–“Baxter claims that if Christ has paid the actual price for our sins, as Owen argues in The Death of Death (1647), then this payment is not refusable by God, nor is it possible that there could be a chronological delay between payment of the debt and the dissolution of the debt, since it is either paid or not paid, thus all the elect are already justified in Christ, and thus faith can only fulfill a mere epistemological function whereby the elect come to acknowledge that which they are already, namely, justified.”
mark: Notice that this is not what Baxter himself advocates. It’s what Baxter is accusing Owen of believing, or needing to believe, if Owen were consistent. This is really rich in a way, because Baxter is saying that Owen would not be following strict justice if Owen allows a time lag between Christ’s death as payment for sins and the actual forgiveness of sins, but Baxter himself has rejected any notion of strict justice, substituting a”new law” (neo-nomian) whereby God accepts something less than strict justice, namely, the chronological changes of moral improvement in the life of the one to be justified. It’s as if Baxter is saying, let me show you that not even Owen is being strictly just, so strict justice is not the issue. Baxter accuses Owen of not being just, while at the same time Baxter makes no claim that his own view is strict justice.
Owen would agree that justice demands that “the payment is not refusable” but would not agree that this demands the justification of the elect sinner at the very same time payment is made.
Carl Trueman, p 95–“Owen argues that it is crucial to understand that God’s desire to save is prior to the establishment of the covenant of redemption, and thus to any consideration of Christ’s satisfaction. Thus Owen precludes any notion that Christ’s death in any way changes the Father’s mind or buys his favor. Owen calls attention to the fact that Christ’s death, considered in abstraction from its covenantal context, has no meaning as a payment. The force of this is to focus attention on the will of God as teh determining factor in the economy of salvation. The positive relationship of Owen’s theology to voluntarist/Scotist trajectories of medieval thought is here evident.”
mark: so yes, Owen is “nominalist” in that Owen does affirm the sovereignty of God, and does make a distinction between Christ’s death and the imputation of Christ’s death chronologically. But Owen never appeals to “bare sovereignty” without any righteousness. Owen teaches that Christ’s death is not merely one possible way that God could in sovereignty save, but the only way, the necessary way, the just way. And, even though Owen makes a distinction between Christ’s death and the imputation of that death, Owen is clear that God must in justice impute (in time) Christ’s death to all for whom Christ died. The payment is not “refusable”. This is not a matter of arbitrary law-less sovereignty, because it’s a question of righteous sovereignty. Baxter thinks the only thing that can make justification of sinners just is intrinsic change (not perfect, not strict justice) in the sinner. Owen thinks the only thing that can make the justification of sinners just is Christ’s death and the imputation of that death.
Carl Trueman, p 96—“Owen claims that that the union of Christ with the elect in his atonement is not actual direct participation but that it must be understood in terms of federal representation. The imputation of sin to Christ is thus not strictly parallel to the imputation of Christ’s death to sinners. This is because it is not simply incarnation which is the foundation of salvation, but the covenant which lies behind the incarnation and which gives gives the incarnation meaning to salvation.”
mark: yes, but let me change one word, for the sake of clarity. It it is not simply incarnation which is the foundation, but the RIGHTEOUSNESS of God which lies behind the incarnation and which gives the incarnation meaning to salvation. God does not save simply by might and sovereignty. God also saves by God’s justice. Christ became incarnate under God’s law. Christ’s righteousness was Christ’s just payment to God’s law for the sins of the elect imputed. And justification in time is God’s just counting of this just payment by Christ.