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.

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16 Comments on “Carl Trueman’s Essay on John Owen and the Timing of Justification”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    John Owen, Of the Death of Christ:

    I suggest that absolution from the guilt of sin and obligation unto death, though not as terminated in the conscience for complete justification, do not precede our actual believing; for what is that love of God which through Christ is effectual to bestow faith upon the unbelieving?

    Perhaps, also, this may be the justification of the ungodly, mentioned Romans 4:5, God’s absolving a sinner in heaven, by accounting Christ unto him, and then bestowing him upon him, and for his sake enduing him with faith to believe.

    That we should be blessed with all spiritual blessings in Christ, and yet Christ not be ours in a peculiar manner before the bestowing of those blessings on us, is somewhat strange. Yea, he must be our Christ before it is given to us for him to believe; why else is it not given to all others so to do? I speak not of the supreme distinguishing cause, Matthew 11:25, 26, but of the proximate procuring cause, which is the blood of Christ. Neither yet do I hence assert complete justification to be before believing.

    Again: absolution may be considered either as a pure act of the will of God in itself, or as it is received, believed, apprehended, in and by the soul of the guilty. For absolution in the first sense, it is evident it must precede believing; as a discharge from the effects of anger naturally precedes all collation of any fruits of love, such as is faith.

    But if God account Christ unto, and bestow him upon, a sinner before believing, and upon that account absolve him from the obligation unto death, which for sin he lies under, what wants this of complete justification?

    Much every way. 1. It wants that act of pardoning mercy on the part of God which is to be terminated and completed in the conscience of the sinner; this lies in the promise. 2. It wants the heart’s persuasion concerning the truth and goodness of the promise, and the mercy held out in the promise. 3. It wants the receiving of Christ as the author and finisher of that mercy, an all-sufficient Savior to them that believe.

    And thus the Lord Christ hath the pre-eminence in all things. He is “the author and finisher of our faith.”

    This, then, is that which here we assign unto the Lord: Upon the accomplishment of the appointed season for the making out the fruits of the death of Christ unto them for whom he died, he loves them freely, says to them, “Live;” gives them his Son, and with and for him all things; bringing forth the choicest issue of his being reconciled in the blood of Jesus whilst we are enemies, and totally alienated from him.

  2. MARK MCCULLEY Says:

    Money You Can Return, but not Christ’s Death

    John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification, 5:217—” A man may lay down a great sum of money for the discharge of another, on such a condition as may never be fulfilled; for, on the absolute failure of the condition, his money may and ought to be restored unto him, whereon he has received no injury or damage. But in penal suffering for crimes and sins, there can be no righteous constitution that shall make the event and efficacy of it to depend on a condition absolutely uncertain, and which may not come to pass or be fulfilled; for if the condition fail, no recompense can be made unto him that has suffered. Wherefore, the way of the application of the satisfaction of Christ unto them for whom it was made, is sure and steadfast in the purpose of God

    http://bloggledegook.blogspot.com/…/john-owen-on.

  3. MARK MCCULLEY Says:

    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)

  4. markmcculley Says:

    Roger Olson, Arminian—I have heard many Calvinists say that when they are asked when they were saved they say “The moment Christ died on the cross.” That is not true Calvinism. According to Calvinism, Christ’s death secured their salvation; it did not then save them. (John Piper is very careful to use that language but many of his followers miss the distinction and go on saying they were saved when Christ died on the cross.)
    Why is this important? Well, for one thing, it shows why it is wrong (inconsistent) for a Calvinist to pray for someone to be included among the elect but (possibly) not wrong (inconsistent) for them to pray for someone to be saved. Salvation is conditional. A prayer for someone’s salvation can be a “foreordained means to a foreordained end.” God foreordains that someone will pray for an elect person’s salvation and that prayer becomes an instrumental cause (not efficient cause) of God sending his effectual call through his Word into that person’s life resulting in faith and justification.
    But election is something entirely different. Calvin, anyway (and I would argue all true Calvinist theologians), described election in such a way that no prayer could possibly effect it even instrumentally. It is an eternal decree of God “within himself” not dependent on anything outside himself about who will be saved.
    Many Calvinists came here and posted comments claiming that there is no reason why a Calvinist could not pray for someone to be elect. Many of them equated “election” with “conversion” or “salvation.” That’s false to true Calvinism.
    Of course, if all they mean is that any person can express a wish to God, that’s true. But I assume the Calvinist pastor who said he prays for God to include his son among the elect did not mean that. He means that he hopes his prayer will somehow effect or contribute to God’s decision to elect his son. If he did not mean that, then he was simply confessing that his prayer is wishful thinking only and not true petition.
    My advice to Calvinists all: “Drink deeply at the wells of Calvinism or drink not at all.”

  5. MARK MCCULLEY Says:

    Smeaton also uses the distinction between purchase (impetration, p 147) and legal imputation

    Revelation 5: 9 And they sang a new song, saying,
    “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
    for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed some people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,
    10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
    and they shall reign on the earth.”

    Alec Motyer, p 251, From Heaven He Came—Isaiah’s “Behold, my servant shall succeed” matches the great cry, “It is finished (John 19:30) and forces us to ask what “finished” means in John and what “succeed” means in Isaiah. On any “open-ended” view of the atonement–that is, that the work of Christ only made salvation possible rather than actually secured salvation–“finished” only means “started” and “succeed” only means “maybe, contingent on God contributing something else “in” the sinner

  6. markmcculley Says:

    we do not deny that the distinction between impetration and application in order to affirm application by God’s imputation and to affirm impetration for the specific sins of the elect alone, so that this propitiation must in justice be applied to the elect so that the then justified elect are justified from these sins.

  7. markmcculley Says:

    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.”

  8. markmcculley Says:

    justified sinners are the dwelling place of god
    justified sinners as the “heaven” of God

    purified for God to approach and indwell us
    a particular people as the “sanctuary” of God
    the efficacy—–the heavenly places not “potentially” purified, but actually by Christ’s intercession
    the sacrifice and the sprinkling (of the sacrifice) for the same people
    Father and Son same one God, same intention and intercession
    Hebrews 7:24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

  9. markmcculley Says:

    Bruce Baughus—Calvin, however, develops a different line–one that makes no appeal to the infinite worth of the divine person but looks instead to the decretive will of God. We find this in his discussion of how we can correctly say that Christ has merited grace and salvation for us. Here he argues that,
    When we treat of the merit of Christ, we do not place the beginning in him, but we ascend to the ordination of God as the primary cause, because of his mere good pleasure he appointed a Mediator to purchase salvation for us (Institutes, 2.17.1).
    Instead of an appeal to the divine person of the Word incarnate who was that mediator, Calvin appeals to the arrangement decreed by God out “of his mere good pleasure.”

    Calvin goes so far as to argue that “Christ could not merit anything save by the good pleasure of God,” meaning that “the merit of Christ depends entirely on the grace of God (which provided this mode of salvation for us)” (2.17.1).
    Curiously, Calvin’s argument has a decidedly Scotist ring to it. In typical Duns-ian fashion, the Scot developed a voluntaristic alternative to Thomas’s appeal to the divine person, arguing that since Christ’s work was accomplished by the Son as a man it necessarily has a finite value. As such, the sufficiency of Christ’s work–its infinite merit–is grounded in God’s counterfactual acceptance of his work as a full satisfaction for sin.
    That, to be clear, is not Calvin’s argument. Although both Scotus and Calvin agree that the will of God is the source of Christ’s merit, Calvin argues that Christ’s work has infinite merit on the basis of God’s decree. The difference may seem subtle but is significant: Scotus’s argument from the divine will to accept Christ’s work as counterfactually sufficient is later developed by Hugo Grotius into his moral governmental theory of the atonement. Calvin’s view precludes such development


  10. Mason, p 60—” For Owen, the elect are decretally united to Christ in the decree of election, which provides the foundation both for Christ’s satisfaction, and for the imputation of Christ to the sinner. At the time of Christ’s satisfaction, God acts on the basis of the decretal union and imputes the sins of the elect to Christ. . At a later point in time, at the moment of justification, God imputes Christ to the elect sinner in a forensic union, on the basis of which, God grants the sinner faith.” http://www.johnowen.org/media/mason_union_with_christ.pdf


  11. John Owen—“No blessing can be given us for Christ’s sake, unless, in order of nature, Christ be first reckoned unto us… God’s reckoning Christ, in our present sense, is the imputing of Christ unto ungodly, unbelieving sinners for whom he died, so far as to account him theirs, and to bestow faith and grace upon them for his sake. This, then, I say, at the accomplishment of the appointed time, the Lord reckons, and accounts, and makes out his Son Christ, to such and such sinners, and for his sake gives them faith 10:626

  12. 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”.

    http://www.discovery.org/a/460

  13. markmcculley Says:

    http://www.johnowen.org/media/trueman_owen_on_divine_justice.pdf

    God is not boxed in to only one time. God acted and imputed before the cross, and God acts and imputes after the cross. All the sins of all the elect were imputed by God some time before the cross (probably before the incarnation, certainly not after Christ died in that “three hours of soul trouble” that preachers like to talk about

    http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2014/whats-new/anything-blood-jesus-traditionalists-downplay-death-christ/

  14. markmcculley Says:

    Lee Irons— “Kline clearly rejects the voluntarist position that all merit is based upon God’s free and gracious condescension to make himself a debtor to man’s finite works. The voluntarist definition of merit presupposes that “a distinction is to be made between the inherent value of a moral act and its ascribed value under the terms of the covenant.” The covenant becomes a way, therefore, of CIRCUMVENTING STRICT JUSTICE, making possible the arbitrary acceptance as meritorious of that which is not actually meritorious.”

    Irons—“The voluntarist seizes on the notion of a voluntary condescension expressed by way of covenant. Precisely because of this tacit capitulation to the intellectualist definition of merit as true merit, the voluntarist definition of merit, by contrast, must be qualified as a lesser merit that cannot even exist apart from God’s gracious acceptation. Declaring a pox on both houses, Kline teaches that “God’s justice must be defined and judged in terms of what he stipulates in his covenants.” The covenant is the revelation of God’s JUSTICE. ”

    Irons—Kline’s insight is not altogether new. For although the Westminster Confession’s opening statement on the covenant employs the language of the via moderna, we believe that the Confession’s overall system of doctrine supports the covenantal nature of creation.
    The Confession speaks of “the holy nature and will of God,” as a covenant (WCF XIX.1-3; WLC # 93, 95). Furthermore, the Confession, when dealing with the imago Dei, states that Adam and Eve had “the law of God written in their hearts” (WCF IV.2), thus strongly suggesting that man was constituted n a covenantal relationship with God as he was created….the covenant of works cannot be viewed as a superadded, voluntary condescension in addition to creation, but must be inherent in the very fact that man was made in the divine image. When WCF VII.1 is read in this broader context, it begins to appear more and more like a vestigial organ whose surgical removal would not jeopardize the continued vitality of the larger organism….”

    http://www.upper-register.com/papers/redefining_merit.pdf


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