Jonathan Edwards and Justification
Wheaton: Crossway, 2012
158 pp, Preface, Introduction, & Index
Books about Jonathan Edwards are legion. So too are books about the oft controverted doctrine of justification. So along comes this delightful little book Jonathan Edwards and Justification published by Crossway Books and ably edited by Edwards scholar and pastor Josh Moody. Moody, who has published Jonathan Edwards and the Enlightenment and The God-Centered Life: Insights from Jonathan Edwards, and currently serves as senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., offers us a fairly comprehensive yet brief treatment of Edwards’ consideration of the doctrine of justification.
I should note up front that I have a “dog in this race” as I myself have published on Edwards and justification. Some time ago I published an article on this same subject in the Westminster Theological Journal which was then revised and included in the festschrift for Richard B. Gaffin, Jr, Resurrection and Eschatology which I had the pleasure and privilege to co-edit with Lane Tipton. I am wholly biased as I share with readers about this book. I am cited favorably a few times in the volume so quite obviously objectivity, not to say neutrality, goes right out the window!
The book is comprised of five chapters by both veteran and up-and-coming Edwards scholars. Josh Moody pens the first chapter, “Edwards and Justification Today” (17-43) which sets the context for the book. Moody notes that this book meets at the cross-section of feisty exchanges about Edwards, about justification, and about Edwards and justification. Not surprisingly, justification as the distinguishing doctrine of Protestantism is in the sniper’s scope, not least in the scholarship of the New Perspective on Paul. Many are calling for the setting aside of arms between denominations in the desire for (in my view, bureaucratically engineered) ecumenicity. Moody addresses Edwards’ use of the language of infusion, his setting of justification in the ordo salutis, and Edwards’ understanding of the relation of faith and love. The author then takes the results of this evaluation and compares it to a brief consideration of the Reformation Protestant view of justification and Edwards fits well within the parameters of this view. Moody then considers Edwards’ contribution to current discussions. Moody notes that Edwards does not ground justification in personal godliness (per Romans 4:5) nor does Edwards limit the works of the law to the ceremonial law. Edwards is unique, Moody avers, as he focuses strongly on union with Christ, and as he views the Christian graces as a concatenation (for instance, faith is always accompanied by love). But to suggest that Edwards is on the verge of supporting a Roman Catholic view of justification (wherein justification as an act of God for us is confused with sanctification as a work of God in us) is simply “absurd” (43).
Kyle Strobel, in the second chapter, “By Word and Spirit: Jonathan Edwards on Redemption, Justification, and Regeneration,” (45-69) seeks to understand Edwards on justification within the overall context of his view of redemption. Strobel unpacks Edwards’ discussion of justification as a factor in the history of redemption beginning in eternity with the pactum salutis or covenant of redemption between the three persons of the Godhead. The Holy Spirit is the purchase of Christ. “The Holy Spirit is the great purchase of Christ. God the Father is the person of whom the purchase is made; God the Son is the person who makes the purchase, and the Holy Spirit is the gift purchased” (46, citing Edwards from the sermon series “Charity and Its Fruits” found in The Works of Jonathan Edwards/Vol. 8: Ethical Writings, 353). It is in this larger setting in which Strobel considers Edwards’ ruminations on justification and imputation, faith and union with Christ, and regeneration. As Strobel notes, Edwards does not undermine the forensic nature of justification and positively seeks to understand justification in the context of Christ’s own justification, sanctification, and glorification. In other words, Edwards desires to maintain the connection between Christ’s person and the benefits he accrues for his people.
Rhys Bezzant authors the third chapter on “The Gospel of Justification and Edwards’s Social Vision” (71-94). Bezzant reminds us that while individuals are justified there are social implications of justification. Historically the social context of Edwards’ treatment of justification was the Great Awakening. In fact, Edwards himself saw his lecture series on justification by faith as the human catalyst for the initial awakening in his church at Northampton. With regard to the contours of Edwards’ formulation of justification, Byzzant agrees with Strobel that it is set within the context of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Edwards also notes the connection of justification with sanctification (transformed living). Bezzant also notes Edwards’ situating of justification within union with Christ and its place within his covenant theology. The author also devotes attention to the fact that Edwards’ lectures on justification took aim at the growth of “Arminianism” in New England (I place quotation marks around Arminianism as the movement was less about ties to Arminius than it was about autonomous rationalism, i.e., latitudinarianism). Bezzant concludes his chapter with consideration of the effects of the preaching of justification in Northampton, especially renewed relationships. Also within Edwards’ scope was the problem of antinomianism. At the end of the day, Edwards’ doctrine of justification was not detached from the rest of his theology as has sometimes been suggested.
Samuel Logan considers the relationship of “Justification and Evangelical Obedience” in the fourth chapter of the book (95-127). Logan begins his study by asking the rather straightforward question, “What makes a person a Christian?” The author notes that this can be asked in two senses: “(1) What ontologically causes a person to become a Christian and (2) How is a person recognized as being a Christian?” (95). Logan points out that Edwards was interested in both senses of the question. As with previous publications, Logan considers at some length Edwards’ discussion of conditionality and fitness. Why is Edwards concerned with these ideas? Justification could not be divorced from Christian living. Justification and evangelical obedience are tied together but not in the sense that obedience is factored into the grounds of justification. “Once a person is genuinely in Christ, it is inevitable that the person sees and acts differently than when he was not in Christ” (125). Whether Edwards was able to maintain the biblical balance between the gratuitous nature of justification (i.e., of the ungodly) and the necessity of good works is fodder for further consideration.
Jonathan Edwards and Justification concludes with a fine chapter by Douglas Sweeney, “Justification by Faith Alone? A Fuller Picture of Edwards’s Doctrine” (129-154). Sweeney reminds us that Edwards was Reformed and orthodox but not slavish to forms of words. The author seeks to build his treatment on not only Edwards’ justification treatise but on a full array of texts from Edwards’ literary corpus including his Miscellanies and his “Blank Bible” among other sources. As Sweeney notes, “Edwards was a preacher in a nominally Christian culture. He devoted most of his time to reading the Bible and writing sermons. His priorities were biblical, his instincts ministerial. He was a Calvinist for sure. But he tried to promote a Calvinist view of justification by faith alone without lulling unconverted and spiritually lax church adherents into a false sense of spiritual security” (131). In case Edwards’ concern for spiritual life is interpreted as incipient Roman Catholicism it should be noted that Edwards himself was vehemently anti-Catholic (indeed, in this ecumenical age he was offensively so) and did not see himself as sympathetic with a Romish theology. Not only so but Edwards endeavored to teach justification in a “classically Protestant way” (134). Additionally Sweeney notes Edwards’ use of “Catholic language.” Such language would involve consideration of the relation of faith and love and faith and good works. Edwards also talked about “final justification.” But Edwards meant this in a clearly Protestant manner. One who is justified in time will also be justified on the last day. So even when using language that could be misconstrued in a Roman Catholic direction, when read within its immediate and broader literary context, he meant the language to be understood in a Protestant sense.
I recommend this book highly. I found the first, second, and fifth chapters the most beneficial. Edwards is a challenge to understand at times. While he was a Calvinist he did not hold his ministerial credentials in a confessional Reformed or Presbyterian community (yes, New England Congregationalism was confessional and Reformed in a relatively loose sense, but not in the sense that the word “confessional” has been historically used in Presbyterian circles) and so he sometimes spoke in ways I would not find comfortable. I read Edwards through the lens of a more or less Old School Presbyterian in the way that the stalwarts of Old Princeton read him. I sometimes think they got Edwards wrong but I am sympathetic with their concerns. I read Edwards through confessional lenses because I believe the confession (in my case the Westminster standards) best encapsulates Scripture’s own teaching. Where Edwards strays from the truth as expressed in the Reformed confessional and consensual tradition, I am critical. But I take the comments in Jonathan Edwards and Justification to heart as well. To use different language than the confessional tradition and to develop creative ways of articulating biblical truth is not necessarily the same as going against the confessional consensus. At the end of the day, to quote Norman Geisler (with whom I am not typically inclined to agree), “I read only one book to believe, all others to consider.”