John Owen–often regarded as the Prince of the Puritan theologians because of his prolific academic theological contributions–is best known for his works on The Glory of Christ, Communion with God, The Holy Spirit, The Mortification of Sin, Indwelling Sin, The Nature and Causes of Apostasy, and The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. However, among the many substantial contributions Owen made in the seventeenth century is his lesser known treatise on The Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone. This work stands out from other seventeenth century treatments of justification in that Owen does not approach the subject from a speculative or overly scholastic approach. Rather, he wrote it with a pastoral concern for the souls of those who read it. In the introductory section of this work, Owen set out a number of caveats–among which we find the following pastoral concern:
“We do but trouble the faith of Christians, and the peace of the true church of God, while we dispute about expressions, terms, and notions, when the substance of the doctrine intended may be declared and believed, without the knowledge, understanding, or use of any of them. Such are all those in whose subtile management the captious art of wrangling does principally consist…And every true believer, who is taught of God, knows how to put his whole trust in Christ alone, and the grace of God by him, for mercy, righteousness, and glory, and not at all concern himself with those loads of thorns and briers, which, under the names of definitions, distinctions, accurate notions, in a number of exotic pedagogical and philosophical terms, some pretend to accommodate them withal.”1
Owen was deeply concerned that overly contentious and sophisticatedly philosophical parsing of the doctrine of justification might result in the loss of “the benefit and comfort of this most precious evangelical truth.”2 This is something about which all true ministers of the gospel ought to be concerned. There is, however, another error of which we are to be aware.
It has sadly been common for the doctrine of justification by faith alone to be rejected by theologians on account of mistaken notions that a free proclamation of it leads to antinomianism. This was the contention of Roman Catholic theologians in the days of the Reformers and the Puritans. However, there can also be a functional emptying of the comfort of the doctrine of justification by faith alone that comes in the preaching of “evangelical” ministers of the gospel who have a greater zeal for the doctrine of sanctification than they do for the doctrine of justification. It is altogether possible for a minister to empty the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone of its comfort for the believer by imbalanced theological emphasis. It is possible to so emphasize the doctrine of sanctification that one gives his hearers the sense that there is no comfort in the doctrine of justification in its own right. When we do so, we have–whether we are conscious of it or not–taught our hearers that the doctrine of justification is developed or impacted by our sanctification.
To be sure, James teaches that we must prove the sincerity of justifying faith by the good works that are produced by such a living faith. However, that is altogether different from giving believers the impression that there can be no comfort for them in the doctrine of justification apart from the doctrine of sanctification. To do so is to suggest that one is justified on account of his or her sanctification. James is distinguishing between sincere believers and hypocrites–not suggesting that sanctification affects justification in anyway whatsoever. As the Apostle Paul boldly declares, “the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Though God justifies the ungodly by faith alone, He will necessarily also sanctify in Christ all those He justifies. As Owen explained, “when God justifies the ungodly, their change from personal unrighteousness and unholiness unto righteousness and holiness does necessarily and infallibly accompany it.” However, to conflate James and Paul is to lose the comfort of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Owen went on to illustrate the comfort the believer ought to have from the the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone by recalling an illustration of Anselm of Canterbury at the deathbed of congregants. Owen writes,
“There was of old a direction for the visitation of the sick, composed, as they say, by Anselm..which expresses a better sense of these things than some seem to be convinced of:
“[Anselm would ask those dying], ‘Do you believe that you cannot be saved except by the death of Christ?’ If the sick man answered, ‘Yes;’ Anselm said, ‘Then let it be said unto him. Go to, then, and while your soul abides in you, put all your confidence in this death alone, place your trust in no other thing; commit yourself wholly to this death, cover yourself wholly with this alone, cast yourself wholly on this death, wrap yourself wholly in this death.’ And if God would judge you, say, ‘Lord, I place the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between me and your judgment; and otherwise I will not contend or enter into judgment with you.’ And if He shall say unto you that you are a sinner, say, ‘I place the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between me and my sins.’ If He shall say unto you that you have deserved damnation, say, ‘Lord, I put the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between You and all my sins; and I offer His merits for my own, which I should have, and have not.’ If He say that He is angry with you, say, ‘Lord, I place the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between me and thy anger.’”3
Geerhardus Vos further helps explain how ministers can functionally deny the doctrine of justification by faith alone by failing to explicitly proclaim it. He wrote,
“There can be a disloyalty to Christ by omission as well as by positive offense against the message that he has entrusted to our keeping. It is possible, Sabbath after Sabbath and year after year, to preach things of which none can say that they are untrue and none can deny that in their proper place and time they may be important, and yet to forego giving them the distinct impression that they need forgiveness and salvation from sin through the cross of Christ.”4
If our proclamation of the doctrine of justification cannot offer the same comfort to a believer on his or her deathbed as that which is illustrated above, then we have failed to faithfully proclaim the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. The doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone puts the righteousness and merits of Christ between God and the sinner so that we can never add anything to or take anything from it.
1 John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 5 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 9–10.
3. Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 5 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 16–17.
4. Geerhardus Vos The Letters of Geerhardus Vos, ed. James Dennison (Carlisle, PA: P&R Publishing, 2006) p. 82 n. 11