September 12, 2007

Hans Boersma on Justification in John Owen (1616–1683)

Justification before Faith: Several Views

John Owen

Ius ad rem and ius in re

It would be misleading to argue that there is one standard Calvinist doctrine of justification to which Baxter reacts.246 Not all of Baxter’s opponents held to justification before faith. Furthermore, the ensuing discussion will make clear that there were also varying shades of opinion among those who did accept this particular position. Despite these differences, however, there are common elements in the positions that will be outlined below: none of them restricts justification to an act of God which follows faith. All of the views under discussion place at least some aspect of justification prior to faith. The result is that justification by faith is interpreted as the enjoyment of something which was, at least in a sense, already present prior to faith. For a clearer picture of the type of doctrine which Baxter opposes in his rejection of the view that justification precedes faith it is necessary to study the views of Baxter’s opponents in more detail.

Baxter’s most notable antagonist was John Owen. Much of the controversy between Baxter and Owen concerns the immediate benefits of the atonement. In his Death of Death (1647) Owen – in line with Pemble and Twisse – objects to the idea that Christ purchased “not salvation, but salvability."247 To maintain the immediate procurement of the benefits of the covenant, Owen distinguishes between stipulations about the future that are sub conditione and those that are sub termino.248 In the former case, the future event is uncertain; in the latter, it is certain. Having defined the nature of a condition in such a way as to imply uncertainty, Owen concludes that “it oppugns the whole nature of the Deity, and overthrows the properties thereof, immediately and directly.”249 Owen does acknowledge that the benefits of Christ’s death are not received without some intervention of time. They are granted sub termino. The reason for the delay is that Christ’s death is not a physical cause. If it were a physical cause it would immediately bring about its effect. Since Christ’s death is a moral cause, however, a law or covenant intervenes between the sacrifice and the enjoyment of the benefits.250

The use of the distinction between moral and physical causes enables Owen to maintain a temporal distance between Christ’s procuring the benefits and his actual granting of them. Owen can now make an analogous temporal distance between ius ad rem and ius in re.251 The former is a right to be enjoyed in due time; the latter means the present possession of that to which one already has a right. A man who has an estate has a ius in re. The son, however, will enjoy this estate only upon the father’s death, though he has a present ius ad rem.252 Owen maintains that Christ’s death has procured an ipso facto delivery from the curse.253 This delivery gives the elect a right to justification or ius ad rem.

Justification As Terminating in Conscience

It is only a small step from the assertion that Christ has procured an ipso facto delivery from the curse to the statement that justification by faith is only the process of becoming conscious of one’s justification. It has been stated in Owen’s defense that he categorically denies adhering either to justification from eternity or to a justification which is only in foro conscientiae.254 To some extent, such a defense is justified. Owen explicitly disavows justification from eternity and also argues that justification is not only in conscience.255 While full justice must be done to Owen on this point, it cannot be denied that there is, at the very least, some tension in his thinking. As Gavin McGrath suggests:
There was, however, a modicum of contradiction in Owen’s thought: on one hand, he insisted that the death of Christ merited ipso facto the justification of the elect, his death was a cause independent from the faith and repentance, for the truest sense a person was not justified before personal faith.256
The tension in Owen’s thought can be put in even sharper terms. Owen not only suggests that Christ’s death merited justification ipso facto, but he goes as far as to suggest that the elect thereby acquired a right to justification.

What is more, while Owen does not hold that justification was in foro conscientiae alone, this is definitely an essential part of justification. Owen suggests rhetorically “whether 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…”257 Thus, justification is a process. It begins prior to faith and is terminated or completed in the conscience.258 Owen thinks that this absolution prior to faith may be the justification of the ungodly (Rom. 4:5).259

Owen bases the ius ad rem not only on Christ’s purchase, but ultimately on the covenant of redemption between God and Christ.260 Baxter is correct in stating in Owen’s own words:
One learned man <i.e., Owen> saith, that, Absolution in heaven, and Justification differ as part and whole; and that Justification is terminated in conscience; and so makes a longer work of Justification, then they that say it is simul & semel; or, then I whom Mr. Crandon blames for it …261
For Owen, justification begins with the pactum salutis between God and Christ and with Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Baxter is therefore correct in suggesting that justification from eternity is not far removed from Owen’s thinking. The ius ad rem is procured for the elect on the twofold basis of the covenant of redemption and Christ’s death. This right to justification is a benefit which follows immediately upon the sacrifice.

Justification and Union with Christ

Owen appears to base the ius ad rem on the covenant of redemption and the atonement. Elsewhere, however, he links the ius ad rem to union with Christ. As C. F. Allison observes:
A sinner in justification becomes truly righteous as he becomes a member of Christ whose righteousness is thereupon imputed to him in such a union. A justified person is truly righteous, then, because he is in Christ. Owen places more explicit emphasis on this union with Christ than even Downame does, and perhaps more than anyone of the period with the exception of John Donne.262
Owen is of the opinion that a person is truly righteous in Christ. Strictly speaking, therefore, it is no longer forensic righteousness. The question must be raised whether such a concept of mystical union is compatible with the idea that payment is not made by the debtor but by Christ.263 Does Owen’s concept of mystical union still allow for such a differentiation between the person of Christ and the person united to him? Owen makes some strong statements regarding man’s right to justification: “Where merit intercedes, the effect is reckoned as of debt; that which is my due debt I have a right unto… They, then, who are under merit have also a right unto that whereof it is the merit.”264 Owen bases this right on the union with Christ. He states that Christ is “their <i.e., those "under merit"> surety, doing that whereby he merited only on their behalf, yea, in their stead, they dying with him…”265

On the one hand, Owen insists that it is the covenant of redemption and the death of Christ which give the ius ad rem. On the other hand, he also argues that union with Christ gives the ius ad rem. These two positions are incompatible.266 It is not difficult to see why Owen comes to this confused position. It originates from a combination of two irreconcilable thought patterns. He wants to do justice both to the immediacy, the absolute character, of Christ’s benefits – which demands a ius ad rem at the time of Christ’s sacrificial death – and to the fact that “no blessing can be given us for Christ’s sake, unless, in order of nature, Christ be first reckoned unto us.”267 When, on one occasion, Owen links up the ius ad rem with the pactum salutis and the atonement, and, on another occasion, with union with Christ, this illustrates that he has ultimately not succeeded in separating the ius ad rem from the ius ad re. Having isolated the ius ad rem he is uncertain as to its proper position in the process of justification.

Owen maintains that it is the “ungodly” who are united to Christ.268 The ungodly are united to Christ prior to faith. It is true, Owen admits that “Christ is ours before and after believing in a different sense.”269 But what exactly is lacking prior to faith? It is God’s act of pardoning mercy which is to be “completed in the conscience.” It is the “hearts persuasion” regarding God’s promise. It is “the soul’s rolling itself upon Christ.”270 These are all descriptions of assurance of faith. It seems that only assurance is lacking before faith. This implies a far-reaching identification of faith and assurance.271 Once faith, or assurance, has been given justification is complete. Owen maintains that the elect do not have union with Christ before faith, even though justification is not yet complete at this time.

The following process of justification emerges from Owen’s argument:

Justification is based on the pactum salutis and the purchase of Christ. Because these give the actual right to justification, they must be included in the process of justification. Following Christ’s atoning death comes union with Christ, which preceeds faith. The right to justification is also connected to this union with Christ. Finally, justification is terminated or completed in the conscience, when one attains assurance of faith.
246. Iain Murray, for instance, is inaccurate when he states that "with respect to the great doctrines of salvation" the theology of the Puritans "was united, cohesive and homogeneous," and that Baxter is the "one outstanding exception" ("Richard Baxter-' The Reluctant Puritan'?" in Advancing in Adverisity, Proc. of the Westminster Conference, 1991 [Thornton Heath, Surrey: Westminster Conference, (1992)], pp. 7-8).
247. Owen, Death of Death (1647), in Works 10.207.
248. Owen, Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.465.
249. Owen, Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.465.
250. Owen, Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.459, 472. Owen may seem to contradict himself when he speaks of the immediate effects of Christ's death as a moral cause. On the one hand, he states: "Moral causes do never immediately actuate their own effects, nor have any immediate influence into them" (p. 459). On the other hand, he says: "By the death of Christ we are immediately delivered from death with that immediation which is proper to the efficiency of causes which produce their effects by the way of moral procurement" (p. 472). What Owen likely means, is that Christ's death is not immediate in a temporal sense: its benefits are only enjoyed sub termino, once the new law or covenant has taken effect and is interposed. Christ's death is immediate in a logical sense: the enjoyment of its benefits is not dependent on the uncertain fulfillment of another cause, as would be the case if the benefits would be granted sub conditione.
251. Owen, Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.466, 476. Cf. p. 478; Vindiciae Evangelicae, in Works 12.607, 610.
252. Owen, Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.466.
253. Owen, Death of Death, in Works 10.268; Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.474-75. J.I. Packer's description of the Calvinist view on redemption may serve as an description of Owen's insight: "Christ did not win a hypothetical salvation for hypothetical believers, a mere possibility of salvation for any who might possibly believe, but a real salvation for his own chosen people. His precious blood really does 'save us all'; the intended effects of his self-offering do in fact follow, just because the cross was what it was. Its saving power does not depend on faith being added to it; its saving power is such that faith flows from it. The cross secured the full salvation of all for whom Christ died" ("Saved by His Precious Blood'," pp. 133-34.). To regard this viewpoint as the general Calvinistic stand seems to me an overstatement since it does not do justice to the variety of opinion within Calvinistic thought.
254. Allison, Rise of Moralism, p. 174; Wallace, "Life and Thought of John Owen," pp. 283-85; Wallace, Puritans and Predestination, p. 146; Daniel, "Hyper-Calvinism and John Gill," p. 319.
255. Owen, Death of Death, in Works 10.276-77; Vindiciae Evangelicae, in Works 12.592, 596, 601-04.
256. McGrath, "Puritans and the Human Will," p. 264.
257. Owen, Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.470.
258. Owen states explicitly: "Neither yet do I hence assert complete justification to be before believing. Absolution in heaven, and justification, differ as part and whole" (Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.470).
259. Owen, Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.470.
260. Owen, Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.477. Bass draws attention to the important place of the pactum salutis as the basis of Owen's soteriology ("Theology of John Owen," pp. 38-39; Bass, "Platonic Influences," pp. 106-09). Bass suggests that Owen's idea of a covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son stems from his reading of Platonic literature: "His thinking of the covenant was tempered more by the vertical ladder of ascent and descent than in a horizontal development of the covenants of Jehovah who was progressively revealing himself through the course of an eschatological history" (p. 109). Bass correctly draws attention to the importance of the covenant of redemption for Owen's theology. He provides no proof, however, for his assertion that Platonic influences lie at the basis of this concept in Owen.
261. Baxter, Confession, pp. 190-91. Baxter gives here a direct quotation of Owen (cf. above, n. 258). Cf. Confession, p. 218.
262. Allison, Rise of Moralism, p. 175. Union with Christ is a central theme in Owen's theology. Cf. Owen, Discourse concerning the Holy Spirit (1674), in Works 3.463-67, 478, 516-18; 4.383-86; Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.468-71; Doctrine of the Saints Perseverance (1654), in Works 11.336-41; Duty of Pastors and People Distinguished (1644), in Works 13.22-22; R.W. De Koeyer, "Pneumatologia: Een onderzoek naar de leer van de Heilige Geest bij de puritein John Owen (1616-1683)," ThRef, 34 (1991), 244; Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life, pp. 32-36; B. Loonstra, Verkiezing - verzoening - verbond: Beschrijving en beoordeling van de leer van het pactum salutis in de gereformeerde theologie, Diss. Utrecht 1990 (The Hague: Boekencentrum, 1990), p. 106; Wallace, Puritans and Predestination, pp. 154-55. For a discussion of Owen's views on union with Christ in the context of communion with Christ, see Jonathan Jong-Chun Won, "Communion with Christ: An Exposition and Comparison of the Doctrine of Union and Communion with Christ in Calvin and the English Puritans," Diss. Westminster Theological Seminary 1989, pp. 258-91.
263. Baxter is fearful that a high Calvinist view of imputation leads to the idea that we merit our own justification (cf. below, pp. 236-37).
264. Owen, Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.468.
265. Owen, Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.468. Cf. Duty of Pastors and People Distinguished, in Works 13.23.
266. Owen clearly sees the atonement and union with Christ as temporally separate. Union with Christ takes place when the Holy Spirit is first given in regeneration (Discourse concerning the Holy Spirit, in Works 3.464, 478, 516-17; Doctrine of the Saints Perseverance, in Works 11.337). Cf. Baxter's comment: "If we are Absolved, Pardoned, Justified, and have Right to heaven from eternity, or before Faith, then we have all these before we in Christ, or joyned or united to Christ, or are made his members. But the Consequent is false: therefore so is the Antecedent" (Confession, p. 283).
267. Owen, Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.469. Christ had obtained a right for Peter, though he only received Christ and faith when "the term was expired" (pp. 469-70).
268. Owen, Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.470.
269. Owen, Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.470.
270. Owen, Of the Death of Christ, in Works 10.470.
271. This view is supported by Beeke's careful analysis of Owen's views on assurance. (Joel R. Beeke, "Personal Assurance of Faith: English Puritanism and the Dutch 'Nadere Reformatie:' From Westminster to Alexander Comrie (1640-1760)," Diss. Westminster Theological Seminary 1988, pp. 177-263; and in Joel R. Beeke, Assurance of Faith: Calvin, English Puritanism, and the Dutch Second Reformation, American University Studies: Theology and Religion, 89 [New York: Lang, 1991], pp. 213-80. Beeke's 1991 publication is a revised form of his earlier dissertation.) Beeke argues that in an earlier stage Owen held that "assurance is part and parcel of faith" (Assurance of Faith, pp. 213-14). The shift away from this close identification of faith and assurance is noted first in Owen's Doctrine of the Saints' Perseverance (1654; Assurance of Faith, p. 219).
Hans Boersma, A Hot Pepper Corn: Richard Baxter's Doctrine of Justification in Its Seventeenth-Century Context of Controversy (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2004), 103–108. This work is based on the author's doctoral dissertation (Th.D.) at the State Univ. of Utrect, 1993.

No comments: