From Wittenburg to London
How can an unrighteous sinner stand before a Holy God? The doctrine of justification was at the center of debates during the Reformation, with Martin Luther himself writing that, “If it is lost and perishes, the whole knowledge of truth, life, and salvation is lost and perishes at the same time.”1 Stronger yet, noted Luther, “If the doctrine of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost.”2 As the quincentennial anniversary of the Protestant Reformation approaches, a proper understanding of justification is no less important now than in Luther’s day. This essay will investigate the writings of two notable theologians that will serve as spokespersons for their respective periods. Naturally, one cannot overlook the influence Luther had on the development of the doctrine of justification in the early decades of the Reformation. Similarly, using seventeenth-century theologian Benjamin Keach as a guide to chapter XI of the Second London Confession, this essay will reveal that the early Particular Baptists embraced the Reformation understanding of justification. In particular, we will see that the Second London Confession faithfully captures heart of the Reformation teaching on justification. More importantly, the confession remains true to the biblical testimony.
The Journey from Stotternheim to London
Traveling from his parent’s home in Erfurt in 1505, Martin Luther neared the small village of Stotternheim when he found himself caught in a middle of a sudden thunderstorm. As the story goes, a lightning bolt struck nearby as he travelled along the road and in desperation Luther cried out to St. Anne: “Help me, St. Anne; I will become a monk.”3 Surviving the storm and making good on his vow, Luther joined the monastery that same year.
More than a sudden outburst, Luther’s decision to become a monk demonstrates something of the nature of medieval piety: becoming a monk offered some degree of certainty that one could escape judgement in the afterlife. While there were several understandings of justification in the late-Middle Ages, Scholastic theologians such as Thomas Aquinas and Gabriel Biel understood justification in terms of God infusing grace into sinners by which they are then able to perform meritorious acts.4 Although the laity had access to the sacraments and other forms of medieval piety in which they could amass merit, taking the monastic vows was tantamount to a “second baptism,” even replacing martyrdom as the “badge of Christian perfection.”5 Heiko Oberman described Luther’s decision to enter the monastery:
Luther was not tormented by doubts about God’s existence and he was an obedient son of the church. It was fear for his salvation that had driven him. He wanted to achieve eternal life and was filled with “fear and trembling.” … Luther did not seek the monastery as a place of meditation and study to exercise a faith he had once lacked. Nor was he looking for a sanctuary of strict morals to protect him from the immorality of the world outside. He was driven by his desire to find the merciful God.6
Despite the allure of the monastery, the tonsure and habit did not afford Luther any more certainty concerning his eternal destiny. Luther himself often spent hours at a time in the confession booth, fasted for days on end so that he could perform more pious acts to “obtain merit before God, repulse sin, and gain grace and heaven.” Likewise, incessant prayer resulted in “severe exhaustion with sleeplessness and disturbances of vision.”7 Although he had hoped that the monastic forms of piety would lead to blessedness, Luther’s zeal as a monk and concern for his salvation only led him into further despair.8 Luther knew Christ only as the judge whose holiness demanded perfect obedience to the law. Near the end of his life, Luther reflected on his time as a young monk wrestling with the words of Paul in Romans 1:17:
I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner. Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.9
Luther simply followed common medieval understanding of the righteousness of God as “the eternal law according to which He who is unattainably holy will judge all men on doomsday.”10 For Luther, no amount of monkery afforded him the assurance that he could stand on his own righteousness before a Holy God in judgment.
Despite Luther’s initial struggles with Romans 1, the same passage would eventually aid him in his “rediscovery” of the gospel. Luther described his breakthrough:
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”11
Righteousness that justifies, therefore, is a gift of God obtained through faith. With this new understanding, Luther recounted that “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”12 Oberman summed up the significance of Luther’s discovery:
Luther’s discovery was not only new, it was unheard of; it rent the very fabric of Christian ethics. Reward and merit, so long undisputed as the basic motivation for all human action, were robbed of their efficacy. Good works, which Church doctrine maintained as indispensable, were deprived of their basis in Scripture.13
Luther further developed his new understanding of righteousness in several of his writings. As he progressed in his own thinking and interacted with Roman objections to the direction of his thought, he had to learn to distinguish carefully between human right-living and the righteousness that is consistent with divine expectation. In an earlier work, Two Kinds of Righteousness (1519), Luther distinguished between “alien righteousness” and “proper righteousness.” This was a clear step in the right direction that led to rapid advance. Whereas proper righteousness concerns our good works, alien righteousness is that which meets the divine standard. Drawing from 1 Corinthians 1:30, Luther stated, “Alien righteousness is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith.”14 Instillation was not imputation, but the concept of alien righteousness, the righteousness of Christ, prepared for the next step. Bordering on the next development, Luther continued, “Everything which Christ has is ours, graciously bestowed on us unworthy men out of God’s sheer mercy, although we have rather deserved wrath and condemnation, and hell also.”15
By the next year, 1520, Luther had gained more substantial ground in his journey in conceiving the character of justification. Appealing to Romans 10:10, Luther declared in The Freedom of a Christian:
Since we are justified by faith alone it is clear that the inner person cannot be justified, freed, or saved by any external work or act, and such works, whatever they may be, have nothing to do with the inner person. … It follows that it ought to be the primary goal of every Christian to put aside confidence in works and grow stronger in the belief that we are saved by faith alone.16
When Luther wrote of “faith alone” he always had in mind the inwrought reliance on an external mercy, namely the righteousness God granted through Christ. Later in this same work he made this clear in saying that the Christian ought to think, “Although I am an unworthy and condemned person, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part. God has done this in an act of free and pure mercy so that I now need nothing except faith that trusts that it is true.”17
In his Lectures on Galatians (1535), Luther termed this righteousness “the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness.”18 While political righteousness, ceremonial righteousness, and righteousness from the law have their proper place, only Christian righteousness concerns the forgiveness of sins. For Luther, Christian righteousness therefore surpasses all others:
But this most excellent righteousness, the righteousness of faith, which God imputes to us through Christ without works, is neither political nor ceremonial nor legal nor work-righteousness but is quite the opposite; it is a merely passive righteousness, while all the others, listed above, are active. For here we work nothing, render nothing to God; we only receive and permit someone else to work in us, namely, God.19
That which he works “in us” is faith, on the basis of which he imputes to us the alien righteousness through Christ. Thus, the distinguishing mark of Christian righteous is its passive nature. Whereas the other forms mentioned follow from some active obedience, one obtains Christian righteousness only through the “free imputation and indescribable gift of God.”20 Sinners do not earn Christian righteousness, nor can they add to it by works of the law; it is a gift received through faith.
Herein lies the heart of Luther’s understanding of justification: sinners are justified on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness. “Without any merit or work of our own,” argued Luther, “we must first be justified by Christian righteousness, which has nothing to do with the righteousness of the law or with earthly and active righteousness.”21
For Luther, from Christ’s righteousness pour forth both good works and true worship: “If [justification by faith] flourishes, everything good flourishes—religion, true worship, the glory of God, and the right knowledge of all things and of all social conditions.”22 No longer the young monk angry with God, because of the merits of Christ Luther could love the God who saved him.
Heir of the Reformation:
The Second London Confession
Over a century after Luther, the seventeenth-century Particular Baptists shared the Reformer’s understanding of justification. Chapter XI, paragraph 1 in the Second London Confession states:
Those whom God Effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth, not by infusing Righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting, and accepting their Persons as Righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone, not by imputing faith it self, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their Righteousness; but by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole Law, and passive obedience in his death, for their whole and sole Righteousness, they receiving, and resting on him, and his Righteousness, by Faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.23
The confession highlights several interrelated aspects of the doctrine of justification, and the similarities to Luther are apparent. First, the confession denies that pardon for sin comes through good works or obedience to the law. In his work The Marrow of True Justification (1692), Benjamin Keach, a signee of the confession, drew from Romans 3:27 and 4:2 to disprove works as contributing to justification:
Where is boasting them? It is excluded. By what Law? Of Works? Nay, but by the Law of Faith. This Text almost in so many Words confirms this Proposition; if all boasting is excluded, all Works are excluded … If Abraham were justified by Works, he had whereof to glory, but not before God. If he had been justified by Works, he had whereof he might glory; but he had nothing to glory in before God. Therefore he was not justified by Works.”24
Additionally, Keach pointed to Philippians 3:8–9 to show that even Paul’s good works amounted to rubbish. What was needed is the perfect righteousness of the Son:
What was it Paul accounted but Dung, and gave up for Loss? … all his own Righteousness, while he was a Pharisee, and all his other external and legal Privileges, which in times past he gloried in; but now they were nothing to Him: He saw no Worth or excellency in them; but wholly threw himself on Christ, and on His Righteousness for Justification.25
Paul’s words were clear: the gospel excludes all boasting. Like Luther, Keach sought to separate grace and works as they pertain to justification: “Grace and works are directly contrary; the one to the other … There is no mixing Works and Free grace together, but one of these doth and will destroy the Nature of the other.”26 For Keach, grace no longer remained grace when coupled with good works.
If not by good works, how then is the sinner justified? As with Luther, the confession further affirms that sinners receive pardon only through Christ’s active and passive obedience imputed to them. Keach affirmed this point: “Nothing renders a Man righteous to Justification in God’s sight, but the Imputation of the perfect Personal Righteousness of Christ.”27 As the confession states, imputation includes both Christ’s active obedience in keeping the Law, as well as His passive obedience—bearing the penalty of sin in place of the sinner. According to Keach, both aspects of Christ’s obedience are at work in justification: “the Law of Works, which we had broken and by his Death made a full compensation to the Justice of God for our breach of it, whose Actual and Passive Obedience, or Righteousness, is imputed to all who believe in him.”28 Furthermore, noted Keach: “Consider the Purity of [God’s] Nature and Rectitude of his Will: His justice must be satisfied, his Law fulfilled by us, or by our Surety for us, and will not abate a tittle of that Righteousness it doth require.”29 No person can keep the law perfectly, but God is also good and merciful, continued Keach: “What we could not do in keeping perfectly the Law, he sent his Son in our Nature, as our Surety and Representative, to do it for us.30
Not only was man unable to keep the whole law, but the penalty of sin required an infinite sacrifice:
Nothing more frequently doth the Scripture testify than that the Passion and Death of Christ was a full and perfect Satisfaction for Sins … God doth indeed not accept, as a true Satisfaction for Sin, any Justice but that which is infinite, because sin is an infinite Offence.31
Satisfaction, therefore, must come from “the Sufferings of Christ and his Righteousness only.”32 Only Christ’s death, blood and merits, emphasized Keach, can “discharge us from Sin and Condemnation.”33
Finally, the confession affirms that sinners obtain Christ’s righteousness through faith. Keach criticized his Arminian opponents who “exalt Man’s Works, and therefore affirm, that he is Justified, not by Christ’s righteousness, but by his own Faith … Faith is that righteousness for which we are justified before God.”34 The Arminians, noted Keach, “do not own Faith to be the Gift of God, or a Grace of the Holy Spirit,” and as such they make their own faith into a justifying work. For Keach, the Arminian view shifts the basis of justification from its proper object, Christ, and places it on the work of the Creature. Justification by faith alone stands in contrast to Man’s natural reason, for it desires to couple faith with obedience and holiness.35 Keach stressed that this doctrine, though not in contradiction to reason, does stand above it: “Certainly the Justification of a Sinner in the sight of God by Faith only, or to believe on him that justifies the Ungodly, is one of the chief Mysteries of the Gospel”36 To secure justification by works, argued Keach, would strip salvation of its mystery. Keach continued:
Justification is a great Mystery. Tis an act of God’s Sovereign Grace and Wisdom: Herein his Justice and Mercy equally shine forth, and the one doth not eclipse the Glory of the other; Sin is punished, and the Sinner acquitted.37
Keach aptly concludes with an appeal to all trusting in their own righteousness:
Is there any Sinner here? Are you ungodly, and in a wretched Condition (in your own eyes)? Are you weary and heavy Laden? Come to Christ, lift up your Heads: For him that worketh not; but believeth on him that justifies the Ungodly, his Faith is counted for Righteousness.38
Conclusion: Beyond the 500th Anniversary
As the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation looms, there remains a pressing need for sound teaching on the doctrine of justification. Luther himself warned about abandoning the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith alone: “There is a clear and present danger that the devil may take away from us the pure doctrine of faith and may substitute for it the doctrines of works and if human traditions.”39 Contemporary challenges to the doctrine of justification underscore the perpetual need for clear, evangelical statements like that found in the Second London Confession. A recent Pew Research study indicates that, even its most charitable interpretation of the data, confusion exists among many Protestants on this most-important doctrine.40 Additionally, attempts to reconcile remaining differences between Catholics and Protestants such as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) come at the expense of the Reformers’ teaching on the issue.41 Echoing Luther, Keach evaluated the dire situation of his own day: “The Times are perilous, the Devil is endeavoring to strike at the Root, even at the Foundation itself, beware lest you are deceived and carried away by the poisonous and abominable Doctrines.”42 Looking beyond the 500th anniversary, may we also take heed of Keach’s words:
Let me exhort you all to stand fast in that precious Faith you have received; particularly about this great Doctrine of Justification, give your selves to Prayer, and to the due and careful study of God’s Word.43
1 Luther, Lectures on Galatians, in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 3rd ed., ed. Timothy Lull and William R. Russell (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 86.
2 Luther, Lectures on Galatians, 90.
3 See Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 92.
4 Though not without differences amongst the Scholastics themselves. For a more extensive analysis, see Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: B & H Press, 2013), 63–74. See also Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform (1250–1550): An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 22–42.
5 See Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform (1250–1550): An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 85.
6 Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, 127.
7 See Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, 1st English Language ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishing, 1985), 65–67.
8 Brecht, Martin Luther, 70.
9 Martin Luther, Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings, in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 3rd ed., ed. Timothy Lull and William R. Russell (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 496–497.
10 Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, 152.
11 Luther, Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings, 497.
13 Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, 154.
14 Luther, Two Kinds of Righteousness, in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 3rd ed., ed. Timothy Lull and William R. Russell (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 119.
15 Luther, Two Kinds of Righteousness, 120.
16 Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 3rd ed., ed. Timothy Lull and William R. Russell (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 406.
17 Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, 420.
18 Luther, Lectures on Galatians, 87.
20 Ibid., 88.
21 Ibid., 89.
22 Ibid., 86.
23 William L. Lumpkin and Bill J. Leonard, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 2nd revised ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2011), 255.
24 Benjamin Keach, The Marrow of True Justification (Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007), 54.
25 Ibid., 55.
26 Ibid., 58.
27 Ibid., 31.
28 Ibid., 39.
29 Ibid., 67.
30 Ibid., 67; c.f. Romans 8:3.
31 Keach, The Marrow of True Justification, 81.
32 Ibid., 81.
33 Ibid., 81.
34 Ibid., 35.
35 Ibid., 68–69.
36 Ibid., 70.
37 Ibid., 70.
38 Ibid., 95; c.f. Romans 4:5.
39 Luther, Lectures on Galatians, 86.
40 See here.
41 For the statement, see here. For a helpful critique of the declaration, see Gerald Bray and Paul Gardner, “The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” The Churchman 115 (Summer 2001): 110–127.
42 Keach, Marrow of True Justification, 18.
43 Ibid. Justification, 51.