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Eternal Justification?

Category Articles
Date January 22, 2004
[The doctrine of eternal justification, a chief tenet of Antinomian Hyper-Calvinism, is dealt a crushing blow by the Puritan John Flavel in an appendix to his Vindiciarum Vindex. Flavel rightly describes it as an attempt to fight against the free grace of God under grace’s own colours. Hence its success in deceiving the unwary. The following is a summary of his arguments against it, extracted from his general condemnation of Antinomianism. Ed.]

Flavel first concedes that the notion of justification from eternity is not as great an error as the Popish view, which depresses the righteousness of Christ and exalts inherent righteousness. He further believes that some who hold this error in their heads have the truth in their hearts, a fact which thankfully "will not suffer them to reduce their own opinions into practice."

Nevertheless, he sees it as dangerous teaching that needs to be exposed. Six of the grave errors connected with it are:

1. The elect were justified in eternity (or at the time of Christ’s death).
2. In justification the elect are persuaded of Christ’s love for them.
3. We ought no more to question our faith than to question Christ.
4. Believers should not confess sin or pray for its forgiveness, because all their sins being pardoned from eternity, they are no longer sins.
5. God sees no sin in believers, whatever sins they may commit.
6. To say that God is angry with the elect is a reflection on His justice.
These, says Flavel, are principal errors, and are "of a very dangerous nature."
Despite the whole "scope and current of Scripture" and the "experience and
practice of the saints" being against them, they nevertheless gain great sway
over people.

1. That the elect are not justified from eternity is clear, because although their justification is purposed in eternity, it is not purchased and applied until time. We are justified by Christ’s blood and by faith. (Rom. 5.9,1) The elect sinner is not freed from condemnation nor justified till he is united to Christ, which union is by faith, and takes place during the elect’s life-time. It is both irrational and unscriptural to imagine that men can be justified before they exist. God’s purpose or intention to justify them is not the same as His actually justifying them. Besides, John 3.18 expressly declares that only "he that believeth in Him (Christ) is not condemned." Furthermore, in the great chain of salvation mentioned in Romans 8.30, the elect are first predestined and called before they are justified. Lastly, it is highly derogatory to Christ to teach eternal justification, for men had to be lost before He could save them. Justification is the fruit of His meritorious death and satisfaction given to justice. Justification is not, therefore, from eternity.

2. That justifying faith is not assurance that Christ loves us is evident, because many who believe on Christ for salvation lack such assurance. This is clear both from Isaiah 50.10, which describes a child of light walking in darkness, and from the cases of Job, David, Heman and Asaph. It is receiving Christ, not being persuaded that He loves us, which entitles us to become children of God. (John 1.12) Besides, many are convinced that Christ loves them who are still unconverted. (Luke 18.9; Rev 3.17) Furthermore, this error confuses two kinds of faith that must always be kept distinct: dogmatic faith and saving faith. It is one thing to believe the proposition that God laid the iniquities of us all on Christ. It is another to rest on Christ as our Sin-bearer. The assent of the understanding is not the consent of the heart. As James says: "Thou believest there is one God, thou dost well; the devils also believe, and tremble." (2.19) Lastly, only saving faith, or cleaving to Christ, can support us when we do not know that "He died intentionally for me.”

3. That believers should never doubt or question their faith is also untrue, because examining our faith is an expressly "commanded Scripture duty." "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith" (2 Cor 13.5), "Give diligence to make your calling and election sure" (2 Pet 1.10) and "Look to yourselves, that we lose not the things which we have wrought" (2 John 8) are only a few such commands. This "snare of the devil laid for the souls of men" is all the more dangerous because it leaves no way out for them to recover from their error. "It cuts off all means of conviction or better information, and nails them fast to the carnal state in which they are." What is more, it makes the strong persuasion that we are saved as infallible as the foundation truths of Christianity. It is not enough to believe either that Christ died for sinners, or that He bore away our iniquities. Our hearts are deceitful enough to cheat us on this vital point. We must actually believe on Christ and test our faith for genuineness by the clear marks of Scripture.

4. That believers are not bound to confess their sin, nor pray for its forgiveness, because it was pardoned in eternity, and pardoned sin is no longer sin, is manifestly false, because it implies that there is no sin in believers; whereas Scripture says: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." (1 John 1.8) It also says: "There is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good and sinneth not." (Eccl. 7.20) and "In many things we offend all." (James 3.2) While it is true that the blood of Christ has removed the guilt of believers’ sin, its "stain and pollution" remains in them till glory, "even in their justified state." Indeed, there is "considerable evil" in their sins. They "greatly wrong and offend their God" (Psa 51.4) and hinder their communion with Him. (Rom. 7.21) Furthermore, God has expressly declared it to be His will that His people confess their sins before Him (1 John 1.9) and mourn for them (Isa 22.12; Matt 5.4). Paul, Ezra, Daniel and other saints, though justified, all do this. (1 Tim 1.13; Ezra 9; Dan 9)

To the objection that these sins were committed before they were justified, Flavel replies that it makes no difference when they were committed if they were all pardoned from eternity. Besides, Paul’s complaints in Romans 7 were "after he was a sanctified and justified person." In short, "the greatest favourites of heaven have freely confessed and heartily prayed for the remission of sin."

5. That God sees no sin in believers, whatever sins they commit, is false, even when claimed under the colour of Scripture. For in Numbers 23.21- "He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, nor seen perverseness in Israel", the original reads: "He hath not beheld wrong against Jacob, nor hath He seen grievance against Israel." That is, says Gataker, God did not approve of the wrongs done by others to His people. The whole context, and especially Balaam’s advice to Balak, to draw them into sin so that God would forsake them, confirms this. As for Jeremiah 50.20 – "The iniquity of Israel shall be sought for, and there shall be none; and the sins of Judah, and they shall not be found" – it means that even their sins shall not lead God to punish them forever.

Besides, God sees everything about us all, both good and evil. (Prov 15.3)
Furthermore, He is highly displeased with His people’s sins; witness David’s
adultery and murder (2 Sam 11.27) and presumptuous attendance at the Lord’s
Supper in Corinth. (1 Cor 11.32).

6. To claim that God’s anger with the elect reflects on His justice, because He has already justified them in eternity, is false, because God hates sin in them just as much as in others. Christ’s sacrifice did not abolish God’s hatred of sin in believers. It merely took away His hatred to their persons. "His hatred to their sins and love to their persons are not inconsistent." Those who would abolish God’s anger towards His people fail to distinguish between His judicial, vindicatory wrath and His paternal displeasure. Scripture everywhere speaks of Him laying the rod of chastisement on His wayward children. (Heb 12.8; Job 5.6; 2 Sam 12.9-14; Exod 4.13-14) Indeed, His children themselves acknowledge their sin as the cause of their chastisements. (Lam 3.39-40; Psa 38.3,5; Mic 7.9; Job 22.5-6) Such "fatherly correction of His saints" is fully consistent with God satisfying His justice with the blood of Christ for all their sins. (Psa 89.30-33) Christ never shed His blood to "abolish God’s displeasure against sin, in whomsoever it be found." Indeed, it would be unjust of God not to chastise His people when they sin.

We should be thankful for Flavel’s refutation of this dangerous error, for in some quarters there is a resurgence of it. Like the supralapsarianism to which it is linked, it derives not from Scripture, but from Plato, via Philo the neo-Platonist Jew and Polanus’s ‘Syntagma Theologiae Christianae’, a standard text-book among theological students after the Reformation. The Platonic archetypal theology it expresses forces Biblical truths concerning God’s way of salvation into a rigid strait-jacket that warps the way they are to be understood. Such archetypal theology belongs only to God, and is confined to the perfect knowledge He has of Himself. Into such realms we are forbidden to pry. And whenever the outcome of such prying imposes a restriction on the clear Gospel message of justification through faith in the precious blood of the only Redeemer of God’s elect, it both detracts from the free grace of God and closes the door of salvation to poor, needy souls. May we be warned. Theologians can devise subtle ways of excluding both themselves and others from the kingdom of God. There is only one answer to the momentous question: "What must I do to be saved?" It is: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ." "And by Him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses." (Acts 13.39)

Peace and Truth: The Magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union, 2004:1 With permission

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