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Justification Vindicated

Category Articles
Date July 11, 2006

The Banner of Truth has reprinted Robert Traill’s Justification Vindicated (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002, xii, Puritan Paperback Series). It would be understandable if a reader of Justification Vindicated were to conclude that this book had been written only quite recently, for in it Scottish Presbyterian Pastor Robert Traill was responding to the rise of alarming new views on justification within the Presbyterian and Reformed community that seemed to run contrary to what he rightly described as “the good old Protestant doctrine” of justification by faith alone. These “new” views will be eerily familiar to observers of some contemporary movements in Presbyterian and Reformed thought with their repudiation of the active obedience of Christ as a vital component in the biblical doctrine of justification, their emphasis on the necessity of the holiness and obedience of the believer in order to be justified, and their criticism of those who hold to the older view of justification by faith alone as ‘antinomians.’

Traill (1642-1716) however, was not writing for today’s readers. His book, which originally appeared in 1692, was written to outline and respond to an alarming decline in the beliefs of English Presbyterians regarding the doctrine of justification in his own time. Its enduring value to modern readers lies not only in the fact that Traill’s defense of the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone is as edifying and instructive as it was when it was written over 300 years ago, but also in the fact that many of the issues in contention regarding justification in his day have resurfaced in contemporary debates. For instance, the neonomian view of justification espoused by Traill’s contemporary, Richard Baxter, has many similarities with the views of modern neonomians, such as Norman Shepherd. Therefore, it is not going too far to say that if a reader is well acquainted with the justification controversy as it existed in Traill’s day, he will be better equipped to understand and deal with the errors of the 21st century.

At only seventy-seven pages in length in the Banner of Truth paperback edition, it is difficult to think of a book length examination of the doctrine of justification that is as succinct and easy to follow as Justification Vindicated. Buchanan’s magisterial work, The Doctrine of Justification, may be more comprehensive, and indeed readers whose appetites are whetted to learn more about justification by faith alone would be well advised to tackle that work as well; but those wishing an introduction to the doctrine and the ways in which it can be and often is misunderstood would be well advised to start with Justification Vindicated

Why is maintaining and defending the biblical doctrine of justification so important? Traill answers that question by pointing out that justification is the keystone in the arch of all Christian doctrine (Traill, 67):

“All the great fundamentals of Christian truth centre in this of justification. The Trinity of persons in the Godhead; the incarnation of the only begotten of the Father; the satisfaction paid to the law and justice of God, for the sins of the world, by his obedience and sacrifice of himself in that flesh he assumed; and the divine authority of the scriptures, which reveal all this, are all straight lines of truth that centre in this doctrine of the justification of a sinner by the imputation and application of that satisfaction. There can be no justification without a righteousness; no righteousness can be but what answers fully and perfectly the holy law of God; no such righteousness can be performed but by a divine person; no benefit can accrue to a sinner by it unless it be some way his, and applied to him; no application can be made of this but by faith in Jesus Christ. And as the connection with, and dependence of this truth upon the other great mysteries of divine truth is evident in the plain proposal of it, so the same has been sadly manifest in this, that the forsaking of the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ’s righteousness, has been the first step of apostasy in many, who have not flopped till they revolted from Christianity itself.”

Traill was by no means alone in his convictions regarding the centrality of justification by faith alone to true Christianity. One of his contemporaries on the continent, the Dutch Puritan Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635-1711) wrote:

“Justification is the soul of Christianity and the fountainhead of all true comfort and sanctification. He who errs in this doctrine errs to his eternal destruction. The devil is therefore continually engaged in denying, perverting, and obscuring the truth expressed in this chapter and, if he does not accomplish this, to prevent exercise concerning this truth. When new errors appear on the horizon, even when they initially do not pertain to justification at all, they in time will eventually culminate in affecting this doctrine. One must therefore be all the more earnest to properly understand, defend, and meditate upon this doctrine” (Brakel. Vol. 2. p.341)

Traill was also quite prescient in his conclusion that if the English Presbyterians persisted in their denial of the necessity of Christ’s righteousness to justification, they would inevitably become Arminian and from there it was but an easy step to Socinianism, a development which sadly occurred as the majority of English Presbyterians ended up becoming Unitarian in their theology.

In Justification Vindicated, therefore, Traill sets out from the very beginning not only to defend the true doctrine of justification from the unjust charge of Antinomianism, but also to defend the absolute necessity of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer for justification. As a “guiding principle” Traill gives us the following definition of justification (Traill, 9):

“That a law-condemned sinner is freely justified by God’s grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ; that he is justified only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to him by God of his free grace, and received by faith alone as an instrument; which faith is the gift of the same grace.”

Traill goes on to state that those who were most zealous to defend the concept that justification is entirely founded on the imputation of the righteousness of Christ and does not depend in any sense the works of the believer, nevertheless also maintained that those who are truly justified will inevitably manifest holiness and good works. By doing so, Traill shows that the link between justification and sanctification is inseparable, but is never to be confounded. The good works of the believer are the “fruits” of justification, and as such they are an evidence of a lively faith, but are never in any sense the grounds of a believer’s salvation.

Indeed, Traill is zealous to point out the differences between the evangelical doctrine of justification and the new scheme regarding the place of the works of believers. He denies, for instance, the mixing of faith with the obedience of believers, holding fast to the idea that faith is the “hand or instrument, receiving the righteousness of Christ, for which only we are justified” rather than the belief held by many in his day of “faith’s justifying as it is the spring of sincere obedience” (Traill, 15, 57).

This idea of the mixing of faith and evangelical obedience as the grounds of salvation, was not only a problem for the “new schemers” of Traill’s day; many modern theologians who hold to some form of what is often called “Covenant Nomism” have posited the necessity of the believer’s obedience for salvation or final justification. One such clear example of this tendency to confuse faith with obedience can be found in the twenty-third thesis of Norman Shepherd’s 34 Theses on Justification which was presented to the Presbytery of Philadelphia of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church November 18, 1978, Thesis #23:

“Because faith which is not obedient faith is dead faith, and because repentance is necessary for the pardon of sin included in justification, and because abiding in Christ by keeping his commandments (John 15:5; 10; I John 3:13; 24) are all necessary for continuing in the state of justification, good works, works done from true faith, according to the law of God, and for his glory, being the new obedience wrought by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer united to Christ, though not the ground of his justification, are nevertheless necessary for salvation from eternal condemnation and therefore for justification (Rom. 6:16, 22; Gal. 6:7-9).”

Shepherd is not the only contemporary advocate of a new scheme of justification who includes “sincere obedience” as a vital part of the faith that justifies. This tendency is also seen throughout the works of those who advocate a “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP) and the biblical doctrine of justification. N.T. Wright for instance has written:

“Faith and obedience are not antithetical. They belong exactly together. Indeed, very often the word ‘faith’ itself could properly be translated as ‘faithfulness:’ which makes the point just as well.” (What Paul Really Said, Eerdmans, 1997. p.160).

Traill, no doubt would have seen the above definitions of faith as very similar to the defective definitions in vogue amongst late 17th century Presbyterians of which he said (Traill, 12): “Instead of justification by perfect obedience, we are now to be justified by our own evangelical righteousness, made up of faith, repentance, and sincere obedience.”

One of Traill’s central purposes in writing Justification Vindicated was to prove that any patchwork of our own righteousness and Christ’s, whether it be proposed as part of the popular Neonomianism of Traill’s age or the Covenant Nomism of our own, could never justify or save any man. Traill firmly believed that the very antithesis that NT. Wright denies in the above quote lay at the heart of the biblical gospel. Simply put, justification and therefore salvation is either all of Christ or it is no justification at all. As Trail put it so very eloquently (Traill, 69-70):

“It is also true that whatever variety and differences there are in men’s notions and opinions (and there is a great deal) about justification, they are all certainly reducible to two; one of which is every man’s opinion. And they are, that the justification of a sinner before God, is either on the account of a righteousness in and of ourselves, or on the account of a righteousness in another, even Jesus Christ, who is “Jehovah our righteousness.” Law and gospel, faith and works, Christ’s righteousness and our own, grace and debt, do equally divide all in this matter. Crafty men may endeavour to blend and mix these things together in justification, but it is a vain attempt. It is not only most expressly rejected in the gospel, which peremptorily determines the contrariety, inconsistency, and incompatibility between these two; but the nature of the things in themselves, and the sense and conscience of every serious person, witness to the same thing, that our own righteousness, and Christ’s righteousness, do comprehend all the pleas of men to justification – one or other of them every man in the world stands upon – and that they are inconsistent with, and destructive one of another, in justification.

“If a man trusts to his own righteousness, he rejects Christ’s; if he trusts to Christ’s righteousness, he rejects his own. If he will not reject his own righteousness, as too good to be renounced, if he will not venture on Christ’s righteousness, as not sufficient alone to bear him out, and bring him safe off at God’s bar, he is in both a convicted unbeliever. And if he endeavour to patch up a righteousness before God, made up of both, he is still under the law, and a despiser of gospel-grace (Gal. 2:21). That righteousness that justifies a sinner, consuls in aliquo indivisibili, and this every man finds when the case is his own, and he serious about it.”

Let us hope that in our own time, theologians in the mold of Traill will arise once again to strive for and vindicate the “Good Old Protestant doctrine” of justification from its enemies, for certainly the warning Traill sounded regarding the controversy over justification is just as true of the current situation (Traill, 50):

“Lastly, We complain, that the scheme of the gospel contended for by our opposers, is clouded, veiled, and darkened by school terms; new, uncouth, and unscriptural phrases; whereby as they think to guard themselves against opposition, so they do increase the jealousies of their brethren, and keep their principles from the knowledge of ordinary people, who are as much concerned in those points as any scholar or divine.

“This controversy looks like a very bad omen. We thought we might have healed our old breaches, in smaller things; and, behold, a new one is threatened in the greatest matters. We did hope, that the good old Protestant doctrine had been rooted and riveted in the hearts of all the ministers on our side; but now we find the contrary, and that the sour leaven of Arminianism works strongly. Their advocates do not yet own the name; but the younger sort are more bold and free: and with them no books or authors are in esteem and use, but such as are for the new rational method of divinity . . .

“It is undoubted that the devil designs the obstructing of the course of the gospel; and in this he has often had the service of the tongues and pens of good men, as well as of bad. Yet we are not without hope, that the Lord, in his wisdom and mercy, will defeat him; and that these contentions may yet have good fruit and a good issue…”

Reprinted by permission from the Confessional Presbyterian, 1, 2005, pp.158-161).

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