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James Fraser of Alness (2)

Category Articles
Date July 20, 2010

The first section of this paper, given at the Theological Conference of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in 2008, dealt with ‘James Fraser, the Man’, and can be found here. The third and final part – ‘James Fraser as preacher and on Preaching’ – can be found here.1

2. His Magnum Opus

The great work for which Fraser is known today was given the following lengthy and explanatory title typical of the eighteenth century: The Scripture Doctrine of Sanctification; being a critical explanation and paraphrase of the sixth and seventh chapters of the Epistle to the Romans and the first four verses of the eighth chapter. Wherein the true scope and sense of that most important and much disputed context is cleared and asserted, against the false interpretations of Grotius, Hammond, Locke, Whitby, Taylor, Alexander, &c. With a Large Appendix wherein the Apostle’s Doctrine, Principles, and Reasoning, are applied to the Purposes of Holy Practice, and of Evangelical Preaching. In more recent editions it has become known as A Treatise on Sanctification.2

This work was first published five years after the author’s death. He had completed its preparation for the press in July 1769. It was highly commended in a prefatory note by John Erskine of Old Greyfriars, Edinburgh, who was the leading Evangelical minister in the Church of Scotland in the latter part of the eighteenth century and whose strong opposition to John Wesley, especially on account of his doctrine of Christian perfection, is credited with restricting Wesley’s influence north of the border. Donald Sage, not inclined to exaggerate his praises, described the work as ‘one of the profoundest theological treatises ever written on “Sanctification”‘.3

Alexander Fraser said of it:

His distinguished abilities as a sacred critic appear in the following treatise, from the strong and masterly manner in which he has examined and refuted some of the most eminent Socinian and Arminian commentators. The judicious reader will easily see that the author’s understanding was quick, clear and penetrating, his judgement solid, and his learning very extensive.

John Macleod describes it as ‘one of the classics of our Scottish Theology’, ‘a very thorough discussion’, by one ‘who shows himself a very solid and sensible interpreter and in his statement of doctrine a judicious and masterly divine’.4 Dr Kennedy thought that Fraser’s

work on sanctification gives the most satisfactory explanation of that difficult portion of Scripture expounded in it which has yet been produced. For exact analysis, polemical skill and wise practical application of the truth, there are very few works which excel it.5

Robert Haldane, in his own Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans, refers in his comments on Romans 7 to Mr Fraser’s ‘excellent exposition of this chapter, in his work On Sanctification. In a footnote he writes:

A man of God so deeply acquainted with the human heart, and so advanced in the divine life as this writer evidently was, is a much better judge of the import of this chapter than a mere critic, however distinguished for talents and learning. To eminent godliness, Mr Fraser added profound penetration and remarkable discrimination – qualities in which many critics, who attempt to expound the Scripture, are greatly deficient.

John Murray, in his Commentary on Romans, asserts that ‘one of the ablest and most thorough treatments of the question and of the considerations in support of the view that Paul is describing his experience in a state of grace is that by James Fraser’. More recently Sinclair Ferguson, who does not follow Fraser fully, has commended it as ‘a valuable work by a remarkable man’ and thinks that in this area he is ‘both clearer and more satisfactory even than Calvin’.

The volume is basically an exposition of Romans 6:1-8:4. The author controverts interpretations of the passage which gave a foundation to the legalism of the Moderate pulpit and he also provides a positive exegesis and application. Some may be put off by references to philosophers and theologians previously unknown, but it would be a mistake to think with John Macleod that, in criticising John Locke’s exposition of the Epistle, for example, ‘he deals with what is now an extinct volcano’. Dr Ferguson is nearer the mark when he suggests that ‘on a second reading, these discussions may prove to be of considerable interest, and those familiar with the various exegetical positions adopted in later commentaries on Romans 6 and 7 will be fascinated to see them appear in an earlier guise!’

‘On a second reading’ makes the valid point that initially one can skip the controversial passages, which are quite distinguishable, and concentrate on the positive exposition. The controversial sections demonstrate the extensive and careful work and learning which went into Fraser’s study of the Scriptures behind the scenes, and the positive exposition demonstrates the character of the teaching given by him in the pulpit.

Hugh Ross, a native of Alness, was brought to a knowledge of the truth when 15 under Fraser’s preaching and lived in his old age in Resolis during Donald Sage’s early ministry there. Sage read to him some part of this book without telling him what book it was. Ross became quite excited and, when asked, explained:

I do not know what book it is; but this I know, that 70 years ago I heard these sentiments on that passage delivered by Mr James Fraser, when lecturing on Romans, and they are as fresh in my memory as when I heard them from his lips.6

John Locke (1632-1704), the English philosopher regarded as the founder of empiricism, the doctrine that all knowledge is derived from experience, also wrote expositions of Bible books. The principle which he professed was that verses should not be taken in isolation as proofs for doctrines but should be read in their contexts. That principle was strongly affirmed and practised by Fraser, but his complaint was that Locke himself did not adhere to it.

In the Introduction to his Treatise Fraser writes:

It is of great consequence in interpretation to discover and observe carefully the general scope and purpose of a writer, and of his argument. When this is justly conceived and understood, it serves in a great measure as a key in interpreting particular passages that might otherwise be ambiguous or dark. But when the general scope is mistaken, through the influence of prejudice against the truth, or of an hypothesis and preconceived opinion possessing the mind, this often occasions a forced and unnatural interpretation of particular passages, and giving meanings to particular expressions that are not agreeable to Scripture use, or to the use of speech otherwise, or to the real scope of the writer, and of his argument. I cannot help thinking that this hath, in some degree, happened to the celebrated Mr Locke.

Locke’s idea was that chapters 5 and 6 described the heathen state from which the Gentile Christians were delivered and chapter 7 the state of bondage to the ceremonial law from which the Jewish Christians were delivered. ‘This notion of his’, Fraser goes on, ‘appears to have brought him under great disadvantage in interpretation; and an ill superstructure has been raised upon it. It is therefore needful that I give the reasons why I cannot fall in with it, and show it not to be well founded.’ Locke was not interpreting Paul by Paul but subjecting his teaching to reason uninformed by Scripture as a whole.

Fraser sets out to show from the context of the Epistle and from the meaning of the terms used that these chapters apply to Jews and Gentiles. He makes the general assertion

that the Apostle’s subject is sanctification, and the freedom from the reign and dominion of sin that is necessary in sanctification, and in order to the true practice of holiness. As he had asserted and explained a doctrine of justification common to Christians of the Jews and of the Gentiles, we have cause to think, from a general view, that his doctrines and explications concerning sanctification have an equal respect to Christians of both sorts – to all Christians.

Although some of Locke’s ideas stimulated the thought of orthodox divines, his claim to discard accepted interpretations of Scripture from regard to Scripture as a whole, while actually substituting carnal reason for submission to the mind of the Spirit in Scripture, was used by liberal theologians to found their own attacks on doctrines basic to biblical theology. This was Fraser’s concern, and one of his chief targets in this respect was John Taylor of Norwich (1694-1761), a dissenting divine noted for his attacks on the Reformed doctrines of original sin and the atonement particularly. Taylor denied that the principle of sin, with all its various lusts, possessed and influenced every man’s faculties and powers (p 55). He also ‘held that Christ did not undergo the punishment of our sins in order to redeem us from punishment for our sins, and so to satisfy the sanction of the law, which denounced punishment and death for transgression’ (p 55).

A recent writer7 has described Taylor’s teaching as ‘frank Pelagianism’ in which ‘we are saved by our own efforts with a little help from the Holy Spirit’. It was largely in response to Taylor that Jonathan Edwards wrote his work, The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended8, which was published shortly after his death in 1758. Edwards said of Taylor’s volume that ‘no one book has done so much towards rooting out of these western parts of New England the principles and scheme of religion maintained by our pious and excellent forefathers’. The same concerns motivated Fraser in his Highland parish. Fraser refers to an extensive range of authors, but there seems no evidence that he was acquainted with Edwards’ book.

It is impossible to summarise this rich volume, but perhaps the main thrust of Fraser’s careful exegetical study of these chapters can be highlighted. He goes through every verse with an ‘explication’ which contains the exegetical and doctrinal work, on which he builds a ‘paraphrase’ which expands on the verse in a way which brings out its meaning simply. He is concerned to point out that the Apostle does not defend his doctrine of justification by faith alone by claiming that this faith includes ‘evangelical obedience and good works’. Yet Paul ‘answers and suggests an argument against the practice of sin, that is of the utmost force’ (pp 37, 38).

Fraser is controverting the view, common then and now, that the doctrines of grace will discourage holiness and that it is by works, or a faith which includes works, that a person is justified, and holiness, or morality, is safeguarded. He asserts that

preaching Christ and free grace is so far from being opposite to the end of preaching holiness and good works that indeed men cannot preach holiness and good works to good purpose and with good effect without bringing with them all the way the doctrine of Christ and of free grace. It is at the same time true that men’s preaching is essentially defective if they preach not Christ in a manner subservient to holiness.

In recapitulating the Apostle’s doctrine in these chapters he says that ‘in the course of his reasoning, he labours carefully to show the different condition of persons under the law and of those under grace with regard to sin and the practice of holiness’ (p 397). Sinners naturally were married to the law, which meant that they were subject to it, dependent upon it for support and protection and for their welfare (p 141). But being sinners they were incapable of being either justified or sanctified by the law.

It is by being dead with Christ (Rom. 6:8), by their fellowship with Christ in his death, and by their interest in his death, and in the fruits thereof, that they are thus delivered from the law, and that an end is put to their relation to the law as their husband; as they are also said to have been raised together with Christ (p 147).

This is what secures their justification, but it also secures their sanctification. There is a very profitable section ‘showing the advantage, with regard to holiness, that ariseth from persons being under grace’ (p 401ff):

1. Guilty sinners, under the curse of God’s law, are denied ‘these blessings and favourable influences of heaven, by which their souls, being made good soil, might become fruitful in holiness and good works’ But ‘being justified by faith and under grace’ opens up ‘the treasures of heavenly blessings.’

2. Because they depend upon grace and the indwelling Spirit for their comfort they have ‘a constant and most cogent reason . . . to be watchful against sin and earnestly studious of holiness’.

3. ‘Divine worship, inward and outward, public and private, makes of itself a considerable branch of holy practice; and when it is followed out with good conscience, sincerity and success, hath much good effect in all the course of holy practice and good works.’ The one who ‘is justified, brought under grace, and hath his conscience purged from guilt and condemnation . . . may approach and worship God with confidence and comfort’.

4. Grace gives efficacy to ‘every part of the Word of God, and to all divine institutions, as the chief ordinary means of promoting holiness’.

5. Grace uses ‘all providential dispensations’ for ‘their sanctification and furtherance in holiness’.

6. ‘The habitual view and impression of the great day of the Lord must give great excitement to watchfulness against sin and temptation, to holiness and fruitfulness in good works.’

7. ‘As the people of God are the purchase of Christ’s blood, so when His blood is actually applied to them, and they are justified and brought under grace, they are from thenceforth His most special charge, committed to Himself to rule and preserve them, and complete their salvation. He is sufficient for the charge, and faithful in the execution of it.’

8. ‘But, further, this is secured by a sure covenant. The grace they are under is the grace of the new covenant’ (Jer. 32:40).

He concludes that ‘faith, in the comprehensive view of it, doth in various ways influence holy practice’.

In the course of his discussion, which throws light on many other passages of Scripture, James Fraser says of ‘the old man’ that it

certainly signifies the corruption of nature . . . the principle of sin, with all its various lusts, which possess and influence a man’s faculties and powers; and that, so far as it remains in the true Christian, who is renewed by grace, and in whom is the new man, by virtue of, and in comparison with which in him, and in him only, the former [that is, the corruption of nature, the principle of sin] is the old man. In persons unregenerate, the evil principle is not the old man, but continues young, in full strength and vigour. It is the old man only in persons regenerate – in true Christians (pp 55, 56).

The new man is ‘the soul so far as renewed by divine grace’ (p 295).

He provides a very thorough argument for regarding the person described in Romans 7:14-25 as a regenerate person under grace, showing how consistent with regeneration and inconsistent with the unregenerate state the experiences and sentiments described are. He specifies such things as regard to the spirituality of the law; consenting to the law that it is good, delighting in the law of God after the inward man, and serving the law of God with the mind; feeling more bitterness over sin the more one’s heart is truly sanctified; regret for what has not been attained rather than looking at what has; and the consistency of the beginning of Romans 8 with the view that the apostle has been describing a gracious soul up to that point. Here, he says,

we have the case of a man under grace, who had, with great sense and experience of the love of God, his heart commonly full of consolation by the assured prospect of eternal happiness and glory; whose heart was greatly raised above things earthly and temporary, in full desire and pursuit of the things that are above; whose soul was animated with the warmest zeal for God, and for holiness; and who had made great advances in holiness, inferior to no mere man we know of. Yet what heavy and sore complaints doth he make of sin dwelling in him? He did by its force what he allowed not; and what he seriously would, he could not perform. Though he delighted in the law of God according to the inward man, yet he found a law in his members warring against the law of his mind, and working hard to bring him into captivity to the law of sin; so that he cries out, O wretched man that I am!

He says again:

There is indeed great complaint of the flesh; yet nothing appears in the preceding context that amounts to walking after the flesh. But on the contrary, we have cause to conclude that a heart habitually delighting in the holiness of the law of God, and in ordinary conflict with the inward motions of sin, as is there represented, is as great an evidence of a man’s not walking after the flesh as can possibly be imagined to be in the case of any man in whom sin remaineth at all.

He believes that this is recorded (1) to teach us ‘how careful a Christian should be about the inward purity of his heart, and what constant earnest opposition he should make to the very first motions of every unholy passion and inordinate affection or lusting in his heart’; (2) ‘to support and encourage those who go heavily under the evil of their hearts’; and (3) ‘to observe the sad corruption which human nature hath undergone; how deep the root of sin hath gone in the hearts of men, and how great its force and activity is in the best of men’ (pp 345-348).


  1. This article is reproduced with kind permission from The Free Presbyterian Magazine, June 2010.
  2. All unidentified references in the paper are to the 1992 Old Paths edition of this volume.
  3. Memorabilia Domestica.
  4. Scottish Theology.
  5. The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire.
  6. Treatise on Sanctification.
  7. G T Eddy, Dr Taylor of Norwich: Wesley’s Arch-heretic.
  8. Included in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1 (Banner of Truth, 1974), pp 143-233.

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