Obedient Faith no threat to Protestant doctrine: it IS Protestant Doctrine

The Sandemanian system was an extreme reaction against the ‘ Neonomian,’ and also against the ‘ Marrow,’ doctrine, which arose during last century, almost simultaneously in Ireland and Scotland, and which continues to exist, within a limited circle, in the present age, among the followers of Sandeman and Glass, while it has tinged the writings of many who did not, in all respects, embrace their opinions. It was a recoil from the ‘ Neonomian’ doctrine which had prevailed in the preceding age, but it went to the opposite extreme, and was equally at variance with that of the ‘ Marrow’ divines, for it denied that faith is an act of the mind at all,—or at least an act of the renewed mind, and affirmed that if it were an act of obedience, we must be justified by a ‘ work.’ The writings of Sandemanians contain some important truths, and are fitted to correct several prevalent errors ; but not content with vindicating the one, and exposing the other, they have gone much further, and have virtually claimed for themselves a monopoly of the only sound view of free Justification by grace, on grounds which bring them into direct collision with the doctrine of the Reformed Churches.

The difference between the two is one of a much more fundamental nature than is generally supposed. It is often regarded as a mere difference of opinion on a metaphysical question respecting the nature and definition of faith ; but on deeper inquiry into the grounds on which the Sandemanian doctrine rests, and the arguments by which it is maintained, it will be found to resolve itself into one of the most important questions which ever engaged the attention of the Church. For that question, considered in its widest extent, and reduced to its ultimate analysis, amounts to this,—Whether the work of the Holy Spirit in applying to men individually the redemption purchased by Christ, and producing faith and repentance in them in order to their Justification, be, or be not, inconsistent with a free Justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ ?

Sandemanians are anxious to reduce faith to a mere intellectual assent, and to exclude from it trust, affiance, and assurance, with everything that is spiritual or holy, or that can be regarded as a moral duty,—for this express reason, that were it considered as including any of these fruits of the Spirit, or as being an act of moral obedience, we must be held to be justified by ‘a work.’

But this reason involves the tacit assumption that faith is itself the righteousness by which we are justified,—for if it be not that righteousness, but merely the means by which we receive and rest on the righteousness of Christ, it may be, as the Protestant Church teaches, a fruit of the Spirit, a holy principle, and even a moral duty, without implying the slightest departure from the doctrine of a free Justification.

Let faith itself be excluded, as well as every other grace, from forming any part of the ground of our acceptance, and the work of Christ for us will still remain the only righteousness by which we are justified, while the work of the Spirit in us may be acknowledged in all its fulness and efficacy, as that by which alone we can be so united to Christ as to become partakers of His righteousness. Instead of an intellectual, we may have a spiritual, apprehension of divine truth, and instead of a cold assent, a cordial consent, to the Gospel, without impairing in the slightest degree our reliance on Christ alone. The relation of the work of the Spirit in us to the work of Christ for us is one of the most important subjects in Theology.

From page 188-19, of James Buchanan on Justification.

This is exactly right. As I have affirmed as my covenant theology, Christ is the righteousness of believers, the only righteousness that avails with God:

We affirm Christ is all in all for us, and that His perfect sinless life, His suffering on the cross, and His glorious resurrection are all credited to us. Christ is the new Adam, obeying God where the first Adam did not obey God. And Christ as the new Israel was baptized as the old Israel was, was tempted for 40 days as Israel was for 40 years, and as the greater Joshua He conquered the land of Canaan in the course of His ministry. This means that through Jesus, on our behalf, Israel has finally obeyed God and has been accepted by Him. We affirm not only that Christ is our full obedience, but also that through our union with Him we partake of the benefits of His death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement at the right hand of God the Father.

And again, faith only justifies because it receives this alien righteousness:

We affirm we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone. Faith alone is the hand which is given to us by God so that we may receive the offered grace of God. Justification is God’s forensic declaration that we are counted as righteous, with our sins forgiven, for the sake of Jesus Christ alone.

And this is entirely consistent with the other aspect of Protestant Orthodoxy:

We deny that the faith which is the sole instrument of justification can be understood as anything other than the only kind of faith which God gives, which is to say, a living, active, and personally loyal faith. Justifying faith encompasses the elements of assent, knowledge, and living trust in accordance with the age and maturity of the believer. We deny that faith is ever alone, even at the moment of the effectual call.

This should not have raised an eyebrow among educated or Reformed Calvinists. But some claiming to know something went so far as to broadcast the accusation that I have denied Sola Fide. For example:

To say that in the matter of justification before God, we are justified by an obedient faith is to deny the Apostles’ teachings.

This is nonsense in so many ways, it is hard to know where to begin. It actually makes salvation by works rather than the by the righteousness of Christ look credible to anyone trying to read the Apostle.

Here is a reasonable way to get the conclusion:

To say that in the matter of justification before God, we are justified by a faith that merits righteous standing or makes up for our sins is to deny the Apostle’ teaching.

And here are some other ways (all saying close to the same thing):

To say that in the matter of justification before God, we are justified by a disobedient faith is to deny the Apostles’ teachings.

To say that in the matter of justification before God, we are justified by a faith that is not obedient is to deny the Apostles’ teachings.

To say that in the matter of justification before God, we are justified by a faith that does not work by love is to deny the Apostles’ teachings.

As I have pointed out, the Westminster Standards state explicitly and unambiguously that we are justified by an obedient faith:

Faith is obedient. Thus the church has always taught: According to Chapter 11, Paragraph 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, faith is an act of “evangelical obedience.” Furthermore it is always one act of obedience among others in the justified person.

Paragraph two of the same chapter states that faith is “not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.” “Dead faith” is a direct appeal to James 2 and “worketh by love” is a direct appeal to Galatians 6. Both passages are about justification and the Westminster Confession uses those passages in a chapter that is about justification. There is no way anyone can claim that these passages are about some kind of parallel soteriological scheme so that they are not about the same justification. Galatians 6 and James 2 are dealing with the same issue, according to the Confession.

But wait! Does this mean that we are justified by works? Of course not. We are justified by the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received (as Christ is received) only by faith.

3. Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them; and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.

4. God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.

Faith discharges no debt. Faith does not satisfy the Father’s justice regarding our sin. Christ and Christ alone does all that.

And for that very reason no one needs to try to deny or disguise the fact that faith is obedient. In fact, trying to do so, besides being a hideous attack on the grammar of every language, demonstrates that one is not thinking about justification and Christ’s imputation in a correct way. It will lead to people trying to be “passive” enough, inactive enough, to say that they have true non-working faith. In that direction lies madness.

The way to make sure that people don’t make faith into a meritorious work is to emphasize the work of Christ. Nothing but the blood of Jesus washes clean our sin; our faith does not do that. When the Bible says that God cleanses our hearts by faith (Acts 15.9), it is because faith receives Christ, not due to any alleged merit in the obedience of faith.

In fact, not only is faith in Christ obedient, but it is obedient to the First Commandment of the Decalogue.

  • Having no other gods before Yahweh meant never sacrificing animals to any other god but Him. This is not only the obvious context of Exodus and the Pentateuch, but only a few sentences after the giving of the decalogue God gives instructions on how to properly sacrifice “ascension offerings and peace offerings.” These sacrifices pointed to Christ. The First Commandment teaches us to trust in Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life.
  • The fact that neither unfallen Adam, nor Christ, needed to be forgiven is entirely irrelevant. The First Commandment tells us to trust in God alone for all that we need. For us sinners, that means that we must trust in Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life. For Jesus it meant trusting the Father for vindication, growth in grace (Luke 2.51), and resurrection to glory. If we need it, then the First Commandment tells us to look for God as he has revealed his will in reference to that need. We need justification, sanctification, and eternal life. Those can only be found in Christ. Christ is true God as well as true Man. Thus, the First Commandment teaches us to trust in Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life.
  • The Ten Commandments are part of the administration of the covenant of grace. They were not stipulations given to sinless beings in which they were expected to persevere in perfect obedience. They are stipulations given to sinners expected to constantly sin. When an Old Testament Hebrew sacrificed to Baal in order to receive the forgiveness of sins, he was violating the First Commandment. When a Church member decides to pray to the god of the Mormons for the forgiveness of sins, he is violating the First Commandment. The First Commandment teaches us to trust in Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life.
  • Thus the preamble to the Decalogue makes it clear that the Ten Commandments are given for the saved community to live by faith in God’s grace. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Thus, the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches:

    Q44. What doth the preface to the Ten Commandments teach us?
    A44. The preface to the Ten Commandments teacheth us, That because God is The Lord, and our God, and Redeemer, therefore we are bound to keep all His commandments [Deut. 11:1; Luke 1:74-75].

    The Decalogue explicitly appeals to God as Redeemer, the one who frees God’s elect from all sin and brings them into an estate of salvation (See question 20 and then 21 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism).

None of this means that some how the “goodness” of faith makes us righteous. Faith is only a gift of God anyway and cannot merit anything. It merely receives Christ and his righteousness.

Why is confusion being spread in the Reformed churches about such a basic point? And why are ministers of the Gospel having their standing destroyed by accusers who are never held to account?

SEE ALSO Faith: Joint FV Statement & the Westminster Standards

6 thoughts on “Obedient Faith no threat to Protestant doctrine: it IS Protestant Doctrine

  1. Wayne


    It seems to me that some of the confusion lies in that we naturally conceive “obedient” as either a durative or perfective adjective and we consider the faith that justifies as the inception of a believing life.

    In this respect, using the word “obedient” to modify faith in reference to justification seems to invite an unnecessary level of confusion. It just sort of strikes against the way our ears are tuned to pick up on the nuances of aspect.

    Why not repeat the old Reformed truism that “the faith that justifies is the faith that sanctifies?” This is, of course, a faith that yields obedience.

  2. mark Post author

    Well, I don’t naturally conceive of it that way, but if someone else does so, then I certainly understand why it would be wrong to use the expression. I thought obedient faith could be taken in two ways.

    1. A faith that yields obedience. i.e. a “joyful faith” would be a faith that produces joy and an “obedient faith” would be a faith that produces obedience. A “personally loyal” faith would be a faith that produces personal loyalty.

    2. A faith that is commanded. The Gospel is not only an invitation but a command. So an obedient faith is a faith that responds correctly to the Gospel imperative. It is not, however, a faith that has obedience “added” to it. Nor is there anything durative or perfective required for it. A “personally loyal” faith would be a trust that God requires in order to be justified according to the Gospel offer.

  3. jon

    This is very helpful, Mark. I think the Westminster Assembly delegates would be very happy with your explanation. They were very worried about antinomianism. They actually called in some of the prominent antinomians of the day and “interrogated” these men to find out what was making them tick. In general, it scandalized the delegates.

  4. Wayne

    Thanks, Mark. I was trying to press the margins by thinking how this kind of phraseology might be heard by some folks.

  5. mark Post author

    Well, I agree. I like and have used “same faith justifies and sanctifies.” But I also note that even that truism is being denied sometimes to “defend” Reformed Orthodoxy.

  6. Pingback: Mark Horne » Blog Archive » You just named the blog’s mission statement, Mark

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