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The following is from a research paper that I wrote in my undergraduate studies, but due to its length I’ll be posting it in parts according to its 4 Basic divisions:

  1. Historical Introduction to the Neonomian controversy in 17th Century England
  2. An Analysis of Richard Baxter’s Covenant Theology & Doctrine of Justification
  3. An Analysis of Benjamin Keach’s Federal Theology & Doctrine of Justification
  4. An Analysis of John Owen’s Federal Theology & Doctrine of Justification

By studying how Benjamin Keach, a particular Baptist and signatory of the 1689 Confession of Faith, and John Owen, a prominent Puritan theologian, responded to aberrant views of the doctrine of Justification such as Richard Baxter (whom I particularly discuss in this paper) it helps believers to understand the relationship of the law and Gospel distinction to one’s covenant theology and to respond to modern neonomian errors such as the Federal Vision Movement and the New Perspective on Paul, who although they have nuances, are indebted to Richard Baxter for their neomonian tendencies.  Some of the terminology is technical out of necessity to clearly define terms since neonomians redefined confessional terms and it is important to also provide the historical background of influences to the neonomian and confessional positions regarding how they viewed God’s law and covenant theology.

Introduction & Thesis

nomista: But, I pray you, sir, consider, that though I am now thoroughly convinced, that till of late I went on in the way of the covenant of works; yet seeing that I at last came to see my need of Christ, and have believed that in what I come short of fulfilling the law he will help me out, methinks I should be truly come to Christ.  Evangelista:  Verily, I do conceive that this gives you no surer evidence of your being truly come to Christ, than some of your strict papists have.  For it is the doctrine of the Church of Rome, that if man exercise all his power, and do his best to fulfill the law, then God, for Christ’s sake, will pardon all his infirmities and save his soul[1].”

In the 17th century many divisions occurred amongst those who claimed to be Confessional with the neonomian and antinomian parties, along with the confessional party such as Owen and Keach[2].  This controversy was fierce as the neonomians charged the confessional party as being antinomian while the confessional party charged the neonomians as returning to Catholicism, but it also provided better clarity for future generations to have a firm understanding of the doctrine of justification and its necessary components.  As neonomianism still had remnants after Baxter’s death and has been revived by some today claiming to be confessional it is necessary that we examine how Keach and Owen responded to Baxter, so that we can give an informed and Biblical response to neonomian errors concerning justification in our day and avoid the errors of the neonomians’ over reaction to antinomianism.  This controversy also demonstrates that it is not enough to affirm justification through faith alone, all of the terms concerning justification and imputation must be clearly defined since the neonomians would merely redefine the common usage of these terms found in the 17th century Reformed confessions.  This study will first give an overview of the historical predecessors to neonomianism and provide a brief survey of antinomianism, then Richard Baxter’s doctrine of justification will be analyzed, the chief 17th century proponent of neonomianism, followed by John Owen and Benjamin Keach’s responses to neonomianism and affirmations of the confessional position of justification.

Historical Introduction to the 17th Century Neonomian Controversy

In response to the Catholic doctrine of justification that God infused righteousness and accounted men justified based on their evangelical righteousness, the three primary 17th century Reformed confessions affirmed that justification is based on Christ’s imputed righteousness, not on evangelical obedience[3].  They also carefully defined faith as the instrument of justification but not the efficacious cause which is God alone[4].  The Reformed confessions affirmed the necessity of good works as part of sanctification, but that these good works could never be the basis of justification[5]. They also carefully distinguished the order of faith and repentance that faith precedes repentance because repentance must be done by faith, “This saving repentance is an evangelical grace, whereby a person being by the Holy Ghost made sensible of the manifold evils of his sin, doth by faith in Christ humble himself for it with godly sorrow, detestation of it and self-abhorence[6]…”  All of the 17th century confessions affirmed the normative use of the moral law, that it remains as a rule of faith for believers, but not as a covenant of works to obtain justification through their obedience, both confessional puritans such as John Owen and some of the neonomians affirmed this 3rd use of the moral law, while it was denied by the antinomians[7].

The position of the neonomians cannot be properly analyzed without an overview of the antinomians, to whom they were responding.  The chief problem of the antinomians was their confusion of justification and sanctification: “Put succinctly, they erroneously used the categories of justification when speaking of sanctification, and consequently ascribed qualities of perfection to the latter which belong only to the former[8].”  As a result of the failure to distinguish justification from sanctification by antinomians, they denied any necessity of good works for sanctification because believers were already righteous due to Christ’s righteousness imputed to them.  On this basis they saw no need for evangelical righteousness in sanctification by producing good works and believed that Christians could attain perfection[9].  The two primary proponents of Antinomianism in the 17th century were Tobias Crisp, who wrote Christ Alone Exalted, and John Eaton, Honey-comb of free justification by Christ alone, which sparked responses from Richard Baxter and the neonomian party.  The Antinomians denied the Reformed position simul iustius et peccator and affirmed that when a sinner is justified he ceases to be a sinner[10].  In the midst of the antinomian controversy orthodox divines who responded to the neonomians were often accused of being antinomians even though they carefully distinguished their position from the antinomians[11].

Richard Baxter’s position on justification was not novel, it was based on his covenant theology which was influenced both by Amyraldianism and Grotius.  He was preceded by a similar neonomian development within “holy living” Anglican theology in the 17th century that is often overlooked because their works are not as well known as Richard Baxter’s[12].  Jeremy Taylor, an Anglican bishop, viewed justification as conditional to the extent that a believer has mortified their sins[13].  He clearly denied that believers are justified based on legal righteousness, Christ righteousness imputed to believers, “…but our faith and sincere endeavors are, through Christ, accepted instead of legal righteousness: that is we are justified through Christ, by imputation not of Christ’s, nor our own righteousness, but of our faith and endeavors of righteousness, as if they were perfect[14]…”  This reflects Baxter’s view that the condition of the Gospel covenant is lighter (or imperfect) obedience whereas the covenant of works required perfect obedience.  Based on Jeremy Taylor’s views on the conditions of the Gospel covenant he placed repentance and good works before justification, as the grounds of it, rather than being part of sanctification[15].  Hammond and Thorndike both denied that Christ’s imputed righteousness was the formal cause of justification and affirmed that justification is based on the more lenient conditions of the new covenant, “That which makes our justification to be what it is, is God’s acceptance of our faith, repentance, and sincere endeavors as righteousness under the more lenient terms of the new covenant on account of the righteousness of Christ[16].”

The two predominate philosophical views from medieval scholasticism that influenced Baxter and the orthodox divines such as Benjamin Keach and John Owen were nominalism and realism.  Realism affirmed the reality of universals, which was denied by nominalism.  This had a significant impact on how Richard Baxter formulated the law of God in comparison to Owen and Keach because realists viewed God’s law as eternal and immutable whereas nominalists argued that God’s law was mutable[17].  Realists argued that God acted according to his nature, whereas nominalists accused realists of making God’s decisions bounded and that God could choose to do anything[18].  Baxter denied that the chief end of man to give all glory to God could only be achieved one way because God could use different laws or covenants to achieve that goal. God could either require perfect obedience to his law or accept sincere imperfect obedience[19].  Baxter affirmed voluntarism within his covenant theology, therefore God’s covenants with man are mutable and even though God is immutable that doesn’t require his covenants to be immutable[20].  Nominalists affirmed voluntarism, that God’s free choices determine what is intrinsically good, whereas realists affirmed intellectualism, that good decisions are determined by God’s intellect, based on his reason and moral nature[21].  These two views, nominalism and realism, are contrasted well with the views of Baxter and Keach on the final judgment juxtaposed.  According to Baxter at the final judgment men are judged by their works irrespective of their merit, so God can call imperfect works good.  For Keach men are judged by their works only on the basis of Christ’s perfect works of his active obedience imputed to them[22].

[1] Edward Fischer, The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2009), 111

[2] The confessional view is found most explicitly stated in the Salvoy Declaration of Faith Ch. 11, which is adopted verbatim in 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith Ch. 11, there are intentional additions to the SDF 11 from WCF 11 being more specific such as specifying that Christ’s active and passive obedience is imputed in SDF 11.1 and 1689 LBC 11.1, but WCF 11.1 only states that Christ’s obedience and satisfaction are imputed.

[3] WCF10.1, WSC Q.33, SDF 10.1, 1689 LBC 10.1

[4] WCF 10.2, SDF 10.2, 1689 LBC 10.2; HC Q.21, OC Q.21 [Question numbers were not originally included in the Orthodox Catechism, but they have been included in the recent re-print by RBAP and are included here for reference]

[5] WCF 16.5, SDF 15.3, 16.5, 1689 LBC 15.3, 16.5, HC Q.86, OC Q.91

[6] SDF 15.3, 1689 LBC 15.3

[7] WCF 19.5-6, SDF 19.5-6, 1689 LBC 19.5-6

[8] Ernest F. Kevan, The Grace of Law: A Study in Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2013), 95

[9] “The Papists made sanctification into justification, and the Antinomians made justification into sanctification.” ibid, 99

[10] ibid, 98; both John Eaton and Tobias Crisp argued this based on Ephesians 5:25-27, and antinomians in general commonly cited Numbers 23:21 and Jeremiah 50:20 in support of this view arguing for a distinction between God knowing sin and seeing sin, “But this distinction was put to a rather sophistical use by John Eaton who, on the basis that an object has to be present to be seen but not to be known, proceeds to argue that the sins of believers are “abolished.” ibid, 100

[11] “By the Baxterian Party I expect to be called an Antinomian, for that hath been their Artifice of late, to expose the True Ancient Protestant Doctrine about Justification, &c. but others who are sound in the Faith, will (I am sure) acquit me of that Charge. Benjamin Keach, The Display of Glorious Grace or, the Covenant of Peace Opened in Fourteen Sermons (London: n.p.,1698), accessed February 20, 2014, http://digitalpuritan.net/benjaminkeach.html,  v

[12] “Baxter, then, differs from the classical Anglicans who held that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is the formal cause of justification.  His views on justification are, in fact, remarkably like those of Taylor, Thorndike, and Hammond.”  C. Fitesimons Allison, The Rise of Moralism (New York: The Seabury Press, 1966), 157

[13] ibid, 64

[14] ibid, 66

[15] “A holy life is the only perfection of repentance, and the firm ground upon which we can cast the anchor of hope in the mercies of God through Jesus Christ.” ibid, 68

[16] ibid, 117; Hammond explicitly placed repentance and evangelical works prior to justification, “He calls the sinner powerfully to repentance: if he answers to that call, and awake, and arise, and make his sincere faithful resolutions of a new life; God then 4. Justifies, accepts and pardons his sins past…” ibid, 97

[17] Ernest F. Kevan, The Grace of Law: A Study in Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2013), 67

[18] Tom Hicks, “an Analysis of the Doctrine of justification in the Theologies of Richard Baxter and Benjamin Keach” (PhD diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2009), 142

[19] ibid, 147, “Thus, the medieval nominalists were able to claim that God does indeed reward obedience with justification and eternal life, but not because obedience is itself intrinsically worthy of reward. Rather, God justifies and rewards obedience “graciously” by virtue of his own covenantal stipulations, which stipulations might have been other than what they are. In this nominalist construct, God’s gracious covenant did not require perfect obedience, but only a person’s best or sincere faithful efforts” ibid, 145.

[20] ibid, 148

[21] ibid, 146

[22] ibid, 149