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This section of my brief blog post series on the neonomian controversy gives a concise overview of particular Baptist Benjamin Keach’s response to Richard Baxter and other neonomians in the 17th century neonomian controversy.  Due to the fact that Keach responded to this issue throughout many of his writings the scope of this section is to briefly discuss the contributions and primary responses in each of his writings pertaining to Justification and neonomianism.  I do make an observation in footnote 11 that in part of Keach’s covenant theology he departs from a confessional view concerning the relationship of the covenant of redemption to the covenant of grace.  For anyone interested in understanding Keach’s writings on Justification I would recommend his short but thorough book, The Marrow of True Justification (1692), as an excellent starting point for articulating a biblical doctrine of justification.

An Analysis of Benjamin Keach’s Federal Theology & Doctrine of Justification

Benjamin Keach holds a unique position within the neonomian controversy being one of only two particular Baptists who directly responded to the neonomians. He also provides a useful analysis of how Baxter’s followers argued for his position after Baxter’s death in 1691, and he responded with a pastoral concern for the congregation that he pastored over the dangers of neonomianism[1].  His first book on Justification, The Marrow of True Justification (1692) is based off of two of his sermons on Romans 4:5.  In Keach’s first response to neonomianism in The Marrow of True Justification, he identifies neonomianism as teaching that Christ purchased a lighter law which through imperfect obedience justification is obtained[2].  He proceeds to directly respond to Baxter’s assertions concerning justification and responds to Baxter’s denial of Christ as the surety for the elect affirming the necessity of Christ’s imputed righteousness as the only grounds for justification, “If that righteousness which satisfied the law of Works, doth not justify us, I know not how we can be justified[3].” Keach undercuts the neonomian argument that good works can be done prior to justification because any works not done in faith are by definition not good works (Hebrews 11:6)[4].  He argues against the neonomians that the difference between the conditions for the covenant of works and covenant of grace is not quantitative, perfect vs. sincere obedience, but qualitative, perfect obedience vs. faith in Christ[5]. Keach affirms that God’s law is a reflection of his nature and cannot be changed to accommodate fallen man with lighter terms for justification[6].  He argues that if God knew that Adam would break the covenant of works then he would have just given a lighter law in the first place according to the neonomian position[7].  Keach criticizes evangelical obedience as the means for gaining justification as being deduced from man’s depraved nature and the wisdom of the world[8].  He points out that Paul doesn’t only say that his works in the past couldn’t merit justification, but in the present also are insufficient to merit justification[9].  He affirms with Owen that Christ is not only a believer’s legal righteousness in justification, but also his evangelical righteousness in sanctification[10].

Keach’s next work on justification was, The Everlasting Covenant, a sweet Cordial for a drooping soul (1693), which directly connected his federal theology to his understanding of justification.  He argues against the distinction between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace, and argues that the covenant of grace is founded in eternity and executed in time[11].  Keach argues based on corporate solidarity that the elect were represented by Christ as their federal head so that there were not two separate parties addressed in the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace[12].  He views the execution of the covenant of grace as occurring when Christ died as a propitiation and expiation for the elect, he argues for three stages of the covenant of grace: founded in eternity, revealed in time, and executed by Christ’s atoning death[13].  Keach makes the observation that because covenants are sealed by an atonement and there is no atonement to seal the covenant of redemption it makes sense that the covenant of redemption had Christ’s death in view, therefore connecting it with the covenant of grace[14].  Based on Keach’s articulation of the covenant of grace by connecting it with the covenant of redemption as one covenant he grounds Christ’s redemptive work in God’s decreed will against the neonomians’ view that justification is part of God’s prescriptive will and therefore mutable[15].  He further argues that if the covenant of redemption is distinguished from the covenant of grace, then Christ can obey the covenant of works on behalf of someone without performing the covenant of grace for them, leaving the door open for neonomianism[16].

Keach’s next work on justification, A Medium Betwixt Two Extremes (1698), contains a response to the view of eternal justification and a response to the neonomian Samuel Clark in the postscript.  He makes the distinction between virtual justification based on God’s eternal decrees and actual justification, the application of justification to the elect in time (based on his sermon on Romans 8:1)[17].  Based on Romans 3:12, Keach argues that all are born under sin therefore the elect are not born justified[18].  Keach argues that according to proponents of eternal justification, if the elect are eternally justified then they were never under condemnation being in Adam, which contradicts scripture which calls the elect prior to conversion children of wrath[19].  He argues that no one can be simultaneously condemned being in Adam and be justified being in Christ because the latter negates the former[20].  Furthermore Keach demonstrates that proponents of eternal justification would have to change how scripture describes Christ’s redemption because the elect were never under the curse of the law according to them[21].  He is careful to not define faith as the cause of justification, but rather Christ’s righteousness is the sole grounds for justification[22].  Keach denies that faith is a condition for justification in any sense, not even the instrumental cause of justification[23].  His denial of faith justifying a sinner is in response to the neonomians who make faith a part of justifying righteousness, denying legal righteousness through Christ’s atoning work and imputed righteousness to the elect[24].

Samuel Clark attacked the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness and said that it is faith that justifies sinners[25].  By Clark’s redefinition of faith comprehensively, he mixes justification with sanctification and removes any assurance of salvation[26].  Clark argued that the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness isn’t taught in scripture and Keach challenged him for teaching a law-gospel as the judaizers that Paul responded to in Galatians[27].  He argued that Christ couldn’t fulfill the law on behalf of the elect because that would mean we are justified by the law, but keach points out the distinction Paul makes between being justified by our imperfect deeds in contrast to the perfect obedience of Christ[28].  Keach challenges Clark to show where the scripture commands imperfect obedience and points out that believers being sanctified still only yield imperfect works and Christ commanded perfection (Matthew 5:48)[29].

Keach’s last primary work on justification is, The Display of Glorious Grace (1698), giving his exposition of the covenant of grace from sermons that he preached on it. In it he affirmed the unconditional nature of the new covenant[30].  Keach affirmed that the members of the Covenant of Grace are solely the elect because he affirms that all members of the New covenant inherit all its promises not a mixed group of regenerate and unregenerate, which undercuts Baxter’s baptismal covenant[31].  Keach like most 17th century particular Baptists denied the predominate view in paedobaptist federal theology of one covenant of grace under multiple administrations which gives the grounds for arguing for the continuity of the sign and seal of the Abrahamic covenant with baptism[32].  Keach’s first response to the neonomians in The Display of Glorious Grace, is a direct response to the neonomians denial of Christ as a Surety for the elect and of Christ’s imputed righteousness, active and passive obedience[33].  He responds to the accusation that his position affirming Christ’s imputed righteousness as the ground for justification promotes antinomianism because Christ’s redemption produces a desire in those who have been justified to love and serve him[34].  Keach responds to the view of Samuel Clark that our justification is imperfect until our obedience is perfect, which Keach responds confuses justification with sanctification because no one will ever have perfect obedience, not even a sanctified believer[35].  He points out the flaw in the baptismal covenant of neonomians because it has to redefine sin as not persevering in faith to meet the conditions of the baptismal covenant to be justified, so their hamartiology has to be redefined according to the baptismal covenant’s requirements, anything else isn’t considered sin[36].  Keach argues that Christ is a perfect Mediator and therefore the perseverance of believers is ensured unlike the neonomians where assurance can never be certain because by failing to keep the baptismal covenant they are damned[37].  He affirms that the covenant of Grace is unconditional, based solely on Christ’s imputed righteousness[38].

[1] Austin R. Walker, “Benjamin Keach And The ‘Baxterian’ Controversy of the 1690s,” The Reformed Baptist Theological Review 3, no. 1 (2006): 8

[2] Benjamin Keach, Marrow of True Justification (Birmingham, Alabama: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007), 38-39

[3] ibid, 47, “Shall any who pretend to be true preachers of the Gospel, go about to mix their own works or their sincere obedience with Christ’s Righteousness; nay, to put their Obedience in the room and place of Christ’s Obedience, as that in which they trust and desire to be found?” ibid, 50-51

[4] ibid, 57

[5] ibid, 61

[6] “Alas, Sirs, the Law of God is but a Transcript, or written Impression of that Holiness, and Purity that is in his own Nature, and serveth to show us what a Righteousness we must be found in, if we are ever justified in his sight.” ibid, 63

[7] ibid, 65

[8] ibid, 70

[9] ibid, 73 (Philippians 2:7-8)

[10] ibid, 79-80 (Ephesians 5:25,26; Titus 2:10)

[11] Benjamin Keach, The Everlasting Covenant, a Sweet Cordial for a Drooping Soul (London: n.p., 1693), Preface (this is stated as the purpose of his book on the title page); Keach is one of two particular Baptists who argues for this distinction against the explicit distinction made in 1689 LBC 7.3, the other particular Baptist is the anonymous author of Truth Vindicated, in Several Branches thereof; and Many Objections fairly and Soberly Answered (London: n.p., 1695), 268.  Special Thanks to Sam Renihan for informing me abut this anonomous reformed baptist author who takes a similar view to Benjamin Keach.

[12] “I cannot see that they are two distinct Covenants, but both one and the same glorious Covenant of grace, only consisting of two parts, or branches; for as that blessed Compact doth peculiarly respect Christ’s person as Mediator…yet seeing God entered into that Covenant with him, for us, as our Head, Surety, and representative, considered, it cannot be anything else but the covenant of grace” Ibid, 6, “I would know whether all the Elect were not considered in Christ, and was it not for us that he entered into that Covenant?  Is not the Debtor a party with the Surety, and so the Elect a party with Christ?” ibid, 10

[13] “It has its application in time after we exist, and are actually in Christ, as part of the promised seed.” ibid, 9

[14] ibid, 12, Keach  points out the irony in identifying a covenant of redemption by which no one is redeemed, “But if by virtue of the Covenant of Redemption we are not Redeemed, call it no more the Covenant of Redemption.” ibid, 13

[15] ibid, 16, Keach also includes justification with all other aspects of the ordo salutis purchased in the covenant of grace for the elect, “Here is the grace of the Holy Spirit, a new Heart, Justification, Adoption, Regeneration, final perseverance, and Eternal life, and all we want is in this covenant.” ibid, 36

[16] “I fear it lay a foundation for those errors which are got among us; as if we are to enter into a Covenant with God without Christ’s undertaking for us, as our surety: for say they, Christ did perform the Covenant of works, but doth confirm, not perform the covenant of grace.” ibid, 18

[17] Benjamin Keach, A Medium betwixt two Extremes (London: n.p., 1698), iii (Preface); according to Keach, the elect are not justified prior to their union with Christ, “So in the second Adam all the elect were fundamentally and representatively justified in him, his Righteousness being imputed to all his Spiritual seed, or off-spring; yet none of them are actually and personally justified until they are united to him…” ibid, 19

[18] ibid, 13

[19] ibid, 14-15 (Eph. 2:3, Rom. 8:7, Psalms 5:5, 7:11)

[20] ibid, 15

[21] ibid, 16

[22] “Faith adds nothing to the Merits of Christ’s blood, or meritorious sacrifice, but it is by his life, by his intercession, that it is made effectual or efficacious unto us, who pleads with God for the Spirit, which he purchased also for his elect that so the saving benefits and blessings might be applied to them.” ibid, 18

[23] “Also they call faith the instrumental cause of justification, which we must leave them to explain (they mean, I think, but as the hand that applies a Plaister is a cause of the cure.)  We must say with a late learned Author, Faith is no qualifying condition, nor any procuring cause of our justification; tho with our faith God declares no Man a justified person.  Faith does not cause or render the satisfaction of Christ any ways the more satisfactory unto God; for God was as much satisfied in Christ for his elect before faith as after…” ibid, 21-22

[24] ibid, 23

[25] “Tis not, according to Mr. Clark, the Object of Faith, not Jesus Christ that Faith apprehends, and we alone trust, but it is Faith that justifieth us comprehensively taken; that is faith, love, charity, good works, and sincere obedience that is imputed to us…” ibid, 37

[26] ibid, 38“Now I profess, I can see but little difference between this doctrine and that of Bellarmine’s and other Papists.” ibid, 38

[27] ibid, 41

[28] Keach quotes Clark’s argument, “…Then we are justified by the Law or Covenant of Works, in a Legal and in an Evangelical way; for then the Law is fully satisfied by Christ our Surety, and we stand recti curin, and the Law has nothing to say to us, or charge us withal; as if a Surety in Bond pay the full Debt the Creditor has no action against the principal Debtor, and there’s no Favour at all show’d him in his Discharge” ibid, 44

[29] ibid, 47,50

[30] Benjamin Keach, Display of Glorious Grace, 173

[31] “It is a Full Covenant; because in it there is the Mediators Fullness Communicated to all such that are united to him as the effects thereof, ’tis not a Creature-Fullness that is in Christ; no, but the Fullness of God: For it pleased the Father that in him all Fullness should dwell;- in him dwelleth the Fullness of the God-head Bodily: The Fullness of the God-head dwells as truly in the Son, as in the Father; and of his Fullness do all Believers partake, Of his Fullness all we receive, and Grace for Grace.” ibid, 196-197

[32] Compare 1689 LBC 7.3 with WCF 7.3 & SDF 7.3 the 1689 LBC distinguishes the Covenant of Grace revealed first in Genesis 3:15; it doesn’t use the language of different administrations as the WCF & SDF.  Also Keach’s understanding of the covenant of grace being founded in eternity rather than being a distinct covenant of redemption make s a strong covenantal credobaptist argument that the covenant of grace is exclusively for the elect.

[33] “Thus Mr. Baxter, Mr. Williams, Mr. Clark of Wickham, and many others.  And thus is Popery revived amongst us, and Justification by Works asserted by these Law and Work-mongers, for I cannot call them Gospel-Ministers; true, they affirm that Christ died for our good, but not in our stead; the Doctrine we maintain, is, that he died for our good; But how for our good? Even so, that he suffered as our Head and Representative in our stead or room, the Just for the unjust, or the Surety for the Principal, or for the Sinner; and this according to the Terms agreed upon in the Covenant of Peace [Grace].” ibid, 76

[34] “Do we then make void the Law through Faith? God forbid? Yea, we establish the Law; because by Christ we attain a perfect Righteousness, being interested in his most complete and perfect Obedience to the Moral Law, and by his Spirit to live in more exact Conformity thereunto: My Brethren, Is it not our Duty still, and as much as ever it was, To love the Lord our God with all our Hearts, with all our Souls, and with all our Strength, and our Neighbor as our selves; not only sincerely, but perfectly; nay, to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect: Though we are not able to do this, yet the Moral Law still remains, and requires us thus to do; true, we shall not be Damned for want of this perfect Obedience, because Christ hath in our Nature, and stead, kept the Law perfectly for us…” ibid, 78

[35] ibid, 81

[36] ibid, 83

[37] ibid, 84

[38] “It is not made on Conditions to be performed by us, i.e. which being performed, gives us a Right unto the Reward promised thereupon; because our Right and Title to Heaven, is only by the Righteousness of Christ through his perfect Obedience to the Law.” ibid, 182