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I apologize for the long gap between posting this section and the last part.

This is the second to last section covering John Owen’s Doctrine of Justification in response to the Neonomians, and the last post will be the conclusion of all the posts in this series.

An Analysis of John Owen’s Federal Theology & Doctrine of Justification

John Owen begins by discussing the necessary presuppositions for a proper understanding of the doctrine of Justification in his book, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith through the Imputed Righteousness of Christ Explained, Confirmed, and Defended. He gives three primary presuppositions necessary for a biblical doctrine of justification: a clear understanding of Man’s depravity, the guilt of sin, and God’s majesty and holiness[1].  John Owen’s understanding of Covenant theology and the necessary antithesis between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, the law-gospel distinction is crucial for John Owen’s articulation of the doctrine of justification since no one can merit the perfect obedience demanded by the covenant of works based on his own personal righteousness[2].    This is why due to man’s original sin it is impossible for any man to be justified by the covenant of works, Christ alone as the Surety for the elect must perfectly fulfill the law in their place, having his perfect obedience accredited to them as the sole basis for their justification[3].

Owen denies that faith is reducible to merely an assent and incorporates notitia with assentia within the three elements of justifying faith: noticia, assentia, fiducia[4].  He defines justifying faith as, “the heart’s approbation of the way of justification and salvation of sinners by Jesus Christ proposed in the gospel, as proceeding from the grace, Wisdom, and Love of God, with its acquiescence therein as to its own concernment and condition[5].”  He makes it clear that this justifying faith is preceded by the work of conviction without which there can be no justifying faith[6].  Owen clearly defines repentance and obedience as consequent to faith, therefore denying repentance and obedience as preconditions for the covenant of grace as the neonomians propose[7].  He affirmed that the object of faith is not exclusively Christ, but also includes the Father because the Father sent the son into the world to accomplish redemption according to the covenant of redemption[8].  Owen makes an important statement concerning the fruits of saving faith in response to charges of antinomianism that faith is the root of all other evangelical graces (repentance, obedience, holiness, etc), “Only we say that it is not any other grace, nor any obedience that gives life and form unto this faith; but it is this faith that gives life and efficacy to all other graces, and form to all evangelical obedience; all gospel holiness and good works presupposes faith as their root and principle[9]…”

In response to neonomian objections which attempt to make justification conditional because the covenant of grace is conditional, by faith, Owen responds by saying that if all the conditions of the new covenant such as perseverance are considered conditions for justification, then no one is justified until they reach the eternal state.  The second possibility in which they make a distinction of two justifications, the first and a continuation of it, they undermine their argument by applying the condition to another justification (making perseverance a condition of the continuation of justification, 2nd justification, rather than a condition of the first justification)[10].  He compares the neonomians’ advocacy of making obedience and other graces necessary with faith as being a golden calf of personal righteousness,


“For after they have given the specious name of a condition and a causa sine qua non, to faith they immediately take all other graces and obedience unto the same state with it and the same use in justification, and after this seeming gold hath been cast for awhile into the fire of disputation, there comes out the calf of personal inherent righteousness, whereby men are justified before God, by virtue of evangelical covenant; for as for the righteousness of Christ to be imputed to us, it is gone into heaven and they know not what is become of it[11].”


In defining faith in particular Owen argues that faith is the instrumental cause of justification as denoted by the Greek preposition dia, “by, through,” in the genitive[12].  He is careful when he defines faith as the instrumental cause of justification that he doesn’t make believers the efficacious cause of justification which would mean that they justify themselves, and he gives several examples to explain how faith is the instrumental cause of justification such as ministers of the Gospel and the sacraments[13].  Owen observes the connection within the neonomians that those who make the formal cause of justification themselves as a result end up denying the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and faith as the instrumental cause of justification[14].

He provides an in-depth analysis of the Hebrew and Greek words to understand the terms used to define justification in order to refute the catholic position that to be justified is to be infused with righteousness rather than to be declared righteous.  He explains the Hebrew terms used for justification in the Old Testament and points out that the Hiphil denotes a transitive action done to another, and the Hitpael denotes a reciprocal action, and he focuses on Proverbs 17:15 pointing out the declarative use of the Hiphil and he distinguishes the meaning of tsādaq in the Qal from the Hiphil (which occurs in Proverbs 17:15)[15].  These arguments by Owen don’t solely apply as responses to Catholics, but to neonomians as well, as observed by Baxter’s challenge that the words for justify and justification refer to inherit righteousness not being declared righteous by God[16].  Owen gives a powerful reductio ad absurdum of proponents who want to make the case for infused righteousness by showing how they don’t apply the same standard for texts discussing condemnation, which is declarative, not an infusing of wicked habits,


“Wherefore as condemnation is not the infusing of an habit of wickedness into him that is condemned; nor the making of him to be inherently wicked, who was before righteous; but the passing a sentence upon a man with respect unto his wickedness; no more is justification the change of a person from inherent unrighteousness unto righteousness, by the infusion of a principle of grace, but a sentential declaration of him to be righteous[17].”


Owen challenges any possibility of trying to make  justification composed of multiple stages affirming that justification is a single completed act, not composed of multiple parts nor a process[18].  He responds to those who make multiple stages of justification as confusing justification with sanctification and attempting to make their good works meritorious, which would include both Catholics and the neonomians[19].  Owen responds to the two-fold view of justification, initial and final justification, which occurs at the final judgment properly identifying the latter as vindication, not a second justification [20].  He makes the argument that by making justification consist of multiple stages it makes justification less than its prior justification splitting it into parts rather than having one complete act of justification, so breaking it into incomplete parts becomes unnecessary[21].  Owen does affirm evangelical righteousness as part of sanctification, but not as a precondition of justification[22].  He strongly affirms that only perfect obedience meets the requirements of the covenant of works, which all are under being under Adam’s headship, so imperfect sincere evangelical obedience can never be sufficient grounds for justification[23].

Owen defines four types of imputation: ex justitia, ex voluntaria, ex injuria, and ex gratia[24].  Imputation ex justitia refers to either federal imputation, such as Adam’s transgression or natural, man has Adam’s sin imputed to him, as if he committed Adam’s sin[25].  Imputation ex voluntaria specifies when someone voluntarily takes the punishment for another, Owen gives the example of Paul’s statement to Philemon in Philemon verse 18, where Paul says he will take the payment due unto Onesimus[26].  Imputation ex injuria refers to someone treating someone as if they were sinners although the person is not guilty, Owen gives the examples of 1 Kings 1:21 and 2 Corinthians 5:21[27].  The fourth type of imputation, ex gratia, refers to an imputation of grace and favor not merited by any inherent merit to the one whom it is imputed, but to the person it is imputed to he is judged according to it (Romans 4)[28].

Owen views the whole scope of Christ’s life as necessary in accord with his priestly office to merit justification for the elect, from Christ’s incarnation to his resurrection and exaltation, not exclusively focusing on Christ’s death [29].  In Owen’s definition of Christ being a propitiation for the elect he doesn’t limit it to Christ’s passive obedience, bearing the wrath for the elect on the cross, but includes both Christ’s active and passive obedience and that Christ’s suffering prior to the cross were not unnecessary, so Christ’s passive obedience shouldn’t be limited to exclusively referring to the cross[30].    The double imputation is an essential aspect of Owen’s understanding of the atonement that Christ bore the sins of the elect, and that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to them.  In describing the righteousness of Christ, Owen makes the crucial distinction between evangelical and legal righteousness, legal righteousness is based on Christ’s prefect obedience imputed to believers credited as their righteousness to the law’s demands, but evangelical righteousness is a fruit of justification, part of sanctification, and in the last judgment believers’ evangelical righteousness is only for their vindication not a second justification[31].  He argues that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is antecedent to justification because the condition of perfect obedience demanded by the covenant of works must be fulfilled and the penalty of breaking it paid in order for anyone to be justified[32].  Owen responds to those who propose that their faith and obedience is imputed to them as their righteousness since God’s judgments are true and he can’t declare an imperfect righteousness equivalent to perfect righteousness arbitrarily.  This imputation is an act of justice not the combination of imperfect obedience with a mixture of grace to deem it perfect when it isn’t[33].

[1] John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith through the Imputed Righteousness of Christ Explained, Confirmed, and Defended (Brandeston: T. Googh, 1823), accessed February 15, 2014, http://books.google.com/books?id=dbnmAAAAMAAJ&num=13, 15

[2] Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 493.

[3] ibid, 493

[4] “I deny therefore that this general assent to the Truth, how firm soever it may be, or what effects soever it may produce, doth answer the experiences of any true believer, as containing the entire acts of the soul towards God for pardon and justification.” Doctrine of Justification, 48; Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 494

[5] Doctrine of Justification, 51

[6] ibid, 51

[7] “And wherever this cordial sincere approbation of the way of salvation by Jesus Christ prevails, it will infallibly produce repentance and obedience” ibid, 53

[8] ibid, 58; Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 494

[9] Doctrine of Justification, 60, Owen continues to explain that Faith is alone and cannot be mixed with other conditions i.e. works, “We are justified by faith alone.  For no other grace is capable of the office of faith in justification nor can be joined with it, to receive Christ and the promise of life by him, and to give glory to God on their account.” ibid, 60

[10] ibid, 61

[11] ibid, 62-63

[12] ibid, 65

[13] ibid, 66-67, Owen also identifies the efficacious cause as God alone for justification, “…there is no color of reason from the instrumentality of faith asserted, to ascribe the effect of justification unto any, but unto the principal efficient cause, which is God alone…” ibid, 67

[14] ibid, 68, “If we are justified through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, which faith alone apprehends and receives, it will not be denied but that it is rightly enough placed as the instrumental cause of our justification.  And if we are justified by an inherent evangelical righteousness of our own, faith may be the condition of its imputation, or a disposition for its introduction, or a congruous merit of it, but an instrument it cannot be.” ibid, 69

[15] ibid, 83; Owen likewise argues that the use of dikaioō also refers to declaring one justified and not merely to pardon of sins, or infused righteousness; ibid, 84

[16] See footnote#37 for quote from Baxter about the use of the terms justify, justification, etc. referring solely to inherent/personal righteousness.

[17] ibid, 85

[18] ibid, 89

[19] ibid, 90

[20] ibid, 91

[21] ibid, 94

[22] ibid, 107

[23] ibid, 108

[24] ibid, 118

[25] ibid, 118

[26] ibid, 119

[27] ibid, 120

[28] ibid, 120

[29] ibid, 78 (cited by Owen: Genesis 3:15, 1 John 3:8, Hebrews 2:13-16, Romans 4:25, Acts 5:31, Hebrews 7:27, Romans 8:34)

[30] John Owen, Doctrine of Justification, 47-48 (in the footnote marked by propitiation*)

[31] ibid, 110, 112

[32] ibid, 115

[33] ibid, 117