Baxter’s Soup and Wright’s Soap
By Paul Helm –
Baxter was in my eyes a great muddler; but the whole Church cannot help liking Richard Baxter for all his muddling. Richard Baxter lives in the affections of the Church, yet he greatly perplexed the Gospel; he tried to make peace between the Calvinists and Arminians by getting some middle way.
– ‘Rabbi’ Duncan
Reading J. I. Packer’s The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter recently I was struck by a number of parallels between what Baxter said about justification in his Aphorisms of Justification, and the ideas of Bishop N.T. Wright. I’m not suggesting any causal connection: the parallels are structural in nature, and arise from approaching the matter of justification in a certain way. I note nine of these aspects.
1. In each there is an account of justification in terms of a combination of faith and works. For Baxter, the sinner’s ‘initial act of faith, forsaking sin and receiving Christ, is an act of compliance with the precept of the Divine law now in force, the law of grace which commands all men everywhere to repent and promises an amnesty to those who do.’ (Packer, 251) This is the heart of Baxter’s ‘neonomianism’. It parallels Wright’s view that final justification is ‘on the basis’ of works, understood in his characteristic way, about which there is some unclarity, as John Piper has shown in his book, The Future of Justification.
2. There is an emphasis in each upon what Baxter calls judicial justification, justification at the last day. (Packer 253) As Baxter himself put it, ‘Faith Repentance, Love, Thankfulness, since obedience, together with final Perseverance, do make up the Condition of our final Absolution in Judgement, and our eternal Glorification. (257). Packer comments, ‘Judicial, or, as Baxter sometimes calls it, “sentential” or “declarative” justification, to which the believers has by his faith acquired a right, takes place at the last day’. (252) As Piper makes clear, Wright too lays great emphasis upon justification at the last day.
3. Justification is not a change of status , but of persons. That is, it involves subjective renewal, and is not merely forensic change. Packer: ‘Thus, justification appears not as a single momentary event, but as a complex, tripartite Divine act, which begins with a man’s first faith in Christ and is not completed till he has received his whole reward in the world to come’. (253) Similarly, for Wright justification is life-long, most properly spoken of in connection with the final judgment.
4. Covenant membership is ratified by obedience. Baxter: ‘in our first Believing we take Christ in the Relations of a Saviour, and Teacher, and Lord, to save us from all sin, and to lead us to glory. This therefore importeth that we accordingly submit unto him, in those his Relations, as a necessary means to the obtaining of the benefits of the Relations. Our first faith is our Contract with Christ….And all Contracts of such nature, do impose a necessity of performing what we consent to and promise, in order to the benefits….Covenant-making may admit you, but its the Covenant-keeping that must continue you in your privileges’. (257) For Wright, justification (understood in his way) is a sign of being in the covenant.
5. Their respective accounts of justification involve new terminology which causes perplexity in their readers. Packer: ‘His [Baxter’s] readers were completely bewildered by the “political method”. It involved re-definition right and left: terms like law, works, merit, righteousness, justification, imputation, instrument, all meant something different in Baxter from what they meant in the rest of Protestant literature’. (261) Similarly, the Bishop uses familiar words – covenant, faith, faithfulness, obedience, justify, judgment, assurance, vindication – in novel ways. So justification is recognition (Piper, 97) and in justification by faith, faith is faithfulness (Piper, 103fn), and vindication is covenant membership (Piper, 124), and justification is primarily or characteristically evidential (Piper, 67) These novelties perplex, just as the Reformed view perplexes Wright.
It is clear that Piper experiences some perplexity in his endeavour to get Wright’s views straight. So ‘Wright would not like this distinction’ (127), ‘I’m not sure Wright would want to say it that way’, because he does not understand his own position in terms of the imputation-impartation distinction. (79-80) Wright changes the terms in the debate and so, in unfamiliar ways, changes the terms of the debate. Chapter 8 of The Future of Justification is entitled ‘Does Wright Say with Different Words What the Reformed Tradition Means by “Imputed Righteousness”?’
6. Wright’s position in some respects accords with Baxter’s view of justification as a lesser obedience. According to Baxter, Christ does not procure for us a righteousness imputed to us, but a new legal arrangement, and gives us grace to fulfil our obligation to that new law by granting penitence and faith. The moral value of such active faith is reckoned as our righteousness, it constitutes ‘the basis’ of our justification.
7. Both Wright and Baxter have a similar intention, to go beyond the conceptuality of the Reformers and especially (in Baxter’s case) the Puritans to what he thought was a better conceptuality and (in Wright’s case) to what St. Paul really meant.
8. Each reads the concept of justification as inclusive of works. Whatever may have been Baxter’s intention, this is how able readers understood him. So Robert Traill says in Justification Vindicated: ‘Instead of justification by perfect obedience, we are now to be justified by our own evangelical righteousness, made up of faith, repentance and sincere obedience’.
The ninth similarity: the absence of double justification
I noticed these phrases in Piper: ‘The imperfect but real life of love’ (127), ‘imperfect obedience’. (128) Such words come easily to a Reformed thinker, though accepting the fact of them is not so easy. The obedience of a Christian, because of remaining sin which taints everything, is imperfect obedience. Even faith, the instrument of justification, is tainted by unbelief, fear, or presumption. Surely, the imperfections of imperfect obedience themselves need pardon, the believer needs justifying grace even for his failures as a believer. This is so-called ‘double justificaiton’. But the equivalent is hard to find in Baxter’s and Wright’s views. Perhaps it is impossible. In what follows I do not so much attempt to answer this question as to raise it.
This need for the pardon of the inevitable defects of the believer’s best efforts has come to be known as ‘double justification’. Calvin gives classic expression to it. God extends his pardon to our works, ‘not imputing the imperfection by which they are all polluted, and would deserve to be regarded as vices rather than virtues.’ (Inst. 3.17.3) ‘And how are their actions deemed good, as if there was no deficiency in them, but just that their merciful Father indulgently pardons the spots and blemishes which adhere to them?’ (3. 17.5) ‘But because it is very well known by experience that the traces of sin always remain in the righteous, their justification must be very different from reformation into newness of life. For God so begins this point in his elect, and progresses it gradually, and sometimes slowly, throughout life, that they are always liable to the judgment of death before his tribunal. But he does not justify in part but liberally, so that they may appear in heaven as if endowed with the purity of Christ’. (3.11.11)
Double justification is also given confessional expression, as in the 39 Articles. Article 15, ‘Of Christ alone without Sin’: ‘But all we the rest, although baptized, and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things; and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’ And also the Westminster Confession: ‘God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified’. (XI.5) ‘(works) as they are wrought by us, they are defiled and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment, Yet notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him, not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections’. (XVI, 5-6)
Because the believer’s best efforts need forgiveness, on the Reformed view his desires and actions have evidential value as regards justification. They (imperfectly but really) show that he has received a new status through his union with Christ in death and resurrection, enjoyed through faith alone. Faith is shown by works but these are always imperfect, but both faith and works are always imperfect, themselves needing pardon.
A crucial area of difference between the Reformed view of justification and his own views is Wright’s insistence that it is the final judgment at which justification occurs, for justification is on the basis of a whole life lived. (Piper, 165) In his remarks on ‘sentential justification’, Baxter concurs. Wherever else there may be ambiguity, the Bishop’s insistence on the centrality of the final judgment, and a life lived as the basis of that judgment, needs no clarification. On Wright’s account is there any place, then, in the final judgment for God justifying the ungodliness of the godly? If so, how does it happen?
As far as I can see neither Wright nor Baxter come close to saying anything about what is to be done at the judgment about the believer’s continuing shortcomings. According to Wright he is to be justified by his covenant membership, according to Baxter by fulfillment of the new law of the Gospel, whatever exactly this implies. But surely his enjoyment of this membership, or his fulfillment of the new law, is flawed, not perfect or entire. Isn’t this obvious from experience, and from Scripture, (even if the usual Augustinian view of Romans 7 is contested)? How are these imperfections to be dealt with? Not by more of the same: that simply adds to the problem, it does not solve it. Actions that themselves need justifying grace cannot themselves be a source of justification, unless justification is incremental. Where in the New Testament is it suggested that evangelical obedience or a whole life lived may take us so far, and the blood and righteousness of the redeemer then takes over? That would be an obvious case of bootstrapping. So how are the residual imperfections to be dealt with? Wright has nothing in his account of justification that I have seen that provides an answer.
Justification slips through our fingers like soap
So there is a dilemma for Wright and Baxter at this point. For either the works of the faithful covenant member are imperfect but nevertheless accepted by Christ, or they remain imperfect. Do Wright and Baxter think that they are perfect, without need of pardon? There is no evidence that they do, though perhaps they do. So may we assume, in the absence of such evidence, that they do not? If so, the actions that form part of the whole life that will justify covenant members at the last, or the quality of obedience to Christ’s ‘new law’, are imperfect. So is the resulting final justification, on the basis of a whole life, imperfect? That looks like an unwelcome suggestion. But how then do the imperfections of the covenant member become erased, or covered over, or in other ways improved? Does Christ perfect them? Perhaps (going at this point at least with the tradition) he does, though, once again there is no evidence that I know of that Baxter or Wright thinks that he does.
On Wright’s and Baxter’s view, then, there appears to be an infinite regress, a slippery slope, since our imperfect works are a part of our justification, but they themselves need justification in view of their imperfection. So from where does this additional grace come? The question is a purely logical one: how can justification which is imperfect become a part of perfect justification? It cannot. The pure, pardoning grace of Christ is needed.
Paul Helm was educated at Worcester College, Oxford, and was for many years a member of the Philosophy Department of the University of Liverpool. From 1993-2000 he was the Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London. In 2001 he was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there. Helm is the author of numerous journal articles and books. Some of his most well-know books include Calvin and the Calvinists, Faith and Reason, The Trustworthiness of God, The Providence of God, Eternal God, The Secret Providence of God, The Trustworthiness of God (with Carl Trueman), John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin at the Centre, and Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed.