By Obbie Todd
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. –Romans 3:21-22
According to Jeffrey Jue, head of the Church History Department at Westminster Theological Seminary, “the doctrine of justification is arguably the defining doctrine for the Reformation.” And perhaps that’s why it still attracts so much discussion among Protestants five centuries after Martin Luther wrestled with the ‘justice of God.’ The ‘New Perspective’ on Paul, for example, is a re-examination of the ‘how’ of justification. Thus the heavy reaction against the seminal work of E.P. Sanders, as continued by James Dunn and N.T. Wright, is rooted in Jue’s keen observation: to re-write justification is to re-write Protestantism. To re-write assurance. To re-write salvation.
Unfortunately Sanders isn’t the first scholar to tinker with justification. Not by a long shot. Through the centuries, the ‘when’ of justification has also been debated. In fact, the controversies in 18th century Particular Baptist circles have ‘particular’ relevance in today’s emerging Reformed Baptist landscape. When meditating upon the sovereignty of God in salvation, the question many young Baptists should ask themselves is this: when exactly am I saved? If election (however you define it) occurs from eternity (Eph. 1:4-5), then does salvation as well? It’s a question of justification. And the way a pastor answers this question reveals the way he preaches and the way a church evangelizes. So let’s examine the heresy known as eternal justification.
Andrew Fuller, a Particular Baptist pastor in the late 18th century and founding secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society, initially adhered to the doctrine of eternal justification at the beginning of his ministry. Like fellow Baptist John Gill years before him, Fuller believed in two kinds of justification: active and passive. Active justification was an act of God from eternity, declared in the divine mind. Passive justification, on the other hand, was a ratification of active justification, whereby God revealed to the human conscience that one had indeed been justified eternally. Therefore, to the Hyper-Calvinist, passive justification was what Scriptures recognized as being “justified by faith.” Fuller would eventually become disillusioned with the Hyper-Calvinist scheme of his day, recognizing the moral obligation of all sinners to believe in the Gospel for their justification, and articulating this ‘duty’ further in A Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation (1784).
One of the most common modern arguments against Calvinism is its lack of evangelistic emphasis. And this is perhaps due to the misperception that Reformed minds adhere to eternal justification. However, a carefully articulated doctrine of justification might provide some badly needed common ground between Calvinists and non-Calvinists. After all, the same 19th century Calvinists who denounced eternal justification were also the founding members of the Baptist Missionary Society, originally called “The Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen.” While the name is atrocious, it still tells us something about Calvinists and missions: the five founding members of the first Baptist mission group (William Carey, Andrew Fuller, Samuel Pearce, John Sutcliff, and John Ryland) were all Calvinists. All believed in the urgency of missions. And all possessed a deeply biblical doctrine of justification. From the Baptist Missionary Society the modern missions movement was born.
Once Andrew Fuller carefully examined the Scriptures, he quickly discovered the true nature of salvation. Paul boasts, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17) When God issues the sentence of justification upon a sinner, He’s not simply revealing something to the believer’s mind which was already true from eternity. He’s saving them in that instant! This is the essence of sola fide. Faith is that which unites us to Christ (solus Christus). Therefore salvation occurs at a point in time, not from eternity. From Charles Spurgeon to John Piper, Baptists of the Reformed tradition hold that justification, unlike election, is “conditional”. Upon faith. Therefore justification is not from eternity, but rather from the voice of God in the Gospel declaring that he who believes is indeed saved upon faith. This is the Gospel: sinners justified – not by themselves – but by a God who sent His son to serve as our penal substitute and perfect record. And that’s ‘credited’ to us in real time, through real faith. While we were chosen before the foundation of the world, we were also saved by grace through faith – itself a gift of God. (Eph. 1:4, 2:8) New Calvinists would do well to remember that in their ministry. That’s why the Gospel must go forth. Sinners have to believe the Gospel, not simply in God’s sovereignty. It’s a free offer to all. And according to Andrew Fuller, it’s a moral imperative.
While the absence of a 2nd person invitation is the hallmark of Hyper-Calvinist homiletics, the eisegesis of eternal justification is the hallmark of Hyper-Calvinist hermeneutics. And its implications are dangerously obvious. Once salvation ceases to become about presently believing in Jesus and morphs into a frantic search to determine if one is elect, salvation turns away from the objective work of Christ to the a posteriori ‘feeling’ of being saved. There’s a difference between having faith in one’s faith and having faith in one’s Savior. And this is perhaps Fuller’s biggest problem with Hyper-Calvinism: the subjectivism now attached to salvation. A Hyper-Calvinist will naturally lean upon the evidences of his faith more than upon Christ crucified. After all, he’s not double-checking his faith to see if he is justified. He’s checking to see if he was justified. Eternal justification demands a ‘warrant of faith,’ an experience that confirms justification instead of faith itself. And once a believer finds assurance in the signs of election instead of running to Christ in faith, one’s assurance is now derived in one’s good works. Antinomianism essentially becomes Arminianism. That Christ died for sinners is the only necessary ‘warrant’ we need to find assurance of salvation. We’re justified by faith alone.
The Southern Baptist Convention recently appointed a Calvinist as President of the International Mission Board: David Platt. The hire proves once again that Calvinism never precludes evangelism. However, nor does it imply eternal justification. And perhaps this serves as an important reminder to young Reformed Baptists today: never does the inability of sinners to save themselves cancel their responsibility to reach for a Savior. And our churches desperately need preachers who plead for souls to be saved instead of waiting for them to stand up. If a Calvinist pastor cannot personally invite sinners to give their lives to Jesus, then he’s seriously misunderstood God’s sovereignty as well as the crucial doctrine of justification. Souls hinge upon it. In the end, salvation is “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (Rom. 3:22)
Obbie is married to Kelly. He attended the University of Kentucky (B.A.) and SBTS (M.Div and Th.M). Obbie is Associate Pastor of Students at Zoar Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Obbie is currently a doctoral candidate in Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.