An American Tragedy: Jonathan Edwards on Justification

George Hunsinger
Friday, May 11th 2007
Jul/Aug 2004

It is impossible to read Jonathan Edwards's long 1734/1738 treatise on justification by faith alone without realizing that one is in the presence of a very great mind. The treatise is as rigorous in argument and subtle in its distinctions as any of his other writings. At the same time, however, it seems fair to say that the virtues of Edwards's treatise are also in some sense its liabilities. One serious liability is the brief section where he tries to defend himself against the perception that his doctrine of justification implicates him in a doctrine of congruent merit.

Congruent merit is the idea that God bestows a reward not out of strict obligation but out of pure benevolence. Although none has been promised, a reward is nonetheless bestowed in proportion to the quality of the human virtue or performance that is pleasing in God's sight. Depending on the conception, the pleasing human excellence can be seen as at once grounded entirely in divine grace, and yet also as somehow relatively independent of the grace that makes it possible. The proportionality between the pleasing human excellence and the benevolent divine reward might be compared, in some sense, to a matching grant. The measure of excellence is somehow matched, proportionately if not necessarily equivalently, by the measure of reward. The reward is fitting though not obligatory.

Edwards has to face the question of a "fitting" divine reward-"fitting" and "reward" are his own words-primarily because, in some sense, he makes justification rest on a double ground, the one primary, the other "secondary and derivative" (p. 215). The primary ground, as Edwards states, is Christ alone; it results in the actual though virtual justification-again "virtual" is Edwards's word-that the believer enjoys "in Christ." A dependent and secondary ground is also posited at the same time, however, because faith is that condition "in us" which makes it fitting for us to be justified. Edwards is quite explicit. Faith, along with all that it entails, is described as "that in us by which we are justified" (pp. 222, 153). In short, justification finds its primary ground "in Christ," in his negative and positive righteousness, and its secondary or derivative ground "in us," that is, in faith, defined as a disposition, as a "habit and principle in the heart" (p. 204).

Edwards wants to maintain two essential points at the same time. First, faith is that human excellence or virtue which, in some sense, makes it fitting for God to reward it with eternal life. Second, this idea of fitting reward avoids the pitfalls of congruent merit, because the virtue of faith is grounded entirely in the righteousness of Christ.

Faith is a virtue. It has, in some sense, its own "fitness and beauty" (p. 154). It is that in us "by which we are rendered approvable" to God (p. 154). It is that principle in us that makes it fitting for God to accept us, not because of any excellence it has in itself, but purely from the relation that it bears to Christ (p. 155). But by virtue of that relation, faith is "a very excellent qualification" (p. 154). It is even "one chief part of the inherent holiness of a Christian"-Edwards does not hesitate, as we will see more fully, to use the term "inherent holiness"-that is pleasing to God (p. 154). Faith is a rewardable excellence only because it is grounded in Christ; but by virtue of being grounded in Christ, it is also, in a secondary and derivative sense, excellent and rewardable in itself. It is the thing in a person "on account of which God looks on it as meet that he should have Christ's merits belonging to him" (p. 156).

"This is very wide from a merit of congruity," states Edwards, "or indeed any moral congruity at all" (p. 159). If the idea of congruent merit could be restricted only to the case of independent moral effort, Edwards would be correct. His idea that it is fitting, relatively and indirectly, that God should reward the virtue of faith with eternal life would indeed have nothing to do with the idea of congruous merit, for faith is not a matter of independent moral effort. But the Reformation had insisted that our justification depended entirely on Christ, and not in any sense on some virtue in ourselves-not before faith, but also not after faith; not absolutely, but also not relatively or indirectly. Justification did not rest on any such virtue qua virtue in us, even if that virtue were faith. Faith was simply not a virtue in that sense.

Edwards knew about the Council of Trent, against whose view of justification he polemicized, but he apparently did not know about any more sophisticated forms of Thomism. He did not know of the proposal that virtues can be grounded entirely in grace and still be so pleasing to God that by sheer benevolence they merit the reward of eternal life, and that this reward need not necessarily be obligatory but only fitting or congruous. He did not know, apparently, that by defining faith as a meritorious virtue, regardless of how secondary and derivative, he had moved closer to Thomas than to the Reformation.

Three basic tenets of the Reformation would seem to be contradicted by the aspects of Edwards's doctrine that we have examined.

First, as stated succinctly by Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, "what is inherent is opposed to what is imputed" (2:652). In other words, inherent righteousness is excluded by imputed righteousness from being, in any sense, a ground of justification or of acceptance to salvation by God. Following Calvin (Comm. 2 Cor. 5:21), Turretin observed that Christ's righteousness is imputed to us in the same sense as our sin was imputed to him.

Now Christ was made sin for us, not inherently or subjectively (because he knew no sin), but imputatively (because God imputed to him our sins and made the iniquities of us all to meet on him, Isa. 53:6). Therefore, we also are made righteousness, not by infusion, but by imputation. (p. 652)

Since we are righteous in Christ alone, Turretin concluded (in opposition to the Catholic Bellarmine), Christ's righteousness as imputed to us excludes, as a ground of justification, our being righteous in ourselves. Imputed righteousness necessarily entails the corollaries that our righteousness (in any saving sense) is alien and passive. We never have any other righteousness in ourselves, with respect to salvation, than the righteousness imputed to us in Christ, and we never receive that righteousness in any other way than though faith. The righteousness that saves us is "alien" and not inherent, explained Turretin, "because if it is inherent it is no longer another's" (p. 655); and it is "passive," because "what justifies as an instrument [i.e., faith] does not justify meritoriously" (p. 674). While Edwards had a strong doctrine of imputation, he finally qualified it so as to admit inherent, active righteousness as a secondary and derivative ground of our being accepted by God, which if not directly "meritorious" was still "fittingly" patient of reward.

Second, as stressed particularly by Luther, "the whole procedure of justification is passive." Justification is not just passive at the outset. As Paul Althaus explained: "This means that passive righteousness is not more and more replaced and limited by an active righteousness, and that alien righteousness is not more and more replaced by one's own." Christians remain sinners throughout their whole lives. They cannot live and be pleasing to God except by Christ's righteousness alone, where "alone" is not to be qualified as meaning "primarily." "We live continually under the remission of sins," wrote Luther (p. 164). Christ's righteousness is not a ground that needs to be supplemented by a lesser and derivative ground within ourselves. It is rather the solely sufficient ground by which we receive mercy each day. Throughout our whole lives, stated Luther, "we are justified daily by the unmerited forgiveness of sins and by the justification of God's mercy" (p. 167).

Finally, as emphasized powerfully by Calvin, we do not participate in Christ's righteousness without participating in fellowship with his person (3.11.10). There are two points here. First, our union with Christ, according to Calvin, is a mystical union. It is a joining together of head and members, so that Christ dwells in us eternally and we in him. Second, and closely related, as Calvin affirmed, "the Lord Jesus never gives anyone the enjoyment of his benefits except by giving himself" (3.16.1). Christ does not give his benefits without giving himself, nor give himself without giving his benefits. Speaking of our union with Christ, Edwards confessed: "I don't know how to determine what sort this union is" (p. 155). He finally resorted to describing it as a "legal union"-a union whereby one person is, because of a legal relationship, accepted for another, in the judgment of God (p. 156).

It is striking that in his treatise Edwards often writes of "something" really in believers that justifies them (p. 158), at precisely those points where Calvin or Luther would more typically have spoken of "someone." By casting participatio Christi in more nearly legal than personalist terms, Edwards finally ends up separating Christ's benefits, in some sense, from Christ himself. To be sure, Christ's righteousness is the source and ground of the believer's righteousness, but Christ himself as a person is not, as in Luther and Calvin, the exclusive object and content of that righteousness at the same time. If Edwards had seen union with Christ more nearly in terms of the mystery of personal communion or mutual indwelling, he might have concluded that the believer's righteousness in Christ was not just virtual but real, so that the believer's actual or inherent righteousness did not have to bear any weight in making the believer acceptable before God. Rather than the virtue or principle of faith, he might have seen Christ himself-the person in and with his righteousness, and the righteousness in and with his person-as that in us which (by imputation and exchange) makes it fitting for us to be accepted by God.

To sum up: Edwards clearly understood the intention of the standard Reformation doctrine of justification by faith. At the opening of his treatise he stated that "the act of justification has no regard to anything in the person justified, as godliness, or any goodness in him; but nextly or immediately before this act, God beholds him only as an ungodly or wicked creature; so that godliness in the person to be justified is not so antecedent to his justification as to be the ground of it" (p. 147). As suggested by this very remark, however, he made a distinction between what obtained for a person before and after the event of justification, which coincided with the awakening of faith in the believer. Before the awakening of faith, the person had nothing in him-no suitable disposition-by which he could be justified before God. This situation changed, however, after the awakening of faith. Although Christ's righteousness as imputed to the believer was the only true ground of the believer's righteousness, it nonetheless entailed faith as the act of reception. Faith as a subjective act and disposition was then interpreted by Edwards as a secondary derivative reason why the believer was pleasing to God and rewarded by God. The idea of faith as a pleasing disposition that God would reward then opened the door to themes that the Reformation had excluded. Inherent as opposed to alien holiness, active as opposed to passive righteousness, and Christ's righteousness as a benefit decoupled from his person all entered into Edwards's doctrine in a way that, to some degree, undermined his basic Reformation intentions.

1 [ Back ] Professor Hunsinger's in-text page notations are from Jonathan Edwards, "Justification by Faith Alone," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Vol. 19, Sermons and Discourses 1734-1738 (ed. M. X. Lesser; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001). He also quotes from Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (ed. James T. Dennison, Jr.; trans. George Musgrave Giger; 3 vols.; Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994); John Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries (ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964); Martin Luther, Comm. on Ps. 51:8, in Luther's Works (ed. Jaroslav Pelikan; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955); Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966); and John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).
Friday, May 11th 2007

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