Was Richard Baxter Orthodox on Justification?


BaxterRichard Baxter seems to be largely known today for his works of practical theology, including, The Christian Directory, which has been used in some quarters as a manual of Christian counseling, and The Reformed Pastor, which is often commended as a useful paradigm of pastoral ministry among Reformed men. But Baxter is less known for his doctrinal theology, particularly for his doctrine of justification. Baxter first wrote on the doctrine of justification in Aphorisms of Justification, published in 1649.  In that work, he reacted against the antinomian spirit he discovered among the soldiers of Cromwell’s army, while he served as a chaplain. Baxter believed the doctrine of justification by faith alone on the basis of of Christ’s righteousness was the root error among the antinomian soldiers, and he wrote Aphorisms of Justification, partly to correct that error.  In response to scathing criticisms from the Reformed orthodox, Baxter wrote Of Justification in 1658, which contained four disputations on justification. Consider the following quotations from Baxter’s second disputation.

Disputation 2 – “Whether works are a condition of justification and whether we are justified by works as such a condition?”

1. Justifying faith comprehends all that is essential to our discipleship.

“The gospel promises justification to all that will believe (or are believers). To be a believer and to be a disciple of Christ, in Scripture sense, is all one, and so is it to be a disciple and to be a Christian: therefore the sense of the promise is, that we shall be justified, if we become true Christians or disciples of Christ; and therefore justifying faith comprehends all that is essential to our discipleship or Christianity as its constitutive causes” (Of Justification 77).

In other words, Baxter affirmed that faith involves all the acts of faith included in Christian discipleship. Repentance, love for Christ, obedience to His commandments are all comprehended in justifying faith.

2. We are not justified by faith alone, but also by our love for Christ and inherent righteousness.

“It is not therefore any one single act of faith alone by which we are justified, but it is many physical acts conjunctly which constitute that faith which the gospel makes the condition of life. Those therefore that call any one act or two by the name of justifying faith, and all the rest by the name of works; and say that it is only the act of recumbency on Christ as Priest, or on Christ as dying for us, or only the act of apprehending or accepting his imputed righteousness, by which we are justified, and that our assent, or acceptance of Him as our Teacher and Lord, our desire of Him, our love to Him, our renouncing other Saviors and our own righteousness are the works Paul does exclude from our justification, and that it is Jewish to expect to be justified by these though but as conditions of justification; these persons do mistake Paul, and subvert the doctrine of faith and justification, and their doctrine tends to corrupt the very nature of Christianity itself” (Of Justification 77-78).

Some of what Baxter says here is correct. I agree with Baxter that justifying faith trusts Christ in all three of His offices: Prophet, Priest, and King.

But Baxter goes on to say that some wrongly believe that Paul excludes “our love to Him” and “our own righteousness” from justification. And the doctrine that excludes love and inherent righteousness from justification, “tends to corrupt the very nature of Christianity itself.”

In another place, Baxter made it clear that he believed Paul only denied justification by legal works, but not by evangelical works. Baxter wrote, “Works in Paul’s sense are such as make the reward to be not of grace, but of debt,” (65) and “Works in Paul’s sense are such as stand in competition with Christ, or at least, would be co-partners with him in a co-ordination” (69). Therefore, Paul, according to Baxter, does not exclude the faithful works of Christian obedience from justification.

3. A Christian’s obedience is necessary to remain justified.

“Sincere obedience to God in Christ is a condition of our continuance in a state of justification, or of our not losing it. And our perseverance therein is a condition of our appearing in that state before the Lord, at our departure hence” (Of Justification 78).

In other words, Christians justified today must render sincere obedience to God if they wish to remain justified tomorrow. Those who fail to maintain their justification by sincere obedience will fall away from their state of justification. In another place, Baxter says the following:

“As to the question therefore whether justification be losable, and pardon reversible, I answer, that the grant of them in the covenant is unalterable; but man’s will in it self is mutable, and if he should cease believing by apostasy, and the condition fail, he would lose his right and be unjustified and unpardoned, without any change in God. But that a man does not so de facto is to be ascribed to election and special grace” (Aphorisms 203).

Baxter, therefore, taught that justification is by Christian obedience, which must be continued until the end, or else, the Christian will lose his justification, proving that he was never one of the elect.

KeachAs to the question of whether Richard Baxter is orthodox on the doctrine of justification, I offer the words of an historic Particular Baptist, Benjamin Keach.  On Baxter’s doctrine of justification, Keach wrote:

“We ought to keep clean from all errors, but especially such as are capital ones. I am afraid many good Christians are not sensible of the sad danger they are in. I cannot see but that the doctrine some men strive to promote, is but little better than Popery in new dress. Nay one of the worst branches of it too, 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? Let me exhort you all to stand fast in that precious faith you have received; particularly about this great doctrine of justification, give yourselves to prayer, and to the due and careful study of God’s Word” (The Marrow of True Justification 17).

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8 Responses to “Was Richard Baxter Orthodox on Justification?”

  1. When objectively describing Baxter’s views on justification, one must qualify to be fair. It is not as though he did not change or modify his views later on, to an extent. In fact, he acknowledges that he learned a lot from those orthodox divines that wrote against his early Aphorisms. In his preface to Catholick Theologie, Baxter wrote:

    “In this case I wrote my first Book called Aphorisms of Justification and the Covenants, &c. And being young, and unexercised in writing, and my thoughts yet undigested, I put into it many uncautelous words (as young Writers used to do,) though I think the main doctrine of it sound. I intended it only against the Antinomians; But it sounded as new and strange to many. Upon whose dissent or doubtings, I printed my desire of my friends Animadversions, and my suspension of the Book, as not owned by me, nor any more to be printed, till further considered and corrected: Hereupon I had the great benefit of Animadversions from many, whom I accounted the most judicious and worthy persons that I had heard of: First my friend Mr. John Warren began: next came Mr. G. [George] Lawson’s, (the most judicious Divine that ever I was acquainted with, in my judgement, yet living), and from Mr. Christopher Cartwright’s (then of York; the Author of the Rabbinical Comment on Gen. chap. 1, 2, 3, and of the Defence of King Charles against the Marquess of Worchester). Answers and Rejoinders to these took me up much time: next came a most judicious and friendly MC. from Dr. John Wallis; and Mr. Burgess: the answers to which two last are published. To all these Learned men I owe very great thanks: and I never more owned or published by Aphorisms (but the Cambridge Printer stole an Impression without my knowledge). And though most of these differed as much from one another (at least) as from me; yet the great Learning of their various Writings, and the long Study which I was thereby engaged in, in answering and rejoining to the most, was a greater advantage to me, to receive accurate and digested conceptions on these subjects, than private Students can expect.”

    Richard Baxter, Catholick Theologie (London: Printed by Robert White, for Nevill Simmons at the Princes Arms in St. Pauls Church-yard, 1675), xii–xiii. [no pagination; pages numbered manually from the beginning of the title page]

    • Tom Hicks
      Tom Hicks

      Thank you for your comment Tony. Here are a few thoughts.

      1. My post was not based on Baxter’s Aphorisms, but on His work, Of Justification, which was published nine years afterwards. Of Justification was published after the critiques leveled against Aphorisms and so after Baxter had time to reflect upon them. I did provide one citation from Aphorisms in this post, but only at a point where it agreed with Of Justification. Therefore, I’m not sure how your qualification applies to this post.

      2. Could you please provide any quotation from Baxter’s Catholick Theologie that either reverses or substantially changes the doctrine represented in any of the above quotations? I ask this because I’ve read Catholick Theologie, and in my view, while Baxter revised some of the manner of his argumentation on the doctrine of justification, his basic conclusions remained the same. In fact, he says as much in the quotation you cite above, “I think the main doctrine of it [Aphorisms] sound.”

      On the same page as your citation, in Catholick Theologie, Baxter recalls how the Aphorisms of Justification came to be, and he writes, “I went to the Scripture, where its whole current, but especially Matth. 25, did quickly satisfy me in the doctrine of justification.” He was and remained satisfied as to the essential biblical doctrine of justification.

      3. The more Baxter wrote on the doctrine of justification, the more controversy increased. His later writings in no way pacified his opponents or clarified the essential questions that he raised.

      4. Catholick Theology repeats all of the doctrines cited above in Of Justification. Observe:

      (1) Faith comprehends love.

      “Faith in God has some desire and volition of God, and faith in Christ, which is the soul’s practical affiance in him, has some love to Christ in it” (Catholick Theologie 1:2:84).

      (2) We are not justified by faith alone but also by inherent righteousness.

      “All the righteousness, which formally justifies us, is our own or on ourselves where it justifies us: For to be made just or justified in the first sense constitutively, is not else but to be made just as are personal themselves just” (Catholick Theologie 1:2:74).

      (3) A Christian’s obedience is necessary to remain justified.

      “Though God’s decree is that his elect shall persevere, yet I conceive (with submission to better information) that the baptismal covenant as such does not absolutely promise or give right to so much grace as shall certainly cause the baptized to persevere; that is, all that are rightfully baptized (even coram Deo as well as coram Ecclesia) have not perseverance secured to them by baptism. But only the Holy Ghost is given to them by the covenant to be their sanctifier, and carry on his work to their salvation, if they will use those means which God has appointed” (Catholick Theologie 1:2:72-73).

      “As to the question therefore whether justification be losable, and pardon reversible, I answer, that the grant of them in the covenant is unalterable; but man’s will in itself is mutable, and if he should cease believing by apostasy, and the condition fail, he would lose his right and be unjustified and unpardoned, without any change in God. . . . Though all our past sins are pardoned at our first faith or conversion (or as the Ancients speak in baptism) yet it is most certain that pardon or justification is not perfect at first, no nor on this side of death: And the saying of many that justification is perfect at first, and sanctification only by degrees, is a palpable error, as I have elsewhere often showed” (Catholick Theologie 1:2:85).

      Such quotations could be multiplied.

  2. Re: Baxter’s view on justification;

    I am pretty sure that was the same view held by most of the church fathers (e.g. Chrysostom, Augustine, Jerome, etc, just to name a few) prior to the Reformation. Perhaps the same exact view held by & Wycliffe Huss, too.

    Who would say these people are any less orthodox for believing that evangelical piety is necessary for salvation?

    • Tom Hicks
      Tom Hicks

      Jeph, thanks for your question. It’s an excellent one. I’ll take it in two parts.

      1. Church history involves the development of doctrine. Earlier figures in history lacked certain doctrines that would be formulated later in history, and sometimes they affirmed what would later be viewed as orthodoxy right alongside heterodoxy. Orthodoxy emerged against the background of struggle against heresy. Let’s just take Augustine as an example. He is the strongest on anthropology and the nature of transformative grace due to his engagement with the Pelagian heresy. It doesn’t get any better than Augustine on this issue. He’s heterodox on the doctrine of the church and the doctrine of salvation. Those doctrines hadn’t been thoroughly challenged or developed yet. In one sense, we might even say that Augustine didn’t have a doctrine of justification, but only a doctrine of sanctification, since he collapsed the two. To ask whether Augustine is orthodox on justification (or ecclesiology) is anachronistic because orthodoxy hadn’t yet emerged. The church fathers are at their best in conflict against heresy.

      That’s very different from Richard Baxter who clearly understood the orthodox doctrine of justification by faith alone on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone and he rejected it. He believed that it threatened the very essence of Christianity and devoted a large part of his life to eradicating it.

      2. No one has denied evangelical piety is necessary for salvation. We deny that evangelical piety is a necessary antecedent of remaining in a state of justification. Christ’s righteousness imputed to us answers the problem of guilt and justice. Our inherent righteousness answers the problem of our fitness to commune with God and experience the joys of heaven. Imputed righteousness saves us from guilt. Infused righteousness saves us from pollution. Both imputed and inherent righteousness are necessary for salvation but for different reasons.

      Does that answer your question?

  3. I agree that Baxter was not standing with substitutionary atonement i.e., justification by faith alone in that joint relationship of the doctrines. Neither did John Wesley. I have always considered both of these outside of the Puritan camp and outside of really true Christian faith! If they did not believe in Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and the imputation of HIS righeousness to our account I don’t believe they were even saved by grace. You can’t just deny those great truths clearly stated in the word of God and be a Christian. A new Christian perhaps, of course, may not fully unpack all of this, but after time reading the word they always say AMEN to the truth! These two men never changed their views. I wish our theolgians would stop tauting these two men as if they were paragon’s of the faith and awakenings from God among people. They are really not much better than Charles Finney who also was lost as a goose!!


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