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The Ceremonial Or Moral Law: Jonathan Edwards’s Old Perspective On An Old Error

But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth
the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.

—Romans 4:5

The thesis of Edwards’s masterful discourse, Justification by Faith Alone, is that “we are justified only by faith in Christ, and not by any manner of virtue or goodness of our own.” Introducing his thesis by a brief exposition of Romans 4:5, he writes:

1. “justification respects a man as ungodly…that God in the act of justification, has no regard to anything in the person justified…so that godliness in the person to be justified is not so antecedent to his justification as to be the ground of it,”

2. “by ‘him that worketh not’ in this verse, is not meant only one that don’t conform to the ceremonial law, because ‘he that worketh not,’ and ‘the ungodly’ are evidently synonymous expressions,” therefore “the grace of the gospel appears in that God in justification has no regard to any godliness of ours…that gospel grace consists in the rewards being given without works,”1

3. the faith that justifies “the ungodly” does not refer to “a course of obedience, or righteousness;”2 and,

4. “the subject of justification is looked upon as destitute of any righteousness in himself” and is counted as righteous apart from moral works, which works are not to be interpreted as “works of the ceremonial law” only.3

My limited purpose in this article is to present Edwards’s argument that Paul’s use of the terms “works of the law” had reference to moral works as well as ceremonial works. In light of the narrow intent, discussion of the historical context and Edwards’s overall understanding of justification will be minimal. The content and approach will be an exposition of the brief section within Justification by Faith Alone, where Edwards answers this question: are “works of the law” in the Pauline epistles limited to the ceremonial works of the “Mosaic dispensation,” or do they refer to moral obedience to the “whole law of God,” including the Ten Commandments?4

The Importance Of The Debate To Edwards

Edwards’s arguments in Justification by Faith Alone are part of a greater, international, and historical debate between Reformed and Arminian theologians concerning the nature of justification.5 Edwards’s particular interest in interpreting Paul’s use of the phrase “works of the law” concerns his opposition to the Arminian contention that believers are justified conditionally at the point of faith, while justification in a final sense is only achieved by persisting in “sincere” and “persevering obedience.”6 Having exercised faith, a believer may continue “in a justified state” and be “finally justified” if he or she persists in obedience.7 To support justification by sincere obedience, proponents interpret Paul’s statements that no one is justified by “works of the law” as referring to works of the ceremonial law only, maintaining the occasion of Paul’s expositions of justification to be that certain “Judaizing Christians” were “so fond of circumcision and other ceremonies of the law” that they trusted in them for their justification.8 For Edwards, if “works of the law” could be shown to include all moral works, the Arminian belief in justification by persevering obedience would be repudiated.9

For Edwards, this “contrary doctrine” and “adverse scheme of justification” made “nothing at all of the Apostle’s great doctrine of justification by faith alone.”10 Edwards writes:

The Apostle under the infallible conduct of the Spirit of God, thought it worth his most strenuous and zealous disputing about and defending. He speaks of the contrary doctrine as fatal and ruinous to the souls of men, in the latter end of the ninth chapter of Romans, and beginning of the tenth. He speaks of it as subversive of the gospel of Christ, and calls it another gospel, and says concerning it, if anyone, ‘though an angel from heaven preach it, let him be accursed’ (Gal. 1:6–9, compared with the following part of the epistle). Certainly we must allow the Apostles to be good judges of the importance and tendency of doctrines; at least the Holy Ghost in them.11

Accordingly, one must be faithful in defense of the doctrine and be held blameless for teaching it.

And doubtless we are safe, and in no danger of harshness and censoriousness, if we only follow him, and keep close to his express teachings, in what we believe and say of the hurtful and pernicious tendency of any error. Why are we to blame or to be cried out of, for saying what the Bible has taught us to say, or for believing what the Holy Ghost has taught us to that end that we might believe it?12

Moreover, any “scheme” that affirms justification as founded upon anything other than the “worthiness and righteousness” of Christ is to place “men’s own virtue” at the foundation of salvation. In the Arminian scheme, it would be man’s virtue, “imperfect as it is, that recommends men to God, by which good men come to have a saving interest in Christ, and God’s favor, rather than others; and these things are bestowed in testimony of God’s respect to their goodness.”13 For Edwards, justification is in no way founded on any worthiness of the believer. Rather, justification is the judicial declaration of God that the believer is in conformity with the demands of God’s law, both in the satisfaction of the law’s penalty for sin, and in the fulfillment of its requirement of perfect obedience for eternal life.14 Christ, as the “second Adam,” voluntarily acted as the mediator between God and man in standing in the place of mankind and fulfilling the requirements of God’s law for the obtaining of eternal life.15 Prior to the fall, Adam’s perfect obedience would have obtained eternal life for him and his posterity, as he stood for all mankind.16 After the fall, the requirement for obedience in honor to God’s authority was not abrogated, but remained for all mankind as the requirement for eternal life, in addition to satisfaction by death of the penalty of God’s law.17 Christ, standing in the place of the elect, satisfied both requirements of God’s justice and accomplished their redemption. The merits of His work are applied to the elect at the moment of saving faith.18 Faith unites the believer with Christ, but is not meritorious as that which earns God’s favor, for Christ’s merits alone give the believer favor with God.19 Edwards writes:

Neither salvation itself, nor Christ the Savior, are given as a reward of anything in man: they are not given as a reward of faith, nor anything else of ours: we are not united to Christ as a reward of our faith, but have union with him by faith, only as faith is the very act of uniting, or closing on our part.20

Christ alone satisfied the demands of God’s law, the merits of which are imputed (credited) to the believer united to Christ by faith.21

Justification is the heart of the gospel of Christ as it is “the main thing” for which sinners need “divine revelation…to teach us how we that have sinned, may come to be again accepted of God; or which is the same thing, how the sinner may be justified.”22

This seems to be the great drift of that revelation that God has given, and of all those mysteries it reveals, all those great doctrines that are peculiarly doctrines of revelation, and above the light of nature. It seems to have been very much on this account that it was requisite that the doctrine of the Trinity itself should be revealed to us; that by a discovery of the concern of the several divine persons, in the great affair of our salvation, we might the better understand and see how all our dependence in this affair is on God, and our sufficiency all in him, and not in ourselves; that he is all in all in this business, agreeable to 1 Cor. 1:29–31, “That no flesh should glory in his presence: but of him, are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God, is made unto us, wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption. That, according as it is written, he that glorieth let him glory in the Lord.” What is the gospel, but only the glad tidings of a new way of acceptance with God, unto life, a way wherein sinners may come to be free from the guilt of sin, and obtain a title to eternal life? And if when this way is revealed, it is rejected, and another of man’s devising be put in the room of it, without doubt, it must be an error of great importance, and the Apostle might well say it was another gospel.23

Edwards goes on to say: “The contrary scheme of justification derogates much from the honor of God, and the Mediator” and “tend[s] to lead men to trust in their own righteousness for justification, which is a thing fatal to the soul.”24

For Edwards, therefore, the proper interpretation of the “works of the law” is vital to a proper understanding of justification and the true gospel, having profound implications concerning God’s purpose in revealing His triune nature and the ultimate destiny of the human soul. To limit “works of the law” to the ceremonial law while positing a justification contingent upon persevering obedience is to proclaim “another gospel.”25

It is not suitable that God should give fallen man an interest in Christ and his merits, as a testimony of his respect to anything whatsoever as a loveliness in him; and that because ’tis not meet till a sinner is actually justified, that anything in him should be accepted of God, as any excellency or amiableness of his person; or that God by any act, should in any manner or degree testify any pleasedness with him, or favor towards him, on the account of anything inherent in him.26

Edwards’s Eleven Arguments

Edwards gives eleven reasons why “works of the law” cannot refer exclusively to the ceremonial works of the law, but refers to “all works of obedience, virtue, and righteousness whatsoever,”27 including obedience to the ceremonial law insofar as all obedience is a moral issue before God. Edwards counters the argument that Paul’s use of the phrase “works of the law” refers to ceremonial works performed under the Mosaic economy and does not include moral works performed under the present gospel dispensation.28

The eleven reasons are given in the second of five sections of the discourse where he presents evidence for the doctrine that “we are justified only by faith in Christ, and not by any manner of virtue or goodness of our own.”29

In making his case, Edwards does not deny that ceremonial works may be included in Paul’s references to “works of the law.”30 And, even if the occasion of Paul’s writing was the error of trusting in a particular ceremonial work,

how does it follow that therefore the Apostle did not upon that occasion write against trusting in all works of righteousness whatsoever? Where is the absurdity of supposing that the Apostle might take occasion from his observing some to trust in a certain work as a work of righteousness, to write to them against persons trusting in any works of righteousness at all, and that it was a very proper occasion too?31

Edwards readily admits that ceremonial works are included in Paul’s references, as justification is by faith exclusive of all works, including circumcision and other ceremonial works. The burden of proof, therefore, is on those limiting Paul’s references of “works of the law” to ceremonial works to prove that the words necessarily exclude works of the moral law in all cases.32 Edwards’s arguments that “works of the law” refers primarily to works of the moral law are as follows.

First, Paul uses the term works with respect to justification by works in a general sense, without a specific reference to works “of the law,” as in the following verses: Romans 4:5, “unto him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth”; Romans 4:6, “God imputeth righteousness without works”; Romans 11:6, “and if by grace, then is it no more of works, otherwise grace is no more grace: but if it be of works, then is it no more grace; otherwise work is no more work”; and Ephesians 2:8–9, “for by grace are ye saved, through faith,…not of works.” In these passages “there is no reason in the world to understand the Apostle of any other than works in general, as correlates of a reward, or good works, or works of virtue and righteousness.”33 As “works” is not in these verses restricted by the phrase “of the law,” it cannot be more narrowly restricted to a particular aspect of the law, such as the ceremonial law. And while some will grant that “works” without the specific limiting language “of the law” refers to “our own good works in general” (though not meritorious works), they nonetheless limit “works of the law” to the ceremonial law, even though both expressions “works” and “works of the law” are intermingled in the same discourse and used in the “same argument.” This is not only “very unreasonable, it is to dodge, and fly from Scripture, rather than to open and yield ourselves to its teachings.”34

Second, Romans 3:9 and following proves from the Old Testament that all are guilty of breaking the moral law and therefore cannot be justified by works of the law.35

“There is none righteous, no, not one…their throat is an open sepulcher…with their tongues have they used deceit…their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness…their feet swift to shed blood.” Paul continues in mentioning only those things that are violations of the moral law, with no mention of the ceremonial law, concluding in Romans 3:19–20, “now we know that whatsoever things the law saith, it saith to them that are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law, shall no flesh be justified in his sight.” The argument is clearly that no one is justified by works of the moral law, as emphasized again in Romans 3:23.36 How, then, can it be that

‘their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness, their feet are swift to shed blood,’ therefore, they can’t be justified by the deeds of the Mosaic administration? They are guilty of the breaches of the moral law, and therefore they can’t be justified by the deeds of the ceremonial law?37

It cannot. Rather, “the very same law they have broken and sinned against, can never justify…but necessarily condemns its violators.” The point is, “out of Christ,” nothing of our “virtue or obedience” can be accepted or be the basis or catalyst of our acceptance.38

Third, in all of the passages of Romans preceding 3:20, “the law” primarily refers to the moral law. When 2:12 says, “for as many as have sinned without law, shall also perish without law,” the moral law is intended, for 2:13 speaks of the Gentiles, who not having the law, “do by nature the things contained in the law” and thereby “show the work of the law written in their hearts.”39 Gentiles, by nature, perform works of the moral law, not the ceremonial law. Also, in 2:18: “thou approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law,” the moral law is that which “shows us the nature of things, and teaches us what is excellent.40 The moral law is intended in 2:20, “thou hast a form of knowledge, and truth in the law,” for in 2:22–23 the reference to “adultery, idolatry, and sacrilege” refers to the moral law: “thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? Thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege? Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonorest thou God?” So also in 2:27, where the “uncircumcised” Gentiles who keep the moral aspects of the law will judge those who, keeping circumcision, break the law nonetheless. Given that all discussion of the law prior to 3:20 is primarily with respect to the moral law, and is preparatory to its assertion that no one, Gentile of Jew, can be justified by works of the law, how then can the reference in 3:20 be interpreted as referring exclusively to the ceremonial law? It cannot.

Fourth, the purpose of the law in Romans 3:20 is the knowledge of sin: “by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin,” and the moral law is that which “chiefly and primarily” brings us to the knowledge of sin. Edwards writes:

’Tis a miserable shift, and a violent force put upon the words, to say that the meaning is, that by the law of circumcision is the knowledge of sin, because circumcision signifying the taking way of sin, puts men in mind of sin. The plain meaning of the Apostle is that as the law most strictly forbids sin, it tends to convince us of sin, and bring our own consciences to condemn us, instead of justifying of us; that the use of it is to declare to us our own guilt and unworthiness, which is the reverse of justifying and approving of us as virtuous or worthy.41

The moral law produces knowledge of sin by forbidding sin, as also taught in Romans 7:7: “I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” Coveting is forbidden by the moral, not the ceremonial law.42 Edwards asserts:

When the Apostle argues that by the deeds of the law no flesh living shall be justified, because the law is the knowledge of sin, his argument proves (unless he was mistaken as to the force of his argument), that we can’t be justified by the deeds of the moral law.43

Fifth, the fact that believers “have righteousness” and “a title to the privilege of God’s children” by faith and not by law is further evidence Paul’s argument is primarily against justification by works of the moral law. Romans 4:13–16 states:

For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect: because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression. Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace.44

The wrath of God is produced by the moral law prohibiting sin and “aggravating the guilt of the transgression,” consistent with Romans 7:13, “that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.” The law that “worketh wrath” is the law contrasted with faith, the law that forbids sin, and the very same law by which sinners cannot be justified.45

Sixth, the purpose of Paul’s argument for justification by faith alone is to exclude boasting, making clear that no one is justified by their “own virtue, goodness, or excellency.” Romans 3:26–28 says:

To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay; but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

Ephesians 2:8–9 reads, “for by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”46 Of what do people boast if not “what they esteem their own goodness, or excellency?47

Edwards does not deny that Jews boasted in circumcision and other rituals of the ceremonial law as elevating them over the Gentile nations. Nonetheless, such boasting “was under a notion of its being a part of their own goodness or excellency, or what made them holier and more lovely in the sight of God than other people.48 In other words, even boasting in the ceremonial aspects of the law is a moral issue related to one’s own goodness and moral uprightness, by which no one is justified.

In addition, as admirers and followers of the Pharisees, “the Jews of those days49 were “notorious for boasting of their moral righteousness.” In Luke 18, Christ speaks of the Pharisee that thanked God he was not “an extortioner…unjust…an adulterer” like other men, relying on his moral works of the law for his justification, while the tax collector disavowing his own worthiness and righteousness went home justified. Matthew 6:2 speaks of Pharisees ostentatiously vaunting their moral works. Romans 2:22–23 speaks of the Jews boasting in the moral law, though the same law condemns them for their breaking the law by their adultery, idolatry, and sacrilege.50

In light of these things, how then “was their boasting excluded, unless all goodness or excellency of their own was excluded?” Indeed, “when they boasted of the rites of the ceremonial law, it was under a notion of its being a part of their own goodness or excellency, or what made them holier and more lovely in the sight of God than other people.”51 So, even if works of the law includes works of the ceremonial law, they are nonetheless performed as moral works, the goodness or righteousness of which is presumed to justify. Obedience to the ceremonial law is a moral issue, and no one is justified by their own moral works of obedience, be they obedience to the moral or ceremonial aspect of the law.

Seventh, in stating that no one is justified by works of the law in Galatians 3, the moral and not the ceremonial law is primarily in view as evidenced by Paul’s citation of Deuteronomy 27:26 in Galatians 3:10: “for as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.”52 In the context of Deuteronomy 27, the reference is

not only with regard to the ceremonial law, but the whole law of God to mankind, and chiefly the moral law; and that all mankind are therefore as they are in themselves under that curse, not only while the ceremonial law lasted, but now since that has ceased: and therefore all that are justified, are redeemed from that curse, by Christ’s bearing it for them.53

As Abraham was justified by faith and not by works of the law, so also are all justified who are of the same faith of Abraham. And, though the ceremonial aspect of the law has “ceased,” all remain under the law’s curse until they are delivered by faith in Christ, who “redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; for it is written, cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree.”54 Thus, Paul here speaks of the moral law by which people cannot be justified, for it remains that he who “continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” is cursed. Therefore, Edwards writes,

we can’t be justified by the works of the moral law, and of the whole rule which God has given mankind to walk by; for the words are spoken of the moral as well as the ceremonial law, and reach every command, or precept which God has given to mankind, and chiefly the moral precepts, which are most strictly enjoined, and the violations of which in both New Testament and Old, and in the books of Moses themselves, are threatened with the most dreadful curse.55

Thus, while works of the ceremonial law are not excluded, the reference of “works of the law” by which no one can be justified is primarily to works of the moral law.

Eighth, Paul uses the terms our “own righteousness” and “works of the law” synonymously, each referring to that by which one cannot be justified.56 In Romans 10:3, we read, “for they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God,” a clear parallel with the immediately preceding passage of Romans 9:31, “but Israel which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness: Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law.” Edwards says:

’Tis very unreasonable, upon several accounts, to suppose that the Apostle by “their own righteousness,” intends only their ceremonial righteousness. For when the Apostle warns us against trusting in our own righteousness for justification, doubtless it is fair to interpret the expression in an agreement with other Scriptures where we are warned not to think that ’tis for the sake of our own righteousness, that we obtain God’s favor and blessing.57

Edwards cites Deuteronomy 9:4–6, wherein Israel is told they will not possess the Promised Land on account of [their] righteousness, and that their enemies will be driven out on account of their wickedness.

None will pretend that here the expression “thy righteousness,” signifies only a ceremonial righteousness, but all virtue or goodness of their own; yea and the inward goodness of the heart as well as the outward goodness of life.58

That righteousness refers to moral righteousness is consistent with Deuteronomy 9:5, “not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart,” and 9:6, “not for thy righteousness, for thou art a stiff-necked people.” As contrasted with “their moral wickedness, obstinacy, and perverseness of heart,” righteousness expresses “their moral virtue, and rectitude of heart, and life.” Similarly, when “our own righteousness” is used “with relation to the favor of God, and when we are warned against looking upon it as that by which that favor, or the fruits of it are obtained,” our personal goodness is in view and not only “a ceremonial righteousness.”59

Similarly, those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous” were condemned in the New Testament, as in Christ’s parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in Luke 18:9ff. The Pharisee’s prayer indicates a trust in his “moral qualifications” and works as compared to the tax collector, “that he was not an extortioner, unjust, nor an adulterer, etc.”60 Nonetheless, the epistles of Paul are sufficient to settle the matter “if we will allow the apostle Paul to be his own interpreter…when he speaks of our own righteousness as that which we are not justified or saved by,” as in Titus 3:5: “not by works of righteousness which we have done.” “Let it be an obedience to the ceremonial law, or a gospel obedience, or what it will, if it be a righteousness of our own doing, it is excluded by the Apostle in this affair.”61

Ninth, Titus 3:3–7 denies justification by works of the moral law. Edwards notes:

For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.62

First, justification is in view here, as justification by grace is contrasted with “works of righteousness” that cannot save. Second, “works of righteousness which we have done” does not refer exclusively to works of the ceremonial law, given that 3:3 speaks of violations of the moral law prior to justification: “for we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another.” This is the impetus for the observation in 3:5 that they were not “saved or justified” by “works of righteousness which they had done.” Moreover, the phrase “works of righteousness” is equivalent to saying “righteous works” or “good works,” while the universal sense of “works” is accentuated by the phrase “which we have done.”63 Limiting “works” here to ceremonial works contradicts the plain sense of the statement. Such a limitation is analogous to explicitly stating something cannot be purchased with money, while strengthening the common meaning of money by adding “that men possess,” but really only meaning brass money, though never stating the narrower reference to brass money.64 No one would reasonably interpret money as brass money alone in such a case, nor should they interpret “works which we have done” as ceremonial works only.

An even more unreasonable argument for interpreting works of righteousness in this text as ceremonial is to view the works as only falsely supposed as righteous by the Jews, given the ceremonial law has been abrogated. Edwards views this interpretation as “ridiculous” and analogous to interpreting a statement that something cannot be bought with money as referring only to counterfeit money, because counterfeit money is not money. In a bit of apparent exasperation, Edwards writes, “[W]hat Scripture will stand before men if they will take liberty to manage Scripture thus? Or what one text is there in the Bible that mayn’t at this rate be explained all away, and perverted to any sense men please?”65

Also, even if justification and ceremonial works are opposed in Titus 3:3–7, they are opposed “under that notion, or in that quality, of their being works of righteousness of our own doing.” It follows, then, that Paul’s argument “is strong against” ceremonial and moral works of the law as justifying, as he includes all works “that are of our own doing,” in “works of righteousness which we have done.”66

Further, even if this were the only scriptural text on justification, it “would clearly and invincibly prove that we are not justified by any of our own goodness, virtue, or righteousness or for the excellency or righteousness of anything that we have done in religion.67 Nonetheless, in opposing salvation by works and asserting salvation by grace, Paul speaks of the same works where he makes the same argument opposing works to grace, as in the following passages: Romans 11:6, “and if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work”; Romans 4:4, “now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt”; Romans 3:24, where works of the law is contrasted with “being justified freely by his grace”; and again in Romans 4:16, where justification is of faith “that it might be by grace,” where “the righteousness of faith, is opposed to the righteousness of the law.”68 Therefore, in Titus 3:3–7, “God’s saving us according to his mercy, and justifying us by grace, is opposed to saving us by works of righteousness that we have done, in the same manner as in those places justifying us by his grace, is opposed to justifying us by works of the law.69

Tenth, according to the opposing view, even if people are no longer justified by obedience to the ceremonial law because it has been abrogated under the New Testament, it follows they would be justified by sincere obedience to whatever commands of God are in force, under the New or Old Testament. Thus, sincere obedience to both the moral and ceremonial laws would be required for justification in the Old Testament, as the ceremonial law was then still in force.

But, if “works of the law” in the New Testament refers to the ceremonial law only, then according to Paul’s citation of Psalm 32 in Romans 4:68, Old Testament saints “were not justified in any measure, by the works of the ceremonial law,” because David was not justified by works.70 This, however, contradicts the view that justification is by sincere obedience, because sincere obedience in the Old Testament would have included obedience to the ceremonial law. David was justified by faith and not works, including works of the ceremonial law. If David was justified by sincere obedience to whatever commands of God he was under, he would have been justified by works of the moral and ceremonial law. Thus, according to the very tenets of those advocating justification by sincere obedience, “works” could not here refer to ceremonial works, contradicting the interpretation of works necessary for their view.

The context, and in particular verse 5, speaks of justification, including “forgiving iniquities and covering sins,” the very thing those advocating justification by sincere obedience “suppose to be justification, and even the whole of justification.”71 David was justified by the imputation of “righteousness without works,” in the context of Romans 4:6–8, and speaks of the forgiveness of his iniquities in Psalm 32:

When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.72

Thus, whether one interprets “works” in Romans 4:6–8 as all works or only ceremonial works, David was justified by neither. But, if people were justified in the Old Testament by their sincere obedience, they would have been justified, in part, by obedience to the ceremonial law. Edwards summarizes this argument as follows:

If our own obedience be that by which men are justified, then under the Old Testament, men were justified partly by obedience to the ceremonial law (as has been proved); but the saints under the Old Testament were not justified partly by the works of the ceremonial law; therefore men’s own obedience is not that by which they are justified.73

Eleventh, “works of the law” cannot be restricted to ceremonial works alone in Romans 10:5–6, “for Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, that the man which doeth those things shall live by them; but the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise.”

First, the context indicates a continuation of the earlier arguments in Romans concerning “two opposite ways of justification, one by the righteousness which is of the law, the other by faith,” including the immediately preceding argument of Romans 9, as will be seen below.

Second, Paul’s citation of Moses, “the man which doeth those things shall live in them,” does not refer exclusively or even primarily to the ceremonial law. Consistent with the Romans 4 discussion of David’s justification noted above, “none will pretend that God ever made such a covenant with man, that he that kept the ceremonial law should live in it, or that there ever was a time that it was chiefly by the works of the ceremonial law, that men lived and were justified.”74 Such refers to the moral law, consistent with the ending verses of Romans 9, “but Israel which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness: Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law”; and Romans 10:3, “For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God.”

Further, in the Arminian “way of justification by the virtue of a sincere obedience,” justification by faith is only contrasted with a particular kind of works (ceremonial works), exclusive of moral works. According to this view, when Paul contrasts that by which Christians are justified with the works that do not justify, those by which “he that doeth those things shall live in them,” the reference is to ceremonial works alone. Yet, Paul’s description of the righteousness of the law, described as that by which “the man which doeth them shall live in them,” describes equally well both moral and ceremonial works, and is plainly contrasted with its opposite, the righteousness of faith. Edwards concludes:

If these words cited from Moses, are actually said by him of the moral law as well as ceremonial as ’tis most evident they are, it renders it still more absurd to suppose them mentioned by the Apostle, as the very note of distinction between justification by a ceremonial obedience, and a moral sincere obedience, as the Arminians must suppose.75


Edwards’s argument rests on showing that works of the law includes moral works of the law, with or without ceremonial works. That works of the law includes ceremonial works is no argument for the opposing view, as ceremonial works are a subset of works in general. What must be proven by those advocating the “opposing scheme” is that “works of the law,” as used by Paul in contrast to justification by faith, refers exclusively to ceremonial works and entirely excludes works of the moral law. According to Edwards, such an interpretation is contrary to both the obvious meaning of “works” in the context of Paul’s arguments and is contrary to the entire meaning of the gospel. Justification is by faith in the person and saving work of Christ alone, and in no way according to our works, be they in obedience to the moral and or ceremonial law. Justification, for Edwards, is by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ through faith in Christ alone.

Originally printed in Puritan Reformed Journal, Volume 2, Number 1, January 2010. Used by Permission.

1 “Justification by Faith Alone,” in Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses, 1734–1738, ed. M. X. Lesser, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 19:147. Hereafter “JFA,” WJE 19:147.

2 “JFA,” WJE 19:148.

3 “JFA,” WJE 19:148–149.

4 Edwards has much to say in all of his writings concerning the nature of justification, of which Justification by Faith Alone (“JFA”) is but a part, albeit an essential part. For Edwards, the doctrine of justification is not only at the heart of the gospel, but is fundamental to God’s ultimate purpose in creation and redemption through Christ, and must be understood within this greater context. For those desiring a more systematic and in-depth treatment of this central aspect of Edwards’s theology, see Craig Biehl, The Infinite Merit of Christ: The Glory of Christ’s Obedience in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Jackson, MS: Reformed Academic Press, 2009); and, Carl W. Bogue, Jonathan Edwards and the Covenant of Grace (Cherry Hill, NJ: Mack Publishing Company, 1975; reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009). For an excellent and in-depth treatment of the historical context and nature of Edwards’s arguments in JFA, see Michael McClenahan, “Jonathan Edwards’ Doctrine of Justification in the Period up to the First Great Awakening” (D. Phil. Diss., Oxford University, 2006). For a brief but helpful description of the basic historical context of the Arminian controversy in New England, see George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 137–141, 175–182. For a short discussion of contemporary interpretations of Edwards’s understanding of justification, see Biehl, Infinite Merit, 14–22.

5 McClenahan, Justification, 9. McClenahan writes, “Edwards’ discourse Justification by Faith Alone was written with the specific intent of refuting the Arminian theology of justification that flourished in England after the Restoration of Charles II and which was represented and propagated in New England in the published sermons of Archbishop John Tillotson.” While the term “Arminian” was originally used to identify those holding to the theology of the Dutch Remonstrant, Jacobus Arminius, it subsequently came to be used by many as a more general description of those not holding to the five points of Calvinism. Edwards uses it here to refer to those advocating salvation by sincere obedience, given the strict requirements of the law having been abrogated or weakened to accommodate the inability of sinners to meet its requirements.

6 McClenahan notes that “obedience, for Tillotson, is not the fruit of a true and lively faith, as the Reformed argued, but is an essential constituent part of faith.” McClenahan, Justification, 141. Tillotson writes that the definition of faith includes “obedience to all his Laws and Commands; because believing them to be from God, we cannot but assent to them as good, and as laying an Obligation upon us to yeild (sic) Obedience to them: and if we do not obey them, we are presumed to disbelieve them; for if we did truly and heartily believe them to be the Commands of God, we would obey them.” Thus, “we cannot be said to be justified by Faith alone, unless that Faith include in it Obedience.” Tillotson, Works (1728), III, Of the Christian Faith which Sanctifies, Justifies, and Saves, Sermon CLXXII, 453, 454, respectively; quoted in McClenahan, Justification, 141–142.

7 “JFA,” WJE 19:167. Tillotson writes, “If we consider the easy and reasonable conditions upon which we may be made partakers of this unspeakable benefit, and that is by a constant and sincere and universal obedience to the laws of God, which supposeth repentance towards God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Tillotson, Works (1728) II, The Possibility and Necessity of Gospel-Obedience, and consistence with free Grace, Sermon LXIX, 450; quoted in McClenahan, Justification, 219.

8 Ibid., 19:169.

9 Ibid., 19:167.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid., 19:237.

12 Ibid., 19:237–238.

13 Ibid., 19:238–239.

14 “A person is said to be justified when he is approved of God as free from the guilt of sin, and its deserved punishment, and as having that righteousness belonging to him that entitles to the reward of life…. To justify a person in a particular case, is to approve of him as standing right, as subject to the law or rule in that case; and to justify in general, is to pass him in judgment, as standing right, in a state correspondent to the law or rule in general.” “JFA,” WJE, 19:150. See Biehl, Infinite Merit, 125–140.

15 See “The Threefold Work of the Holy Ghost,” in Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses, 1723–1729, ed. Kenneth P. Minkema, WJE (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 14:397–399; “The Peace Which Christ Gives His True Followers” in Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses, 1743–1758, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach, WJE (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), 25:544; “Miscellanies 496” in WJE 13:539. Regarding Christ’s work as voluntary, see Biehl, Infinite Merit, 61–64, 203–207.

16 “If Adam had finished his course of perfect obedience, he would have been justified; and certainly his justification would have implied something more than what is merely negative; he would have been approved of, as having fulfilled the righteousness of the law, and accordingly would have been adjudged to the reward of it.” “JFA,” WJE, 150. See Biehl, Infinite Merit, 89–90.

17 “God never made but one with man, to wit, the covenant of works; which never yet was abrogated, but is a covenant stands in full force to all eternity without the failing of one tittle. The covenant of grace is not another covenant made with man upon the abrogation of this, but a covenant made with Christ to fulfill it.” “Miscellanies 30” in Jonathan Edwards, The “Miscellanies,” a–500, ed. Thomas A. Schafer, 2002 corrected ed., WJE (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 13:217. See also Biehl, Infinite Merit, 119–124.

18 ‘Tis absolutely necessary that in order to a sinner’s being justified, the righteousness of some other should be reckoned to his account; for ’tis declared that the person justified is looked upon as (in himself) ungodly; but God neither will nor can justify a person without a righteousness.” “JFA,” WJE 19:188.

19 “JFA,” WJE 19:160. For a helpful discussion of Edwards’s understanding of the nature of faith and justification, see Bogue, Covenant of Grace, 253–278; and Conrad Cherry, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards: A Reappraisal, 1990 ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966), 90–106.

20 “JFA,” WJE 19:200–201.

21 For an in-depth exposition of Edwards’s understanding of faith and union with Christ, see Robert W. Caldwell, Communion in the Spirit: The Holy Spirit as the Bond of Union in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards, in Studies in Evangelical History and Thought (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007). For a more brief discussion on faith and union, see McClenahan, Justification, 182–193.

22 “JFA,” WJE 19:239.

23 Ibid., 19:239–240.

24 Ibid., 19:240–241.

25 Ibid., 19:237, 239, 240. Note how Edwards carefully qualifies his assessment of the hearts of those advocating these “contrary schemes.” He allows that in the “mysterious agency of God’s Spirit,” many professing “error” and “contrary schemes” may do so “contrary to their own principles…contrary to the prevailing disposition of their hearts.” Or, “how far some may seem to maintain a doctrine contrary to this gospel doctrine of justification, that really do not, but only express themselves differently from others; or seem to oppose it through their misunderstanding of our expressions, or we of theirs, when indeed our real sentiments are the same in the main; or may seem to differ more than they do, by using terms that are without a precisely fixed and determinate meaning; or to be wide in their sentiments from this doctrine, for want of a distinct understanding of it; whose hearts at the same time entirely agree with it, and if once it was clearly explained to their understandings, would immediately close with it, and embrace it: how far these things may be I won’t determine, but am fully persuaded that great allowances are to be made, on these, and such like accounts, in innumerable instances; though it is manifest from what has been said, that the teaching and propagating contrary doctrines and schemes is of a pernicious and fatal tendency.” “JFA,” WJE 19:242.

26 Ibid., 19:161.

27 Ibid., 19:170.

28 Tillotson writes, “In the Romans and the Galatians, St. Paul doth plainly oppose Faith to the Law; and it will clearly appear to anyone that will carefully read over these discourses of St. Paul’s, that by faith is meant the Dispensation of the Gospel, and by Law the Mosaical Administration; and the result of all those Discourses is, that Men are not justified by performing the Works which the legal Dispensation required; but by assenting and submitting to the Revelation of the Gospel.” Tillotson, Works (1728), III, Of Justifying Faith, Sermon CLXXIII, 459; quoted in McClenahan, Justification, 139.

29 “JFA,” WJE 19:149.

30 Ibid., 19:168.

31 Ibid., 19:169.

32 Ibid., 19:168.

33 Ibid., 19:170.

34 Ibid., 19:170–171.

35 For Edwards’s argument that Romans 3:9–24 and its context prove that moral disobedience and corruption are universal to all Jews and Gentiles, see Jonathan Edwards, Original Sin, ed. Clyde A. Holbrook, WJE (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 3:283–291.

36 “JFA,” WJE 19:171.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid., 19:171. For an in-depth discussion of Edwards’s understanding that the best works of sinners and saints are worthy of condemnation when considered of themselves apart from the righteousness of Christ, see Biehl, Infinite Merit, 113–142.

39 Ibid., 19:171–172.

40 Ibid., 19:172.

41 Ibid., 19:172–173.

42 Ibid., 19:173.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid., 19:174.

47 Ibid.

48 Ibid., 19:174–175.

49 During the latter period of Second-Temple Judaism, at or about the time of Christ’s ministry.

50 “JFA,” WJE 19:174.

51 Ibid., 19:174–175.

52 Ibid., 19:175.

53 Ibid.

54 Galatians 3:13; “JFA,” WJE 19:175.

55 “JFA,” WJE 19:175.

56 Ibid., 19:175–176.

57 Ibid., 19:176.

58 Ibid.

59 Ibid., 19:176–177.

60 Ibid., 19:177.

61 Ibid.

62 Ibid.

63 Ibid., 19:178.

64 Ibid.

65 Ibid., 19:178–179.

66 Ibid., 19:179.

67 Ibid.

68 Ibid.

69 Ibid.

70 Ibid., 19:180. Paul writes, “even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.”

71 Ibid., 19:180.

72 Ibid., 19:181.

73 Ibid.

74 Ibid., 19:181–182.

75 Ibid., 19:182–183.

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation), Regeneration, Justification, Law, Cultural Issues

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