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George Burnap on Justification by Faith Alone
(an excerpt)
(1844)

We now come to the great test, Christ's solemn and scenic representation of judgment, that very transaction, where faith is represented to be so omnipotent and works so worthless. Is there one word, in all that imposing and impressive scene, said concerning faith as the one grand, sole requisite?

Does that transaction look like the doctrine that the accepted are justified, "not on account of anything done by them, or any other evangelical obedience, but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ," according to the Creeds and Catechism? Let us read the record: "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was, thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me." "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me." What then becomes of justification by faith alone? Is it not strange, is it not unaccountable, that it should have been passed over in most profound silence, in this very transaction where it is supposed by this theory to bear sway alone?

Should not the Judge rather have said, "inasmuch as ye have had faith, although I set aside and disregard as filthy rags, your own righteousness, your own good deeds, I impute to you the righteousness of another, and on that account bid you welcome to eternal joy?" Such should have been the language of this passage, had the doctrine of justification by faith alone been true. "They that have done good," says the Saviour, "shall come forth unto the resurrection of life: and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation."

I need not repeat to you the proposition with which we commenced this division of discourse, that the doctrine of justification by faith alone, is contradicted by the general current of Scripture, and explicitly in many of the most important passages.

Whence then came the doctrine of justification by faith alone How could it have originated in the minds of men, and thence found its way into Creeds and Confessions in opposition to so much that is plain and unequivocal in the word of God? It claims to be founded on Scripture too. Many texts are quoted in support of it, among which are the following, from Paul's Epistle to the Romans: "Therefore, by the, deeds of the law, there shall no flesh be justified in his sight." "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law."

Now one of these two things is certain, either, that the Scriptures contradict themselves; one part affirming what another denies; or that one part or the other has been misunderstood, and thought to teach a doctrine which it does not teach. We cannot suppose that Scripture contradicts itself. There must be then some misapprehension. On which side is it most likely to be? Which is most likely to be mistaken, the very few passages in which the doctrine of justification by faith alone is thought to be taught, or the whole compass and course of Scripture, in which judgment according to deeds is inculcated?

Let us then examine these few passages in the writings of Paul, and see if they have not been misapprehended. James says in our text, "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only." Paul says, "I Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." It first occurs to remark, that the expressions are not identical, though similar. James asserts, that men are justified by works, that is, as the connection demonstrates acts of moral goodness. Paul asserts that men are not justified -- by what -- not works simply, acts of moral goodness, for then there would have been a plain contradiction, but by the deeds of the law.

Now acts of moral goodness, and deeds of the law may be very different things, and thus Paul may not deny what James and the rest of Scripture assert. James declares, that no man can be finally accepted by God, unless he be a good man. Paul may mean, and probably does mean, that a man may be a good Christian, without conforming to the law of Moses. Paul in this Epistle to the Romans, and more especially in that to the Galatians is arguing against the Jews and Judaizing teachers, who taught, as we are informed in the Acts, that the converts from heathenism must be circumcised, and keep the law of Moses in order to be saved. Paul taught on the contrary, that it was only necessary to believe on Christ, repent, and live according to the Gospel. It is not his decision to disparage works of moral goodness, for the last five chapters of this very Epistle are taken up in recommending and enjoining them on Christians, but to draw off the Jews from their bigoted attachment to the law of Moses.

But why does Paul apparently speak so highly of faith, and so disparagingly of the law? Because he was defending the new religion against the old. The old as the degenerate Jews then supposed, placed salvation in a minute and superstitious observance of the laws of Moses. The new, Paul declares, has another method of bringing men into a state of salvation, into a state of nearness to God and acceptance with him. He has set forth Christ to be a propitiatory, or mercy seat; in and through him he offers pardon, reconciliation and justification, or acquittal as the word means in this connection, to all mankind, both Jews and Gentiles, on condition of faith, repentance and obedience, without any regard whatever to the law of Moses. And this is what he means, when be speaks of being justified by faith in opposition to the deeds of the law. Faith then in this, and similar passages, does not mean bare belief alone, but the whole Christian religion, as distinguished from the law of Moses.


2003 American Unitarian Conference