Every Christian ought to keep a firm hold on what it means for a sinner to be justified in the sight of God. This is, after all, at the heart of the gospel and the foundation of our peace. To that end, I recently made time to read James Buchanan’s classic book The Doctrine of Justification: An Outline of its History in the Church and of its Exposition from Scripture. James Buchanan (neither the 15th U.S. president nor the Nobel Prize winning economist) was a Scottish Presbyterian pastor and seminary professor who died in 1870.
In what follows, I have sought to cull some of my favorite quotes from Buchanan’s book, so that the benefits of my reading might not be limited to me. All page numbers are from the Banner of Truth edition.
1. The Gospel Always New
“The Gospel is older than Luther; but, to every succeeding generation, it is still new—good news from God—as fresh now as when it first sprung from the fountain of Inspiration. It was new to ourselves—surprising, startling, and affecting us strangely, as if it were almost too good to be true—when it first shone, like a beam of heaven’s own light, into our dark and troubled spirits, and shed abroad ‘a peace which passeth all understanding.’ It will be equally new to our children, and our children’s children, when they come to know that they have sins to be forgiven, and souls to be saved; and to the last sinner who is convinced and converted on the earth, it will still be as ‘good tidings from a far country’—as ‘cold water to a thirsty soul.’ It can never become old or obsolete, for this obvious reason, that while it is ‘the everlasting Gospel,’ and, as such, like its Author, unchangeable—’the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever’—yet it comes into contact, in every succeeding age, with new minds, who are ignorant of it, but need it, and can find no peace without it; and when they receive it as ‘a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ came into the world to save sinners,’ they will learn from their own experience that the old truth is still the germ of ‘a new creation’—the spring of a new life, a new peace, a new hope, a new spiritual existence, to which they were utter strangers before. (2)
2. St. Anselm’s Death Bed Comfort
[Quoting St. Anselm] ‘Dost thou believe that thou canst not be saved but by the death of Christ? Go to, then, and, whilst thy soul abideth in thee, put all thy confidence in this death alone—place thy trust in no other thing—commit thyself wholly to this death—cover thyself wholly with this alone—cast thyself wholly on this death—wrap thyself wholly in this death. And if God would judge you, say, “Lord! I place the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between me and Thy judgment: otherwise I will not contend, or enter into judgment, with Thee.” And if He shall say unto thee, that thou art a sinner, say unto Him, “I place the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between me and my sins.” If He shall say unto thee, that thou hast deserved damnation, say, “Lord! I put the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between Thee and all my sins; I offer His merits for my own, which I should have, and have not.” If He say, that He is angry with thee, say, “Lord! I place the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between me and Thy anger.” (90–91)
3. Can a Roman Catholic Be Justified by Faith?
“It is true that the Church of Rome has always held some important doctrines of Scripture, and that these, applied by the Spirit of God, may have produced in some within her pale saving conversion to God; but it is equally true, that the whole subject of the method and ground of a sinner’s justification has been so obscured and corrupted by her teaching, that in proportion as men became thoroughly imbued with her peculiar lessons, they were just so much the less likely to have recourse to Christ alone for salvation.
Do we then deny the possibility of pardon and acceptance with God within the Church of Rome? God forbid! What we deny is, that any sinner was ever justified, there or elsewhere, by his own righteousness; and we reject the Romish doctrine of justification, as having a tendency to lead men to rely on their own good works, rather than on the finished work of Christ. We rejoice to know and believe, that some members of that Church may, like Martin Boos, renounce their own righteousness, and take refuge in Christ alone.” (138–139)
4. Justification by Faith and Judgment According to Works
“Some have imagined that the doctrine of a free justification now by grace, through faith alone, is inconsistent with that of a future judgment according to works; and for this reason they have attempted to show, either that justification and judgment are precisely the same, or that we must modify the doctrine of justification by faith alone so as to bring it into accordance with that of a judgment according to works. But there is no real inconsistency between the two doctrines. They relate to different parts of the divine procedure; and are equally necessary—the one for the immediate relief of the sinner’s conscience—the other for the regulation of the believer’s conduct.
‘I would have every preacher,’ said Dr. [Thomas] Chalmers to the author, ‘insist strenuously on these two doctrines—a present justification by grace, through faith alone—and a future judgment according to works;’ and all faithful ministers have made use of both, that they might guard equally against the peril of self-righteous legalism, on the one hand, and of practical antinomianism, on the other.” (222)
5. God of Wrath, God of Love
“Men are ever prone to take partial, one-sided views of the character of God, and to deduce erroneous conclusions from them. They imagine—either that there can be no real love in the divine mind, if there be any law-wrath, or judicial displeasure, against sin; or that there can be no serious wrath, and no strict adherence to justice, when love exists. The experience of every parent and magistrate on earth might be sufficient to dispel these gross delusions…” (275)
6. On the Active and Passive Obedience of Christ
“Divines have generally made a distinction between what is called the active, and passive, obedience of Christ; and this distinction is both legitimate and useful, when it is correctly understood, and judiciously applied. It is not to be interpreted as if it meant, that His passive obedience consisted in mere suffering, or that His active obedience consisted in mere service; for it implies obedience in both, and excludes suffering from neither: nor is it to be interpreted as if it meant, that the two might be so separated from each other, as to admit of His mere sufferings being imputed to us, without any part of His obedience; for if His death be reckoned to us at all, it must necessarily include both the pains which He endured, and the obedience which he rendered, in dying.
But the distinction may be understood in a sense which serves to discriminate, merely, one part of His work from another, without destroying their indissoluble union; and to exhibit them in the relation which they severally bear to the penal and preceptive requirements of the divine Law. That Law required the punishment of sin, and in the sufferings and death of Christ we see its penalty fulfilled; it required also perfect righteousness, and in the lifelong obedience of Christ—but especially in His death as the crowning act of His obedience—we see its precept fulfilled; and by thus connecting His penal sufferings with the evil desert of sin, and His vicarious obedience with the righteousness which the Law requires, we are enabled to apprehend more clearly our need of both, and also the suitableness and fulness of the provision which has thus been made for our acceptance with God. (284–285)
7. How Does Repentance Relate to Faith Alone?
“There can be no doubt that, in Scripture, a special connection is established between justification and faith, such as does not subsist between justification and any other grace; and the reason of this is obvious, if that privilege is immediately apprehended and appropriated when a sinner so believes the truth concerning Christ as to rely on His righteousness only for salvation.
It is true that ‘forgiveness of sins,’ which is included in justification, is frequently connected, in Scripture, with repentance as well as with faith; as when we read of John preaching the ‘baptism of repentance for the remission of sins,’ and of ‘repentance and remission of sins being preached in Christ’s name among all nations.’ ‘Except ye repent,’ said our Lord, ‘ye shall all likewise perish;’ ‘Repent ye, therefore, and be converted,’ said Peter, ‘that your sins may be blotted out.’ But the repentance which is meant is not mere remorse of conscience, or sorrow on account of sin; it is a thorough change of mind and heart, and it includes faith, or ‘a lively apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ.’ Repentance, in this sense, is necessary to salvation; but it is the faith which is included in it that unites us to Christ, and makes us partakers of His justifying righteousness. This is the special and peculiar function of faith only. But the fact that it is connected in Scripture with repentance, and that both are declared to be necessary to salvation, is sufficient to show that they are constituent elements of that great spiritual change which is described as ‘a second birth,’ and ‘a new creation’…” (357–358)
8. The Twin Dangers of Popery and Antinomianism
“If the work of the Spirit in us consists merely in the effectual application of the work of Christ for us, and in making us partakers of all the blessings of His redemption, it follows that regeneration and justification are simultaneous, and that no man is justified who is not renewed, nor is any man renewed who is not also justified. This is a most important truth, and one that is sufficient to neutralize the two great errors, which have been maintained by opposite parties on this subject. The one is the error of the antinomians, who have spoken of justification as being antecedent to, and independent of, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and have identified it sometimes with God’s eternal election—at other times with the redeeming work of Christ—as if there were no difference between an eternal purpose to save, and the execution of that purpose in time, or between the procuring of redemption, and the actual application of it to the souls of men.
The other is the error of Popish writers, and some of their followers in the Protestant Church, who have spoken of justification as dependent, not on the finished work of Christ alone, but on our personal obedience and final perseverance; and have virtually postponed it till the judgment of the great day, as if it were not the present privilege of believers, and of every believer on the instant when he is united to Christ—or as if he did not receive Christ for his sanctification, and even for his perseverance, as well as for the free pardon of all his sins, and the gracious acceptance of his person and his services. These two errors may be said to lie at opposite extremes from each other; but they are equally false and dangerous.” (372–373)