The Judgment of the Bishops upon Tractarian Theology
W. Simcox Bricknell
Editorial Note: An edited collection of judgments on the theology of Newman and his associates (known as the Tractarian theology) was published in 1845 by the Rev. W. Simcox Bricknell of Worcester College. These judgments were written by Anglican bishops between 1837 and 1842. The following statement from this collection is an excellent presentation on the matter of justification.1
The principle by which, in all ages and countries, the power of Satan has been most successfully assailed, and the human heart most strongly actuated, is that of simple reliance on Christ Jesus; simple acceptance of the truth, that He is "made unto us of God, wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption." Accordingly, this doctrine, that, lying under God's wrath and condemnation, we are justified by Faith in Jesus Christ; this plain and simple truth has uniformly been assailed by every instrument which the enemy could bring to bear against it. From the time when certain men went down from Jerusalem and troubled the Church at Antioch;2 from the time when Paul had to grieve over the disciples in Galatia, that they were "removed from the grace of Christ into another Gospel;3 which was not another," for it was no Gospel at all; from the earliest days until now, this has been the point of attack, because on this all depends. We are still experiencing the same, and from the same cause.
Through the merciful providence of God, the true principles of the Gospel were prevailing through the length and breadth of the land, and effects were following which they alone are capable of producing.
Meanwhile the enemy is on the watch; knows well where his danger lies; and contrives to cast reproach upon the Doctrine which is the hinge of Christian truth and Christian practice; to confound things which ought to be kept distinct; things inherent in man with things extraneous to man; individual duties with vicarious merits; and so to reduce religion to that doubt and uncertainty which never has led, and never will lead, to a consistent course of action.
It is notorious that this attempt, frequently made, and too often successful, has been renewed in the present day.
The Author of our Salvation, "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance and the knowledge of the truth," has commanded that the Gospel should be preached to every creature. Those have now risen up who affirm that the Doctrine of the Gospel, the propitiation made for sin, is a doctrine too dangerous to be openly disclosed, too mysterious to be generally exhibited; and would thus deprive the sinner at once of his motive to repent, and his comfort in repenting.
It has been another part of the same system to involve the article of our Justification in obscurity; what has been done for us, and what is to be wrought in us, are confused together; and, practically, man is induced to look to himself, and not to his Redeemer, for acceptance with God.
In all this, there is nothing that was unforeseen. The Apostle has plainly warned us to "beware of philosophy and vain deceit," lest they turn us aside from the simplicity of the Gospel; that very simplicity which fits it for the reception and benefit of all, but of which some men profess to be afraid, lest mercy should be too free, and the way of return to God too open. It is, in truth, the offence of the cross renewed under a fresh disguise; the objection which corrupt nature has always opposed under various forms to the Apostolical Doctrine, "By grace are ye saved, through Faith: not of works, lest any man should boast."
The Scriptural truth is as clear as it is simple. "When all were dead, Christ died for all;" so that "he that hath the Son hath life, and he that hath not the Son, hath not life." By one way alone can man possess the Son; that is, by believing in him. And therefore, faith alone can justify; faith alone can appropriate to us that remedy, which God has appointed for the healing of our plague: faith alone can give us an interest in that sacrifice, which God has accepted as the satisfaction for sin. Thus, "being justified by faith, we have peace with God through Jesus Christ."
It is true, that, being thus accepted with God, and endued with his Spirit, man becomes a new creature. But he is not accepted with God, because he is a new creature, but because Christ has made atonement for the wrath which in his old nature he had incurred. His faith in that atonement which led to his acceptance, leads also to his doing works meet for one who is accepted: but the works which follow his being justified, and are its effect, can never also be the cause of his Justification. If a remedy were proposed to a man lying under a mortal disease, and by applying it he were restored to life; it would be sophistry to affirm, that, after all, it was not the remedy which saved, but that the constitution, strengthened by the remedy, resisted the disease. It would be injustice to the remedy, and ingratitude to the physician. And so it is injustice and ingratitude to depreciate the virtue of Christ's propitiation, by mixing up with it the righteousness of his redeemed people. Let no misrepresentation pervert, let no false philosophy corrupt the wholesome truth, that man is "delivered from the wrath to come," "not by works of righteousness which he has done," or may do, but by Him alone who "died for our sins, and rose again for our Justification." The statement which came fresh from the Reformer's age, is the statement to which we must still recur. "There is a righteousness which is inherent, and a righteousness which is not inherent. The righteousness whereby we are sanctified, is inherent, but not perfect. The righteousness whereby we are justified, is perfect, but not inherent." This is the fundamental and characteristic article of all the Reformed Churches: laid as it were their cornerstone; that we are accounted righteous before God through the merits of Christ alone, and not "for our own works or deservings:" that a lively faith is known by its works, as a sound tree by its fruits: but that they do not bear the root, but the root them. And we are at no loss for the reason why the Reformers were so diligent in laying this foundation. They had seen the consequence of departing from it. If works are to contribute to Justification, "then grace is no more grace." If man can assist in expiating his own sin, he is not the corrupt being which needs redemption. And such was, in fact, the process through which human error superseded Scriptural truth. Our Reformers knew how the corruption of man had been first lost sight of, and then the atonement made for it virtually neglected: they knew how the satisfaction of Christ had been set aside, and human works substituted in its stead, often such works as were neither acceptable to God, nor profitable to man; till at length a system overspread the world, under the name of Christianity, which had neither God for its Author, nor the welfare of mankind for its end: who were debased by what was sent to purify them, and deceived by what was ordained to deliver them from error.
If these facts have been forgotten, as they seem to have been forgotten, by the tendency of certain writings which have been lately pressed upon our attention, it is high time that they be brought back to our remembrance. But if I endeavour to stir up your minds by this mention of them, it is not because I believe that such admonition is needed here, or that you have ceased to make the ruin of man by sin, and his restoration through the sacrifice of the cross, the cardinal point of all your teaching. God forbid you ever should, or so close the door against your own ministerial usefulness.
There are many other subjects of instruction; but all must proceed from this as from a centre. Many duties are to be performed; and that they may be performed, must be inculcated: but they must be so inculcated, that the great principle of Salvation by grace may be preserved in all its integrity and consistency.
It is necessary to "keep under the body, and bring it into subjection," by abstinence, and mortification, by whatever means experience has shewn to be profitable. Still, for what purpose? Not that we may atone for the offences of the body by the maceration of the body, but because "this is the will of God, even our Sanctification." It is necessary to cultivate humility, to practise charity, to exercise piety; not, however, that we may be hereby justified, but because we are justified: for "if any man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of his," not justified at all.
Ingenious men may find much to urge against this simple truth. They who have studied religion in the closet rather than in the world, or who know more of other history than of the history of the human heart, may think that we are thus leaving the narrow gate too widely open, and making the road to heaven too smooth. So it has been from the beginning. The apostles were accused of encouraging sin, by proclaiming the abundance of Divine grace. The Jews were jealous that Christians should enjoy immunity from a burthen which they themselves had borne, and escape the ordinances of the law of Moses. And the adversaries of the Christian faith made it one pretence of their opposition, that it offered the Divine favour to the profligate and malefactor.
But they to whom the truth was committed, did not meet these imputations by denying that "the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin." They did not escape from a false accusation by a reserve of the truth which was assailed. They did not confound the propitiation which atones, with the sanctification which that propitiation works on the believer's heart. So far from it, we find Paul on this matter speaking with a vehemence unusual to him. "If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed."4
And surely we find here, as we might expect to find, that "God destroys the wisdom of the wise, and brings to nothing the understanding of the prudent." For whilst learned men are elaborately proving that outward rites and services are the only means of holiness on which we can depend, that "bodily exercise" and "voluntary humiliation"5 are the proper mode in which the sinner may approach his God, the plain preacher of the Gospel is confuting them, not by words, but by faith, and the honest disciple is shewing that "they who have believed in Christ will be careful to maintain good works." In religion, as in other things, many a truth which the philosopher passes by, is picked up by the simple and unlearned; whilst many a theory in which the philosopher prides himself is contradicted by ordinary observation. And thus, in the present question, experience proves that the only doctrine which conveys real comfort to the soul, is the only doctrine which produces the genuine spirit of Christian piety. Experience proves, that the more we labour to establish ourselves in the practice of holiness, the more need we find of clothing ourselves in the righteousness of our Redeemer. And again, the more firmly we trust to that righteousness which is not our own, the nearer we advance towards the personal righteousness which we are striving to attain, and cannot be satisfied without attaining.
1 Reprinted from W. Simcox Bricknell, The Judgment of the Bishops upon Tractarian Theology (Oxford: J. Vincent, 1845), pp. 356-60.
2 See Acts xv. 1-25.
3 Gal. i. 6.
4 Gal. i. 9.
5 See 1 Tim. iv. 8; Col. ii. 18.