John Witherspoon on Justification
William C. Robinson
Dr. William C. Robinson is professor emeritus of church history at Columbia Theological Seminary.
John Witherspoon, the leader of the evangelicals in the Kirk of Scotland, was called in 1768 to the presidency of the College of New Jersey and pastorate of the church in Princeton. In his first commencement address the president insisted that religion without learning produces fanaticism, while learning without religion breeds skepticism. His work moved the infant college forward toward becoming Princeton University. Thus he set the example for the American four-year colleges of liberal arts and imparted to them Reid's philosophy of common-sense realism.
As a minister, Witherspoon was for a quarter of a century the leading "presence" in American Presbyterianism. He reorganized the church into a General Assembly and wrote for her constitution a series of Preliminary Principles which changed the daughter of an established church—the Kirk of Scotland—into a free church. The actions of this denomination for a quarter of a century were largely the product of Witherspoon's heart and hand.
Witherspoon's first sermon as pastor of the Princeton Church, and later at the opening of the first American General Assembly, was based on 1 Corinthians 3:6: "Paul may plant, and Apollos may water, but only God gives the increase." The message was that the success of the gospel is wholly of God.
As the cause of American independence developed, Witherspoon became its leading advocate in New Jersey, doing for that colony what the Adamses did for Massachusetts. In recognition of his great service in changing it from a Tory to a patriot colony, the state of. New Jersey declared 1975 the John Witherspoon year:
In tribute to this man of God, patriot, educator and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and to encourage a return to God, patriotism, fidelity in government, true education and the spirit of 1776.
Witherspoon was the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Before he left Paisley, Scotland, for America, Witherspoon had become the most popular preacher in Britain. His solid sermons attracted full congregations. He was moderator of his synod in 1759. Aberdeen University conferred upon him the doctorate. He declined calls to Dundee, Dublin and Rotterdam.
One cause of Witherspoon's popularity with the evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic was his able defense of the Reformation doctrine of justification by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. When this doctrine was charged with loosening the obligation to the practice of Christian living, John Witherspoon replied:
On the contrary, the belief and acceptance of justification by the grace of God through the imputed righteousness of Christ makes men greater lovers of purity and holiness and fills them with a greater abhorrence of sin.
Experience shows that those who deny their own righteousness and hope for justification through Christ are the most tender and fearful of sinning and are the most holy in their lives. "Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?" (Rom. 6:1-2). The grace of God in the gospel of Christ destroys the power of sin and removes the inclination to it. As the grace of God in the gospel is received and applied, so is sin mortified in the heart.
Using Scriptural language drawn chiefly from Romans, Witherspoon thus describes justification:
All have sinned and come short of the glory of God; therefore, by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight. But we are justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation, through faith, in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.
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. Moreover, the law entered that the offense might abound; but where sin abounded, grace did much more abound; that as sin reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Every intelligent creature is under an unchangeable and inalienable obligation to perfectly obey the whole law of God. Yet all men are children of polluted parents, alienated in heart from God, transgressors of His holy law, inexcusable in this transgression, and therefore exposed to the consequences of God's displeasure. And it is not agreeable to His wisdom, holiness and justice to forgive without atonement or satisfaction. Therefore He raised up a Saviour, Jesus Christ, who as a second Adam perfectly fulfilled the whole law and offered Himself on the cross as a sacrifice in sinful man's stead. This His righteousness is imputed to them as the sole foundation of their justification in the sight of a holy God and of their reception into His favor. The means of their being interested in this salvation is a deep humiliation of mind, a confession of guilt and wickedness, and a denial of themselves and acceptance of peace and pardon through Jesus Christ. They have neither contributed to the procuring of this nor can they contribute to the continuance thereof by their own merit. But they can only expect the renovation of their natures, to be inclined and enabled to keep the commandments of God, as the work of the Spirit and a part of the purchase of their redemption.
In support of this biblical truth Witherspoon presented solid arguments:
1. One who expects justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ has the strongest convictions of the obligation of the holy law of God upon every reasonable creature. What Christ did for the salvation of sinners magnifies the law of God. He obeyed its precepts and endured its penalty.
2. He who believes in Christ and expects justification by His imputed righteousness must have the deepest and strongest sense of the evil of sin in itself. Even though God is the God of love, He does not forgive sin without an atonement. The greatness of the price, "the precious blood of Christ," shows God's abhorrence of sin. The dignity and glory of the Redeemer, along with the greatness and the severity of His suffering, testify to the heinousness of sin.
In order for God to save sinners, sin had to be expiated, even though God's own Son was the sacrificial Victim. Therefore the condemnation of sin was as truly in view as the salvation of sinners.
3. He who expects justification only through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ has the most awful view of the danger of sin. He sees not only the obligation and purity of the law but also the severity of the sanctions of that law—that is, the fear of the wrath and vengeance of God on account of sin. Those who flee to the propitiation of Christ for deliverance and rescue still believe that every sin deserves the wrath and curse of God both in this life and in the one to come.
4. Those who expect justification by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ have the highest sense of the purity and holiness of the divine nature and therefore the necessity of purity to fit them for His presence and enjoyment. Worshipers of God seek to be like Him. Even when God is inclined to mercy, the experience of mercy is obstructed until justice is satisfied as His Son stands in our place. Thus His mediation shows the purity of the divine nature.
God's way of justifying sinners, as a way that first of all justifies God, vindicates His righteousness as truly as it expresses His grace.
5. One who accepts the promises of God for justification by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ has the strongest motives for gratitude and thankfulness to God for His so great salvation. These motives lead to pure and holy lives.
6. Those who expect to be justified by the imputed righteousness of Christ must be possessed of a supreme and superlative love to God which is not only the source and principle but the very sum and substance, nay, the perfection of holiness. His love for us begets our love for Him. We love because He first loved us. And the supreme love of God is what is meant by holiness.