A Second Justification?

"This distinction of two justifications, as used and improved by those of the Roman church, leaves us, indeed, no justification at all."

In volume five of his Works, John Owen wrote extensively about justification by faith alone.  After giving some Bible-based definitions of faith and justification, Owen brought up the Roman Catholic doctrine of double justification.  Rome teaches that a person’s first justification is based on infused grace, faith, and Christ’s work.  Second justification, for Rome, is the effect of first justification, and it is based on good works and love done according to the infused habit of grace. For example, theCanons of the Council of Trent (VI.10) talk about being “further justified” by good works.

Here’s what Owen had to say about two justifications:

This distinction was coined unto no other end but to bring in confusion into the whole doctrine of the gospel. Justification through the free grace of God, by faith in the blood of Christ, is evacuated by it. Sanctification is turned into a justification, and corrupted by making the fruits of it meritorious. The whole nature of evangelical justification, consisting in the gratuitous pardon of sin and the imputation of righteousness, as the apostle expressly affirms, and the declaration of a believing sinner to be righteous thereon, as the word alone signifies, is utterly defeated by it.

Owen said there is a twofold justification in Scripture: One is justification by works – by perfect, perpetual, and personal obedience to God’s law – but this is impossible because all have sinned.  The other is justification by grace through faith in Christ (the topic of Owen’s book).  These two are distinct, like the law and the gospel are distinct.  Then he wrote,

And these ways of justification are contrary, proceeding on terms directly contradictory, and cannot be made consistent with or subservient one to the other. But… the confounding of them both, by mixing them together, is that which is aimed at in this distinction of a first and second justification. But whatever respects it may have, that justification which we have before God, in his sight through Jesus Christ, is but one, and at once full and complete; and this distinction [of two justifications] is a vain and fond invention.

In fact,

This distinction of two justifications, as used and improved by those of the Roman church, leaves us, indeed, no justification at all.

…Wherefore it is evident, that either the first justification overthrows the second, rendering it needless; or the second destroys the first, by taking away what essentially belongs unto it: we must therefore part with the one or the other, for consistent they are not.

Finally, echoing the Westminster Confession of Faith XI.5, Owen mentions that those whom God has justified can never fall from the state of justification:

“It is God that justifieth;” and, therefore, the continuation of our justification is his act also. And this, on his part, depends on the immutability of his counsel; the unchangeableness of the everlasting covenant, which is “ordered in all things, and sure;” the faithfulness of his promises; the efficacy of his grace; his complacency in the propitiation of Christ; with the power of his intercession, and the irrevocable grant of the Holy Ghost unto them that do believe.

There’s more to Owen’s discussion, for sure; these are some parts I highlighted.  It is an outstanding defense of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone – and not at all by any of our works.

John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 5 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), chapter five.

Rev. Shane Lems is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hammond, Wis. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.