The moralist always implies or says that God is satisfied with our best efforts. In other words, he always seeks to dull the cutting edge of the law. He suggests that God will impute perfection to our best efforts (congruent merit) but the deal requires that we set aside the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness. In contrast, we confess the “perfect obedience” of Christ for us and imputed to us as the ground of our justification and salvation (WCF 8.5).
Judged by the mainstream of Reformed theology and particularly by confession of by the Reformed Churches, Richard Baxter (1615–91) was not Reformed. Remarkably, because many are not aware of what Baxter taught about the central issue of the Reformation, the article by which the church stands or falls. They know him as a reformer of pastoral ministry, as an advocate of catechesis, home visitation, and of a vigorous piety. John Owen (1616–83) knew him as a moralist, i.e., as one who rejected the Protestant, evangelical doctrine of justification.
Think of him as the Norman Shepherd or N. T. Wright of his day. Owen knew Baxter to be a moralist. Baxter wanted Christians to be good but he was not satisfied with the Protestant, evangelical, and Reformed teaching that the same Savior who justifies sinners by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) will sanctify them sola gratia, sola fide. He was not satisfied with the doctrine that good works are nothing but the fruit and evidence of justification salvation. He was not satisfied with the confession of the Westminster Assembly that “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 35). He was not satisfied with the confession of the Reformed churches:
These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification—for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place (Belgic Confession art. 24).
As J. I. Packer and C. F. Allison have argued, Baxter was a neonomian. He taught justification and salvation through grace and works. Like Rome, he tried to make the law do what Paul said it cannot do: serve as the ground or instrument of our acceptance with God and our deliverance from the wrath to come. (See also the relevant chapters in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry).
I start with Baxter because he serves as perhaps an important illustration and symbol of the persistence of moralism in justification and salvation. In order for us to beware of moralism we must know what it looks like, in what shape it comes, what its features are. Otherwise we shall be victimized by it again and for that to happen would be both unnecessary and tragic.
Moralism persists because of a sort of rationalism. Mind you, the rationalist rarely comes right out and says, “By the way, I am the rationalist about which you were warned.” By rationalism I mean a system whereby one replaces the authority of God’s Word with that of human reason. In this case rationalism replaces God’s order of justification and the “gospel mystery of sanctification” (Walter Marshall) with a legal system whereby unless we cooperate sufficiently with grace we shall lose what we have been given (as in Romanism and the self-described Federal Vision theology) or we shall not finally be saved. It is rationalism because it turns a mystery into a machine. The rationalist cannot see how justification sola gratia, sola fide shall ever produce enough sanctity, so he sets up what seems to him to be a more reasonable system: make our final standing with God contingent upon our performance.
It is urgent to grasp these issues as we come to Heidelberg Catechism 114. We have just finished working through the third use of God’s holy moral law. The temptation we sinners face, as we consider the law, is to put ourselves back under it as the ground or instrument of our standing before God (justification) or our final salvation. Of course this is not at all how the law is presented to the Christian in Scripture. It is presented as the norm of the Christian life. This is why we distinguish between the first or pedagogical use, wherein the law teaches us the greatness of our sin and misery and drives us to Christ and the third or normative use of the law. By nature, as sinners, we are utterly incapable of keeping the law for our standing with God or for our salvation. Were that the test then we would all be justly condemned because the law demands “perfect and personal” obedience.