Persevering, Dispositional, and Reformed:
Jonathan Edwards and Faith that Justifies
Religion 319: 18th Century Theology
April 26, 2021
Jonathan Edwards’ doctrine of justification has come under much scrutiny in recent decades as reformed scholars wrestle with his expression of the doctrine and attempt to understand the implications of his view. This paper will look at Edwards’ doctrine of justification, especially as contained in his discourse Justification by Faith Alone, and will examine whether Edwards’ doctrine is a shift away from Reformation theology and toward an Arminian or Roman Catholic understanding of justification. A brief look at the context of Edwards’ discourse will reaffirm the solidity of his reformed credentials, as will an analysis of his actual doctrine itself. Ultimately, Edwards’ formulation of the doctrine of justification, while different in some respects from the Reformers, will be found to be anchored soundly in Protestant orthodoxy.
The historical context for Edwards’ statements on justification is critical to understanding the doctrine he is promoting. It ought to factor into an assessment of Edwards that his peers considered him a standard-bearer for reformed orthodoxy. Fellow ministers of the Hampshire Association would be shocked to hear that Edwards was promoting a questionable doctrine of justification since they chose him to defend their actions in the William Breck controversy, a minister opposed by the Association over charges of Arminianism. Furthermore, when New England clergy were roiled by the “great ‘apostasy’” that occurred when the rector at Yale, Timothy Cutler, converted to Anglicanism, Edwards delivered his 1723 address at commencement on the topic of justification. In this address he “declar[ed] himself unmistakably in the party of orthodoxy.” In a Puritan culture that has been (often unfairly) stereotyped as insular and legalistic, it is significant that Edwards received such an endorsement of his orthodoxy from his Puritan counterparts.
In fact, the discourse on Justification that has generated so much controversy over Edwards’ doctrine was originally written in response to Arminian criticisms of the reformed doctrine of justification. There is some dispute about how clearly we can know the doctrine that Edwards was arguing against. Anri Morimoto alleges that we cannot know the specific doctrinal formulation that Edwards was disagreeing with, although we can know “what Edwards took to be the Arminian contentions.” Michael McClenahan, on the other hand, claims to have identified Archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson as a specific interlocutor that Edwards was refuting. Edwards quotes Tillotson in a footnote in his published discourse and identifies him as “one of the greatest divines on the other side of the question in hand.” Additionally, Edwards quotes from Tillotson as the sixth objection he refutes in the fourth section of the discourse. From these references, McClenahan concludes that Edwards at the very least considers Tillotson representative of the view of justification he is refuting. As McClenahan summarized, Tillotson’s view is a continuation of an Anglican trend away from Reformed theology which rejects the imputation of Christ’s positive righteousness and in turn exalts sincere obedience as an “easy and reasonable” condition God places on man to achieve righteousness. Tillotson also defined faith generally as “the Christian life lived within the dispensation of the new covenant,” and this definition allows him to make sense of Paul’s statement that we are justified by faith. Thus, Edwards is writing in response to a view that says man is justified by sincere obedience to a watered down law, apart from the imputation of Christ’s positive righteousness.
This historical context ought to make the reader skeptical of claims that Edwards’ is introducing ambiguity and doctrinal perils when his intent behind writing is the contrary. Nonetheless, it is possible for even a defense of orthodoxy to veer into questionable territory, so it is necessary to review Edwards’ doctrine in his own words.
The first two sections of Edwards’ Justification by Faith Alone read like a standard reformed defense of the doctrine of believers being justified by the imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness. Edwards clearly rebuts the assertions from Tillotson that McClenahan identifies as the root of the justification dispute. Rather than a watered-down law that is fulfilled by sincere obedience, Edwards makes it clear that the requirement of God has always been perfect righteousness, and that standard is never fulfilled by obedience in either the old or new testament: “Therefore here is the argument: if our own obedience be that by which men are justified, then under the Old Testament, men were justified partly by obedience to the ceremonial law (as has been proved). But the saints under the Old Testament were not justified partly by the works of the ceremonial law. Therefore men’s own obedience is not that by which they are justified.” Therefore, the believer is justified only by the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness, both negative and positive. And Edwards explicitly rejects Tillotson’s redefinition of faith.
The faith that Edwards speaks of is explicitly relational, indeed it is “the very act of unition” on the part of the believer. This conception of faith is not the traditional reformed formulation of faith as an instrument that receives justification from God. Rather, for Edwards, it is the equivalent of coming to Christ, the way that the believer unites to Christ. When the believer is united to Christ, God is pleased at this real union that is established and rewards it with legal imputation. As the woman at the altar takes the man to be her husband and is now legally entitled to his possessions, so the union between the believer and Christ gives the believer possession of all of Christ’s blessings. This is the meaning of Edwards’ controversial quote “What is real in the union between Christ and his people, is the foundation of what is legal.” It is fitting that this real union, achieved by the believer’s faith (and God’s gracious willingness to unite with all who would unite with Him), leads to legal change, for “the soul by it is suited as the socket for the jewel that is set in it.” Edwards is careful to distinguish between two kinds of fittingness, what he calls moral and natural fittingness:
A person has a moral fitness for a state, when his moral excellency commends him to it, or when his being put into such a good state is but a suitable testimony of regard to the moral excellency, or value, or amiableness of any of his qualifications or acts. A person has a natural fitness for a state, when it appears meet and condecent that he should be in such a state or circumstances, only from the natural concord or agreeableness there is between such qualifications and such circumstances: not because the qualifications are lovely or unlovely, but only because the qualifications and the circumstances are like one another, or do in their nature suit and agree or unite one to another.
By being one with Christ, the believer has done nothing that commends him to a state of perfect righteousness. Instead, God has graciously united with the believer and “accept[s] the satisfaction and merits of the one for the other, as if these were their own satisfaction and merits.”
This faith is not just a faith that seeks union with Christ, but it is one that perseveres. In Edwards’ words, “God has respect to the believer’s continuance in faith, and he is justified by that, as though it already were, because by divine establishment it shall follow, and it being by divine constitution connected with that first faith, as much as if it were a property in it, it is then considered as such, and so justification is not suspended.” A persevering faith is necessary for justification, and were it not “virtually contained” in the first act of faith, “it would be needful that [justification] should be suspended, till the sinner had actually persevered in faith.” It would be unfitting for God to begin the union and not bring it to completion, so the union is assuredly an enduring union.
Therefore, in one of his most controversial claims, Edwards speaks of later acts of faith, or continued evangelical obedience, as playing a role in justification. The requirement that faith perseveres until the end of life, made explicit in passages like the warning sections of Hebrews, shows that later acts of obedience have something to do with justification. This is how Edwards makes sense of biblical data like the command to continue in confession and repentance from sins, as well as David, in Psalm 32, where he finds justification “long after he was first godly.” Despite this mention of evangelical obedience, Edwards is insistent that justification can be said to be by faith alone, because these works are truly “an expression of a persevering faith in the Son of God, the only Savior.” Faith is the defining motive of evangelical obedience, and as such it “gives a congruity to justification, not merely as remaining a dormant principle in the heart, but as being and appearing in its active expressions.” In this way, Edwards carves out a positive role for evangelical obedience, in contrast both to the alleged antinomianism of the reformers and the works-based soteriology of his Arminian interlocutors.
George Hunsinger, a Professor at Princeton Seminary is a prominent critic of the reformed credentials of Edwards’ doctrine of justification. As far as Hunsinger is concerned, Edwards “crosses the fine line laid down by the Reformation” when he ties works to justification, even “as the external expression of faith.” It is consistent with the Reformed tradition to speak of works as evidence of faith, but to make them an essential component of faith is a betrayal of Reformed convictions. Thomas Schafer echoes this criticism but goes a step further and suggests that Edwards is espousing a position more similar to Tillotson than to the Protestant reformers by tying obedience to the very essence of faith. When Edwards says “that giving entertainment to the gospel, to Christ and his salvation, implies holiness or a disposition to obedience and good works in the very nature of it,” he is abandoning the reformed tradition for more Arminian or even Catholic soteriology. By these words, according to Schafer, “the reader cannot help feeling that the conception of “faith alone” has been considerably enlarged—and hence practically eliminated.”
These are serious charges from Hunsinger and Schafer that are worthy of a considered response. It is not immediately clear to this author that Edwards’ conception of faith violates the Reformed standards, nor, as mentioned above, was it clear to Edwards’ fellow Puritans. Hunsinger seems to miss the significance of what Edwards accomplishes by defining faith as union with Christ, and not just any union, but a dispositional union. Faith enduringly inclines toward love for Christ, and thus obedience must follow from faith. But this relation is not simply one of cause and effect, but one of motivation. Faith becomes the motive of works, and so evangelical obedience is inseparable because it is itself defined by faith, the ongoing reliance on God. Hunsinger does not clearly establish a substantial difference between what Edwards defines as justifying faith and the Lutheran notion of justification by faith alone, but not a faith that is alone.
Schafer’s criticism is similar to Hunsinger’s, with the ironic twist of linking Edwards with Tillotson, whom McClenahan has convincingly showed to be Edwards’ chief opponent. It thus seems implausible that Edwards’ supposed departure from Reformed orthodoxy would be the same doctrine that his opponent holds. As McClenahan quotes Tillotson, the fourth aspect in Tillotson’s definition faith is “obedience to all his Laws and Commands.” Edwards never adds a fourth aspect to the definition of faith but is content with the Reformed formulation of “knowledge…assent… and trust.” Rather than add obedience as a fourth aspect, as Schafer implies, Edwards clarifies that “justifying faith is a faith that perseveres. Therefore, later acts of faith, or evangelical obedience, are assuredly present at the first moment of faith, and justification is accomplished on the basis of God’s guarantee that later acts will follow. In other words, “the obedience in justifying faith is Christ’s faith, obedience, and perseverance and not some meritorious act of faith or innate quality in the believer’s soul.” Edwards does not redefine faith as Tillotson does, but he does make explicit that faith will persevere, and because of this good works will naturally follow.
With all this controversy surrounding Edwards’ expression of justification by faith alone, one might ask why not just stick to the traditional reformed formulation of the doctrine? After all, if justification is an essential doctrine, then it is crucial that theologians communicate the doctrine clearly. It seems likely that Edwards would agree that it is critical to express this doctrine clearly, after all, he wrote many words trying to do just that. But there are at least three reasons that Edwards could muster in defense of the necessity of his treatise.
First, a risk of misinterpretation is not unique to Edwards’ writing. Every doctrine carries a risk of being misinterpreted and taken to perverse ends. Just as an overemphasis on the unity of the Trinity can lead to Sabellianism, so an ill-explained doctrine of justification by faith alone can lead to antinomianism. In fact, it is because of opponent’s allegations of antinomianism that Edwards’ is re-expressing the traditional doctrine.
Even more foundational, Edwards is convinced that his account of justification is built on a consideration of Biblical data that has previously been overlooked. He gives many examples in the third section of Justification by Faith Alone, but the story of Abraham stands out as worthy of special mention. Reformed Christians are quick to point out that the justification credited to Abraham according to Romans 4 occurred in Genesis 15, which is prior to the action of Genesis 22, leading James 2 to refer to Abraham as justified. This chronology is the basis of the argument for an equivocal use of justification in James 2 and Romans 4, where Romans 4 speaks of forensic justification, while James 2 is a display of the righteousness that has already been credited to Abraham. While this seems plausible, Edwards shows that Hebrews 11 makes it clear that Abraham had faith when he left the land and followed God, an event that occurred in Genesis 12, even prior to the events of Genesis 15. The Bible thus speaks of three times when Abraham is justified, and the second time is the instance traditionally associated with forensic justification. Edwards takes this as evidence that later acts of faith play a justifying role in a similar way to prior acts. Indeed, the only difference between the first and subsequent acts of faith is “an accidental difference, arising from the circumstance of time…and not from any peculiar respect that God has to it, or any influence it has of a peculiar nature, in the affair of our salvation.” For Edwards, his expression of the doctrine of justification is faithful to Biblical data that traditional explanations can overlook.
Lastly, Edwards points to a pastoral concern: assurance of salvation. As far as Edwards is concerned, “to suppose that no after acts of faith are concerned in the business of justification, and so that it is not proper for any ever to seek justification by such acts, would be forever to cut off those Christians that are doubtful concerning their first act of faith, from the joy and peace of believing.” Edwards does not want the Christian stuck in a vain search for the “first act of faith,” nor to be paralyzed if they fall into grave sin. Rather, the believer can look over the whole course of their life as a continued process of justification, albeit one that is virtually contained in the first act of faith, and this means that they can continually “come to Christ for deliverance from the deserved eternal punishment.” This enables the believer to find assurance from Christ and their union with Him, even after sinning and needing to repent again.
While Edwards’ doctrine of justification has generated much discussion in recent decades, an historically-informed analysis rejects the notion that Edwards has fallen for the very views that his doctrine was aimed at combatting. Instead, Edwards communicated a nuanced doctrine of justification for the sake of defending essential Reformed doctrines such as imputation and God’s standard of perfect righteousness, while making sense of Biblical data and providing the theological vocabulary to prevent slippage into antinomianism.
Clark, R. Scott “Why Caution About Jonathan Edwards is in Order.” The Heidelblog, December 26, 2020. https://heidelblog.net/2020/12/why-caution-about-jonathan-edwards-is-in-order/.
Edwards, Jonathan, Justification by Faith Alone, Justification by Faith Alone - Jonathan Edwards. Accessed April 25, 2021. https://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/justification.htm.
Edwards, Jonathan, Miscellanies, “Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University.” Jonathan Edwards Center. Accessed April 24, 2021. http://edwards.yale.edu/research/misc-index.
Hunsinger, George. “Dispositional Soteriology: Jonathan Edwards On Justification By Faith Alone.” Westminster Theological Journal 66, no. 1 (2001).
McClenahan, Michael. Jonathan Edwards and Justification by Faith. London: Routledge, 2016.
McClymond, Michael J., and Gerald R. McDermott. The Theology of Jonathan Edwards. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012.
McDermott, Gerald R. “Jonathan Edwards on Justification by Faith-More Protestant or Catholic?” VirtueOnline. Accessed March 8, 2021. https://virtueonline.org/jonathan-edwards-justification-faith-more-protestant-or-catholic.
Morimoto, Anri. Jonathan Edwards and the Catholic Vision of Salvation. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995. Schafer, Thomas A. “Jonathan Edwards and Justification by Faith: Church History.” Cambridge Core. Cambridge University Press, July 28, 2009. https://doi.org/10.2307/3161877.
Schafer, Thomas A. “Jonathan Edwards and Justification by Faith” Church History, Cambridge Core. Cambridge University Press, July 28, 2009. https://doi.org/10.2307/3161877.
Waddington, Jeffrey C. “Jonathan Edwards’s ‘Ambiguous and Somewhat Precarious’ Doctrine of Justification.” Westminster Theological Journal 66, no. 2 (2004).
 Thomas Schafer started this recent trend in 1951 with his article in Journal of Church History alleging that Edwards’ doctrine of justification was “ambiguous and somewhat precarious.” See Thomas A. Schafer “Jonathan Edwards and Justification by Faith: Church History.” Cambridge Core. (Cambridge University Press, July 28, 2009), https://doi.org/10.2307/3161877.
 Edwards, Jonathan, Justification by Faith Alone, Justification by Faith Alone - Jonathan Edwards. Accessed April 25, 2021. https://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/justification.htm.
 George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 176-182.
 Ibid., 83.
 Ibid., 87.
 Anri Morimoto, Jonathan Edwards and the Catholic Vision of Salvation (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 77.
 Michael McClenahan, Jonathan Edwards and Justification by Faith (London: Routledge, 2016), 57.
 Ibid., 58.
 McClenahan expresses frustration at the failure of scholarship to recognize the significance of Tillotson as Edwards’ theological opponent. While Miller references Edwards’ mention of Tillotson, he “underestimates it,” while “Thuesen in Lee (ed.), Princeton Companion, p. 26, refers to the footnote, but in the middle of his claim that Tillotson influenced Edwards: ‘even an ideological antagonist can retain a certain seductiveness.’” McClenahan, 57 n.162.
 Ibid., 86.
 Ibid., 82.
 This view has great overlap with the general Arminian view that Morimoto identifies in Jonathan Edwards, 76. The difference comes with the conclusions that Morimoto and McClenahan reach about the significance of Edwards’ audience. “Morimoto assumes that Edwards selects his opponents because they represent the greatest departure from biblical religion. In fact, exactly the opposite is the reality: Edwards’ work on justification concentrates on Tillotson and the new Arminianism because it is the closest to the Reformed position – and therefore attractive to many in New England.” McClenahan, 52 n 135.
 Jonathan Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone, section ii.
 See Ibid., “If anything that Christ did or suffered, merited or deserved anything, it was by virtue of the goodness, or righteousness, or holiness of it. If Christ’s sufferings and death merited heaven, it must be because there was an excellent righteousness and transcendent moral goodness in that act of laying down his life. And if by that excellent righteousness he merited heaven for us, then surely that righteousness is reckoned to our account, that we have the benefit of it, or, which is the same thing, it is imputed to us.”
 Jonathan Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone, section ii.
 Ibid., section ii.
 Jonathan Edwards, Miscellanies 507.
 Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone, section ii.
 Ibid., section ii.
 Ibid., section iii.
 Ibid., section iii.
 Ibid., section iii.
 Ibid., section iii.
 George Hunsinger, “Dispositional Soteriology: Jonathan Edwards On Justification By Faith Alone.” Westminster Theological Journal 66, no. 1 (2001), 118.
 Thomas Schafer, “Jonathan Edwards and Justification by Faith,” Church History, Cambridge Core. (Cambridge University Press, July 28, 2009), 59-60.
 Ibid., 60.
 Ibid., 60.
 Although the title of Hunsinger’s critique is “Dispositional Soteriology,” he seems to underestimate the significance of Edwards’ dispositional notion of faith as a method of avoiding antinomianism while clinging to Reformed orthodoxy. Hunsinger seems unable to entertain the nuanced conception of faith that Edwards formulates to defend Reformed doctrines from the Arminian onslaught.
 McClenahan, Jonathan Edwards, 83.
 Jeffrey Waddington, “Jonathan Edwards’s ‘Ambiguous and Somewhat Precarious’ Doctrine of Justification.” Westminster Theological Journal 66, no. 2 (2004), 369.
 Ibid., 370.
 Ibid., 371.
 Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone, section iii.
 Ibid., section iii.
 Ibid., section iii.
 Ibid., section iii.