Whose Righteousness Saves Us?
Present day evangelicals tend to believe that the fierce Calvinist-Arminian controversy of the eighteenth century was merely a question of whether God chose the elect or the elect chose God. This is an oversimplification. Then the point of discussion was not so much the broad question “Who are the elect?” as the more basic question “Whom does God consider righteous?” Our brethren in those days were more interested in the means of salvation rather than the outcome.
How the Calvinist-Arminian Controversy of the Eighteenth Century Began
The controversy really began with the publication in 1755 of James Hervey’s Theron and Aspasio. Hervey had been a pupil of John Wesley’s at Oxford and was one of the very earliest pioneers of the Evangelical Revival. Balleine, the church historian, tells us that Hervey’s parish, Weston Favell, near Northampton, was the first Evangelical parish in the Midlands. Hervey produced a series of books aimed at the academic reader and men of letters, outlining the Reformed faith. His language so affected the gentry of his day that they termed him “The Prose Poet” and bought his books by the thousands. Most of Hervey’s writing was done fighting against permanent ill-health. A sad reminder of how little we present-day Christians hold dear the names of saints who have pioneered the faith we share is the fact that in “evangelical” works such as The International Dictionary of the Christian Church, not a word is said about Hervey though enough is said about many a man who contributed far less, if anything, to the spread of the Gospel.
Theron and Aspasio is the simple story of two friends walking together, contemplating the beauty of God’s world in general and the doctrines of salvation in particular. To cut a very long story short, the two friends conclude that they can only be justified by faith which does not stem from themselves but is a gift of God. They see also that there is no righteousness in themselves apart from Christ’s righteousness which is imputed to them. They can thus say truthfully that Christ lives in them and that He alone constitutes their hope of Glory. This, most readers of this magazine will confess, is nothing new. It is the essence of the Gospel we have come to love.
John Wesley’s Criticism of Theron and Aspasio
Hervey was a very humble person and greatly admired his former teacher, John Wesley, so he sent Wesley the draft of his book asking for comments and advice. He had mainly been thinking of points of syntax and style. Wesley replied at great length. To Hervey’s amazement, however, Wesley used the strongest and at times crudest language denying fully the doctrines recorded in the book. To make matters worse, Wesley published his criticism in a two-shilling pamphlet called “A Preventative against Unsettled Notions in Religion”. In doing so he did not take Hervey into his confidence. Hervey replied in detail in private correspondence to Wesley’s criticism and the Methodist leader wrote back in anger. Friends began to tell Hervey that he must publish his rebuttals of Wesley as the Methodist leader was creating havoc in the flock. Gentle Hervey, who had been an invalid most of his life, was now dangerously ill and at death’s door. He felt it was necessary to “go to the bar of the public”, as he put it, but he was afraid that Wesley’s extremes of temper might lead him to extremes in turn. He wrote to a friend in 1758 saying:
“He (Wesley) is so unfair in his quotations, and so magisterial in his manner, that I find it no small difficulty to preserve the decency of the gentleman, and the meekness of the Christian, in my intended answer. May our divine Master aid me in both these instances, or else not suffer me to write at all.”
During his last long illness Hervey was bombarded with abusive, anonymous letters from people who had obviously read Wesley but not Hervey. They accused him of writing dishonourably of God, of being subversive of all gospel-holiness and of making men melancholy and lazy. These ideas were all interrelated. Hervey’s accusers thought that it was dishonouring to God not to believe He would save those who tried to save themselves. Such a doctrine, they thought, would lead people to give up doing good. They would become miserable through realising that they were not of themselves holy. Hervey died on Christmas Day, 1758 aged 44.
Wesley: “The Doctrine of Imputed Righteousness Leads to Licentiousness”
What angered Wesley the most was Hervey’s reference to Christ’s imputed righteousness. He protested with the words:
“For Christ’s sake and for the sake of the immortal souls which he has purchased with his blood, do not dispute for that particular phrase, the imputed righteousness of Christ. It is not Scriptural, it is not necessary . . . .it has done immense hurt. I have had abundant proof, that the frequent use of this unnecessary phrase, instead of furthering men’s progress in vital holiness, has made them satisfied without any holiness at all; yea and encouraged them to work all uncleanness with greediness.”
A second time he wrote: “The nice metaphysical doctrine of imputed righteousness, leads not to repentance, but to licentiousness” .
Wesley’s great problem was that he could not relate imputed righteousness to Christ’s person. He thought of it purely in relation to man. Thus when Hervey writes to Wesley saying that Paul often mentions imputed righteousness, and adds the question, “What can this be, but the righteousness of Christ?” Wesley’s denies that there is any reference to Christ in that passage and writes back, “Paul tells us quite plainly in Rom. iv. “To him that believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, faith is imputed for righteousness”, arguing that it was Abraham’s active faith that secured righteousness for him. This, however, is strange exegesis indeed. This verse tells us about the “ungodly” who are justified, and not those who rely on their own inherent righteousness. Furthermore it is clear from the context and from our Lord’s own commentary on what constituted Abraham’s faith, that Abraham was looking forward to the coming of One Who could give him that which he could not achieve himself. Paul says in the same context, “He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised he was able to perform.” Paul then adds, “Therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness”. Here it is obvious that Abraham is trusting in something that God is to perform, giving God the glory for it. When we turn to Christ’s words to the Jews in John 8:56, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad” we see that it was truly the promise of Christ that spurred Abraham on to believe. This is why Paul in Romans iv ends the passage on imputed righteousness with the teaching that Christ “was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” and it is through Christ that we have “access by faith into this grace wherein we stand”. Realising that Christ died in our stead, the just for the unjust, it is surely not a long step away then to realise that we are only counted righteous because God in Christ would have it that way. We are accounted righteous in Christ because we have had Christ’s righteousness put on us. This is why Paul can write, “For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.”
Hervey: Only Christ’s Righteousness Can Gain Us Salvation
Hervey argues that there are only two ways whereby we can be justified; “either by perfect obedience to the Law, or because Christ hath kept the law in our stead.” No man can perfectly obey the Law, but Christ is able. If Christ has kept the Law in our stead, only Christ`s righteousness can gain us salvation. Again this would seem clear reasoning to a Reformed Christian. Wesley, however, objects strongly to this “either / or” reasoning saying, “What Christ has done is the foundation of our justification, not the terms or conditions of it.” He seems to mean by this that Christ has given us merely the possibility of salvation and by obeying God’s conditions we thus become partakers of his salvation. Hervey argues that man cannot himself fulfil the necessary conditions to be saved. Christ has fulfilled these conditions for His Church. This is firmly rejected by Wesley who strives to refute it with two arguments. First, he says, man can indeed fulfil the conditions which are “repent and believe” through Christ who strengthens him. His argument seems to be that God would not ask us to repent and believe unless this were possible. Second, Wesley maintains “It is unscriptural to talk of Christ fulfilling the conditions of the new covenant as Christ is not required to repent and believe”. Of course, Hervey was not implying at all that Christ should repent for us but that he had fulfilled the Law in our stead.
Hervey takes up Wesley’s first point arguing that the very fact that Christ directs our repentance shows that His righteousness is at work not man’s. He states that the best of men fall short of God’s requirements for salvation and must honestly confess “when I would do good, evil is present with me”. Astonishingly Wesley rejects this argument flat. He says it is just not true and tells Hervey that though it may be true of Hervey and himself, he cannot believe that this applies to believers in general.
Wesley was Confused by His Doctrine of Perfection
Here we are at the heart of Wesley’s doctrine of perfection. The preacher earnestly believed that Christians could be “perfected in love” or “perfected in the faith” as he put it, here and now. Time and again we read in his Journal of his meeting such people – even naming them! “No one” he told Hervey “who is not himself conformed to the law of God here, shall see the Lord in glory.” Hervey’s false theology, he argues “makes thousands content to live and die transgressors of the law, because Christ fulfilled it for them”.
Once William Cowper, a contemporary of Wesley, was asked to translate the works of the French mystic-writer, Louis-Antoine de Caraccioli. Cowper, who had read several of Caraccioli’s works, was tempted to do so at first because of the piety expressed in them. The more he read, however, the more he realised that Caraccioli was not prepared to admit that “Man is known to be nothing and Jesus all in all”. He saw that Caraccioli ascribed “the pleasures he found in a holy life, to his own industrious perseverance in a contemplative course, and not to the immediate agency of the great Comforter of his people”. Though Caraccioli believed in the vicarious suffering of Christ, he believed that this could only be made effective through the perseverance and faith of the believer. Cowper blamed this on the fact that Caraccioli was a Roman Catholic and had not had the privilege of “Christian teachers” to set him right .
Did Christ Secure our Salvation or Merely Provide for It?
Hervey’s criticism of Wesley ran on similar lines. Hervey maintained that Christ died to secure our salvation. Wesley taught that Christ died to provide our salvation. Here is the major theological difference between Calvinists and Arminians. Hervey argued that we seek to obey God because we are saved. Wesley maintained that we seek to obey God in order to be saved. This view of salvation unites Papists and Arminians who alike maintain “God has done His Work, now we must do ours”. Hervey thus pointed out the similarity between Wesley’s doctrine of salvation and that of Rome by quoting The Council of Trent which anathematises those who do not claim that the righteous can expect an eternal reward because of their good works – even though it maintains also that this reward is provided through the merits of Christ.
That Hervey was not so wide off the mark in assessing Wesley’s theology is illustrated by Wesley’s interpretation of James’ words concerning Abraham: “Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was his faith made perfect?”(James 2:22). Hervey had interpreted the words in Theron and Aspasio in the traditional reformed manner. He thus earned strong protests from Wesley. who argued that “The natural sense of the words is, by the grace superadded, while he wrought those works, his faith was literally made perfect”. Wesley then maintained that this was why God accounted Abraham as righteous. Such an interpretation is surely far from being the “natural sense” of the words. Wesley is teaching here that works incur a “superaddition” of grace and thus give us saving merit with God. This is very much akin to the Roman Catholic interpretation of salvation. Hervey, in company with Protestants of all ages, interpreted James as meaning that Abraham proved that he had faith by doing good works. Where true faith is, works are sure to follow. This is quite a different matter to acquiring more grace through works. This would be grace earned and thus no longer grace in the Biblical sense.
Wesley Heart was more Biblical than his Head
The very odd thing about Wesley’s theology, as Hervey was quick to point out, was that what he denied in his letters to his friends and in his Journal, he affirmed in his hymns, especially hymns written during his first love for Christ. Thus we find Hervey quoting Wesley’s hymns back at him to show him that salvation was fully accomplished on the Cross. On the topic of Christ’s imputed righteousness, Hervey quotes Wesley as writing:
“Join earth and heaven to bless
The Lord our righteousness.
The mystery of redemption this.
This the Saviour’s strange design;
Man’s offence was counted his,
Our’s his righteousness divine.
In him complete we shine,
His death, his life is mine.
Fully am I justified;
Free from sin, and more than free;
Guiltless, since for me he died,
Righteous, since he lived for me .”
These two verses show the quintessence of imputed righteousness. Again Hervey points out the finality of Christ’s substitutionary death on the Cross where our full pardon and forgiveness was obtained by quoting Wesley’s own words:
“Let the world their virtue boast,
Their works of righteousness;
I, a wretch undone and lost,
Am freely saved by grace;
Other title I disclaim,
This, only this is all my plea;
I the chief of sinners am,
But Jesus died for me.”
As Hervey points out, when Wesley speaks from the heart in praise to God, he is Biblical, when he starts using his head to philosophise about man’s perfect obedience, he falls into Roman error.
The Doctrine of Imputed Righteousness in Church History
The doctrine of imputed righteousness as Hervey sees it has been the belief of the Church in all ages. As long ago as 1120 we find the Waldensians protesting against the novelties of the Papists by affirming,
“Christ was promised to our forefathers, who received the law, to the end that, knowing their sin by the law, and their unrighteousness and insufficiency, they might desire the coming of Christ, to satisfy for their sins, and, by himself, to accomplish the law.”
Our Reformers held to this belief in the face of Roman self-righteousness. Latimer proclaimed from the pulpit, “When he (God) gave us his only Son, he gave us also his righteousness and his fulfilling of the law. So that we are justified by God’s free gift, and not of ourselves, nor by our merits; but the righteousness of Christ is accounted to be our righteousness.” Writing in the 17th century John Bunyan could affirm, “There is no other way for sinners to be justified from the curse of the law in the sight of God, than by the imputation of that righteousness long ago performed by, and still residing with, the person of Jesus Christ.” In his long poem Ebal and Gerizim, Bunyan writes:
“Then righteousness imputed thou must have,
Thee from the guilt and punishment to save ”.
The Welsh Calvinistic Methodist rules of 1742 required from their members that they accept “the imputed righteousness of Christ in salvation, and that God’s Spirit alone is the author of the faith whereby you believe”. Augustus Toplady, writing in the 18th Century, tells us “The justification of God’s people, thus founded upon, resulting from, and secured by, the imputed righteousness of Christ . . . . is absolute and total “. William Cowper wrote to his cousin Martin Madan concerning imputed righteousness:
“I plead guilty to the Doctrine of original corruption, derived to me from my great progenitor, for in my heart I feel the evidences of it that will not be disputed. I rejoice in the Doctrine of Imputed Righteousness for without it how should I be justified? My own righteousness is a rag, a feeble defective attempt insufficient of itself to obtain the pardon of the least of my offences, much more my justification from them all. My dear Martin, ’tis pride that makes these truths unpalatable, but pride has no business in the heart of a Christian.”
All these quotes serve to show how ridiculous is the assertion made by many a Wesleyan and liberal that the doctrine of imputed righteousness is an invention of Hervey’s.
In the face of growing ecumenism in which Biblical doctrine is being discarded and a “low” view of Christ and a “high” view of man and his basic goodness is being affirmed, let us not grow weary of stressing the need for Christ’s righteousness. Let us also, however, take Wesley’s misinterpretation as a warning against slackness on our part in promoting the Kingdom. Our Lord and Master has called us to work in His harvest and we know that, in these pagan times, there is plenty to be done.
George M. Ella is a historian, author and biographer. His writings may be accessed at the online archived, ”Biographia Evangelica”.
George M. Ella, born February 1939 in Yorkshire, England, has lived most of his life on the European Continent. He is a retired Senior Civil Servant formerly employed in teaching, post-graduate teacher-training, chairing examination boards and curricula work. He holds degrees from London, Hull, Uppsala, Essen, Duisburg and Marburg universities with doctorates in English Literature and Theology. Dr. Ella has written regularly since the seventies for a number of magazines and newspapers and published numerous books on Church History, including biographies of William Cowper, William Huntington, James Hervey, John Gill, Augustus Montague Toplady, Isaac McCoy and Henry Bullinger besides works on doctrine and education. He is currently finishing the third volume of his series 'Mountain Movers'; a biography of John Durie; a work on Law and Gospel and further study material for the Martin Bucer Seminar. Dr. Ella is still internationally active as a lecturer and is a Vice-President of the Protestant Reformation Society. He is keenly interested in missionary work and has written on the spread of the Gospel amongst the Same people of Lapland, the people of India and the Native Americans. This present volume follows Dr. Ella's 'The Covenant of Grace and Christian Baptism', also published by the Martin Bucer Seminar. George Ella is married to Erika Ella, nee Fleischman, a former government administrator, and they have two sons Mark (41), Director of a Polytechnic College in Bremerhaven and Robin (39), Leading Senior Physician in a newly-built Geriatric and Psychiatric clinic in Dessau.