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Calvin and Calvinism » Blog Archive » John Smalley (1734-1820) Eternal Salvation on No Account a Matter of Just Debt





Being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in CHRIST JESUS.
–Romans 3: 24.

The point labored in the preceding part of this epistle, is the impossibility of salvation for any of mankind, on the footing of mere law, or of personal righteousness. The apostle hath proved that both Jews and Gentiles were all under sin; and hence he infers, as the necessary consequence, that, “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in the sight of God.” This point being established, that the original way of life was how forever barred against the race of fallen man, the apostle proceeds, for the comfort of sinners, to open to view the gospel method of justification through a Redeemer. See the context, verse 21, and onward. “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ, unto all, and upon all them that believe; for there is no difference. For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

It is of the last importance that this new way of access into the divine favor, and of obtaining eternal life, should be rightly explained. By many it has been so misunderstood as either to make void the law, or to frustrate the grace of the gospel, or both. Some speculative inaccuracies also, it appears to me, respecting justification through the atonement and righteousness of Christ, have been inadvertently adopted by many, if not most, of the orthodox, of which men of erroneous sentiments have availed themselves to very pernicious purposes.

The great difficulty respecting this subject, to which I design to pay particular attention at present, is, how to reconcile the full satisfaction of Christ, with the free grace of God in the pardon of sin and the justification of sinners. It is proposed, agreeably to the words before us,

1st. To explain gospel justification.
2d. To consider how this is through the redemption of Christ. And,
3d. To show that still it is of the free grace of God.
But on the last of these heads I mean mainly to insist.
I. I shall endeavor very briefly to explain what we are here to understand by being justified.

Justification literally signifies judging one to be just. A man is said to justify himself when he asserts his own innocence, or denies that he has been to blame in any instance. So one is said to justify another when he stands up for him, or undertakes his vindication. Among the Jews this was a law phrase, or was used in reference to their courts of judicature. See Deut. 25: 1; “If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them, then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked.” From this judicial use of the word, it came to be applied to the case of mankind, in regard to the sentence of the Supreme Judge. The legal justification of man, had he persevered in perfect rectitude, would have been the sentence of his Maker, pronouncing him righteous, and confirming him in immortal happiness. But gospel justification–he justification of fallen men before a holy and just God, must be supposed to have something peculiar in it. The application of the word to this case, must be understood as borrowed and figurative; yet the thing intended is sufficiently analogous to the primary meaning of the phrase to well warrant this metaphorical use. It bears a resemblance to the legal and literal justification of the righteous in the two most essential points. It implies an acquittance from sin as exposing to eternal death, and the grant of a sure title to everlasting life.

1st. Gospel justification implies an acquittance from all sin, as exposing to eternal death. To this purpose see Acts 13: 38, 39; “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins; and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.” In the Mosaic law, provision was made for cleansing persons from ceremonial, but not from moral, transgressions. Not from sin, the apostle to the Hebrews observes, “as pertaining to the conscience.” Hence David says. Psalm 51: 16, “For thou desires not sacrifice, else would I give it.”That is, there were no sin-offerings

instituted for such crimes as those of which he had been guilty. But through the atonement of Christ believers are justified from all things. His “blood cleanses from all sin.”Accordingly we read, Rom. 8: 1, There is therefore now no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus.” That is, no condemnation to eternal death. Not that there is no kind of condemnation to those who are justified according to the new covenant. The best saints are liable to temporal punishments, notwithstanding their justification. Moses and David and Hezekiah were condemned for their sins, and sorely punished for them in this world, though good men, and interested in the covenant of grace. And St. Paul, reproving the Corinthians for their unworthy attendance on the Lord’s Supper, says, “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.” Believers, by being justified, are not exempted from all expressions of the divine displeasure. The pardon implied in this gracious act of God is only a discharge from the condemnation of the wicked; that is, from future and eternal punishment. But,

2d. Gospel justification implies the grant of a sure title to eternal life. This is more than merely being delivered from the curse of the law. Adam, before his fall, was perfectly free from all condemnation; but he was not confirmed in the divine favor. He was placed in a state of probation with only a conditional promise of final happiness. If he obeyed he was to live; if he disobeyed he was to die. And he had no assurance of effectual grace to preserve him from final apostasy and perdition. In this last respect, the case of those who are justified through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus is essentially different. Indeed, some have supposed that believers in Christ, have, in this life, only conditional promises of final salvation. Nor can it be denied that persevering obedience of the gospel is made necessary in order to eternal life. It is written, “The just shall live by faith; but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. He that endures to the end,” says Christ, “the same shall be saved. To him that overcomes will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.”

From such passages as these many have been led to suppose, that all the promises of the second covenant, like those of the first, are only conditional, and depend upon the mutable will of man for their ultimate accomplishment. But texts enough may be produced, which assert the absolute safety of all who are once justified by faith. Justification and glorification are spoken of as infallibly connected, Rom. 8:30; “Whom he justifies, them he also glorifies.” And our Savior says, John 5:24, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that hears my words, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation.”

Nor are these at all inconsistent with those other texts, which imply that none shall be saved at last, but such as obey the gospel to the end of life. For perseverance in faith and holiness may be made absolutely sure in the first justification. And that this is actually the case is most evident from Scripture. Christ says of his sheep–of all who “hear his voice, and follow him, I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any pluck them out of my hand.” Those who truly believe, we are taught, are not of them that draw back unto perdition. They are said to be “kept by the power of God, through faith, unto salvation.” “We may be confident of this very thing, according to the apostle, that he who hath begun a good work in any one–a work of faith with power–he will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. From these passages, and many more in the New Testament, it appears evident enough that those who have once obtained Gospel justification, are not only put into a new state of trial upon a milder constitution, according to which it is possible they may be finally saved; but that their salvation is made infallible, by this better covenant, established upon better promises; this everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure.

II, I proceed to speak of the redemption of Christ, the essential ground of gospel justification. To redeem, signifies to deliver; more strictly, and most commonly, to deliver by ransom. There were various laws in Israel concerning redemptions: the redemption of lives, of lost inheritances, and of persons sold to slavery. Every first-born male, according to law, was the Lord’s; but the first-born of man, and the firstlings of certain beasts might not be sacrificed; provision was therefore made for their being redeemed by the substitution of others in their stead. See Exod. 13:13; “Every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck; and all the first-born of man amongst thy children shalt thou redeem.” “With regard to the redemption of inheritances, see Lev. 25: 25; “If thy brother be waxen poor, and hath sold away of his possession, and if any of his kin come to redeem it, then shall he redeem that which his brother had sold.” Of the redemption of Israelites who had sold themselves, see the same chapter, ver. 47-49; “And if a sojourner or stranger wax rich by thee, and thy brother by him wax poor, and sell himself unto the stranger; after that he is sold he may be redeemed again; one of his brethren may redeem him: either his uncle, or his uncle’s son may redeem him, or any that is nigh of kin unto him of his family may redeem him; or, if he be able, he may redeem himself.”

In allusion to these and such like redemptions in Israel, Christ is called our Redeemer, and is said to be made of God unto us redemption. Agreeably to these different instances and ways of redeeming, the redemption that is in Jesus Christ may be understood as comprehending, both the merit of his obedience, and the manifestation of divine justice made by his sufferings, in our nature and stead. “We were waxen poor; our eternal inheritance was alienated; and such was the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who “was rich, that for our sakes he became poor, that we through his poverty might be rich.” He took upon him the form of a servant–the nature and place of man, and, in that nature and capacity, obeyed perfectly his Father’s law as man ought to have done, that “by his obedience many might be made righteous,”and obtain the inheritance of eternal life. We had sold ourselves; the Son of Man therefore, our kinsman, came to seek and to save–to ransom and redeem us. Hence we are said to be bought with a price; and to be redeemed, not with corruptible things as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ. We were devoted to utter destruction; for it is said,

The soul that sins it shall die; and, cursed is every one that continues not in all things written in the book of the law to do them. Christ therefore suffered for us, the just for the unjust. He hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us. He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.

What rendered the vicarious obedience and sufferings of our Savior necessary, was, that we might have remission of sins and the rewards of the righteous, and yet the honor of the divine law and government be maintained. “To justify the wicked, is abomination to the Lord. He will by no means clear the guilty.” This were to countenance iniquity, and to cast an indelible slur on his own glorious character. It were to bring the eternal law of righteousness, and the eternal Lawgiver of the universe into disregard and contempt. God had given a law which was holy and just and good. He had enforced this law with infinite sanctions, that it might be forever observed and had in reverence.

This law had not been fulfilled by man, and therefore the reward of righteousness could not be given him. This law had been openly violated by man, and therefore the penalty of transgression and disobedience must be inflicted upon him. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right” Better never to give a law, than to let the violation of it pass with impunity. But the holy law of God was not rashly given. His own glory, and the good of the moral creation, required that there should be such a law, and that the dignity of it should be supported. A lawless, licentious universe were infinitely worse than none. Hence heaven and earth might sooner pass away, or be annihilated, than the divine law be made void, or one tittle of it fail and not be fulfilled.

But the letter of a law may possibly be deviated from, and yet the spirit of it be supported, and the design of it fully obtained. We are told of a certain ancient king (Zaleuchus, king of the Locrians) who, that he might effectually suppress adultery, which exceedingly prevailed among his subjects, enacted a law that the adulterer should be punished with the loss of both his eyes. His own son was convicted of this crime. The royal father, whose bowels yearned for him, and who could not bear to have one so dear to him forever deprived of the light of day, devised an expedient to soften, in that one instance, the rigor of his own law, and yet not abate its force in future. The king in a most public manner, before all the people, had one of his own eyes plucked out, that so one of his son’s eyes might be saved. By such a commutation as this, by redeeming one eye for his son, at so costly a price as the loss of one of his own, he conceived the law would appear as awful, and be as great a terror to evil-doers, as if the letter of it had been executed. And it must, I think, be acknowledged that, by this means, the king’s inflexible determination to maintain government and punish transgression, was even more strikingly evinced than if he had suffered the law to have its natural course, and neither of his son’s eyes had been spared. For some fathers have been without natural affection, but no man ever yet hated his own flesh. The apple of one’s own eye must certainly be dear to him.

In like manner, we are to conceive of the redemption of Christ, as an astonishing expedient of infinite wisdom and goodness, that we transgressors might be saved, and yet God be just, and his righteous law suffer no dishonor. This is the constant account we have of the death of Christ in the holy Scriptures. Thus immediately after my text, “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation, through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins, &c. To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness, that he might be just and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus.”Thus Eph. 1:7; “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins,”&c. But it was not enough that we should be redeemed from death. In order to our being heirs of God, and having an interest in the covenant of grace, it was necessary that the law as a covenant of works should be fulfilled; and so the forfeited inheritance of eternal life be redeemed. This our Savior did by his active obedience. By his fulfilling all righteousness, a foundation was laid for God, to the eternal honor of his remunerating justice, to give grace and glory to all who believe in Christ and belong to him. Thus it is written, “He is made unto us righteousness.”

These two things are implied in the redemption that is in Jesus Christ. The merit of his obedience, and the manifestation of the inflexibility of divine vindictive justice, made by his sufferings and death. And these two things were necessary in order to our being justified, and yet the spirit of the law be maintained, and God be just.

III. I proceed to show, that notwithstanding this plenteous redemption, we are dependent on the mere mercy of God, and our justification is still freely by his grace.

By grace is meant undeserved favor. This is the common acceptation of the word. The bestowment of any good which might justly not be bestowed, or not inflicting any evil which might justly be inflicted, is a matter of free grace. Indeed, in the New Testament grace may mean, doing good to those who deserve ill; this being actually the case with respect to all exercises of divine goodness towards fallen man. However, if it can be shown that no man has any claim to salvation upon the footing of justice, it will be sufficient to my present purpose. The thing therefore I now undertake to prove, and clear up, is this: That no man deserves eternal life, or even deliverance from eternal death, on account of any merit belonging to him, either personal or imputed. The idea of personal merit is in general professedly exploded. All will own that the best man on earth, had he no better righteousness than his own, could have no other plea than that of the publican, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” But, on Christ’s account, it has commonly been supposed, believers have a good plea even before the tribunal of divine justice. “It hath been said by them of old time,” and also by some modern writers of very eminent note, that through the atonement of our divine Redeemer, if we have an interest in him, we deserve freedom from all condemnation; and that, through his all-perfect righteousness, we may demand eternal glory as our just due. Very express to this purpose is the following passage, in a late learned and most excellent author.

The justice of God that required man’s damnation, and seemed inconsistent with his salvation, now does as much require the salvation of those that believe in Christ, as ever it required their damnation. Salvation is an absolute debt to the believer from God, so that he may in justice demand and challenge it, not upon the account of what he himself has done; but upon the account of what his surety has done. For Christ has satisfied justice fully for his sin; so that it is but a thing that may be challenged that God should now release the believer from punishment; it is but a piece of justice that the creditor should release the debtor, when he has fully paid the debt. And again, the believer may demand eternal life, because it has been merited by Christ, by a merit of condignity.1

Another extract I will here give you from the writings of a more ancient pious divine, containing the same sentiment, and expressed in still bolder terms. His words are as follows:

He [Christ] fully merited, by way of purchase and complete payment made unto divine justice, the removal of all that evil we had deserved, and the enjoyment of all that good we needed, and could desire; and that by a valuable consideration tendered into the hand of divine justice in that behalf. However it is out of free mercy and rich grace that redemption is given to us (for it is out of mercy that Christ is given, that he gave his life, that both are bestowed upon us and not upon the world); yet in regard to the Lord Jesus Christ himself, and the full payment he hath laid down, out of his own proper cost and charges, his own blood, it is justice it should be bestowed, and by justice it may be challenged, as that which he hath purchased in a righteous proceeding.

This he afterwards applies in a use of reproof to diffident believers, in the following words:

Why? have you laid down the purchase? Take possession then into your hand. Have you tendered the payment? Take the commodity. It is your own; nay, your due. He that knows at what the purchase will come, and hath the sum in sight, and under his hand, can lay it down upon the nail; pay it, take it; here is one and there is the other. Here is the blood of Jesus which thou art well pleased with, hast accepted of, therefore. Lord, give me my due: that comfort, that peace, that wisdom, that assurance, which I stand in need of.2

This notion of the atonement and imputed righteousness, it must be acknowledged, is frequently to be met with in our most orthodox books, though it may not be often improved just in the manner last quoted. But we may call no man master, or father. We must “search the Scriptures, whether those things be so.” Where do we find our infallible Teacher, instructing his disciples to make such challenges from the Father, even on his account, of deliverance from all evil, and the bestowment of all good, as their just due? Did he not direct them humbly to pray, for even a competency of outward comforts, as of God’s free gift: and for the pardon of their many offences, of his mere mercy? “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” He encouraged them indeed to seek unto God for all needed good, in his name, with an assurance of obtaining their requests; but he ever taught them to seek in the way of petition, not of demand. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Verily, verily I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall ask the Father, in my name, he will give it you.” Did our Savior, that we find, ever insinuate an idea that the salvation of his redeemed ones was of debt from the Father? Did he not, in the most explicit manner, acknowledge the contrary? “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so. Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.”

Do the inspired apostles, in any of their epistles or discourses, teach us that the salvation of believers, or any part of it, is of justice to the exclusion of grace?” Do they not constantly express themselves most clearly in opposition to this sentiment? “By the righteousness of one, the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. That as sin

hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign, through righteousness, unto eternal life, by Jesus Christ our Lord. He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things .”

The doctrine that justification, and all subsequent as well as antecedent blessings, are free gifts–matters of mere grace, is certainly a doctrine of Scripture. But still the great question remains; how is this doctrine self-consistent? The redemption that is in Jesus Christ implies full satisfaction for sin, and the highest possible merit of eternal life; how then can being justified through this redemption be of free grace? What grace can there be in cancelling a debt when full payment hath been made? or in liberating a captive when an adequate ransom hath been received? or in reconveying an alienated inheritance after ample recompense? how is this difficulty to be removed?

I answer; just as other difficulties are removed into which we are led by following the allusions and metaphors of Scripture too closely. We are not to imagine a resemblance, in all points, between the redemption of Christ, and redemptions among mankind, any more than we are in other instances when divine things are spoken of after the manner of men; any more than we are to imagine that God is angry just as we are, or that he repents just as we do, or that he hath an arm, and hands, and eyes like ours, because these things are ascribed to him in a figurative manner. From the use of the words ransom and redemption, we are no more obliged to suppose a literal purchase, or an obligatory satisfaction in what our Savior did and suffered, than we are to suppose there was occasion for such kind of satisfaction, and for the same reasons as among men. We are selfish, and looking for gain every one from his quarter: but surely we ought not to form a like idea of the infinitely benevolent and ever-blessed God. Certainly, “He who so loved the world as to give his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him might not perish, but have everlasting life,” would have pardoned and saved the world without any atonement or vicarious righteousness, had nothing but want of goodness prevented. The thing was, sin could not be pardoned and sinners saved, consistently with just law and good government; and therefore not consistently with the glory of God or the good of the universe. The removal of this just obstacle to the reign of grace, not the laying God under obligation, for value received, was what rendered the redemption of Christ necessary: and the former of these, not the latter, is the end effected by his obedience and death.

It hath indeed been said, in the present dispute, that a door could not be opened for the salvation of mankind, without making it necessary in justice that they should be saved. That justice requires whatever is consistent with justice. But this is a new and strange position. The perfection of justice no more requires that every thing which is just should be done, than the perfection of truth requires that every thing which is true should be spoken. If justice required whatever is consistent with justice, no grace could be exercised–no free favor could ever be bestowed in any instance, either by God or man: nothing more than mere justice could ever be done. That justice which excludes grace, which is the only proper notion of justice, at least the only one now under consideration, certainly doth not require many things which might be just. Justice did not require that God should give his only begotten Son, yet this was consistent with justice. Christ was not obliged in justice to consent to become incarnate and to pour out his soul unto death, yet there was nothing inconsistent with justice in his so doing. In like manner it is now consistent with justice for God to pardon sinners through the propitiation of Christ, yet this is not what justice requires. Grace requires that the guilty should be forgiven, provided it may be done consistently with justice, and without doing hurt upon the whole; but this doth make it no more grace. Wisdom requires whatsoever things are for the best. Goodness requires whatsoever things are for the greatest universal good. But justice, as excluding grace, requires only whatsoever things are deserved.

Still, perhaps, it will be said. Were not the sufferings of Christ really adequate to all the punishment due to us for sin? and did not his obedience actually merit eternal life by a merit of condignity? and have not believers, at least, a just right and title to the atonement and merit of Christ? Is not his righteousness imputed to them so as to become actually theirs? And if these things be so, where can there be any grace in their justification? In answer to all this, let me observe the following things.

1. I do not think that eternal life was merited, even by Christ, by a merit of condignity. A merit of condignity supposes something justly due for service done. But it is impossible, I apprehend, that God should receive any thing for which he is justly indebted. “For who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?” However ancient divines may have discoursed about merit of condignity and merit of congruity, the distinction, I conceive, is properly applicable only to merit at the hands of beings who may receive actual services to which they have no just claim. A merit of condignity can, I am persuaded, have no place in regard to God.

That creatures can merit no good at the hand of their Creator, in this high sense of merit, every one must be convinced, on a moment’s reflection. They can render nothing to God, in a way of love or service, but what is his due from them. Adam would not have deserved any reward as a just debt, had he remained innocent, and fulfilled the law of perfection. He would only have done what it was his duty to do. The highest created intelligences can do no more. As they derive their all from God, so they can render nothing to him but what is of right his. But, it will be said, Christ was not a mere creature. He thought it not robbery to be equal with God. Consequently his merit must be of a different kind from what Adam’s would have been, and from that of the angels. The labor of a servant cannot bring his master in debt, because it was that to which he had a just right; but if a neighbor, who is upon even terms with us, labor for us, we are indebted to him. He deserves wages, in the proper and strict sense of the word. And why must there not in reality be exactly this difference between the obedience of creatures, and the obedience of Christ?

To this I answer, though Christ was under no obligation to become incarnate, yet when he had assumed the form of a servant, it behooved him to fulfil all righteousness. All he did was obedience;–obedience justly due, on our account at least, if not on his own. God has not received, even in this way, that to which he had no right, and for which he is really indebted. Did the merit of Christ as properly belong to us as if it had been our personal merit, we should have no ground to challenge eternal life, nor any reward, as our just due. Indeed, in that case, we should not deserve eternal death, nor any punishment. Therefore, I must add,

2. I do not think the merit of Christ is actually transferred to believers; or, that his righteousness is so imputed to them as to become, to all intents and purposes, their own righteousness. It is so far reckoned to them as to render it consistent and honorable for God, as above explained, to be reconciled to them, not imputing their trespasses by a rigorous, or an adequate personal punishment; but it is not so theirs as to render them really deserving of good, or undeserving of evil. The apostle states a distinction between justification by works and by faith, making the former in some sense of debt, but the latter of grace entirely. Rom. 4:2-5;

For if Abraham were justified by works he hath whereof to glory, but not before God. For what says the Scripture? Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness. Now to him that works is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that works not, but believes on him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.

By this we are plainly taught that justification by a righteousness reckoned to us by faith, is of grace, in a manner different from justification by our own good works. That the man justified by personal righteousness would have ground for glorying as more deserving than other men, though not before God, as having really merited eternal life, or any good at his hand. Comparatively, the justification of such an one would be of debt; it would indeed be in part of absolute justice to the exclusion of grace: that is, as far as it implies only approbation, and acquittance from the curse of the law. The righteous deserve not to be condemned; and there is no grace in not punishing them. But to him who is personally guilty, and is justified by faith, in the righteousness of another, and in him who justifies the ungodly, the whole is of grace. The apostle’s reasoning evidently supposes that the righteousness of Christ doth not become, to all intents and purposes, the believer’s own righteousness. For if it did, there could be no difference, as to ground for glorying, between being justified by faith and by works; and one would be just as much of debt as the other: nor could it be true, in any sense, that God justified the ungodly. But that there is not a strict and proper imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believersuch an imputation as implies an actual transfer of merit, is plain from the whole tenor of the Scriptures, as far as they have any relation to this subject. It is evident from all that is said of the chastisements of believers, of their confessions, and of the remission of their sins. “Were they as righteous as Christ was,–had they, in any way, a perfect righteousness, properly their own, they would have no sins to confess; they would deserve no punishment, and need no pardon. The truth is, our ill desert is not taken away by the atonement of Christ. That can never be taken away. Nor doth the obedience of Christ render us deserving of heaven, or undeserving of hell. When God justifies believers on Christ’s account, he considers them still as ungodly: as ungodly he punishes them still in this world; and as well might he punish them with everlasting destruction in the world to come, were it not for his gracious promise to the contrary. Grace reigns with unabated luster in our justification, and in the whole of our salvation, notwithstanding its reigning through righteousness, because it is through a righteousness not our own.

Merit is ever personal. In the nature of things it cannot be otherwise. Another’s having been righteous, doth not make me righteous, if I have not been so myself; nor can the sufferings of another make me faultless wherein I have been a sinner. Can a robber or murderer become innocent, because an innocent attorney or friend of his hath suffered the penalty he deserved? Certainly it is impossible. He must be, notwithstanding this, as vile, as great a criminal, as blameworthy, as ever he was. And so are all mankind, notwithstanding the sufferings, and notwithstanding the obedience of Christ.

Debts may be discharged by an attorney. Damages of any kind may be repaired by a third person. But moral turpitude is not to be wiped away in this manner. Ill desert is never thus removed. Merit and demerit, are things not to be acquired or lost by proxy. The consequences of the good or evil actions of one person may devolve upon another; not the righteousness or the criminality of them.

Our crimes were not transferred to Christ; only the sufferings for them. He suffered as a lamb, without blemish and without spot. So his righteousness is not transferred to us; only the benefits of it. He was numbered with transgressors, and treated as a sinner, though innocent. We are numbered with the righteous, and treated as the friends and favorites of the Most High, though ungodly. He deserved the praises of heaven, when he was made a curse–when forsaken and expiring on the cross. We deserve the pains of hell, when delivered from the curse of the law, and received into the embraces of everlasting love. There is no transfer of merit, or of demerit, one way or the other, only of their fruits and consequences.

Justice admitted of laying on Christ the sufferings due for our sins, because it was by his own free consent, and because the necessary ends of punishing would thereby be answered; not because he deserved those sufferings. So, on the other hand, justice now admits of our being saved on his account, not because, on any account, we deserve salvation, but only because by giving us remission of sins and the happiness of the righteous, no injury will be done, no damage will accrue to the universe.

There is nothing to oblige God to have mercy on any of mankind, only his own wisdom and goodness. He can do it without any unrighteousness; and therefore, so it seems good in his sight. Hence we are pardoned–we are justified–we shall be glorified, freely by the grace of God, notwithstanding the ample foundation laid for all in the plenteous redemption which is in .Jesus Christ.

All that now remains, is to point out some of the doctrinal and practical uses, of this important subject.

In the first place; we may hence learn that the argument for the certain salvation of all men, from the sufficiency of the satisfaction and purchase of Christ, is inconclusive. According to the common notion of a literal satisfaction and strict purchase in the atonement and obedience of our Savior, similar exactly to satisfactions and purchases in matters of meun and tuum (i.e. mine and thine) between man and man, this argument of the Universalists, on which the greatest stress is laid by some, would be exceedingly plausible: to me it appears, it would indeed be absolutely unanswerable. The argument stands thus: God is obliged in justice to save men as far as the merit of Christ extends: but the merit of Christ is sufficient for the salvation of all men; therefore God is obliged in justice to save all. The minor proposition I dare not deny. I question not the sufficiency of the merit of Christ for the salvation of all mankind. I have no doubt but that, in this sense, Christ “gave himself a ransom for all; tasted death for every man; and is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world.” The only thing therefore which I have to dispute in this argument, is the obligatoriness of the Redeemer’s merit, on the Supreme Being: or, that it is of such a nature as to afford any ground to demand salvation from God, as a just debt. Had the believer any right to challenge pardon and eternal life upon this footing, I see not but that all mankind would have the same. If the merit of Christ be such as obliges God, in point of justice to save all believers; and if that merit be sufficient for the salvation of all men; why is not God obliged in justice to save all men, whether believers or not? He may be under engagements to some and not to others by gracious promise, predicated upon faith; but if the obligation be in absolute justice, it must be solely on account of the merit of Christ; and is no greater after a man has faith than before. And if there be merit enough in Christ for all, it obliges and must obtain the salvation of all, though all men have not faith. That alters not the case. Faith, or the want of faith, alters nothing in point of justice; only in point of promise: unless the obligatory merit be in faith itself, not in the atonement and righteousness of Christ. If God cannot in justice lay any thing to the charge of the elect, nor inflict any punishment upon them, because Christ died for them: and if, in point of merit, Christ died for all men; God cannot in justice lay any thing to the charge of any man, nor punish any man.

Thus the doctrine of certain universal salvation is established at once and established upon orthodox principles.

The argument, indeed, proves too much. More a great deal than any good man would wish: more, one would think, than any man in his senses could believe. It turns the tables entirely respecting obligation and grace between God and man. According to it, all the obligation is now on God’s part; all the grace is on ours! He is holden and justly stands

bound to us; we are free from all obligation to him! All the debts of all mankind, both of duty and suffering, are forever cancelled! Christ has done all their duty for them, as well as taken away all possible criminality from them! If they now love or serve God it is of mere gratuity! They are not at all obliged so to do! If he bestow upon them all the good in his power, to all eternity, it is of debt–absolute debt, in the highest sense of the word! He can do no more for them than by a merit of condignity hath been purchased for them, and is of absolute right due to them! These admirable consequences will follow from this notion of the atonement and merit of Christ, as necessarily as the doctrine of universal salvation. An argument which thus overthrows every thing–all law, as well as all grace, must certainly be fallacious, whether we were able to discover the fallacy of it or not. Yet some, it is said, are not to be terrified by such frightful consequences.

They admit them, and plead for them. They allow, at least, and maintain, that men are not justly punishable by the Judge of all the earth, whatever iniquities they may commit; and that, in fact, no man is punished of God at all, nor ever will be. So firmly are they established in the belief that the foregoing argument is demonstration, and can never be confuted.

But must not the weak place in this invincible argument be made manifest to all men? I cannot but flatter myself, the attentive, candid Universalist must feel this firm ground give way under him. The hope of salvation built upon the idea that the holy Sovereign of the universe is obliged in justice to pardon and save the vilest of sinners, is certainly a very forlorn hope.

That believers themselves do not deserve eternal life, nor even deliverance from eternal death;–that God is under no kind of obligation, for value received, even to them, on any account whatever, seems plainly implied in our text, and hath been sufficiently illustrated, I conceive, in the preceding discourse. And if so, certainly he cannot be obliged in justice to save all men. Salvation is sincerely offered to all, if they will thankfully receive Christ as their Savior, and penitently return, through him, to their Creator and their God. With regard to giving them a heart, or making them willing to do these things, God hath mercy on whom he will have mercy. Surely “by sending his Son into the world, that the world through him might be saved,”he hath not brought himself so infinitely indebted to mankind as to be in justice obliged to save all the world, whether they will or not.

Secondly. Hence we may see, that the Socinians have no reason to object against the doctrine of atonement, as though it were irreconcilable with the doctrine of free grace, and represented God the Father as unforgiving, implacable, unmerciful.3

As many have explained the doctrine of atonement, I cannot say that these reproaches cast upon it by its adversaries, are altogether unjust. Were it right to conceive of it under the literal low notion of paying debts, or repairing damages, between man and man, it would indeed seem as if there were no proper remission of sins to believers, nor any mercy in granting them “deliverance from the curse of the law.” But if we consider God as acting, in this great affair, in his own proper character as Supreme Ruler of the world; and requiring atonement in order to the salvation of guilty men, only for the support of public justice, and that he might still be a terror to evil doers, at the same time that he discovers himself “abundant in goodness and ready to forgive;” if we consider, moreover, that the demerit of sin is not at all taken away, nor the need of pardoning mercy lessened by vicarious sufferings; in a word, if the foregoing view of this subject be scriptural and just, what shadow of ground can there be for any such reproaches and objections?

Thirdly. Hence we are furnished with an easy solution of a difficulty which some have imagined respecting our being justified at all, on account of the active obedience of our Savior. The difficulty is this. Christ, in his human nature, in which only he could obey, owed obedience on his own account, and therefore could have no merit by that means to be placed to the account of his followers as the ground of their justification. Hereupon some have supposed and taught, that the sufferings of Christ, to which he was under no personal obligation, are the only meritorious ground of our acceptance unto eternal life. Or that all further than deliverance from the curse of the law is from the grace, of God, and the merit of our own imperfect obedience.4

This imaginary difficulty, however, arises entirely from the supposed necessity of merit strictly purchasing good at the hand of God, and a merit properly transferable. According to that conception of the matter, it is certain Adam’s obedience could have availed nothing in behalf of any but himself. He, unquestionably, was under personal obligation to yield the most perfect obedience to his Maker of which he was capable. Therefore had he remained innocent, and continued in all things given him in charge to do them, he could have had no merit of supererogation, to be reckoned to his posterity. Nor do I conceive that the man Jesus Christ, consistently with his personal duty to his Heavenly Father, could have done less than to have fulfilled all righteousness. On supposition a purchasing, transferable merit had been necessary, I do not therefore see how this difficulty could be fairly obviated. But from the things which have been said, it is abundantly evident, I apprehend, that no such merit was necessary, is scriptural, or possible. God may do honor to himself, as one that loves righteousness, by making multitudes happy out of respect to the tried virtue and obedience of one though that one have only done what it was his duty to do. All notions of supererogation, and of a fund of merit to be sold and bought, or any way communicated from one to another, proceed upon the maxims of commercial, not of rectoral justice. Every thing of this kind is going off entirely from the ideas of sin and duty, to those of debt and credit, damages and reparations.

Fourthly. From the foregoing view of the subject, we learn, that those who are justified in the gospel way, have nothing whereof to glory, but have all the reason in the world to be humble before God. They have merely a merit of congruity to plead in his presence; and that merit not at all their own. Were “salvation an absolute debt to the believer from God, so that he might in justice demand and challenge it,” to be clothed with humility, and to be a prostrate suppliant before the throne of grace, might, indeed, seem unbecoming, and quite out of character. Had Christ “merited, by way of purchase and complete payment, the removal of all that evil ee had deserved, and the enjoyment of all the good we needed and could desire, and that by a valuable consideration tendered into the hand of divine justice in that behalf;”and had we this “sum in sight, and under our hand,”Ave might well assume a high tone, and say, “Here is one and there is the other.”Our beggary would be at an end; nor would it suit with our affluent circumstances, to be so poor in spirit as to petition and pray. We might say to the Almighty, “We are lords, we will come no more unto thee:” or, coming, might be so laconic as only to say, “Lord, give us our due.”

But, my brethren, “you have not so learned Christ; if so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him as the truth is in Jesus.” Christians have not these heaven-debasing, self-exalting sentiments, in the bottom of their hearts, however they may speak unguardedly, or think inaccurately on some occasions. I dare say the venerable divines above quoted, did not mean so, neither did their hearts think so. They never prayed as though those things were true; they never felt as if they believed them. Such speculative notions of the atonement and imputed righteousness, owing originally to the strong figures of holy Scripture, literally understood, have been exceedingly common; and therefore have been received implicitly as unquestionable truths, by the learned as well as the illiterate; however inconsistent with innumerable other sentiments in which every true Christian is most firmly established. Certainly, by the law of faith, boasting is excluded. Certainly if our justification be freely by divine grace, we have nothing whereof to glory. We have as much reason to be humble–as much cause, with deep abasement, to confess our daily sins, and to implore the free remission of them–as much occasion to say, God be merciful to us sinners, as if we were not justified at all. The blood of atonement only gives us access to the mercy-seat. Let, then, all our feelings and all our thoughts, as well as our addresses to a holy God, be agreeable to this humiliating doctrine of our being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ. God thus established his covenant with us, that we may remember, and be confounded, and never open our mouths any more for our shame, when, in this way, he is pacified towards us for all that we have done.

Fifthly. From what hath been said, we learn, nevertheless, that believers have as firm ground for hope and confidence in God, as if their justification were a matter of absolute debt. The new covenant is as everlasting, as well ordered in all things, and as sure, as if it were not at all a covenant of grace. The gospel plan of acceptance unto eternal life, is calculated, not in the least to mar our comfort, only to mortify our pride.

We have seen that there is no want of absolute promises to insure grace and glory to all true believers in Jesus Christ. “All the promises in him are yea, and in him amen, unto the glory of God.”And we know, says the same apostle, “that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors, through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. We have access, through Christ, by faith, into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”Believers are as absolutely established in the divine favor and love, as if they were justified by the deeds of the law. Final remission of sins and eternal salvation are as fully secured to them, as if their ill desert were wholly done away, or as if they had even a merit of condignity and the Almighty were actually their infinite debtor. Hence another apostle is very bold, and says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”Not that, on account of our confessions, or on any other account, we justly deserve to be forgiven. Deserved forgiveness is no forgiveness at all. The meaning can only be, that God will infallibly be just and true to his word. A faithful and just man will fulfill his promises, however gratuitous the things promised: how much more he who “is not a man that he should lie, nor the son of man that he should repent ! “But, if his bare word were not enough, as the apostle observes, he hath added his “oath, that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us.” We may, if we believe in God, and believe also in Christ, “come boldly (though as humble beggars) unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”

Sixthly, and lastly. Hence we should learn to love mercy, as well as to walk humbly with our God.

Had we the righteousness of Christ, as a perfect cloak for all our sins, so as to have no occasion for any forgiveness, it might more reasonably be expected that we should be unforgiving. Did we need no mercy, it would not be so very strange should we show none. But, my brethren, how far otherwise is the case with every one of us ! Do we hope we are justified in the sight of a holy God? Be it so, it is “freely by his grace,” even “through the redemption that is in Jesus.” “If I justify myself,” says holy Job, “mine own mouth shall condemn me: if I say I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse.”And indeed, as the same pious man demands, “How should man be just with God?” By imputation it hath been supposed he might; but we have now seen that even through the atonement and righteousness of Christ, we can have no plea of not guilty: and personally we cannot surely stand in judgment, should he contend with us, “nor answer him one of a thousand.” Shall we then be strict to mark, and severe to revenge the trivial injuries or affronts we may receive from our fellow-creatures? Read, Christians, the striking parable of the ten thousand talents and the hundred pence; read, and tremble at the awful application of that parable. Remember that most reasonable exhortation of the apostle, which speaks unto you as unto justified sinners, Eph. 4:23; “And be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ’s sake, hath forgiven you.”

John Smalley, “Justification Through Christ, An Act of Free Grace,” in The Atonement: Discourses and Treatises (Boston: Congregational Board of Publication, 1859), 43-64.  [Some reformatting; some spelling modernized; footnotes original; footnote values modernized; square bracketed insert mine; and underlining mine.]

[Notes: 1) The original title for this sermon was: Eternal Salvation on No Account a Matter of Just Debt; or, Full Redemption, Not Interfering With Free Grace: a sermon, delivered at Wallingford, by particular agreement, with special reference to the Murryan controversy.  Published with some additions and alterations, that it might be better adapted to general usefulness. 2) Smalley was one of a cluster of American theologians who influenced Andrew Fuller. The main point here is that because of the influence of Smalley and others, Fuller came to see that the satisfaction of Christ related to man’s criminality, not debt. ]


1President Edwards, First set of Posthumous Sermons, page 207.

2Mr. Thomas Hooker, first Minister in Hartford.

3Dr. Priestley, a celebrated modern writer on the side of Socinianism, has much to say upon this head. He says, “We read in the Scriptures, that we are ‘justified freely by the grace of God.’ But what free grace, or mercy, does there appear to have been in God, if Christ gave a full price for our justification, and bore the infinite weight of divine wrath on our account? We are commanded to ‘forgive others, as we ourselves hope to be forgiven;’ and to be ‘merciful as our Father, who is in heaven, is merciful.’ But surely we are not thereby authorized to insist upon any atonement or satisfaction, before we give up our resentments towards an offending penitent brother. Indeed, how could it deserve the name of forgiveness if we did? It is impossible to reconcile the doctrine of satisfaction for sin by the death of Christ, with the doctrine of free grace, which, according to the uniform tenor of the Scriptures, is so fully displayed in the pardon of sin, and the justification of sinners. It is only from the literal interpretation of a few figurative expressions in the Scriptures, that this doctrine of atonement, as well as that of transubstantiation, has been derived; and it is certainly a doctrine highly injurious to God; and if we, who arc commanded to imitate God, should act upon the maxims of it, it would be subversive of the most amiable part of virtue in men. We should be implacable and unmerciful, insisting upon the uttermost farthing.”

4The above difficulty was started, and the above doctrine advanced, by a divine of some note in Germany the last century; who made a party considerable enough to be taken notice of by Dr. Mosheim, in his Ecclesiastical History. How he was answered, I think the Doctor hath not informed us.

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  1. That UCCF Revise Its Article on Justification | Cogito, Credo, Petam    May 06 2012 / 12pm:

    […] [2] In addition, those who object to the notion of imputation as transfer of sin and transfer of merit include A. A. Hodge, James Richards and John Smalley. ↑ […]

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