My new book Franklin on Faith is almost ready to be published next month, and one of the quotes that I address is Franklin's claim that the doctrine of imputed righteousness is "abominably ridiculous and absurd in itself." Here is the full statement by Franklin along with my explanation of how the Christians of that day would have understood his comments:
What do these mysterious Authors mean here, by these Words, Justification by his (Christ’s) Righteousness, or as they elsewhere call it his imputed Righteousness to justify us in the Sight of God? Do they mean, that the Almighty transfers the personal and perfect Righteousness of Christ to Men, or that he infuses it into them, and looks upon it, as the same thing with their own actual Obedience to his Law, and that in him they fulfil the Law?
Franklin’s comments here on imputed righteousness along with his comments on imputed guilt a few pages later have proven to be the most misunderstood statements of his entire life. Most historians view Franklin’s comments regarding imputed righteousness as a simple rejection of the Christian doctrine of justification by faith. Christensen provides an excellent example of this when he summarizes Franklin’s view as follows:
“Do they mean that we need only Christ's righteousness and none of our own? If so, then their doctrine is a perversion of the gospel ... and worst of all, it destroys the motives to a virtuous life, for with someone else's merit already assured us, we need not fear punishment nor hope for something better beyond us.” (Christensen, 437)
Notice that Christensen frames the argument as a contrast between justification by faith and justification by works, but this is not what Franklin has in mind at all. When we read the excerpt from Boyse that Franklin quoted, we can see that Franklin is not objecting to the doctrine of justification by faith but, rather, to the doctrine of justification before faith. According to Boyse,
The divine Law never subjects any to Punishment, who are regarded and accepted by God any Way as perfect Fulfillers of it. They may have transgress’d it in their natural Persons; but if another by God’s own Appointment, is constituted their legal Proxy, and his sinless Obedience to the Law be in God’s Account, and by an Act of strict Imputation made their personal Obedience, then after such an Act of Imputation, no Sins commited by them in their natural Persons, can be any longer charg’d upon them as theirs; and as a noted Writer (tho’ no profess’d Antinomian) speaks, as to the Elect, there was never any Guilt upon them in the Judgment of God. And this shews the Confusion that those run into, who supposing Christ to be in the strictest sense our Surety, assert him to have both discharg’d our Debt of perfect Obedience, and our Debt of Punishment too. Whereas he that has fully discharg’d the Debt of Obedience by another, as a legal Surety, can never be liable to the Debt of Punishment. For the Penalty of a Law never extends to any that are justify’d as perfect Fulfillers of it by one that God himself has constituted their legal Proxy, made his sinless Obedience to become theirs by his own Act of Imputation. We need indeed both the Merit of Christ’s sinless Obedience and Satisfaction too to obtain for us that Act of Grace, by which we are pardon’d and entitl’d to Life upon our Compliance with the gracious, and indeed necessary Terms of it. But if his sinless Obedience be made by a strict Imputation, our Personal Obedience, we need no Satisfaction to attone for the past Disobedience of our natural Persons.
We can see here from Boyse’s argument that Franklin was objecting to the idea that Christians are justified by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness even before they believe. There were many Calvinists of that time who taught that the Elect were born into the world already justified and already possessing the righteousness of Christ. The direct implication of this doctrine was that there was no need for the Elect to seek forgiveness of their sins since they already possessed the imputed righteousness of Christ. There was much debate over this doctrine throughout the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, and Franklin and Boyse were by no means the only ones to condemn it.
Richard Baxter, for example, once famously wrote:
“There is a particular personal Righteousness, consisting in Faith and Repentance, which by way of Condition and Evidence of our title to Christ and his Gift of Pardon and Life, is of absolute necessity in our Justification. Therefore, Imputed Righteousness is not the sole Righteousness which must justifie us.” (Baxter, Treatise, 32)
Samuel Wells also opposed this doctrine when he wrote:
“It is observable, that the foresaid Expression do's very ill agree with that known Expression of Scripture, wherein Faith is said to be counted for Righteousness unto one, as Rom. 4.3,5, &c. For this last Phrase can be taken in no other Sense than this, that God do's count our Faith (viz. working by Love, as St Paul explains himself, Gal. 5.6.) for our Righteousness, and esteems it worthy to be rewarded. So that not Christ's Righteousness, but our Faith is imputed to us for Righteousness, on the alone Account of Christ's meritorious Satisfaction, whereby he obtain'd of God, that under this Condition we should become Partakers both of Righteousness and Salvation. So that according to Scripture Christ's Righteousness, properly speaking, is (N.B) not That which is imputed, but That for which our Faith is imputed to us for Righteousness.” (Wells, 138)
And John Sharp, the Archbishop of York, sounded very much like Franklin when he wrote:
“There is a vast Difference (if any Body will mind) between these two Propositions or Expressions; To a true Believer his Faith is reckoned or imputed for Righteousness; and this, To a true Believer the Righteousness of Christ is reckoned and imputed for his Righteousness. I say there is a vast Difference between these two Propositions: The Meaning of the former is, that under the Covenant of Grace (which was procured by our Lord Jesus Christ) God is pleased to accept of a true sincere Faith instead of a perfect Obedience to the Law. Whosoever truly believes in Jesus Christ, and shews forth the Fruits of his Faith, by a sincere, though not perfect, Obedience to God's Commandments, as Abraham did, (and without this his Faith is not a true Faith) such a Man is justified, is accounted righteous before God, as much as if he had performed all the Righteousness of the Law of Works: His Faith is accounted to him for Righteousness … the latter Proposition, of Christ's Righteousness being imputed to us, hath no Foundation in Scripture.” (Sharp, 289-290)
From these and several dozen additional quotes that could have been cited, it is abundantly evident that Franklin’s comments on imputed righteousness are not a repudiation of Christianity or of orthodox Christian doctrine. Franklin is simply choosing a side in a debate that lies within Christianity and not a debate against Christianity.
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"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)