John Robbins Quick Quote


I have been thinking this week how the knee-jerk reaction to Gordon Clark’s simple definition of faith and saving faith is often misconstrued as some sort of “easy-believism.” For Clark, belief is the assent to an understood proposition. Saving belief is the assent to the understood propositions of the Gospel. What differentiates the two is not some additional psychological disposition or state of mind wrought in the believer thereby making the one saving and the other not. Instead, the difference between genuine saving belief from the non-saving very ordinary and ubiquitous variety (everyone believes an untold number of things from the mundane to the profound), is the meaning attached to the declarative sentences believed, or, simply, the propositions themselves. This isn’t to say that the one who understands and assents to the propositions of the Gospel won’t evidence their beliefs by their actions ala’ James 2, they will. Rather, it is to say that the act of believing itself is what saves a man and unites him to Christ as “the alone instrument of justification” and not the accompanying life the believer will necessarily lead — or struggle to lead — as a result.

In the answer to the question “What is Justifying Faith” the Westminster Confession Larger Catechism 72 makes this crystal clear.

Here is what Q. 72 says:

Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assents to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receives and rests upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.

Now, consider the following explanation Dr. Robbin gave to Alan Strange in a letter he submitted to the OPC’s New Horizons magazine which they refused to publish:

Question 72 does indeed have a contrast in mind, but it is not contrasting assent with “receiving and resting,” as Dr. Strange mistakenly supposes. There are two reasons Dr. Strange’s contrast cannot be correct.

First, “receiving and resting” are figures of speech, and “assenting” is literal language. “Receiving and resting” mean “assenting.” Dr. Strange has made the common theological error of taking a figure of speech as literal. Incidentally, that is why he fails to offer any definition of “receiving and resting” that differentiates them from assent. In fact, they are not different, but metaphorical expressions of the literal word, “assent.”

The second reason that Q. 72 is not contrasting “assenting” with “receiving and resting” is that the authors of the Westminster Standards have a different contrast in mind. Reading the Standards with subjectivist presuppositions, Dr. Strange supposes they are contrasting differing psychologies of faith (assent vs. receiving and resting), when they are actually contrasting the truths believed. Psychology was not on the minds of the Westminster Assembly, but making clear what truths had to be believed in order to be saved was. Dr. Strange forgets that the word “faith” has two distinct meanings, one objective and one subjective. The Standards are contrasting belief in the “promise of the Gospel,” that is, in the truth of eternal life, with belief in the “righteousness [of Christ] for pardon of sin, and the accepting and accounting of his person righteous.” They are making clear that the sinner must not only believe in (assent to) salvation from sin and eternal life (which they call the “promise of the Gospel”), but that he must also believe in (assent to) the imputed righteousness of Christ in order to be saved. Their concern is that the proper object of faith is believed, not that some undefined and nebulous mental state must be added to belief in order to make it efficacious. Their message is that belief in eternal life and pardon from sin is not saving faith, but to that must be added belief in Christ and his righteousness as the sole means of obtaining eternal life.

The Westminster Standards clearly teach that the object of faith, Christ and his imputed righteousness, not our subjective mental state, is what saves us. Dr. Strange, like so many today, reads the Westminster Standards with his subjectivist glasses on, and thereby misses and misrepresents what they teach.

Therefore, Dr. Strange is completely wrong when he asserts that “Clark is clearly not within the Reformed tradition in defining faith itself as knowledge and assent alone.” Not only is Clark clearly within that tradition, but he is also the most accurate reporter of what Scripture teaches about saving faith. All your readers should read his book for themselves. [emphasis mine]

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18 Comments on “John Robbins Quick Quote”

  1. John Bradshaw Says:

    Thx for referencing this letter Sean. Dr Robbins and Clark clear away the errors in so much of my thinking. Pity they aren’t read more by the churches and seminaries.

  2. Paul Riemann Says:

    Why did you say “the act of believing itself is what saves a man?” This contradicts what Robbins says…

    “The Westminster Standards clearly teach that the object of faith, Christ and his imputed righteousness, not our subjective mental state, is what saves us.”

  3. Sean Gerety Says:

    Paul, it helps if you read what I wrote in context. I was referring to the instrument and not the ground of our justification. You don’t deny that a sinner is save by faith alone do you?

  4. Paul Riemann Says:

    If you were referring to faith as only the instrument of justification, and not the grounds of justification, then why say: “the *act* of believing ITSELF is what *saves*?” If the act of faith itself saves then salvation is not by grace alone. This makes faith a meritorious work and the ground of justification. Not Christ and His imputed righteousness.

  5. Hugh McCann Says:

    Q73: How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?
    A73: Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applies Christ and his righteousness.

  6. Sean Gerety Says:

    Paul, I’m not really following you? I said nothing to imply that faith is a “meritorious work and the ground of justification.” I said faith saves by uniting us to Christ as “the alone instrument of justification.” You don’t agree with that? Didn’t Jesus tell the woman in Luke 7; “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Was Jesus teaching faith is a “meritorious work and the ground of justification”?

    Maybe I wasn’t as clear as I could have been, but I’m not seeing where I implied what you attribute to me?

  7. Paul Riemann Says:


    You wrote:
    “I said faith saves by uniting us to Christ as “the alone instrument of justification.” 

    Not quite. You said:
    “…the *act* of believing *itself* is what saves a man and unites him to Christ as “the alone instrument of justification.”

    How can the act of faith itself save if faith is only instrumental? If faith is only instrumental then the “act of faith itself” cannot save. If faith is only instrumental (and it is) then it can only *receive* the salvation and righteousness of Christ. Faith is then a thing passive and is the God-ordained, God-gifted means by which the elect receive Christ and all His gifts; life, forgiveness, righteousness, and salvation.

    Yes, as you say, in Luke 7 Jesus told the woman “Your faith has saved you.” Did Jesus mean her faith was the alone instrument by which she received the grace of God? Or did Jesus mean her act of faith itself saved her? It cannot be both. Does the Analogy of Faith apply here? Is our theology not to be systematic? Do the epistles not interpret Jesus for us?

    Either our act of faith itself saves us, or Jesus and His righteousness alone saves us. Hugh quotes the WCF Q&A 73 above which clearly states:

    “Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of FAITH, or ANY ACT THEREOF, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an INSTRUMENT by which he RECEIVETH and applies Christ and his righteousness.”

    Calvin wrote of faith…

    “Faith is something merely passive, bringing nothing of ours to the recovering of God’s favor but receiving from Christ that which we lack.” (Institutes 3.13.5)

  8. Sean Gerety Says:

    Paul, you are reading things into what I wrote that I didn’t intend or even write.

    You wrote:
    “I said faith saves by uniting us to Christ as “the alone instrument of justification.”

    Not quite. You said:
    “…the *act* of believing *itself* is what saves a man and unites him to Christ as “the alone instrument of justification.”

    Yes, quite. The “act of believing” is just another way of saying “faith” and the modifier “itself” is to exclude any other thing in addition to faith alone. I don’t see why someone has to produce the entire ordo in order to say a man is saved by faith alone. If anything I suppose I should have replaced “and unites” with “by uniting,” but I don’t even think that would satisfy you.

    Since I still don’t see what you are objecting to I’m going to leave it the way it is. 🙂

  9. Ренат Ильясов Says:

    Our act of believing does not “unite” to Christ. The salvific union of Christ with His elect has its origins in eternity past (Eph. 1:4); it has been perfected / realized in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection in behalf of His people. We “died with Him” in His death upon the cross long before we ever believed. We were “buried with Him” in His burial and consequently were “risen up with Him” long before we were ever physically born into this world. The salvific union with Christ is an objective reality, which is decreed, established and perfected quite independently of our believing. Rather through the gift of faith, we come to “see the kingdom”, “understand” that we have been created and redeemed in Christ Jesus. By faith we learn of our justification by the blood of Christ which He shed two thousand years ago. Our faith is “the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), but evidence does not create the reality to which it bears witness. It simply bears witness to something that is already there.

  10. Sean Gerety Says:

    Ренат … unlike Paul R’s comments, I do understand yours and I agree with the WCF 11 Of Justification sec. 4 which states:

    4. God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless, **they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.**

    And, concerning God’s effectual call I agree with the Confession again which states: “All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, **out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature ….”**

    Per you, it would seem those whom God calls were never in a state of sin and death. I certainly don’t agree with that.

  11. Sean Gerety Says:

    I agree too with WC LC Q. 71. How is justification an act of God’s free grace?

    A. Although Christ, by his obedience and death, did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified; yet inasmuch as God accepteth the satisfaction from a surety, which he might have demanded of them, and did provide this surety, his own only Son, imputing his righteousness to them,** and requiring nothing of them for their justification but faith, which also is his gift, their justification is to them of free grace.***

    You don’t agree with this?

  12. Ренат Ильясов Says:

    I prefer not to discuss the venerable confessions: for many Presbyterian and Reformed folk they are way too venerable so as to be considered errant even for a moment, and, besides, it just takes up too much time, discussing what the divines might have meant by this clause or that.

    So I will limit myself to addressing your last statement:

    “Per you, it would seem those whom God calls were never in a state of sin and death. I certainly don’t agree with that”.

    May I ask you a question: when did the justification of the elect take place, according to Romans 4:25?

    “who was delivered because of our deviations, and was raised because of our justification”. (Ro.4:25 LITV)

  13. Sean Gerety Says:

    At least we’ve established you’re neither Presbyterian or Reformed.

    It’s also very odd that you would cite Romans 4:25 in support of your belief in justification apart from faith when the chapter deals with Abraham’s justification by faith. The chapter explains that Abraham was “… fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” Yet, per you, Abraham was already counted as righteous prior to believing and even prior to Jesus’ death on the cross which is what verse 25 references.

    You confuse the accomplishment of our justification with its application to the elect in time and by faith.

    While no P&R person believes the Confession is inerrant, they do believe that those men who penned it had a better understanding of the Scriptures than 99% of those cruising the internet commenting on blog posts. 😉

  14. Ренат Ильясов Says:

    I’m quite content to be “always reforming” according to the Word of God even if I don’t fit 100% in any of the ready-made-molds. I might also be just as well versed in P & R confessional standards as you are, but for the reasons mentioned above I prefer discussing doctrine directly from Scriptures (and necessary implications therefrom).

    It was half-expected that you’d completely ignore the grammar and theological import of Romans 4:25, since it does not fit into your mold of justification by the act of believing. But Christ was verily raised because of, or “through” (dia) our justification. As He was delivered because of our offences, so He was also raised because of our justification, for He acted as a public Person, our Substitute, the Lamb of God Who taketh away the sin of the world. The point is He could not have been raised from the dead if He Himself had not been justified / freed from all sins imputed to Him as our vicarious sin-bearer / scapegoat. Our being raised up (in union) with Him signifies our justification by His blood. The double imputation did take place, and that, again, quite apart from our believing in time. Consider 2 Cor. 5:21: “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him”. When was he made sin for us? The question is rhetorical. When were the elect made the righteousness of God “in him”? Please, notice the “in him” part. “In him” signifies the saving union with Him in His vicarious death, burial and resurrection. Those events did take place outside of us and quite independently from our believing through the gift of faith.

    This is the historical, objective fulfillment of the decree and everlasting perspective of God to see us, the elect, eternally “without spot or blemish IN Christ”.

    Our believing these things in time by the grace of the Holy Spirit does play role as the divine means of ushering us into the kingdom, through the “knowledge of our salvation” which was obtained for us two thousand years ago.

    As for Abraham and his faith in Romans 4. His faith being accounted for righteousness must be understood as “being accounted for {the evidence (as per Hebrews 11:1) of} righteousness” which He had had prior to his first public declaration of being considered righteous by Jehovah. Consider this: the account in Genesis first mentions Abraham’s being declared righteous in Genesis 15:6. Classical sola fideism would say, “in that moment” (of Abraham’s act of believing the promise) “he was declared righteous”. According to sola fideism Abraham could not have been accounted righteous / justified prior to exercising faith. Now turn to Hebrews 11:18 “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went”. This refers to Genesis 12, the beginning of the story of Abraham. Obviously, if he already had faith when God first called him, he must needs have been accounted righteous, right? Now should we suppose that his first act of believing was performed out of the state of condemnation and being accounted “dead in sins and tresspasses”? How could the fruit of the Spirit of righteousness (Gal. 5:22) be produced in the condemned, quilty, unatoned for, filthy sinner? How can an unrighteous one produce the evidence of being righteous, while being unrighteous?

    I will let you ponder these questions, Sir and move on.
    May the Spirit of Truth lead us into all truth, as it is in Jesus, Our Righteousness.

  15. John Bradshaw Says:

    Interesting discussion.

    He was raised FOR our justification.

    This FOR is ambiguous.
    It could mean:
    1. He was raised BECAUSE OF our justification – meaning past tense – we were justified at His death and He was raised showing that God had accepted Christ’s finished work at Calvary.
    It could mean:
    2. He was raised in order to justify us, or, so that we would be made acceptable to God, (as one version has it).
    Pehat, am I reading you correctly that the first of the meanings is what you agree with?

    PS I think John Robbins spoke to this verse in his lecture on – The Theology of Richard Gaffin and Norman Shepherd.

    Also, Bonar says this about Rom.4:25 in The Everlasting Righteousness:
    “The manifold blessings flowing from resurrection and ascension are not to be overlooked, but nowhere does Scripture teach justification by these. The one passage sometimes quoted to prove this declares the opposite (Romans 4:25), for the words truly translated run thus: “He was delivered because we had sinned, and raised again because of our justification.” It was because the justifying work was finished that resurrection was possible. Had it not been so, he must have remained under the power of the grave. But the cross had completed the justification of his church. He was raised from the dead. Death could no longer have dominion over him. The work was finished, the debt paid, and the surety went forth free. He rose not in order to justify us, but because we were justified. In raising him from the dead, God the Father cleared him from the imputed guilt which had nailed him to the cross and borne him down to the tomb. “He was justified in the Spirit” (1 Timothy 3:16). His resurrection was not his justification, but the declaration that he was “justified.” That resurrection in which we are one with him does not justify us, but proclaims that we were justified – justified by his blood and death.”

    I hope this is helpful.

  16. Sean Gerety Says:

    FWIW, I think it both dangerous and unwise to build an entire doctrine, in this case, eternal justification, on a single verse. While there are many counterexamples in Scripture, Paul says in Galatians 2:16; “… so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the laws.” Consider too Ephesians 2:1-10:

    And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body[a] and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.[b] 4 But[c] God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

    There was a state the elect were in prior to coming to belief in Christ and a different one after. The prior state was not one of being in union with Christ apart from belief. Quite the opposite. So, no, I don’t agree with you that “the salvific union with Christ is an objective reality … established and perfected quite independently of our believing.” If that were the case why the need to believe at all? Why does any preacher even bother preaching? The preaching of the Gospel and the call to repentance and belief would seem quite superfluous in your scheme. FWIW I’ll stick with the Confession.

  17. Sean Gerety Says:

    FWIW it’s conversations like this that make me understand how and why someone like Piper can successfully teach a false scheme of justification, one that is “initially” by faith alone and finally by faith and works, and get away with it for so long.

  18. justbybelief Says:

    “I prefer not to discuss the venerable confessions: for many Presbyterian and Reformed folk they are way too venerable so as to be considered errant even for a moment, and, besides, it just takes up too much time, discussing what the divines might have meant by this clause or that.”

    I Notice, Ренат, that you have refused to engage the Confession and Catechism at the relevant points. It’s not a question of whether one unduly venerates these documents but whether the references made to them are true of false.

    While there is no new thought in God’s mind and He knows the end from the beginning, it seems you deny God’s creation with it’s history, past, present, and future, and God’s dealings within it. The very God who foreknew and predestined all things included creation with it’s history. God foreknew and predestined all things and will cause it all to come to pass in time and space. You cannot have one without the other. To deny one is to deny all. Are you saying that God placed us in Christ in eternity but didn’t work that out in history? That is certainly an absurd thought at best. Were we delivered from Adam’s fall? Was there a time we were included in that fall? If not there was no need of a savior. So, yes, we were included in the fall with all that that entails in history. Likewise, we were included in Christ with all that that entails in history. Again, are you saying that God decrees history and then denies history?

    Point: Jesus was raised because He was obedient in all things His Father commanded, things pertaining to our salvation, to the point of death. He was obedient to the covenant of redemption. (He was raised for our justification). There is only one way history can work out and that is according to God’s decree.

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