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The great English theologian John Owen (1616-1683) wrote:

Men may be really saved by that grace which doctrinally they do deny;

and they may be justified by the imputation of that righteousness which in opinion they deny to be imputed.

—The Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, in Owen’s Works 5:163-64.

In some ways Owen’s position is a dangerous one to hold—given the strong connection in Scripture between sound doctrine and assurance—but it’s nevertheless an important principle. Note that Owen doesn’t say that they necessarily are saved but that they may be saved.

I also agree with the qualifier John Piper adds: “The clearer the knowledge of the truth and the more deep the denial, the less assurance one can have that the God of truth will save him. Owen’s words are not meant to make us cavalier about the content of the gospel, but to hold out hope that men’s hearts are often better than their heads” (The Future of Justification, p. 25 n. 30).

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) offers a similar statement to Owen’s but goes into greater detail with various options regarding the denial—emphasizing how dangerous false teaching is but also hoping that such a person may be teachable when confronted with his error:

How far a wonderful and mysterious agency of God’s Spirit may so influence some men’s hearts, that their practice in this regard may be contrary to their own principles, so that they shall not trust in their own righteousness, though they profess that men are justified by their own righteousness—

or how far they may believe the doctrine of justification by men’s own righteousness in general, and yet not believe it in a particular application of it to themselves—

or how far that error which they may have been led into by education, or cunning sophistry of others, may yet be indeed contrary to the prevailing disposition of their hearts, and contrary to their practice—

or how far some may seem to maintain a doctrine contrary to this gospel-doctrine of justification, that really do not, but only express themselves differently from others;

or seem to oppose it through their misunderstanding of our expressions, or we of theirs, when indeed our real sentiments are the same in the main—

or may seem to differ more than they do, by using terms that are without a precisely fixed and determinate meaning—

or to be wide in their sentiments from this doctrine, for want of a distinct understanding of it;

whose hearts, at the same time, entirely agree with it, and if once it was clearly explained to their understandings, would immediately close with it, and embrace it:—

how far these things may be, I will not determine; but am fully persuaded that great allowances are to be made on these and such like accounts, in innumerable instances; though it is manifest, from what has been said, that the teaching and propagating [of] contrary doctrines and schemes, is of a pernicious and fatal tendency. (“Justification by Faith Alone,” in Yale’s Works of Jonathan Edwards 19:242.)

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24 thoughts on “Will God Still Save Those Who Deny or Distort Justification by Grace Alone through Faith Alone?”

  1. Todd Moore says:

    Someone might also ask, “Will God still save those who affirm and propagate justification by grace alone through faith alone?
    “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” James 2:24
    “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work His good pleasure.” Phil 2:12-13
    The EO Church teaches that salvation is a process and that God’s grace is energized by the Holy Spirit in our lives. Thus, our free will, and our faith and good works, are all intimately connected. The EO do not however pronounce final judgment on those who disagree. They prefer to leave that question for the Lord himself on that Day.

    1. Wesley says:

      Todd –
      where does the EO church differentiate between justification and sanctification? Surely you don;t see James or Paul arguing that we are progressively justified by our works, but rather that progressive sanctification (and the resulting works displayed) will be sure evidence of the justification that has taken place at the point of conversion.

    2. nomis says:

      I really think arguments from James 2 and Phil 2, etc. need to be laid to rest. I love these verses because they protect against a misunderstanding of the doctrine of justification by grace alone thru faith alone. They certainly don’t contradict the doctrine of Justification as articulated by the reformers.

      The sense of James 2 in context is “You see that a person is declared righteous [in the eye’s of others] by works and not by ‘faith’ [that remains] alone”

      The sense of Phil 2 is not to work FOR your salvation, but to work out the implications of the salvation you have already received. As in, let us live up to what we have already attained.

    3. Jason Engwer says:

      I have a question for those who think it’s sufficient to quote a passage like James 2:24, without any accompanying argument, against an Evangelical view of justification. Do you take the same approach toward passages in the church fathers that use the term “faith alone” positively? There are many places where the church fathers say that justification is through faith alone or something similar (“faith only”, “bare faith”, etc.). The typical response to such passages, among those who reject justification through faith alone, is to say that the fathers’ language must be qualified by the surrounding context. We’re told that it’s not enough to just quote a passage where they use such language. Rather, we need to address the larger context as well. Isn’t the same true of James 2:24 (and Philippians 2:12-13, etc.)?

      Todd Moore goes on to tell us what Eastern Orthodox believe about justification. But why should we agree with Eastern Orthodoxy? They’re wrong on so many other issues, including issues where both scripture and the early post-apostolic Christians disagree with them. (See here for some examples.) Todd’s citations of James 2 and Philippians 2 aren’t convincing, nor is his appeal to Eastern Orthodoxy.

  2. Wesley says:

    I wonder if perhaps the fulcrum on which this all balances is in the application of the doctrine of election? For the apostle Paul was certainly elect from the foundations of the world and yet did also vehemently deny and persecute those who believed in Christ as the Messiah and the salvation that was found in Him. And yet he was – in the sense of his election – destined to be saved by that grace and truth which he so vehemently denied. Of course, i don’t think Owen or Edwards in any way would be suggesting some kind of inclusivist ideology that we can be saved by a God we reject consciously.

  3. Tony says:

    The title of this post is potentially misleading. Owen, in the context, is probably talking about those who deny the imputation of the “active obedience” of Christ to the believer, not “those who deny justification by grace alone through faith alone,” in the sense of Roman Catholicism, which not only explicitly repudiates the doctrine of sola fide as false, but also pronounces anathema on those who adhere to it. Owen shows leniency to Baxter and other “neo-nomians,” but not to others who explicitly and rebelliously repudiate justification by grace alone through faith alone.

    Moreover, one should also note that in his book, Piper is talking about the views of N. T. Wright, and Wright does not repudiate justification by grace alone through faith alone. He differently interprets what that means, as over against the traditional/orthodox Reformed view.

    One should not take Owen’s words, or even Piper’s words, so broadly as to think the Apostle Paul’s anathema in Galatians does not fall on those who explicitly repudiate justification through faith alone in Christ alone on the principle of grace alone.

  4. Michael says:

    Often this argument is used to ay that Roman Catholics who hold to RC teaching can be saved. However, Paul was very clear in Galatians 1. Those who hold to a different gospel than the apostles are accursed (anathema = definitely not believers!) Faith plus works is not the gospel of the apostles and is therefore another gospel. I agree with what Tony said in the comments. Owen and Piper are not addressing Catholics in these statements.

    1. Reformed Totally says:


      And I would add that Paul is not addressing RC’s in Galatians, Romans, etc….

      1. Michael says:

        Paul is addressing Judaizers, those who added the work of circumcision to faith. Roman Catholics add works to faith as well, therefore the application is clear to all who can see.

        1. Matthew says:

          And you are adding belief in sola fide to faith in Christ.

    2. nomis says:

      I’m just wondering if there is a difference between those who were TEACHING a false gospel in Gal. 1 and the Galatian Christians who were being thrown into confusion by those teachers (Gal. 1:6-7).

      I make this distinction because there seem to be plenty of Catholics who display a faith-shaped, righteous life (the true indicator of a Christian), even though they wouldn’t necessarily articulate the doctrine of Justification by grace alone thru faith alone quite like the reformers.

      1. Michael says:

        The issue is not with the reformers. The issue is with that is believed. If one thinks the gospel is faith plus works, that is what one “Believes.” Faith plus works is not the gospel, but another (false) gospel. This is biblical Christianity 101 and should not be something new to readers of an evangelical blog.

  5. Matthew says:

    If the denial of the doctrine of justification sola fide, as taught by the Reformers, is the biblical gospel referenced by Paul in Galatians 1, that if any man denies he is accursed, then the fact of the matter is, is that every Christian for 1500 years before the Reformation was lost and condemned. Fortunately, this is nothing remotely like what Paul taught in Galatians 1.

    1. Michael says:

      You’re assuming that for 1500 years only the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification was taught and that no one held the true gospel. This is a fallacy. I recommend more study of church history.

      1. Matthew says:

        You’re assuming that I believe the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification was taught. The issue is not what Roman Catholicism teaches. The question is whether one must believe in the doctrine of sola fide as defined by the Protestant sects in order to be saved. If that is the claim, then no one prior to the Protestants was saved, because no one taught it.

    2. Jason Engwer says:

      There were many views of justification prior to the Reformation, and justification through faith alone was one of them. See here.

      Among those who believed in some form of justification through works, there was widespread disagreement over which works are needed. The same is true today. Even within a single denomination, like the Roman Catholic Church, we find many disagreements on the subject.

      1. Bruce says:

        The apostle Paul commends to us the obedience of faith. In the end sons and daughters will have obeyed their Father and He will thus reward them.

        John 5:25-29

  6. mark mcculley says:

    such tolerance and allowances, when it comes merely to God’s glory in salvation!

    Romanists but not Mormons?

    Lordship Arminians but not advocates of “easy-believism”?

    ignorant but not rebellious unitarians?

    practising racists?

    If we say a, that means b
    granddaddy was probably lost….
    therefore not a

    oh the beauty of evangelical “options”

    inclusive coalition: don’t ask, don’t tell

    Alas, if ignorance is bliss, those who patronize others as merely ignorant

    are in an unhappy place

  7. mark mcculley says:

    Christians are ambassadors of the Lord who do not “regard anybody according to the flesh” (II Cor 5:16). According to numbers, and according to our own flesh that wants to say we were saved while still ignorant of the gospel, many should be accepted as brothers to whom the Lord will say, “I never knew you.”

    People are too quick to say, if that gospel is true, all these people would be lost, therefore it must not be true. That is what the Pharisees said: you think that sincere good people are lost.

    I John 3 says that Abel “did righteousness”. In John 3:21, Abel “did the truth”. Cain did not. Why was Cain not saved from God’s wrath? Because he murdered? No. Cain murdered because he was not saved from God’s wrath. His works were evil. The evil works are the “sincere worship” Cain offered.

    Cain could not have good works because Cain had the wrong gospel. And so Cain and Abel were not brothers. But some would tell us that Abel is the “elder brother” if Abel is not able to call Cain his brother, if Abel is not able to enter into worship and religious fellowship with Cain.

    Some say that God “stoops” to save even those who confess that God conditions salvation on the sinner. In other words, God not only saves idolaters (praise God for that, since I was one when I was converted), but God saves these sinners using the idolatry as the message by which He saves them and THEN LEAVES THEM IN THEIR IDOLATRY.

    God justifies the ungodly. God is also just. God will be glorified in the salvation of sinners, and in the damnation of those who persist in saying that a “gracious” God accepts the faith (and/or works) of the sinner as making the difference between saved and lost.

    Sure, you may say, we don’t deny that, but you don’t have to know it to get the benefit of it. What then do you need to know? Is the goal to reduce it to a list of bare “fundamentals” around which we can coalition?

    In Galatians, Paul did not accept all who professed to be Christians as his brothers. He said: if you follow that “other gospel”, Christ will be of no profit to you.

    In Philippians 3 Paul did not write: I have always been a brother, and was a brother even then. He says his worship then was crap. But he was not born ashamed of it. Paul used to be proud of his false gospel.

    Romans 6:21 What fruit did you then have? NONE. …”in the things of which you are now ashamed of”.

    That which is highly esteemed among humans is abomination in the sight of God. Luke 16:15

  8. Warren says:

    I thought we are saved through Jesus Christ, not infallible Reformed doctrine. Did I miss something in the Gospels?

    1. Michael says:

      Yes, the gospel.

      1. Bruce says:

        Yes, Michael, but do you equate the moral law with the Law of Moses?

  9. mark mcculley says:

    Faith alone is NOT in faith alone. Of course faith in the gospel is also not faith in faith and works either. But many folks seem to have no problem repeating the traditional contradiction which says that “faith alone is never alone”.

    Faith alone can be misunderstood. When Romans 5:1 tells us, “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” this does not mean that faith in the gospel of the Lord Jesus is the condition of justification.

    Of course theology books have discussions about distinctions between conditions, where it is explained that faith is an “instrumental” condition.

    My problem is not that the traditional “instrumental” language can be misunderstood. Any explanation of faith’s necessity that I give can also be misunderstood. I think that faith in the true gospel about Christ’s death and resurrection is necessary evidence that a person has passed from a state of condemnation to a state of justification.

    This faith in the gospel is not a knowledge that a person has been justified all along, not an assurance that a person has been justified from the time of the cross or before a person was born. This faith in the gospel, which includes understanding of the gospel, is the result of being born again, which is the result of being imputed with the merits of Christ’s death.

    In the false gospel which tells all sinners that Christ died for them, faith is misunderstood as making the difference between saved and lost. Even in cases where the fine print tells you that this making-the- difference faith is a result of predestination and regeneration, the credit for salvation does not go to Christ.

    The credit may go to the Holy Spirit or to predestination, but it cannot go to Christ, if Christ died for all sinners but only some sinners are saved.

    It’s ironic that the same people who are quick to tell us that we don’t need to know the truth about justification to be justified are the very same people who are very worried about telling lost people about election, or about God being the one who imputes (and not us). If God can save sovereignly with something which is untrue about justification, why worry about God soveregnly saving people who “find out too soon” about election.

    We need to put a stop to the double talk which tells all sinners that Christ died for them, but then explains (not to everybody but only to some who have already professed Christ) later that Christ died for some people to get them something different and more for them than He did for everybody else.

    This kind of double talk implicitly says that Christ propitiated the wrath of God for all sinners but that Christ also died extra for the elect to give them the faith to get the benefit of Christ’s propitiation. In other words, there is no antithesis with the false gospel.

    In the “Reformed” fine print (the cherry on top of your sundae), the glory may go to God for predestinating the Spirit to give faith. But it is no longer Christ’s death which saves, if Christ died for all sinners, and some of these sinners perish in the end. And though we may talk of Scripture alone, what the Scripture says about the elect in Christ being in His death becomes segregated out from the gospel.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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