Much neglected as fine expositions of classic Reformed theology, John Witherspoon’s treatises on Justification and Regeneration are worth reconsidering. In particular, Witherspoon’s discussion of how we defend justification too carelessly can speak to our day.
At the beginning of his treatise on Justification Witherspoon explains the one of the reasons for his work is to counter not only “the calumnies of enemies” but “the weakness or treachery of professed friends.” He notes two ways in which friends of justification injure the truth of justification.
Some speak in such a manner as to confirm and harden enemies in their opposition to it: they use such rash and uncautious expressions, as do indeed justify the objection which the apostle rejects with so great abhorrence; and in the heat of their zeal against the self-righteous legalist, seem to state themselves as enemies, in every respect, to the law of God, which is holy, just and good.
Others, on the contrary, defend it in such a manner, as to destroy the doctrine itself, and give such interpretations of the word of God as if they were just, and known to be so, the objection would never have been made, because there would not have been so much as an occasion given to it.
Do you see the contemporary relevance? Witherspoon argues that some Christians are so eager to rout the legalist and glory in justification that they use “uncautious” expressions which make it sound like they have no place for the law or obedience. And on the other hand, some Christians are so eager to defend justification from its detractors that they take away its scandal such that no one would ever dare ask the “shall we go on sinning” questions they seemed to ask Paul. Both dangers are examples of friendly fire missing their mark and punching holes in the gospel instead.