A Rebuttal to George M. Ella’s “John Gill and Justification from Eternity”

The Debate as Based on Scripture

A list of supporters, maybe

Scripture alone can establish a doctrine. Nevertheless, apparently to show that he and Gill are not alone, Dr. Ella mentions, besides John Gill, several noted theologians of the past as believing justification from eternity: James Hervey (whom Ella says held a similar position), Augustus Toplady, John Brine, John Ryland, William Romaine, Robert Trail, Martin Bucer, and Benjamin Keach. This is correct of John Brine. It may also be true of Toplady and Ryland, although I cannot find that they made statements that directly support the doctrine. I have doubts that any of the others should be on the list, and Benjamin Keach, for sure, should not be included as believing justification from eternity.

In 1683, in the allegorical book, The Travels of True Godliness (pages 125-127, second edition, 1831), Keach includes the following dialogue between the main character, Godliness, and someone called Antinomian:

Godliness. I am afraid you are not sound. Pray, friend, what do you believe about justification?
Antinomian. I believe all the elect are personally and actually justified from eternity, and beloved by the Lord with a love of complacency, before they believe, even as they are after being called and sanctified.
Godli. You certainly are very corrupt in your judgment, and hold a doctrine Jesus Christ abhors. Besides, you talk as if you understand not common sense; can any be actually and personally justified before they actually and personally exist?
Anti. I believe the elect were all actually justified in eternity.
Godli. What, actually and personally justified, and yet actually and personally condemned, at one and the same time! This is strange. Adam, for his first sin, fell under wrath and condemnation, and being a public person, all partake of his corrupt nature; and thus are children of wrath, as well as by their own actual transgressions, and so abide until they are transplanted out of that dead root, and are implanted into Jesus Christ, and partake of a vital union with him, John iii. 18, 36. Can righteousness be imputed, and sin charged, upon a person at the same time? Or are unbelievers, justified persons? To justify or acquit a sinner, implies he was before guilty and condemned; and thus it was with all believers, before they were united to Christ, as the word of God testifieth, and so doth the Holy Ghost also, by conviction, when it first works upon the hearts and consciences of sinners; therefore your notion charges the Holy Ghost with being a liar.

The conversation continues, but this is enough to tell us that, quite obviously, rather than believing in justification from eternity, Keach believed that those who hold to justification from eternity were corrupt in judgment, “hold a doctrine Jesus Christ abhors,” talk as if they understand not common sense, and charge “the Holy Ghost with being a liar.” Dr. Ella should not have put Benjamin Keach on his list of those who believe in justification from eternity.

In another historical error, Ella tries to place the blame for the rejection of justification from eternity at the Academy of Geneva on Francis Turretin’s son. But, in fact, Francis Turretin himself wrote, “The decree of justification is one thing; justification itself another—as the will to save and sanctify is one thing; salvation and sanctification itself another. The will or decree to justify certain persons is indeed eternal and precedes faith itself, but actual justification takes place in time and follows faith” Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 2:683. So it was not just Francis Turretin’s son, but Francis Turretin himself who disagreed with justification from eternity.

Ella also says that most of the Reformers accepted justification from eternity. He gives no evidence to support this claim. But if it were true that most Reformers agreed with justification from eternity, why does it not appear in major confessions? The Westminster Confession specifically denies justification from eternity in Chapter XI, Article IV: “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 does, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.” So, the Westminster Confession declares that God decreed to justify His elect from eternity, but that He actually justifies them in time. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 says the same thing in the same place (Chapter XI, Article IV). Now, let’s look at the Bible to see if this is really so.

Some preliminary Scriptures

Before continuing with Ella’s and Gill’s arguments, I want to establish that the Bible says that the justification of the sinner takes place in time after he exercises the gift of faith.

Galatians 3:8 says, “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed.” The King James Version is not accurate in its tenses here. The Greek does not say, “God would justify the heathen.” It says, “God does justify the heathen.” But this does not weaken the argument against eternal justification. This verse clearly speaks of a time, the time of Abraham, when the heathen were not yet justified. What is more, it says that God justifies the heathen through faith. Although this Scripture implies God’s decree to justify, it would be very difficult, in fact, impossible to get eternal justification as taught by John Gill out of this Scripture.

Colossians 1:21-22: Here Paul writes, “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight.” The obvious implication of this verse is that the Colossian saints to whom Paul was writing (and us too) would have remained alienated and enemies because of their thoughts and wicked works, and they could not have been presented holy and unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight if they had not been reconciled by the death of Jesus Christ. “Sometime” and “now” indicate a change occurring in time. There is no hint of eternal justification here.

Titus 3:4-7 is similar: “But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” This attributes our salvation to God’s mercy, the washing of regeneration, and the renewing of the Holy Spirit shed on us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Again, “after” indicates a time frame.

Romans 3:21-22: “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.” If the elect were actually justified in eternity, so that they had the righteousness of God before they were born, why does this Scripture say the righteousness of God is given to those who believe?

Romans 3:26 unmistakably says that God is “the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” Belief precedes justification in time.

Romans 3:28 says, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (see also verse 30). And so we must also conclude that a man is justified by faith. Yes, it is faith that is a gift of God and not a work of man, but it is an event that takes place in time.

Romans 5:1: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Does this say that we are justified from eternity and, therefore, have always had peace with God? No. It clearly is saying that we have peace with God because we have been justified by faith.

Romans 5:6: “For when we were yet” already standing strong in justification from eternity? No, “without strength, in” eternity? No again, “in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” Going on to verse 10, notice that is says so such thing as that we have always been justified from eternity and therefore have always been in good standing with God. Rather, it says, “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” We could not have been enemies at any time if we were already justified from eternity.

Galatians 2:16 teaches, “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” Yes, we “have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ.” Without belief, there would be no justification.

In Philippians 3:9, Paul writes, “And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God.” Does this say that our righteousness is from eternity? No. Most certainly, God predestinated from eternity that His elect would have faith, in fact, that He would give them saving faith. Nevertheless, their having faith, and, therefore, their being justified, is an act in time.

Copyright © 2009 Peter Ditzel