Foundations: No.79 Autumn 2020

Samuel Rutherford’s Doctrine of Sanctification and Seventeenth Century Antinomianism        

This paper seeks to examine Samuel Rutherford’s particular emphasis on the doctrine of sanctification in his response to the Antinomian Controversy in seventeenth century England.

I. Introduction

1. Rutherford and the Scottish Second Reformation

Samuel Rutherford is popularly known primarily for the letters that he had written.[1] The gems of his Letters have been collected and published under the title The Loveliness of Christ, which many have come across over the years.[2] He is also well known for his treatise Lex Rex, which has generated much scholarly interest because of the political thoughts contained therein.[3] Others would remember him as one of the Scottish commissioners that the Kirk had sent to the Westminster Assembly.

Rutherford was born about the year 1600 and passed into eternal glory on 29 March 1661.[4] He was a Presbyterian minister, theologian and Professor of Divinity at St Mary’s College in the University of St Andrews. Rutherford was appointed to St Mary’s College in 1639 and served there until 1660, except for the years 1643-1647 which were spent in London at the Westminster Assembly. Rutherford’s lengthy tenure as Professor of Divinity reveals the extensive influence that he had on the theological scene during the period that may be termed as the Scottish Second Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation in Scotland may be divided into 3 periods: (i) the Scottish Reformation (1560-1599),[5] (ii) the Scottish sub-Reformation (1600-1637),[6] and (iii) the Scottish Second Reformation (1638-1660).[7] According to leading Rutherford scholar Guy Richard, Rutherford was “arguably the leading theologian of Scotland’s Second Reformation”.[8] This echoes the view of James Walker (1821-1891) who, in his survey of Scottish theology and theologians between 1560 and 1750, states that Rutherford was “perhaps… the greatest” theologian of the Scottish Second Reformation.[9] Richard offers significant support for this claim: comparing Rutherford’s writing output with John Owen’s, he notes that “[Rutherford] published thirteen major theological treatises, amounting to just over 7,000 pages of text, not to mention other works, including sermons, letters, an in-depth catechism (totalling 562 questions and answers – over five times the number in the Westminster Shorter Catechism), and a variety of political writings, all of which increase our total by nearly 3,000 pages”, bringing the grand total to about 10,000 pages, whereas “[t]he twenty-four volumes of Owen’s Works account for approximately 13,700 pages”.[10] This certainly backs up the claim that Rutherford was the most learned Scottish divine of the Scottish Second Reformation.

2. Rutherford and the Antinomian Controversy in England

Since this paper focuses on examining Rutherford’s view of sanctification as found in his writings against antinomianism in seventeenth-century England, it is necessary to speak a little about the Antinomian Controversy prior to examining Rutherford’s response.

Antinomian teachings first appeared in London in the 1610s and made further headway in subsequent years. Antinomianism itself is hard to define in the seventeenth century, and is certainly not limited simply to a denial of the abiding rule of the moral law.[11] Disputes also centred on the relation of faith to assurance, when justification occurred – i.e. at the point of belief or from eternity – and the nature of sanctification as an ongoing process. Initially, antinomian views were disseminated primarily through preaching and private meetings. However, with the removal of press censorship in the early 1640s, antinomian publications surfaced and became an effective avenue for propagating and defending its beliefs. There were two major waves of responses against English antinomianism: (1) 1630s and (2) 1640s. Among the first wave respondents were Henry Burton and Thomas Taylor. Thomas Gataker, Anthony Burgess and Samuel Rutherford belonged to the second wave.

How did Rutherford get embroiled in the Antinomian Controversy in England? Was he not teaching theology at St Mary’s College in the University of St Andrews? Was not the Antinomian Controversy in the first half of the century an English thing? Scotland was indeed spared from the encroachment of antinomianism throughout the majority of the seventeenth century; its theology eventually seeped across the border in the 1690s with the republication of Tobias Crisp’s sermons. How then did Rutherford come into contact with English antinomianism and get involved in the ongoing controversy? It was through his participation in the Westminster Assembly from 1643-1647. This is evidenced by the dates of his publications against antinomianism.

Henceforth, we proceed to examine Rutherford’s doctrine of sanctification as expressed in his treatises against English antinomianism. These works are The Tryal and Trivmph of Faith (1645), Christ Dying and Drawing Sinners to Himselfe (1647) and A Survey of the Spirituall AntiChrist (1648).

II. Rutherford’s doctrine of sanctification

There are three important features to Rutherford’s doctrine of sanctification: (1) The presence of indwelling sin in believers; (2) Believers’ responsibility to keep the Moral Law, and (3) The necessity for believers to pursue sanctification. We will survey all three aspects in order to establish a clear picture of Rutherford’s view on believers’ sanctification.

1. The presence of indwelling sin in believers

This is a key characteristic of Rutherford’s doctrine of sanctification, because it provides the basis for believers’ pursuit of sanctification. He makes it clear that “justification is not such an abolition of sin, in its root and essence, as shall be in the state of glory, when root and branch shall be abolished… [and] sanctification being perfected, all indwelling of sin shall be removed”.[12] In other words, Rutherford considers sanctification to be a lifelong process that centres on the removal of indwelling sin in those who possess a personal, saving knowledge of Christ.

He asserts that the remnants of sin dwell in every believer: “…being once in Christ, and justified, we remaine sinners, as touching the indwelling blot, but we are not sinners, as we are justified in Christ, as touching the Law-obligation to eternall condemnation, from which we are fully freed”.[13] Although Rutherford acknowledges that justified persons are sinners, he emphasises that believers are “not condemned sinners”, differentiating them from unbelievers who remain in a condemned state. This means believers experience a continual and irreconcilable war with the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh after their conversion, such that they will continue to sin against God. This remains true even for those who have proven themselves to be most godly, “the holiest and most mortified”.[14] Therefore, while believers’ sins have been fully atoned for by Jesus Christ, they are neither perfect nor sinless.

Nevertheless, believers are no longer under the slavery of sin. Just as a captive is unable to lord it over his captor, indwelling sin cannot compel the justified to sin against God: “sin in the justified hath but house-room, and stayeth within the walls as a Captive, an Underling, a servant, it hath not the keys of the house to command all, nor the Scepter to rule: All the keys are upon Christs shoulder, far lesse hath it a Law-power to condemne.”[15] Thus, indwelling sin has lost its power in the lives of the justified and it can no longer condemn them, because Jesus Christ is now the Lord of the justified. By turning to the Lord Jesus, through the help of the Holy Spirit, believers can gain victory over sins.

Rutherford emphasised the presence of indwelling sin in believers, because he thinks the antinomians committed a grave error on this doctrinal point. He asserts that they have erred in claiming that believers are perfect in this life.[16] This constitutes a denial of the presence of indwelling sin. He identifies English antinomians Robert Towne and John Saltmarsh as advocates of this error.

Rutherford finds further evidence of perfectionism in the writings of Towne, Saltmarsh and John Eaton who propounded that “God cannot be angry at the sinnes of the justified, because they are done away, and abolished in Christ”.[17] He concludes that the antinomians necessarily reject the presence of indwelling sin in believers. Contrary to his opponents, Rutherford asserts that God is truly angry at the sins of the justified, which is evidenced by his chastisement of believers for sinning, supporting his assertion of ongoing indwelling sin. He explains that God’s anger is directed against the “sinnes of the justified, both to hate, rebuke, and correct their sinnes though God hate not their persons”.[18] In other words, while God does not hate believers, he hates their sins, and his anger is manifested to chastise believers and turn them away from their sins. Hence, the presence of indwelling sin in believers lays the grounds for believers to pursue sanctification throughout their earthly sojourn.

2. The responsibility of believers to keep the Moral Law

Rutherford maintained that the Law of God remains the rule of life for believers and thus it is their duty to keep it. His arguments were directed against the antinomian counterclaim that frees believers from Law-keeping (as summarised in the Ten Commandments).

He asserts it is necessary for believers to keep the Law because the Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles command believers to do so.[19] By Law-keeping, Rutherford is not arguing that believers today must obey every stipulation of the Mosaic Law. He is speaking specifically of the Moral Law: “It is false that wee are freed from active obedience to the Morall Law, because Christ came under active obedience to the Morall Law; for the Law required obedience out of love.”[20] However, with regard to the peculiarities of the Mosaic system he said, “To keep one Ceremony of Moses drawes a bill on us of debt to keep all the Ceremoniall Law; because now its unlawfull in any sort.”[21] Rutherford fundamentally advocates a threefold division of the Law of God, and, for him, believers today are only required to keep the Moral aspect of the Mosaic Law.

Although believers remain under the authority of the Moral Law as a rule of life, Rutherford asserts that they have been freed from the curse of the Law.[22] This is by virtue of the atonement of Christ accomplished on the cross, which has also freed believers from servile obedience to the Law.[23] As a result, believers are now able to obey the Moral Law out of thanksgiving to God.

Rutherford emphasises the importance of keeping the Moral Law because it is the instrument that God has ordained for believers’ sanctification, by which through their adherence they may grow in holiness. He asserts that “the rule and directing power of the Law… lead us in the wayes of sanctification and holinesse”.[24] Therefore, Law-keeping is the necessary means by which believers are to pursue sanctification.

3. All believers are obliged to pursue sanctification

Rutherford asserts that it is the duty of every believer to pursue sanctification. He compares sanctification to a wedding coat that requires constant adjustment until it fits the groom perfectly.[25] In other words, sanctification is an ongoing task that believers must diligently attend to as they journey towards heaven; it is a lifelong task that can never be completed this side of heaven but will certainly be perfected upon entry into eternal glory. Since pursuing sanctification necessarily involves keeping the Moral Law, this confirms the active responsibility of believers to walk in holiness.

As believers walk in holiness, they grow in holiness. Rutherford considers this to be a key goal of sanctification. For argument’s sake, he concedes that God could have made believers perfect at the point of conversion, but he asserts it pleases him to do otherwise, because this is best according to God’s infinite wisdom. Thus, he writes:

[Christ] can at our first conversion make us Glorified and perfected Saints; but its his wisdom to take time and succession to perfect his Saints, he took about thirty and three years on the earth for the work of our Redemption, and would for three dayes lodge in the grave, as it were a neighbour to our Father corruption, and the worme our brother and Sister, Iob 17.14. (Though he saw no corruption, Psa.16.10.)[26]

By directing believers to consider the time frame taken for the completion of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry and the duration that he spent in the grave until his resurrection, Rutherford points out that it pleases God to work out salvation for sinners across time as opposed to instantaneously because this is best, demonstrating that God’s wisdom is beyond human comprehension. This is true both in the outworking of salvation, and of sanctification. Thus, in God’s infinite wisdom, he made sanctification a lifelong process and not a one-off event in the lives of believers.

Rutherford elaborates that sanctification is the ordinary means by which God prepares believers to participate in the glory of the heavenly kingdom. He states that:

[believers] cannot suit with the happinesse of that land, except they have experienced the holinesse of continued Grace in this land, and Christ maketh storms of sin to blow upon his young heirs for their Winter, God keeping life at the root, that they may be fitter for an eternallie green flourishing Summer of Glory; … Christ consecrated himself through many afflictions, that he might be an heir suitable for Glory,… it was not fit that Christ, who was to make heirs like his rule and samplar, should bring them to glory with a leap and a step, from a justified condition, to a glorified estate, without an intervening progresse in sanctification and holinesse; … the frame of the government of that kingdom, is that none be received as free Citizens of Glory, but such as have served Apprentices, Minors, little children, under Tutors to Grace, and the way of holinesse.[27]

Christ will allow storms of trial and temptation to rage in the lives of believers. The purpose is not to cause them to fall into sin, but to put them through the mill of trials, so that they may grow in holiness having weathered these storms. Therefore, as believers journey on the road of sanctification, they are made fitter every step of the way for the eternal realities that await them at the end of the road. In addition, Christ as the exemplar par excellence for believers, went through numerous afflictions as he made his way to the cross, died and rose again, before eventually ascending to heaven, as opposed to entering instantaneously into heavenly glory; thus it is only fitting for believers to follow in the footsteps of their Lord and endure afflictions of their own as they journey towards the eternal kingdom. Hence, there is no other way to the heavenly kingdom except via the highway of holiness; sanctification stands in the way between justification and glorification.

To encourage believers in their pursuit of sanctification, Rutherford assures them that they are not left alone to walk the road, because God has promised and will grant grace to sustain and help them until the journey is completed. He states that:

God hath both promised to cause his covenanted ones walk before him in truth, as did Ezechiah [Hezekiah], as we have it, Ezek.36.27. and he has promised to save and deliver the upright in heart; as is clear Ps.50.23. Ps.34.15. 1 Pet. 3.12. Ps.145.18,19. So all the peace we can collect, for our comfort, from holy walking is resolved on a promise of free-grace, and the duty as performed by the grace of the covenant, may and doth lead us to the promise, and so no ways from Christ but to Christ.[28]

Rutherford cites multiple portions of the Scripture as proofs of God’s enduring promise to strengthen believers as they strive to walk in holiness, so that they shall progress in holiness. When believers put their trust in God and persist in sanctification, they will be drawn into an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus Christ. Furthermore, during times of great distress, when believers find themselves to be on the verge of compromising, they can cry out to Christ for help to persevere in holiness, because Christ will surely deliver them. Rutherford states that just as a woman will surely save her drowning child when she hears his frantic cries for help, Christ will certainly grant believers added strength to persevere in holiness in their moment of great distress, because he is full of compassion, more compassionate than any mother could ever be.[29] Christ will never turn a deaf ear to believers’ cries for help to persevere in holiness. Therefore, they must press on and not give up.

Whenever Rutherford speaks about sanctification, he is expressing the relatively modern Reformed theological concept of progressive sanctification. Like Rutherford, Reformed theologian Heinrich Heppe, in his summary of seventeenth-century Reformed theology, discusses the concept of progressive sanctification without using the language of modern Reformed theology.[30] Heppe elucidates that “[t]he norm of man’s sanctification is the word of God, and Law as well as Gospel; whereby the activity of both comes under consideration. The law demands obedience, the gospel causes man to obey.”[31] There is a distinct emphasis on the role of the Moral Law with regards to believers’ sanctification, just as Rutherford has done. Heppe adds that “[s]ubjectively considered the nature of sanctification is man’s effort, lasting his whole life, to live in thought, word and action solely according to God’s good pleasure and for his glory”.[32] This corresponds to Rutherford’s emphasis on believers’ lifelong, active participation in their sanctification. It is unmistakable that Rutherford espouses progressive sanctification for believers; however, he is adamant that the antinomians reject the doctrine of progressive sanctification.

4. Four major errors in the antinomian doctrine of sanctification

The antinomian view that believers are perfect implies that there is no indwelling sin in believers. This in turn implies that there is no need for believers to pursue sanctification. The other antinomian claim that believers are freed from obeying the Moral Law, also implies that believers are not obligated to pursue sanctification, because it is through the keeping of the Moral Law that believers engage in sanctification. While these are certainly important factors that strengthened Rutherford’s resolve to take the antinomians to task on the doctrine of sanctification, it is imperative to note that he observes crucial errors in their doctrinal view.

Rutherford identifies four major errors that contributed to the antinomian doctrine of sanctification, which he strongly repudiates. First, “confusing sanctification with justification”: He charges them with making sanctification a matter of believing that Christ has accomplished it on behalf of believers, thus freeing them from the duty of engaging in the works as traditionally advocated.

Rutherford cites Saltmarsh as a proponent of this view. He interprets Saltmarsh’s words, “Christ not onely repenteth in us, but for us, Christ obeyed for us, and is the end of the Law to every one that beleeveth” as evidence implying that Christ has obeyed the demands of the Law on behalf of believers, thereby absolving them from the responsibility of obeying the Law.[33] For Rutherford, this is a failure to distinguish between sanctification (which entails believers’ active participation) and justification (which involves believers’ faith alone).

The second error is “claiming that the works of sanctification obscures justification”. Rutherford observes that the “Antinomians teach… Sanct-ification is so farre from evidencing a good estate, that it darkens it rather; and a man may more clearly see Christ, when hee seeth no sanctification, then when hee sees it; the darker my sanctification is, the brighter is my justification. So Saltmarsh.”[34]

Rutherford argues that works of sanctification do not obscure justification, rather they give added assurance to believers concerning their justification: “Sanctification doth not… evidence justification, as faith doth evidence it, with such a sort of clearnesse, as light evidenceth colours, making them actually visible; … sanctification doth evidence justification to be in the soule.”[35] Rutherford explains that there is a difference in the level of clarity that faith brings to justification, in comparison with sanctification; faith gives believers absolute certainty about their justification in a direct manner, while sanctification attests to justification in an equally real way but it is less obvious to believers because its testimony is indirect, such that believers are required to deduce it for themselves.

Hence, Rutherford compares sanctification to the smoke created by a fire: when a person sees smoke in the sky, he is able to deduce that there must be a fire out there from the mere presence of the smoke, even though he has not seen the fire with his own eyes; in like manner, believers may conclude and be assured of their justification from the works of sanctification that they perform.[36] Thus, progressive sanctification is like a signpost that directs believers to their justification, as “gracious effects giveth evidence of the cause”, granting them further assurance in addition to that which has been engendered by faith concerning the reality of their justification.[37]

Third, Rutherford charges the antinomians with “freeing believers from the Moral Law as a rule of life and hence sanctification”. Rutherford points to Robert Towne’s claim that believers are freed from “the Law with all its offices and authority” as indisputable evidence that the antinomians have freed believers from the Law “as teaching, directing regulating believers in the way of righteousnesse”,[38] noting specifically that Towne asserts believers receive the power to conquer sin from the gospel alone, apart from obedience to the Law of God as a rule of life.[39] Hence, Rutherford concludes that his opponents regard sanctification that consists in believers’ obedience to the Moral Law as a “legal bondage from which Christ has set us free”.[40]

The fourth error is the denial of mortification of sin. Rutherford charges Saltmarsh with making mortification a matter of simply believing that Christ has already accomplished mortification on their behalf, thus rendering it unnecessary for them to do so. Rutherford quotes Saltmarsh as follows:

[W]e are to beleeve our Repentance true in Christ, who hath repented for us; our mortifying sinne true in him through whom we are more then conquerers; our new obedience true in him who hath obeyed the Law for us, and is the end of the Law to every one that beleeveth, our change of the whole man is true in him who is righteousnesse and true holinesse.[41]

He labels Saltmarsh’s view of mortification as a “lawlesse and carnall mortification”.[42]

Rutherford defines mortification as a real and personal thing, consisting in “a subduing of lusts, a bringing under the body of sinne, a heart-deadnesse to the world, (from this) because your Lord died for you, and has crucified the old man”.[43] This definition is grounded in his convictions of the actual presence of indwelling sin in the justified and their God-given obligation to remove this remaining sin from their lives.

Therefore, even though believers continue to sin after their conversion, like hired servants who habitually strive to please their master they must refrain from falling into habitual sinning, through abstinence from worldly desires.[44] When believers diligently attend to the mortification of sin in their lives, their tendency to sin becomes feeble in strength and intention like “a dying mans operation” as opposed to “a strong man in vigor and health”.[45] This may be referred to as progressive mortification, a form of ongoing mortification, a duty that is required of all believers in their daily lives.

5. Rutherford’s oversights

However, a survey of the contentions that Rutherford raised against the antinomians reveals that his assessment of his opponents was not wholly accurate; it was a mix of hits and misses. Contrary to Rutherford’s charge of confusing sanctification with justification, the antinomians make a clear distinction between the two. For example, John Eaton states that “Justification and Sanctification are inseparable companions that goe infallibly together, making every true Beleever a double Saint, or rather a true Saint”.[46]

In addition, the antinomians affirm some form of ongoing sanctification. For example, Robert Towne uses the term “sanctification” to denote two types of change that occur in believers, namely, an instantaneous change at the point of conversion, followed by a gradual change over a lifetime. He speaks of “the communication of Christ’s perfect holiness, whereby the believer is presented holy and without blame to God”,[47] and “[a]n inward and sensible renewing or changing of the mind, by the operation of the Spirit of Christ, purifying the heart and life by degrees”.[48]

Notably, Towne regards the Holy Spirit as the sole agent that brings about the internal renewal of believers so that they remain set apart for God. This essentially excludes the need for believers to obey the Moral Law. In other words, for Towne, ongoing sanctification refers to the work that the Holy Spirit accomplishes in believers. Thus, in spite of Rutherford’s oversights, there are indeed genuine differences between him and the antinomians on the doctrine of sanctification.

Furthermore, the antinomians affirm believers’ mortification. However, they disagree with Rutherford on what mortification entails. For example, Crisp, who agrees with Rutherford that believers grow in holiness when they pursue progressive sanctification, disagrees on the subject of mortification. Crisp thinks that the commonly held notion of mortification as “the crucifying of the flesh” is a gross misconception of what it truly is.[49] Since Galatians 5:24 states that “they that are Christ’s, have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts thereof”, then mortification of sin cannot possibly be a crucifying of the flesh as commonly understood.[50] Thus, Crisp asserts that mortification does not entail the killing of fleshly lust, whereas Rutherford insists that mortification of sin is the killing of the remaining sin in believers.

Therefore, the antinomian view of sanctification may be more accurately summed up as follows: The antinomians affirm sanctification for believers, but they erred in the following manner: (1) there is denial that ongoing sanctification necessitates believers’ active participation, and (2) there is denial that mortification involves crucifying fleshly lusts.[51] This is certainly contrary to Rutherford’s view that sanctification entails believers’ active keeping of the Moral Law and the mortification of fleshly lusts, which will lead to their growth in holiness.

III. Lessons that we can learn from Rutherford’s response to English Antinomianism

Finally, I would like to share three applications from this study of Rutherford’s doctrine of sanctification:

(1) Believers must diligently pursue sanctification. It is of utmost importance, because it is a divine command that must not be neglected. We are reminded that the Ten Commandments remain binding for us today, thus we are to diligently conform our lives to the Moral Law, which is our rule of life. It is true that we are faced with a different set of challenges from believers of the seventeenth century, but we have been promised the same divine help as we strive to grow in holiness.

(2) Mortification of sin is a crucial aspect of believers’ sanctification. Many would point to John Owen’s treatise Of the Mortification of Sinne in Believers (1656) as a title that helped them to know about the subject of mortification and its importance for their lives. Rutherford’s treatises examined today, which were published before Owen’s treatise (in 1645, 1647 and 1648 respectively), picked up on the same topic. We are shown that mortification of sin is an essential part of our progressive sanctification; if we neglect mortification of sin, it is to our own peril.

Some time back, I came across the following text conversation in a group chat:

Friend A: “Long time no see. How you doing?”

Friend B: “Haha long time no see too. Have been quite tired from school. Learning to love people different from me. Learning to die to self and sin.” [Emphasis added]

Are we active at mortifying sin in our lives? Do we seek out specific sins in our lives and work hard at killing them? Or have we become used to living with certain patterns of weaknesses and sins, thus overlooking this necessity? Owen’s treatise would be a most suitable place to go to for further discussions on how mortification may be undertaken in our lives. Mortification is our active responsibility, not a passive duty.

(3) Even the most learned men are but men; they err too. No man is perfect, except for our Lord Jesus Christ. As we have seen, there were oversights in Rutherford’s assessment of his antinomian opponents. Therefore, (i) while we ought to learn humbly from the spiritual giants who came before us, we must not put them on a pedestal of infallibility; and (ii) in all forms of theological research, especially those that involve controversy, it is of utmost importance that students read first-hand sources of writings, publications and discussions. This will enable them to gain a clearer grasp of the matter at hand and provide a more accurate assessment of what is truly going on, as opposed to an assessment built on another individual’s opinion of the matter. Therefore, for theological studies, in particular historical theology, it is vital to read the primary sources; hear it from the horse’s mouth and then make a discerning judgment.


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