From the pen of Austin R. Walker:
At the heart of Baxterianism was the teaching that by his death Jesus Christ the Mediator died for all men and merited a new and milder law of grace, the requirements of which were faith, repentance, and sincere obedience. It taught that God now presented the gospel as this new law, replacing the original law under which man was created. Christ, it was alleged, having made a compensation to divine justice and the law of works, effectively removed from the equation the original law that demanded perfect obedience. God will now no longer execute against sinners the punishment due to sin as a result of the breaking of this original law. Instead, the gospel offers an amnesty to penitent breakers of the old law. By virtue of Christ’s work, God now accepts penitent sinners on the basis of a new law of grace, with faith, repentance, and sincere obedience as their righteousness. Sinners are justified insofar as they obey the gospel terms and live holy lives, and not by the active and passive obedience of Christ imputed to them by faith. Justification is no longer by faith alone, by trusting in Christ and in God’s promised pardon. Rather, it is conditional: pardoned sinners accepting this new arrangement must now fulfil the easier gospel terms by their own obedience.
This stands in stark contrast to the teaching of the Reformed confessions. Baxter and others appeared to be trying to formulate a theology of the Christian life that maintained tight links between faith and obedience, justification and sanctification, forgiveness and perseverance. Baxter in particular had a legitimate concern with a real Antinomianism that so emphasised free grace and once-for-all justification that obedience and holiness were seriously neglected. However, he reacted too far by insisting that obedience and holiness were a part of the believer’s justification. Furthermore, his understanding of the work of Christ (which ought to have been the foundation of his theology of the Christian life) was seriously flawed, as was the building that he then tried to erect on that foundation. He was building on a sandy foundation by rejecting the obedience and righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer as the grounds of our justification. Instead of promoting the truth he was trying to defend, he ended up attacking and destroying the very heart of the gospel. Keach, on the other hand, built his foundation on the work of Christ, on his active and passive obedience imputed to the believer by faith, as taught in Rom. 5.19. Keach also wished to maintain the tight link between justification and sanctification. He would never deny that obedience and personal holiness were necessary to salvation, but he firmly insisted that anything done by us was to be excluded from justification. As the Confession stated, faith is the sole instrument of justification, but-where faith is present-it is “ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”
According to Keach, Baxterianism was a serious error, sowed seeds of confusion in people’s minds, and had a strong tendency to create a false assurance of salvation. Such assurance built its hope not on Christ and free grace, but on sincere obedience and human effort. What happened, for example, to a Christian’s assurance if he was not sincere or omitted to do certain good works? Justification became more a matter of human performance rather than complete reliance on Jesus Christ. An indignant Keach protested that such teaching was far removed from apostolic doctrine. Keach was jealous to maintain that justification depended entirely on the free grace of God. In the closing words of a lecture on one of the parables Keach pleaded with his hearers and explained to them the dangers of Baxterianism in the following terms:
“And to you, sinners, if you would be found wheat in the day of Christ, then receive Christ’s true doctrine, labour to distinguish between truth and error; beware of that strange and new scheme that darkens the free-grace of God, and tends to destroy the covenant of grace; remember to exalt Christ alone in your salvation. How do some turn the gospel of God’s free grace into a law, by the performance of which, as the conditions of life and justification, tell thee, thy salvation doth depend. See what subtle opposers (of the clearest gospel) are risen up amongst us, and labour to avoid them; though their tongues should seem to be tipped with silver, yet their doctrine is copper.”
In his preaching Keach consistently and stridently opposed any notion that works played a role in the justification of sinners. He was insistent that the Scripture way of justification was the way of free grace and that sinners are justified by a perfect righteousness, that of Jesus Christ…Christ is offered to sinners as sinners and not as righteous persons. Keach said that Baxterianism talked about the good fruits that must be present in people’s lives before they have closed with Christ, and about the sincere obedience performed by an unregenerate person. In contrast, said Keach, “we do not tell you, you must be holy and then believe in Jesus Christ; but that you must believe in him, that you may be holy. You must first have Union with him, before you can bring forth Fruit to God; you must act from Life, and not for Life.”
Walker goes on to offer some obeservations and reflections from this controversy. He writes:
There is little point in studying the history of the church and the struggles and controversies that have been part of her experience unless we are prepared to learn from these events. First, then, we should learn from Keach (and from others who were also engaged in opposing Baxterianism) that they were doing what every generation of Christians, and in particular pastors and preachers, must do. They set out to fullfil their responsibility to teach and defend biblical doctrine (in this case the truth of justification by faith alone). The writings of Keach in the 1690s clearly demonstrate that he accomplished this in a faithful and able manner.
…It is significant that Baxter had an aversion to creeds and confessions of faith. Confessions were a new kind of church document in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. They were declarations of the corporate faith of the church and churches subscribed to them because they were persuaded that these confessions agreed with the teaching of the Word of God in the subject matter they presented. In England, the Presbyterians, the Independents, and the Particular Baptists all drew up their own confessions of faith. There was considerable unanimity expressed in these documents, especially in the statements relating to justification by faith. They were drawn up in order to present to the world what they believed as churches and also to provide answers against their opponents and critics. Baxter’s attitude to confessions of faith only isolated him further from the truth of justification by faith. Sadly, today there is a similar suspicion of and adverse reaction to creeds and confessions, with many regarding them as obsolete and curbing independence of mind. In an age characterised by a pride that produces excessive individualism (including theological individualism), is it not more likely that individuals will be driven to extremes and imperil their own souls by neglecting the corporate and ecclesiological character of confessions of faith? If the confessions from the 1600s were accurate in stating the biblical and apostolic truth, especially in such an important matter as justification by faith, then they remain valid for today’s generation because the truth does not change. This is not to say that a church’s confession of faith may not be changed to reflect a better understanding of the Scriptures, but that is not the business of one individual.
…Finally, it should be remembered that in the last analysis it is God who justifies (Rom. 8:33). Men may hope that they are justified in their own eyes and in the eyes of others by their sincere obedience and good works, but no one can be justified in God’s sight by such means. Failure to understand justification by faith alone often results from a failure to understand the holiness of God and his uncompromising demand for perfection and righteousness which is met only in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. If the church becomes forgetful of the fact that it is God who justifies, then she is exposing herself to grave dangers: of losing sight of remaining sin even in the regenerate by promoting an inflated view of human righteousness; of losing sight of faith that looks away from self to Jesus Christ alone; of losing the assurance of faith and giving way to uncertainty, fear, and even despair; and, of losing the gospel, not to mention genuine gospel preaching and the free offer of the gospel that is such a vital part of that preaching. Keach was a free grace, free offer preacher. May God raise up many like him in our day.*
*Vol. 3: The Reformed Baptist Theological Review Volume 3. 2006 (1) (12–13, 21-26). Owensboro, KY: Reformed Baptist Theological Review.