Friday, August 12, 2005

Samuel Johnson, Justification by Faith Alone, and the True Church

In Luther’s Bondage of the Will, he had to confront the charge, still endlessly repeated, that however scriptural his doctrine seemed, it was an innovation. "What had the church been doing for the thousand plus years when your teaching was not known? Where is the continuity of the church? Are the fathers all damned for not teaching your doctrine?"

In reply Luther replied that the continuity of the church lay not in the dogmatic and authoritative teaching of the fathers but in Scripture, in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and in the response of souls to the Gospel promises therein. Just so, the congregation founded by Moses lasted until its task was finished in Christ, despite the repeated apostasy not just by the people, but foremost by judges, by kings, by prophets, and by high priests, and the destruction of the ark and the temple. Luther repeatedly cited God’s word to Elijah, that when the church seemed in greatest distress, "I have reserved to me seven thousand who not bent the knee to Baal." Luther noticed how the fathers taught one way when disputing as philosophers and in another way when in prayer before God. And he believed that many who lived speaking only of obedience and works died trusting solely in Christ’s accomplished work on the cross.

Does this sound too pat? Does it sound unrealistic to talk about people dying in a different faith in which they lived? It did to me, until I read Samuel Johnson’s biography by Boswell. Here is Samuel Johnson in his prime on Wednesday, April 15, 1778, rejecting the idea that anyone can be assured of salvation, least of all on his deathbed:

Consider, his hope of salvation must be founded on the terms on which it is promised that the mediation of our SAVIOR shall be applied to us–namely, obedience; and where obedience has failed, then, as suppletory to it, repentance. But what man can say that his obedience has been such, as he would approve of in another, or even in himself upon close examination, or that his repentance has not been such as to require being repented of? No man can be sure that his obedience and repentance will obtain salvation.

Johnson was a famously High Church Anglican and nothing can be added to this Catholic case against assurance–or to this illustration of the perils of relying on one’s own works for justification.

But Samuel Johnson didn’t die in this faith. Boswell recounts in his last month, December, 1784, on the authority of Johnson’s spiritual director who communed him for the last time.

For some time before his death, all his fears were calmed and absorbed by the prevalence of his faith and his trust in the merits and propitiation of JESUS CHRIST. He talked often to me about the necessity of faith in the sacrifice of Jesus, as necessary beyond all good works whatever, for the salvation of mankind. He pressed me to study Dr. Clarke and to read his Sermons. I asked him why he pressed Dr. Clarke, an Arian. ‘Because, (said he) he is fullest on the propitiatory sacrifice.'

In my office wall is a print of Samuel Johnson’s last prayer, written on this occasion of his last communion in this mortal body, which I purchased on a trip to the cathedral church of Lichfield, his home town. Like many Christians who struggle through life with no assurance, the courage and purity of his faith by God’s grace only seemed to become greater under this handicap. I give thanks to God for him and for Martin Luther who taught most clearly the doctrine that even in the sermons of a heretic like Mr. Clarke gave Samuel Johnson his first taste of the joy of Heaven. And I am confident that there are and were many like him, before and after Martin Luther, who lived trusting in their own obedience and repentance, and died trusting only in Christ.

Originally posted at Here We Stand