Article of the Month
Samuel Willard (1640-1707)
by Seymour Van Dyken
More basic for Willard than concern for the social order was his great interest in the salvation of the soul, important both for the continuing vitality of the church and the preservation of a righteous state. In fact, divine grace was a necessary precondition to every truly Christian endeavor. Nothing was more admirable to Willard than its wonders unveiled in the whole method of man’s redemption, and his preaching jealously guarded the sovereignty of divine grace. But he never magnified grace to the point that he blinded his people to the beauty of holiness. Divine sovereignty and human responsibility were both parts of the eternal scheme, and though the paradox could not be comprehended by human minds it was to be preached as part of the Biblical revelation, for the secret of their harmony, he was sure, lay in the mind of God. Salvation for Willard was never a do-it-yourself project, yet he was second to none in urging the children of the covenant to do their duties. Balance was the all-important thing: “the way lyes very narrow between Antinomian and Arminian errors,” he warned, “and therefore needs the greater exactness in cutting the threed true.”1
Arminianism, named posthumously after the scholarly Dutch modifier of high Calvinism, Jacobus Arminius, was still considered one of the most dangerous of Protestant heresies. In a sense it was an ambiguous term. Arminianism seems to have developed in a number of places at the very time Arminius was advancing his ideas in Holland. An English presage of this theological trend can be detected in the late sixteenth century, and scholarly and social contacts with the Dutch strengthened it.2 Arminian doctrines were extensively adopted by the Anglican Church during the reign of Charles I, and as Puritan preachers were forced out of their positions for denouncing these errors and all hope for them was crushed with the dissolution of Parliament, the great tide of Puritan migration to America began. From the beginning, therefore, New Englanders identified Arminianism with the prelacy from which they had fled, and preachers carefully drilled their congregations on its dangers. When the temporarily victorious Puritans and Presbyterians in England gave the world a synthesis of Reformed doctrine in the Westminster Confession of Faith, New England heartily accepted it “for the substance thereof.”
As Samuel Willard began to preach, Arminianism was once more ascendant in Restoration England. High Calvinism might be holding its ground in Holland and Scotland, but in England Arminians, Latitudinarians, and “reasonable” theologians had risen to positions of dominance.3 The sects were seething with the heresy, and even Independents like John Goodwin, having embraced it, opposed the Reformed faith. New England was deeply concerned, for she still thought herself as one with the mother country. To New Englanders this theological world was the most important part of English life, and the leaders, knowing that correspondence with families and friends at “home” and that books that came with every ship from England exposed them to these winds of doctrine, understandably eyed this seething ferment of deviant ideas with dread. The fear of episcopal encroachment was ever present, and in 1679 the Reforming Synod frowned darkly at the evidences of “Will-worship” already observable in their Jerusalem. At the same time social forces and economic success in their heterogeneous society were creating a hospitable environment for sprouting a home-grown Arminianism.4
In coming to grips with it Willard found the covenant idea to be the most useful form with which to juxtapose truth and error. In fact, the doctrine of the covenant was basic to all of Willard’s theological thought, but it came to notable expression in his early defense of orthodoxy against Arminianism.
A Covenantal Frame of Reference
In a series of sermons in 1682 on “Covenant-Keeping the Way to Blessedness” he set forth the connection between God’s promise and man’s duty in the covenant of grace. The sermons were not “supervacaneous,” wrote Increase Mather, for though many excellent treatises had been published on the covenant these discourses were doctrinally “Succinct, Solid, and Judicious,” “Powerful and Seasonable” in their relevance, and an effective confutation of “Arminian tenets about Universal Redemption, Free Will, Apostacy from Grace, &c.”5
From the day that God created man and placed him on the earth, explained Willard, echoing a long line of English Puritan and Continental Reformed mentors, He has dealt with him in a covenant way, first in a covenant of works, and then when he had “utterly lost himself” by his disobedience in a “new & Gospel Covenant” with a glorious promise (Genesis 3:15). Like all covenants, God’s transaction with His people was a “mutual Engagement,” binding once it was made, and having conditions and consequents, the fulfillment of which was dependent upon the performance of the condition. The covenant of grace in no way annulled the covenant of works, but fulfilled it in such a way that the justice and righteousness of the first and the mercy and peace of the second “entertain each other with mutual embraces of perfect amity (Psal. 85:10, 11).”6
The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries witnessed a refinement in federal theology, whereby the covenant of grace was conceived of more broadly as including God’s purpose from eternity, or more narrowly as dealing with believers. Willard took it in the latter sense, following the lead of Westminster Presbyterians such as Samuel Rutherford, George Gillespie, and John Ball in speaking of two covenants: redemption and reconciliation. Though God was reconciled with the elect on the basis of the satisfaction given in the covenant of redemption, the actual transaction between God and man was accomplished in the covenant of reconciliation. Both covenants spring from grace and design God’s glory by the salvation of the elect through Christ, yet they are distinct. They have different parties, God and Christ in the one, the Trinity and the mystical Christ embracing the church in the other. One is essentially a covenant of works with grace as its design, the other is grounded on gracious terms and conditions. One really had no mediator, the other of necessity made Christ the mediator. Yet the covenant of redemption, explained Willard, is the eternal background for the covenant of reconciliation, and a true believer “hath his eye alwayes upon it,” for until provision was made for satisfying the claims of the law one could not hope for atonement.7
The covenant of grace as expounded by Willard, therefore, was the covenant of reconciliation, “that mutual engagement, in which God the Father, Son and Spirit on the one side, and His Church or People on the other side, stand engaged, in Conditions, and consequent Promises.” He considered it not according to its efficacious inward and spiritual application to the elect, but more widely according to its visible and external dispensation in the ordinances, as a covenant with terms and conditions made with all those who, with their children, professed obedience to the Gospel-order and ordinances. Yet God gathered up His elect reasonable creatures out of the “rubbish” of the world in such a way, he said, that those who will not come in are left “inexcusable” and perish with greater condemnation; hence, “not only the Covenant of Works, but the Covenant of Grace too, will have to lay to the charge of all such as for abusing of it, Joh. 3:19.”8
He touched the vital nerve of the Arminian controversy when he asked: what does it mean to keep covenant? If salvation by grace was one of the cardinal tenets of the Reformed faith, how could one assign a proper role to human effort and responsibility without infringing upon it? His answer was that the conditions of faith and obedience were not “Antecedent and Meritorious” but “connex and consequent.” God did not command without giving grace; God “tells us what it is that He expects of us if we hope to enjoy Him, which (though it must be wrought efficiently by His Spirit, yet it) must be formally performed by us, Titus 2:11, 12.”9
Such a careful scholar as Perry Miller has interpreted this to be a clever device by which a shrewd federal God incorporated the covenant of works into the covenant of grace, but Willard would have flatly denied it. “This obedience is vastly differing from that which is required in the Covenant of Works,” he asserted. In the first covenant it was the antecedent condition and meritorious cause of man’s blessedness, in the second it is only a consequent condition. In the first it was to be performed in man’s own strength, in the second by the help of Christ. In the one perfection was required, in the other it is impossible, though God respects sincere striving after it. In the one the smallest defect meant death, in the other God covers many transgressions. In the one repentance did not count, in the other it is the way to pardon. Gospel obedience, therefore, was the fruit of faith, faith in exercise, trusting solely in the righteousness of Christ.10
A covenant was the best way for God to transact with fallen men, he said, for men could enjoy certainty through its terms, and God could also display His attributes, His infinite holiness and justice, and His sovereign mercy. But how far were those mercies conditional in the covenant promise? Puritans in both Englands had debated over the question whether the promises were absolute or conditional — though never in the Arminian sense of a conditional will in God that depended upon and was determined by the wills of men. John Cotton, for example, had asserted that the promises were absolute, while Peter Bulkeley stoutly affirmed that they were conditional — respecting the fact, of course, that the giving of the Spirit and regeneration were free and absolute. Willard came out strongly on the conditional side: as certainly as these mercies were conditionally propounded to Christ in the covenant of redemption they were conditional in the “visible and ministerial” dispensation of the covenant of reconciliation. “We cannot say unto any Man in particular, positively, and without any limitation you shall be saved.” Like the apostles, they could preach salvation “but conditionally.” But as Christ was proffered conditionally, so Christ as surety gave the power to perform the conditions.11
Since the covenant of grace rested upon the antecedent covenant of redemption between God and Christ in eternity, Willard explored this theme also in another series of sermons. The idea had been learnedly argued by federal theologians such as Francis Turretin and Herman Witsius, but Willard treated the matter more popularly and reduced the speculation about this mystery to two things: the provision made for man’s salvation in eternity, and the things He did in time to accomplish it. “All our speculations about the latter will be dark, short, and confused,” he explained, unless they were traced back to eternity; without this “we shall neither know where our Salvation began, nor what Security there is in it, or how to act our Faith aright about it.” Here was the “first Link of that Chain . . . which fastens all,” and ignorance of it only afforded opportunity for “pernicious Errors” to take root. For His own glory God determined man’s redemption in His eternal decree, and foreordained all the means to it from eternity, Willard explained in supralapsarian fashion. In this covenant Christ as the second person of the Trinity (not the “Christ mystical” of the covenant of grace) agreed to become the “Surety” and pay the “Price” for the elect, for the idea that all were redeemed sufficiently but only some effectively was, to Willard, nonsense.12
The question whether it would have been consistent with the rectoral holiness of God to pardon sin without satisfaction to His injured justice, Willard answered in the affirmative. He had ploughed through the arguments for the negative case offered by Grotius, Vossius, Voetius, Turretin, Heidanus, Owen, and Burgess, but took his stand rather with William Twisse. The necessity for the covenant of redemption, therefore, was “hypothetical” rather than absolute. “That Sin deserves it, is not to be doubted, but that God is naturally obliged to punish it so, and cannot be God unless he doth, needs further consideration.” Holiness and justice were relative attributes, and punishment was to be reckoned as a work of divine efficiency, for which the rule was “Omne opus ad extra est Contingens.” Being contingent, it was the execution of a free decree and therefore arbitrary. Perfections like mercy and grace proceed according to His good pleasure (Romans 9:18, 21-22). To those who asked why God determined to follow this way when, by virtue of His lordship, he could have pardoned without a mediator, Willard responded: who are we to call Him to account? 13
All this covenanted in eternity explained why and how God saved in the covenant of grace. When men outwardly called willfully refused to enter the covenant of reconciliation it was their own fault, declared Willard, but those who do “actually close” with its terms do so not on their own power, but because of God. Here one could see the origin of those “absolute Promises” of the Scripture, he said, which the “Arminians so wholly deny.” They were absolute because they had no depending condition in the covenant of grace, for it would argue a contradiction for God to say, “I will Convert you, if you will Convert yourselves.” These promises had their conditions and performance in the covenant of redemption, and were given in the Word of God to reveal the efficacy of that covenant and to assure believers of its certain fulfillment. To Willard it was logical that these promises were not of universal application, but were confined to the election of God. But this was not to induce a spirit of passivity: “Rest not contented till you have gotten some good Evidence that your Names were written in the Book of Life.” They would be good spiritual frontiersmen, he seemed to suggest, if “following the stream up to the fountain” they searched for the evidences of sanctification that would lead them to conclude that they had been covenanted for and chosen in Christ. So everything depended wholly on the initiative and assistance of God, something obviously quite different from the Arminian scheme of things.
And closing with another look at how “poor man” had been provided with the riches of grace in this covenant, Willard broke out into doxology.
A Quaker Arminian Attack
A vigorous Quaker missionary named George Keith overtly attacked this orthodoxy shortly after his arrival in Boston in 1688. He posted a challenge on June 21 to publicly debate the ministers of the town, but Willard and his colleagues (Allen, Moody, and Cotton Mather) had no intention of giving him the opportunity afforded by other villages to stir up controversy, and snubbed him with the terse announcement that they had neither the interest nor the time.15 Angered, Keith replied on September 21 with ten pages of sharp criticism, and the next year published all the correspondence with a statement of doctrine in his The Presbyterian and Independent Visible Churches Brought to the Test. The Boston ministers did not intend that Arminianism should spread through Massachusetts in this manner, and the next year Willard and his colleagues issued The Principles of the Protestant Religion Maintained, a spirited commentary on Keith’s diatribe, particularly on the decrees, the atonement, and perseverance.
Keith declared that nowhere in the Scripture could it be found that God had reprobated any part of mankind before the foundation of the world, and charged the Boston ministers with teaching that God had made some in order to damn them. This was scandal, replied Willard and his colleagues, and it was not their doctrine; God made them for the glory of His justice, which was exalted in the damnation which they procured by their own fault. Keith seemingly did not know what he was talking about, they said, for he himself acknowledged an eternal counsel about them that perish and that Christ in His infinite justice permitted such to resist grace. They thought his assertion that God’s prescience of the elect did not argue total reprobation of others was ridiculous, for if some were not elected, what was this but reprobation? They answered Keith’s concern over reprobate infants going to hell for Adam’s sin only by saying that they ought to commiserate them, yet they could not be helped beyond what God had purposed concerning them. These shared Adam’s guilt and corruption as others, consequently they were by nature under condemnation of death; nowhere was it revealed that Christ’s satisfaction applied to dying infants, but Romans 5:14 did speak of a sentence upon those who had not sinned actually.16
To Keith’s claim that men are condemned only because they reject the light (John 3:19) the ministers replied that he should have also read verse 18: he that does not believe is condemned already. Very plainly the case was this, they said: in the first covenant men stand condemned for the breach of the law, either by imputation of Adam’s sin, or by actual sins; when with the coming of the gospel Christ is offered as a way of life, and men despise Him and will not follow the light, this condemnation is added to the former, so that whereas formerly they were condemned by the law now the gospel condemns them too. Keith’s conclusion that none suffer final rejection but those who reject the “Physitian,” the ministers charged, made the condition of pagans (to whom Christ had not been offered) better than that of Christians. Men would be out of danger if Christ had but died for them and never told them of it!17
They also crossed swords with Keith on his doctrine of universal redemption, which he sought to establish with the Scriptural designations “all,” “all men,” “every man,” “the world,” and “the whole world.” The Boston ministers countered with the traditional argument that “all” did not mean all particular individuals but men of all sorts, all the elect. Keith had asserted that “all” must necessarily be as universal with respect to the death of Christ as it was with respect to the fall of Adam. Willard and his colleagues agreed, but not in Keith’s sense, they said: for on this basis one would have to plead for universal salvation as well. Adam and Christ were paralleled in Scripture in many respects: Adam is a common head, so is Christ; Adam has natural seed, Christ has spiritual seed; Adam ruined all his, Christ redeemed all His; Adam’s are called the world, and so are Christ’s. But it had to be remembered that Christ’s seed were a number selected out of the other, and though He saved “all” of His elect, they were not all the individuals of Adam’s posterity, for Christ Himself spoke about those who were none of His sheep! Similarly “all” in I Corinthians 7:14 proved only that all of Christ’s elect were dead and that He died for all of them, and Keith, they charged, perverted the apostle’s intention in giving it a universalist interpretation. Furthermore his reference to the command of Christ to preach the gospel to all nations and the promise that this would be accomplished before the end of the world was no proof at all for universal grace, they said: many past generations had not been benefited by it, and it was slender logic to hold all mankind accountable because once in the end of the world it would be revealed to all the living. Keith’s charge that the doctrines of election and reprobation made the effective use of the means of grace an absolute impossibility the ministers rebutted by the declaration that there was no more discouragement in their tenets than in his, for he also taught that only some of those who used the means were going to be saved, namely the elect.18
Willard and his friends also found Keith chopping at the pillar of perseverance, alleging that real beginnings of faith and sanctification could be lost. If he meant certain common preparatory works wrought in man, such as conviction of sin, they agreed. But these were not the beginnings of true justifying faith in God’s elect, and Keith’s citation of Scripture texts they found unconvincing. Hebrews 6:4-6, they said, referred to temporary faith, as did the parable of the seed falling in thorny and stony ground; Romans 11 related to the visible church, in which not all were true believers; the lamps in the parable of the virgins represented only outward profession, the vessels signifying the heart; and the threatening of Ezekiel 18:24f. was a conditional expression sometimes used by God to actually preserve His people by curbing their corruptions. Therefore, to suppose that the promise of preservation was hypothetical, that it depended upon human performance of a condition, was erroneous; part of the new covenant promise to believers was God’s very keeping of His people from falling utterly (Jeremiah 32:40).19
Their work had not the least effect in silencing Keith, however, for he promptly replied with The Pretended Antidote Proved Poyson, dubbing the four ministers counterfeit defenders of the Protestant religion. Neither Willard nor the others made reply.
Preaching the Five Points
But literary warfare, however necessary, was never enough. And preaching, in the age of the sermon, was not only a means of edification and conversion, it was also for the defense of the faith. By the next decade New Englanders had to reckon not only with Keith, but with the Anglican interests now firmly established in Boston under royal protection, and with social forces in an increasingly heterogeneous society which were fostering a more optimistic attitude toward human nature. Willard met the rising Arminian tide with the sturdy doctrines of the generic Reformed faith — often word for word and phrase for phrase in the language of the mentors of the Puritan and the reformation age.
Predestination to him was a great theme to be preached. One New England scholar has asserted that after reading hundreds of sermons by New England Puritans he felt qualified to say that the cardinal Calvinistic doctrine of predestination was not stressed by them, and denied that they were predestinarian Calvinists, that for them salvation lay within the reach of every person who made an effort, that Christ helped those who helped themselves.20 Not so Willard, nor perhaps many others. The decree of God, declared Willard, was absolute, not conditional; the conditions between things were not undetermined, but fixed, and the media of His decree. The decree was eternal, involved all things, foreordained them so that they passed from possibility to futurition, and was made freely according to His counsel and sovereign good pleasure, with His own glory its ultimate aim. Willard was no fatalist or necessitarian, however, for though the decree was unalterable and not frustrable, he declared, “yet this Will lays no forcible Necessity on the Creature; but only a Certainty as to the Event. . . . The Freedom of Causes by Counsel . . . [is not] . . . infringed by it, but ratified, because in it God purposes that Free Agents shall act freely.” Look not too much at “instruments,” therefore, he exhorted his congregation, but adore God’s wisdom in all that transpires, and so bid farewell to anxiety.21
As one might expect, Willard’s soteriological interest is evident in that he preached more on special than on general predestination. While heeding the reformers’ caveat against over-inquisitiveness into the hidden ways of God, he felt that this was meant to minister consolation to God’s people, and since not all were to be saved there was good reason “for everyone of us to give the more diligent heed to make sure that we be found among this number.”22 The method he recommended was the common one, the a posteriori, analytic, syllogistic method that reasoned from its evidences in one’s life.
In underscoring God’s determination of the means to this end, Willard deliberately involved himself in the great seventeenth century controversy between supra- and infralapsarians. The latter, he charged, mistakenly “fix the decree of Election upon the corrupt mass of mankind in the state of apostacy, making that the object of it, and so exclude all which went before from any consideration in Election.” Aligning himself with the more speculative supralapsarians such as Perkins and Twisse, he declared that God considered men “only as possible beings,” and then determined the principal “media” of realizing His grand end:
The means might be subordinate in execution, but they were coordinate, for “God did not intend one before the other, but all together.”23 “A man upon a high Tower,” Willard explained for the average listener,
That which was first in the divine intention was last in execution, “so that by Analysing the works of God we find the order of his Decrees.”24
What was the role of Christ in election? He was the means to bring it about, not its meritorious cause. “He bought us with a price, and he purchased heaven for us to be our possession; and redeemed us from the curse of the law, and satisfied Justice for our offences; but he did nothing to the purchasing of our Election: there was not buying of that at all.”25 Christ was not the foundation of election, as Arminians commonly declared, with grace in Christ being offered to all, making belief or unbelief the decisive factor. The historical evangelical idea — traceable through Wollebius and Calvin back to Augustine — was the true view: Christ was elected as head, and believers were elected in Christ.
“Our adversaries” grant that God knows who shall be saved, personally and individually, declared Willard; but this necessarily implied that He had foreappointed them, for all alike were naturally indisposed to receive the offers of grace. The subjects of election, then, were a “definite number” of particular persons, not hypothetically but absolutely foreappointed. How could one meet the opponents’ charge that this made God an unrighteous respecter of persons? Where a person is under no obligation he cannot be so charged, he answered. Election was like a bequest, an act of God’s sovereign pleasure and grace, “and he may bestow it where he will.” It was a doctrine “ungrateful to none that are converted.” Not to love the doctrine, therefore, was a sign of being unconverted. For believers it should be a cause for adoration and doxology: “How should it enflame, ravish, and engage our souls to him forever.”26
Election to him logically implied reprobation, and Romans 9:22 and 11:7 proved it — so, though the Shorter Catechism did not touch on it, he followed the lead of the Larger Catechism and the Confession of Faith and developed the idea at length in his catechism sermons. John Goodwin, the English Independent, denounced reprobation as an act of injustice, the act of a judge who would see to it that execution would “not be done with hempen, but with silken Halters.” To Willard it was an act of divine lordship, “the Predestination of a definite number of men for the manifestation of the glory of God’s revenging justice in them.” He predestined the means — desertion and condemnation — as well as the end. So it was not merely negative but also positive. Some divines, “to avoid the prejudices of men whose pride will not suffer them to acknowledge the sovereignty of God in this doctrine,” he said, “go about to make this Reprobation to be nothing else but a leaving or not chusing of them”; but it was foolish to “mince” here. It did not make the case of deserted sinners any better: “if God leave them, under sin and guilt, they must needs come under condemnation.” Yet Arminians, as people of ancient times (Ezekiel 33:10; Romans 9:19), Willard charged, “seek to load the doctrine with reproach, and tell the world that we teach that God made some men on purpose to damn them.” But this was calumny: reprobation was not the cause of the sin for which the sinner is damned; God intended to damn none but for sin. “No man is doomed to hell and destruction, because he was reprobated, but because he was a sinner and deserved it.” This is why the doctrine was to be preached, that sinners might be roused. But those uncertain of their everlasting estate were not to conclude themselves reprobates, for there was no Scriptural rule to do so. Nor should anyone become passive in the use of the means of grace, Willard declared: “there is an who knows, concerning you.” But to the faithful assured of their election he also raised a monitory finger: “Remember there did but the Sheers go between you and others.” It was a matter of doxology, therefore.
What God had sovereignly determined in eternity came to pass in time. There was creation, man made in the image of God, furnished with a stock of original sanctification, the bidding fair for happiness. “But behold,” declared Willard, “the next News is, Man is fallen and undone.” By this fall man lost all power and ability to keep the divine law and to be happy, he was deprived of his initial inherent sanctification, and no good thing was left remaining in him.28 Willard therefore preached total depravity, and his Augustinian and Reformed heritage came out in nineteen sermons in a two-year period devoted to an exposition of this federal doctrine of original sin.
How was this apostasy and loss of primitive holiness brought about? The catechism’s statement about the abuse of the freedom of the will was obviously too simple for Willard, so he led his auditors through an involved treatment of the differentiation divines commonly made between blameless and blameable causes. Blameless were the law of the first covenant, the decree of God, and the permissive providence of God. The law of God, rather than necessitating or causing the fall, only occasioned the fall as man opposed it. The foreordaining decree was an “antecedent” rather than a cause, for man’s free will was not violated. The greatest difficulty, Willard had to confess, concerned God’s permissive providence, for it was “not a meer suspension or cessation of divine acting, as Arminians and Jesuits dream; but hath an energy or efficacy in all those things that are done by the creature, by divine permission.” So there was a “causal influence” in the action. But though God gave the trial command, ordered the temptation, provided the matter for the tempter to work upon, determined the event of the temptation, suspended His assistance, and influenced the act itself as a superior cause, yet God was morally blameless, explained Willard, for He did not command or persuade man by argument to sin (cf. Acts 2:23). The blame was to be attributed to causes instrumental (the devil — to whom he devoted two full sermons — the serpent, and the woman) and principal (Adam’s abuse of free will). Since God intended to advance His glory in man’s happiness by a covenant of grace rather than of works, He did not confirm him in his primitive state. Yet this had no compelling necessity on the fall: Adam, mutably good, sinned voluntarily in abusing his free will, transgressing in defect and excess.29
The act of our parents’ first sin terminated with them, he explained, but its consequent guilt and pollution were “propagated” or mediated to all, so that all suffer sin and death. He preached not only the Augustinian idea that Adam’s descendants were depraved because they participated by union with him in the first sin, but the federal doctrine that they were guilty because they participated representatively in the first sin. Everyone was born under imputed guilt, and (contrary to the allegation of some that federal Puritans nullified the Augustinian idea with their contractual emphasis) everyone’s whole nature was corrupt. Man, declared Willard, is a “creature utterly void of all goodness, and a seminary of all manner of abominations. . . . There is not the least part of any Theological good left in any of his posterity by nature.” This explained why children from the cradle took so readily to evil: “Original sin is the mother, and this is the fruitful progeny of it.” Just how this corruption was derived was one of the “deepest and most difficult” points of theology, Willard confessed, and all the arguments seemed obscure and unintelligible, but it was a Biblical “point of Faith” and consistent, he was sure, with the holiness and justice of God.30 And so by their actual conduct men rendered their sinful state even more dreadful, he warned, for if “one sin is enough to damn you, how deep then will you sink, by the weight of such a company of sins as you are heaping up?”31
Men desperately needed to have this doctrine preached to them, for their consequent misery was, privatively, loss of communion with God, His favor and the benefits of it, and positively, subjection to God’s wrath and curse, which included corporal and spiritual miseries in this life, death, and the pains of hell forever. God indeed manifested a common grace to the world, but unless sinners saw the misery of their condition they would not see the need and the preciousness of Christ. “Poor wretch!” he warned, “what dost thou mean? for a few nasty pleasures, to bring thy self into everlasting burnings?” In tones Jonathan Edwards was to use effectively a generation later Willard portrayed their fate: “you stand every moment upon the brink, and the least touch of God’s angry hand, will turn you over: . . . the youngest and healthiest sinner of you all, may be in hell before morning.” Yet Willard was not a sensationalist, nor a ranter striving for effect, much less a compromiser of orthodoxy appealing to the will of unregenerate man. God had prescribed the means as well as the end, and he earnestly pressed for human response to Christ. “Behold Him now coming to you in the offer of the Gospel, inviting you to come to Him, and promising you life if you do, Matt. 11.29.”32
Moving on to the third great point of Reformed orthodoxy, Willard declared:
The fall was the foil on which God intended to draw “in most lively colors the portraiture of his rich grace” in the incarnate and redeeming Christ. But the atonement, explained Willard, was particular, not universal. Arminians proclaimed that God was minded to save through the death of Christ all who exercised their wills to believe, and the English Independent John Goodwin asserted that “squadrons” and “legions” of Scripture passages spoke of the “universality of Redemption by Christ.”33 Willard distinctly emphasized, however, that all mankind does not actually participate in the restitution (II Thessalonians 1:9; 2:11), for not only do a great many to whom this favor is offered reject it finally, God never intended or made provision in the Covenant of Redemption for the restitution of all. Reiterating many of the points he had scored against George Keith on the “all” passages of Scripture and on reprobation, he went on to state that to suppose that God had done all He could for their recovery, and that they damned themselves whether He willed or not, was directly contrary to scriptural passages about Him and the properties of the divine nature. The agreed price of redemption was for a numerous but certain number, not so many “in gross,” but for “these and those by count and name.” We have no reason to believe, said Willard, “that Christ would die for those for whom he would not pray. Joh. 17.9.” Even the common distinction between sufficient and effectual redemption he thought was “very improper,” “for though it is a great truth, that there is enough in the price that was paid to have purchased the whole number of mankind, yet to call that a Redemption which was never intended for, nor applied to the subject, is scarce intelligible.” To him there was consistency among the constituent roles of redemption. “God’s election, Christ’s Redemption, and the Spirit’s Application, carry on the same design; and consequently have the same subject.” But this was not a cause for despair.
Hope is the very life of endeavor; . . . and hope can gather spirits
“Strive to enter,” was the Saviour’s advice, and “if you find your hearts moved with an apprehension of your own great misery, and wrought to a willingness to comply with the only remedy, in the Gospel way,” he exhorted, “be not discouraged, you are in a fair way to be one of that little flock; Christ hath said, if you come to him, he will not cast you off.”34
A question of absorbing interest to Puritans was how a person became a Christian. To them it was a dynamic and dramatic experience, but it required careful definition, for by neglecting certain Scriptures, deviants went astray in all directions. The sinner’s regeneration and conversion, Willard affirmed with the divines of Dordt and Westminster, was accomplished by the triumph of divine grace in the soul, by the irresistible grace of God. It followed logically from predestination and depravity. Redemption itself put no one into the state of salvation, it had to be applied and “made ours.” God did this through the covenant of grace, by way of compliance with necessary terms, but these terms were wrought in man by the Holy Spirit through the instrumentality of the Word. Though God used moral and persuasive means with His reasonable creatures, the power to discern the excellency of the truth and choose Christ came from the superior agent, “because in the doing of it the blind mind must be illumined, and the rebellious heart subdued, Acts 26.18. And this they cannot do of themselves.”35
Basic to this was the mystical union with Christ, rooted in the love of God in the council of redemption, and subjectively realized within the relationship of the covenant of grace by the Holy Spirit. It was a “very mysterious, and most abstruse” doctrine (next to that of the hypostatical union of the two natures of Christ), explained Willard, and so in preaching it he waived the “divers niceties” of the scholars and accommodated himself to “vulgar capacities.” The Holy Spirit brought this union about by illuminating the understanding with persuasive arguments, planting saving grace in the soul, and motivating the soul to embrace Christ by faith.36
A point of sharp dispute at the time was the role of human preparatory work in all this. If enthusiasts would have none of it, and Arminians allowed far too much to it, Reformed scholars generally preferred to call such acts precedent rather than preparatory. True, such Puritan stalwarts as Perkins and Ames had also spoken about man’s real preparation to conversion, and Willard acknowledged that there were many debates among the orthodox about whether this was a common or a saving work, yet he hoped that these controversies were “rather about terms, than the thing.” All the orthodox agree, he observed, that a “new power” had to be put in man in order to believe in Christ, that in view of man’s debility this could only be produced by the Spirit of God, that in this production He used means with reasonable creatures, and that He addressed Himself not only to those effectively called but also to others who develop “contritions, compunctions, convictions, &c” that never issue in the new birth. Some called this common preparatory work. But if preparatory work was understood to mean preparing and disposing the person for actual believing, this was “doubtless a saving work,” declared Willard. Hence, he concluded,
Willard did not, therefore, as Perry Miller contends, go easily with the tide toward Arminianism in expanding the limits of natural ability by attributing to man a greater role in redemption.38 He vigorously resisted it.
Some also “very mistakenly” considered the external call “Grace Sufficient,” declared Willard. A blind man needed not a candle, however, but restored sight! And men spiritually dead needed more than illumination, they needed the Spirit’s internal operation and the infusion of new life. The renewal of the will was the important work of the Spirit, Willard was eager to emphasize, for “eager Patrons of Free-Will” had filled the world with “unhappy disputes” about this work. He did not pursue at length the question whether the will and the understanding were two distinct faculties or one with distinct powers (“our knowledge of the nature of our own Souls is very shallow and confused,” he confessed), but since judgment and election were two distinct operations of faith he inferred two diverse powers in the soul. Both were depraved, however, and had to be restored alike. Thus in His renewing work the Spirit enlightened the understanding, gave the will an “irresistable spontaneity” to choose Christ, and put a “new spring” in the affections to embrace Him. Effectual calling was complete when man responded in the act of faith — faith as an effect of regeneration, not its cause. But even after one was in possession of this active principle synergism was out, for the Spirit always upheld, excited, and assisted the graces of the believer. Would you then not be deceived in your hopes, cautioned Willard, “take heed of building on a sandy bottom; . . . You see what it is to be a Believer.”39
The fifth great point followed logically: “once in Christ . . . ever so.” The Augustinian-Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints was a common target for Arminians, as Keith exemplified, and to it Willard devoted five catechism sermons in 1699. The people of God could have assurance of their eternal state and they were to strive for it, he declared. There was an assurance of state, based on the inwrought condition that entitled one to the promise. But especially there was the assurance of knowledge, “when this state is discerned by us, and we can argue from it, to our safety.” This assurance was gained by “self-reflection,” in which the eye of the mind “doth not go out to the Promise, but in to find the application of the Promise.” In this too the Spirit leads the soul to the Word.
The adjuvant instrumentality of the Word afforded certain ground for self-reflection in the first proposition of the syllogism, and the Spirit as the “supream Efficient” clarified this indited Word to the discerning understanding, enabled one to compare himself with it, and finally gave His own testimony to the soul. The result was full assurance of everlasting well-being. The assurance of one’s good estate was never lost, but the confidence of one’s assurance of knowledge varied as one’s evidences were obscured by sin or self-examination was neglected. The highest assurance needed strengthening, yet even though there were doubtings there could be “infallible assurance,” provided one made the “endeavors” to secure it, for God worked not immediately but through means.40
This benefit of perseverance made all other blessings “happifying,” for if a believer were to fall from grace he would lose all — “Justification, Adoption, Assurance, and everything.” According to the catechism it was a privilege conferred upon them (I Peter 1:5); to Willard it was also a responsibility. “The Spirit of God, in persevering us, helps us to our duty of Perseverance.” But far from conceiving of this synergistically, as Arminians did in making faith and grace mutually exclusive and limiting elements in salvation, he emphasized the divine role. Perseverance was, in sum,
Grace was initiated, sustained, and perfected in the believer by the Spirit, who enjoined the use of means not as the “antecedent condition” of perseverance but as the means for promoting it. Grace was not self-sustaining: it was opposed by residual corruption within and attacked by formidable enemies without (Ephesians 6:12; I Peter 5:8); life therefore was a constant struggle.41
But though the believer might fall grievously, prompting those of “corrupt principles” to defend “the pernicious Doctrine of Apostacy of saints,” he could fall from grace “neither totally nor finally,” explained Willard. “Those who are once in Christ by Faith, shall never fall out of him again, because he will not suffer it to be so.” Perseverance was grounded in Christ’s covenant faithfulness — in His obligation to the Father in the covenant of redemption (John 6:39), and in His engagement to believers in the covenant of grace (John 3:16). This only encouraged licentiousness and carelessness, opponents of the doctrine charged. It was actually an encouragement, answered Willard. But he used the criticism to challenge the members of South Church.
Thus perseverance, as Willard preached it, was no mere logical deduction apart from living faith. Doctrine and life, grace and faith, divine activity and human response, preservation and perseverance were closely and vitally related, though men’s hopes ultimately rested only in the grace of God.
An incipient moralism was subtly supplanting New England piety as the social and religious revolution gained momentum by the turn of the century, and on May 23, 1700, Willard preached a sermon on “Morality Not to be Relied on for Life.” Men owed moral obedience to God, he agreed, and with the assistance of the Spirit one could go a long way in improving his natural powers. And outward conformity to the law was not only a service to mankind, it might be an advantage to oneself, even to his eternal felicity. But morality alone still left one under the curse of eternal death, for it lacked the one important thing — covenant saving faith. Perfection was impossible for fallen man, and imperfect obedience was acceptable only in the new covenant in which the requisite was saving faith, faith that made one aware of insufficiency, and drove one to Christ for pardon and the strength to perform the new obedience as a “thank offering” to God.43
How careful ministers ought to be, therefore, in “preaching up moral duties,” he declared,
To him nothing did more to undermine Christianity than putting moral duties into a kind of legal dress and commending them as the “Graces of our Christian Religion.” To do this without pointing out what was lacking was to be an “enemy of Grace” and a murderer of souls, and he would not have “such a Ministers account to give in the last day for a thousand worlds.” Pride in man wanted to get credit for something, he warned, scoring the “flesh pleasing Doctrines that are at this day vended on this account.” Social forces were obviously influencing religious life, and Willard was trying to stem the tide. “You live among men very Soberly & Abstemiously,” he told his prosperous parishioners,
The foil for such preaching was the haut monde of the new world who lived lives of frivolous and wicked extravagance. Willard’s Boston congregation was made up of many merchant families whose social level was rising with their economic successes. With the tightening of royal control on the province and the increase of officialdom the Anglican Church was growing, and many merchants were becoming sympathetic to the Church of England, some were even switching ties to join this communion. An inevitable concomitant was the growth of Arminian sentiment, and Willard fought to hold the line.
An Anglican Arminian Attack
George Keith, now an Anglican, precipitated another quarrel with Willard in 1703. The year before this former Quaker had returned to Boston as an equally fiery missionary for the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts.45 The very first Sunday after his arrival he had declared to a “large auditory” at Queen’s Chapel that one of his aims in coming was “to heal up the breach [among Protestants] if possible and be a Peace Maker,”46 which he hoped to accomplish, it seems, by imposing upon New England the usages and polity of the Anglican Church! The next year he and his associates “chanced” to arrive in Cambridge at the time of the college commencement, and listened to the academic disputation on the question of predestination and free will. The thesis debated contained two propositions: that the divine decree was immutable, and that the reasonable creature enjoyed a liberty which was not destroyed by this. Ten days later Keith sent Willard an expostulatory letter in Latin, which Willard declined to answer as “rude & undigested talk, and a ripping up of some trite and vulgar railleries against the Orthodox Doctrine.” Written in Latin it could do no harm, he felt, for learned men would recognize its weaknesses if it fell into their hands. But when Keith printed an English translation of it as A Refutation of a dangerous & hurtful Opinion maintained by Mr. Samuel Willard, Willard yielded to the pressure of friends (apprehensive about the popular rumor that Keith’s arguments were unanswerable) and published a Brief Reply to Mr. George Keith. Since Keith had not only attacked him, but had “fouly represented . . . the Academy . . . as . . . a Nursery of Error,” hoping that it could be reformed to resemble her mother in Cambridge, England, Willard sought to give a “fair account” of the matter.47
Keith was a disingenuous controversialist who had long ago learned to practice the Machiavellian rule “fortiter calumniare, aliquid haerebit,” said Willard; but the revilings of some men were a credit rather than a reproach. His “refutation” was really a misnomer, it offered no convincing demonstration. The thesis Keith objected to had been debated philosophically according to the principles of natural theology, explained Willard, and all Christian academies agreed on the profitableness of such logical disputations. As to the subject, the consistency of the reality and immutability of the decree with unimpeded human freedom was maintained by the greatest Protestant divines, asserted in the confessions of faith, and even strenuously defended by Dominicans against Jesuits. When Arminians like Keith obviously “seek to overthrow the Doctrine of the Absolute Decree, that so they may establish an uncontrollable Sovereignty in the Will of man,” said Willard, “we are bound as industriously to withstand them.” Reconciliation of the two conceptions of the disputation was difficult, he admitted, but being Scriptural they could be reasonably considered consistent, and it was commendable to seek to demonstrate it.48 Willard’s arguments were the same offered in his sermons — the decree was hypothetically necessary, not man’s sin but his actions were determined, God concurred in every operation of second causes as the immediate principle and whole cause of every action and effect of the creature — and he pressed them with logical skill and gleeful sarcasm. Considering all the facts, only one conclusion was tenable: “the origine and cause of the Necessity of the first sin, is more to be derived from God than from man himself,” yet the whole blame of sin is due to Adam, for in his apostasy he used his own free will in voluntarily transgressing the command. Keith’s eagerness to suppress this doctrine, said Willard, was a “notable engine” of Arminianism to subvert the truth and make the people of New England an easy prey to disseminators of “Pelagianism, Socinianism, and Jesuitism.”49 For good measure Willard threw in an appendix which blew Keith’s charge of novelty to bits with a broadside from the writings of Anglican bishops Davanant and Prideaux and the creedal articles of the Church of England.50
Keith replied the following year with An Answer to Mr. Samuel Willard, a weak rebuttal in which he complained of unjust treatment and accused Willard of teaching Hobbism and Stoical necessity.51 Willard doubtlessly recognized the futility of continuance and let his case rest without further reply. Keith on the other hand, confided that the controversy had had an excellent effect “in quieting the minds of many People in these parts and bringing them over to the Church.”52
Arminianism continued to grow, as Jonathan Edwards observed a generation later. Yet this stalwart Calvinist and many others grew up in a tradition of orthodoxy that Samuel Willard, perhaps more than any other among the New England Puritans of the seventeenth century, had helped to preserve. Ebenezer Pemberton was right — Willard’s whole ministry jealously guarded the honor of sovereign grace.53
Samuel Willard: the son of a military and political leader, and destined to become one of the most important preachers among the second generation of New England Puritans, was born in 1640 at Concord, Massachusetts. Trained in orthodoxy at Harvard College, he graduated in 1659, and was the only member of his class to go on for an M.A. degree. Her served two churches (Groton and Boston's South Church), played a leading role in the Reforming Synod of 1679, and at the end of his life was acting president of Harvard. Willard was also influential in halting the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, and in promoting the historic fast day four years later. He died in the year 1707.
Seymour Van Dyken: was educated at Calvin Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary, receiving his Th.D degree from the latter institution in 1963. He has held several pastorates in the Christian Reformed denomination. He has taught at Calvin College, Calvin Theological Seminary, and Grand Rapids Junior College. In addition, he has written a number of articles for religious journals and magazines.
This article is taken from Van Dyken's book, Samuel Willard: Preacher of Orthodoxy in an Era of Change, Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids: 1972, pp. 98-121).
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