Proto-Puritan William Tyndale (6)

His Theology of Justification Considered

In our last post, we looked at William Tyndale’s foundational theology of the Word of God. In this post, we make a start on his theology of justification. Next time, we will consider his dependence upon and departure from both Augustine and Luther on this key doctrine. 

Let’s review what I mentioned in earlier posts: First, Tyndale believed that we are justified by faith in Christ alone apart from good works. Second, we are justified through the blood of Christ who makes “amends” for our imperfect hearts. Third, justification occurs through the work of the Spirit, which entails a renovative or transformative view of justification. Such thoughts need considerable clarification.

We begin with a key summary statement on justification in Tyndale’s Testament of William Tracy Expounded(1535): “Faith justifieth thee; that is, bringeth remission of all sins, and setteth thee in the state of grace before all works, and getteth thee power to work before thou couldst work.” Let’s open this up!

First, justification can be summed up as the “remission” or the forgiveness “of sins.” This sounds like he limits justification to a declarative pardon or what theologians call the non-imputation of sin, a view common in the early stages of the English Reformation. Indeed, Tyndale equates justification with pardon when he says that Christ came to “justify us, or purchase us pardon of our sins” (Prologue upon the Three Epistles of St John, 1526). Still, for Tyndale, this does not denote a forensic declaration founded on the substitutionary work of Christ. 

Tyndale, like Augustine and early Luther (not without differences), refers to justification as being “made righteous.” In The Exposition of the First Epistle of Saint John (1531), Tyndale speaks of one “made righteous” or “born anew in Christ,” the Spirit having “healed his heart.” For Tyndale, faith (as a gift of the Spirit) “is our righteousness” (The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, 1527), which does not mean faith is reckoned or imputed as righteous. Instead, faith is our sufficient justifying righteousness by way of a graciously and Spirit-renovated heart. By faith, then, remaining sin is continually remitted through the blood of Christ in the justified-forgiven believer. Tyndale gives priority to the work of the Spirit who makes us righteous through faith and by the cleansing blood of Christ. 

We find such themes coming together in a key passage in The Sermon on the Mount: An Exposition of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Chapters of Matthew (1532), which by no means clears up uncertainties about Tyndale’s position:

[W]hen I say faith justifieth, the understanding is, that faith receiveth the justifying. God promiseth to forgive us our sins, and to impute us for full righteous. And God justifieth us actively: that is to say, forgiveth us, and reckoneth us for full righteous. And Christ’s blood deserveth it; and faith in the promise receiveth it, and certifieth the conscience thereof . . . Now at the first covenant-making with God, and as oft as we be reconciled, after we have sinned, the righteousness cometh of God altogether. But after the atonement is made and we reconciled, then we be partly righteous in ourselves and unrighteous; righteous as far as we love, and unrighteous as far as the love is unperfect. And faith in the promise of God, that he doth reckon us for full righteous, doth ever supply that unrighteousness and imperfectness, as it is our whole righteousness at the beginning.

If we took this passage by itself, we might conclude that Tyndale affirms forensic justification by claiming God imputes or reckons us as “full righteous” on the basis of justifying faith. Yet, in the one “reconciled” or justified, remaining sin is overcome by the righteousness that “cometh of God altogether” by Christ’s satisfaction through faith. Such faith “is our whole righteousness at the beginning” and not simply that which is declared our righteousness. Thus, it does not appear that Tyndale uses the terms “impute” or “reckon” forensically. Instead, faith, as Christ’s Spirit-wrought gift, is constitutively our ongoing perfect righteousness continually cleansed of unrighteous imperfections by the blood of Christ. As Ralph Werrell clearly attests in The Roots of William Tyndale’s Theology (2013) and The Blood of Christ in Theology of William Tyndale (2015), Christ’s blood provides the key to understanding Tyndale’s views on justification.

By way of this Spirit-instilled faith-righteousness and the distinct partial-yet-overcome righteousness developing out of it, I hear echoes of Martin Luther’s early sermon Two Kinds of Righteousness (1519) where he makes a distinction between the “instilled” (yes, non-forensic!) and “alien righteousness” of Christ received by faith alone “not all at once” (yes, he says that!) and the proper yet imperfect righteousness of believers arising out of it. Yet, some key differences emerge, which we will discuss more in the next post. For now, we should note that, for Tyndale, this Spirit-wrought justification occurs instantly, not progressively, at the moment of saving faith. For example, in the same passage cited above from Mammon, Tyndale sees works as fruits in those who “were justified” already, a theme highlighted in several of his writings. 

Second, coming back to The Testament, justification occurs by faith alone “before all works.” While the “alone” is not explicit here, it is implied, and clearly stated elsewhere. For example, in his prologue to the Johannine epistles, Tyndale speaks of being justified by faith and foundationally by Christ through “his works only, and with his blood-shedding, without and before all our works.” It should be noted, that in calling attention to Christ’s works, Tyndale does not allude to the active obedience of Christ but a life that is ultimately related to the work of satisfaction for sin as a perfect sacrifice. Also, in his Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue (1531), Tyndale defends justification by “faith alone” against More’s distortion of the Reformation position. Thus, Tyndale is quick to affirm that “alone” does not mean “without all other company” in terms of God’s Spirit and the virtues that attend his work. 

Third, and arising out of what we just observed, Tyndale says in The Testament that faith apart from works gets us “power to work.” This fits with the idea that faith is our righteousness from which all other righteous works flow. So, Tyndale attests in Mammon, “Neither do our works justify us: for except we were justified by faith, which is our righteousness, and had the Spirit of God in us, to teach us, we could do no good work freely.” These works flow necessarily from faith, which is “shewed” by the works. Thus, by works we “justified before the world” or affirmed as those “justified before God” (Prologue of James, 1526). Tyndale states the link between faith and works quite pungently in Mammon, where he asserts, “if works follow not, it is a sure and an evident sign, that there is no faith in the heart; but a dead imagination and dream, which they falsely call faith.”

In the end, Tyndale’s views on justification remain a little murky, with regeneration and justification and (to some extent) sanctification—later that century so carefully distinguished among the Reformed—somewhat conflated. Still, at some points, it seems like a forensic view on justification, at least in relation to the passive obedience of Christ, wants to break through. Furthermore, I believe that Tyndale’s emphasis on foundational role of Christ’s work of satisfaction contributes to the emergence of the mature Westminster doctrine of justification by faith alone expressed in the following century. Remember, refined theological distinctions did not take precedence in early Reformed thought. Likewise, he was denied further deliberation when his life came to an abrupt end in 1536, with the English Reformation only in its early stages. One hears the voice of both Augustine and Luther in Tyndale, but not without the English reformer's unique contribution. Such dependence and departure we will consider in the next post.

Previous Posts:
  1. Life in England
  2. Life in Exile
  3. His Translation Work
  4. His Writings
  5. His Theology of the Word

Bob McKelvey (@mckelvrj) is an OPC minister and serves as the Director of Research and Dean of Students at the Greystone Theological Institute. He is the author of Histories that Mansoul and Her Wars Anatomize: The Drama of Redemption in John Bunyan’s Holy War and a contributor to Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism. In connection with his Bunyan studies, he has written an allegory of his own, one for children: Nutonius from Acornshire.

Bob McKelvey