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Reformation Book Review – Justification by Buchanan

‘The Doctrine of Justification’ by James Buchanan

At the end of last year I was asked to read and review this book for a Christian paper. There can be no doubting the importance of the subject – and its significance for 2017 –but just who was James Buchanan?

Born in Paisley in the West of Scotland in 1804, Buchanan studied at the University of Glasgow before going on to hold parish ministries in Leith and Edinburgh. At the Disruption of 1843, he aligned himself with the Free Church of Scotland. He was soon

appointed to the Chair of Apologetics in New College, and later to that of Systematic Theology, a post he occupied for 21 years prior to retirement due to ill-health in 1868.

He died in 1870. Towards the end of his academic career, Buchanan had been invited to give the Cunningham Lectures. These addresses became, in printed form, the book under consideration, first published in 1867, reprinted several times, and now appearing again, for the 500th anniversary of Luther’s historic protest.

The key tenet of Luther’s theology was ‘justification by faith alone’ and there is no better exposition of that vital doctrine than Buchanan’s magnum opus.

The book has two main sections:

History of the Doctrine of Justification,

• and Exposition of the Doctrine of Justification.

The first part has chapters on the Old Testament, the Apostolic age, the Fathers, the Reformation, the reaction of Roman Catholicism, the doctrine in controversy, and in the Church of England – the last probably a little surprising in a work authored by a Presbyterian and a Scot, but it is a useful survey of how many in that body departed from Reformation truth.

The second part presents detailed analyses of justification in respect of its Scriptural meaning, the nature of its blessing, its relation to law and Divine justice and the mediatorial work of Christ, its ground, its relation to grace and works and its connection with faith, and its relation to the work of the Holy Spirit.

And there are 100 pages of detailed end-notes for the reader who wishes to delve deeper!

All in all it is a most comprehensive explanation of a doctrine that is at the very heart of the Gospel. While this book is unquestionably detailed – extending to almost 500 pages – it covers the ground at a good pace, and it is written in a warm and lucid style. Even though it appeared first 150 years ago, the substance of its content is not dated – it remains a vital corrective to the errors of this age. There is ‘nothing new under the sun’, and many ‘modern’ heresies are not so modern after all, merely old aberrations dressed in new clothes. So Buchanan’s work must still have its place in the library of anyone seriously interested in studying this subject.

Dr J I Packer gave this assessment of Buchanan back in the 1960’s: “His analysis of justification in relation to the whole divine economy is so supremely good. It is doubtful whether a better exposition of it exists.”

Fifty years have not rendered this verdict obsolete, and this book deserves to be read widely, not least this year.

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