John Cotton: Union with Christ and the Spirit’s Divine Light
John Cotton, the teaching elder in Boston’s First Church, was the sole theological mind (until John Davenport’s arrival in New England) to whom the Antinomians claimed allegiance. However, he was not antinomian himself; rather, his theological viewpoints were misunderstood and misrepresented by both friends and enemies so that they became caricatured. His theological statements on the issue of the believer’s assurance of salvation revealed that he was Christocentric; his emphasis was on union with Christ as the first basis of assurance. Next, he emphasized a testamental view of the federal theology, placing great emphasis upon the “absolute” promises, almost to the denigrating of “conditional” promises. Finally, he did have a place for Christian practice in assurance of faith; however, works were assigned a confirmatory, or secondary, role in the assurance of a believer.
At the height of the Antinomian Controversy, in response to the “Elder’s Reply,” a short response to his answers of sixteen doctrinal questions posed by the New England clergy, Cotton issued a lengthy rebuttal, now called “Mr. Cotton’s Rejoynder.” One historian called his tract “the most important exposition of Cotton’s theology at the time of the Controversy.” In it, he developed union with Christ as the first basis of assurance by stating that all the promises of justification and sanctification are made directly to Christ; saints participate in these promises only as they are united to Christ: “Indeed all the promises are made first and imediately to Christ, and by right of our union with him they come to be communicated to us in a way of faith and Sanctification.”
For Cotton, this was the difference between the Mosaic Law (which he identified with the Covenant of Works) and the Gospel (which he called the Covenant of Grace). In the Law, “the promise is made to the Condition or qualification of the creature.” If there was perfect obedience to the Law, satisfying the divine demand, then the individual could claim the promise of God. However, in the Gospel, “the promise is made to Christ, so that give me Christ and I claime my right to the promise and to all the comforts and blessings thereof.” Therefore, the promises of the Gospel were truly gracious “because all the promises are given to Christ, and all the conditions fulfilled in Christ, and the revealing of both is by the revealing of Christ given of grace freely to the Soul.” Gospel promises form the first and primary basis of the individual’s assurance of salvation. Since these promises belonged to Christ first and to the believer as she was in union with Christ, he taught that the believer should attempt to discern whether or not she was actually united to Christ. If there was union with Christ, then the conditional promises, such as faith or obedience, belonged automatically to that individual by virtue of union.
The entire discussion of conditional promises pointed to a second facet of Cotton’s understanding of the nature of true religion. That related to the entire milieu of covenant, or federal, theology. While some historians, led by Perry Miller, have presented a Puritan New England that was univocal in its development of covenant theology, recent studies have suggested a multivocal, or at least a bivocal, aspect to the theological discussion. The lines were generally drawn between those who emphasized the conditional promises of the covenant (the Intellectual Fathers) and those who clung to the absolute promises (the Spiritual Brothers).
Cotton stood in the theological tradition that emphasized the absolute promises of the covenant. He viewed salvation in terms of a testamental bequest, in which Christ as testator died, securing the benefits of God for his passive benefactors. Because salvation is “a free gift and confirmed by the death of the giver, it is more properly called a testament, not a covenant." Since salvation (or in the terms of the debate, justification) was a free gift, granted by the one who died to secure it, the receiver was completely passive upon reception. “Before regeneration we are not active at all,” he claimed, “no, nor in proxima potentia passive, to receive help from God to do it. But after Regeneration Acti agimus.”
For Cotton, the covenantal promises were absolute, ones only God in Christ can fulfill. God made these absolute promises to Christ, just as he made conditional promises in the New Covenant to Christ. Since all these promises were made to Christ, then it was incumbent on Christ to fulfill them; and because Christ did in fact fulfill these promises, only by virtue of union with him could the believer partake of them. He believed that union with Christ was required in order for human beings to gain salvific blessings. Not even assurance of the blessings of Christ’s grace could be “challenged” from God, except on the basis of union with Christ. Therefore, it was incumbent upon Christians ascertain that they are in fact united with Christ and then “plead [that] assured union” with Christ. Unless one had this prior, this first, assurance of union, no other evidence or sign, whether it be sanctification, works, or prayers, would be able to satisfy the anxious mind.
Although Cotton claimed that union with Christ was the basis of true religion, he left room for Christian practice, albeit in a secondary role. In answering the elders’ claim that he held “that we can see neither Sanctification nor faith no nor Justification, before the witness of the Spirit; but all at once by it,” he summarized his position on the role of Christian practice in the evidencing of salvation:
When the Spirit of God doth shed abroad his light into the Soul and giveth him a clear sight of his estate in a free promise of grace in Christ, such an one clearly discerneth both his Justification and his Sanctification the one of them giving good evidence to the other, the blood to the water and the water to the blood and the Spirit to them both, 1 John 5.6, 8. And thus in evidencing his Justification by his Sanctification he doth not build his justification upon his Sanctification nor hereby go in a Covenant of Works nor go aside to it.Cotton related Chrsitian practice to justification in two ways. First, he argued that the Spirit’s regenerating action occurred before practice, using the striking image of divine light. The Spirit opened “the eyes of the understanding” so that the individual apprehended “the mysteries of Gods kingdome” through a new understanding of “the Scriptures, and works of God in us.” Cotton held that “only by Spiritual light and by Spiritual understanding and by comparing Spirituall things with Spirituall things” could the believer understand the spiritual truth contained in the Gospel. The light that the Spirit gave to the soul was called “a gracious sight of him Christ] wrought by the Spirit of Grace” which caused the soul “to mourn after Christ or for him.” This gracious sight was given as the Spirit breathed into the Word of God giving it “Divine force” and making it “a divine testimony.” In this manner, “the same word that calleth them to Christ, giveth them in a renewed measure his Spirit of faith, by which they do come to Christ, and do drink in the satisfaction of their Souls in the full Assurance of his grace and righteousness freely given to them of God.” Thus, the condition to right appropriation of works’ evidence was fulfilled in the “divine and supernatural light” of the Spirit.
Second, Cotton believed that works provided evidence to assure the soul. However, it was only in the context of this new spiritual sight that sanctification could be discerned correctly. For within this context, the believer understood that she did not perform these works in her own strength and power, and in this manner evidenced salvation. Rather, the Spirit “himself [who] setteth faith awork and stirreth it up to look forth to Christ and to wait on him, who being waited on, quickeneth by his Spirit all our gifts in his name to bring forth fruits of righteousnes unto God.” The indwelling spirit of Christ was “the root of this tree”; by the “power of the Spirit” the tree bore fruit in active holiness. When the elders accused Cotton of denigrating works of sanctification, such as prayer, he replied, “My meaning therefore was not to beat men off the use of holy duties or from seeking the face of God and sight of Justification by Christ in the use of them, it being part of that way wherein himself hath appointed us to seek him in Christ.”
Cotton saw two potential dangers that could spring from the use of works in assurance of faith, dangers he sought to safeguard against by emphasizing the Spirit’s prior work. The first danger was that works had no promised blessing; rather, promised blessings belonged solely to Christ and to believers by virtue of union with Christ. The second danger was the abuse of works as an evidence of salvation. Cotton feared that the believer could become complacent in her Christian practice. He observed that “such an use of them [works] whereby I either seek to attaine right of the promised blessing by doing the duty which the promise calleth for, or else do satisfie myself in the comforts and enlargements I find in the duties” was not simply an use, but an abuse of sanctifying works. Christian practice should be done in a disinterested manner, not out of desired benefit, but rather for the glory of Christ.
He was also concerned that works might become the sole evidence for salvation. In responding to the elders, he claimed that “if a man neither give nor can give any other ground (as having indeed no other ground to give) of his justification but only the evidence of his Sanctification...their [sic] faith is not builded nor grounded at all upon the righteousness of Christ nor upon the free promise of grace wherein that righteousness is applied to us, but only upon their works.” To Cotton, practice must match up with a profession of spiritual life in the soul. Practice alone was a relation that was “either counterfeit or very suspicious” and much more likely “to be legal than Evangelical.”
It appears that there were several connections between Cotton and Edwards’ later development in Affections. Although Edwards does not quote from Cotton at all, ideas held by Cotton are represented in Affections, through the mediation of theologians such as Richard Sibbes and John Calvin. There was a parallel between Cotton's “light” and Edwards’ “new sense” (which Edwards represented elsewhere as a “divine and supernatural light immediately imparted to the soul by God”). There was also a parallel in the linking of divine light and practice. However, Cotton’s connection with Edwards was overshadowed by the fact that his opponent, Shepard, was quoted extensively by the Northampton divine while he was not quoted at all.