Previous article in this series: May 15 2020, p. 378.
Last time we explained that justification—including the assurance and experience of justification—is by faith and not by works. Although we made fine distinctions among justification, the assurance of it, and the experience of it, they are all fundamentally one. The experience and assurance of justification in one’s consciousness is justification.
Justification is a forensic or legal concept that takes us into the courtroom—not an earthly courtroom of man, but the divine courtroom of heaven, where everything speaks of perfect righteousness. Come, now, into the august courtroom of God and it will become even clearer that our good works are of no account toward our justification, and therefore, we do not look to our good works to find assurance that we are righteous before God.
The most impressive sight in the courtroom is God the righteous Judge. The earth shakes, the foundations of the hills are moved, and thick smoke and devouring fire break forth before Him (Psalter 34, stanza 4). The holy angels catch a glimpse of the glory of God’s stunning majesty and they cover their eyes with their wings and cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” (Is. 6:3). When an angel departs from the immediate presence of God and visits a man on earth, that messenger come down from heaven must always declare “Fear not!” for even the holiest of men is troubled and feels exposed before that mere creature that reflects only a little of the glory of God’s holiness (Luke 1:8-13). Sinners tremble before angels! But angels are not the ones with whom we have to do. God is. The God of infinite holiness and unbending justice is the One who judges us. No wonder Isaiah cried, after beholding the King of heaven, “Woe is me! For I am undone.” (Is. 6:5), and the guilt-stricken publican dared not lift his eyes toward heaven but cried for mercy (Luke 18:13), and Job exclaimed, “If I be wicked, woe unto me, and if I be righteous, yet will I not lift up my head” (Job. 10:15). No one can answer to God’s perfect righteousness. Not for one moment can anyone in the courtroom keep God out of his thoughts. Each sinner stands trembling in his sins and sinfulness, shielding his eyes from the awesome and blinding brilliance of the Holy One.
Next, there is the law of God as the standard according to which God judges every man and renders a verdict. The law requires perfect righteousness, so that those who are under it must conform perfectly to its every demand in their very nature and in every thought, word, and deed. The law demands love (Matt. 22:37), and the courtroom reverberates with that demand, “Give to God an absolutely perfect heart and life so that every imagination of your heart, every desire of your soul, every thought of your mind, every word that proceeds out of your mouth, and every action you perform is perfectly devoted unto God in love.” With the law, God searches out the sinner in His courtroom and probes deeply into the inner recesses of the heart, drawing forth even the secret things unknown to the sinner himself (Ps. 19:12). For those who have perfect righteousness and are in harmony with the law, it declares “Blessed!” But for the slightest moral taint of nature or for the slightest inclination contrary to God’s will, the law declares, “Guilty and cursed!” (Gal. 3:10). Justice demands that every transgression committed against God’s most high majesty be punished with extreme, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul in hell (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23; Matt. 25:3146, Heid. Cat., LD 4, Q&A 11).
Now look at yourself. As far as justification goes, all who stand in the courtroom of perfect righteousness— believers and unbelievers alike—are ungodly (Rom. 4:5). There is no man of righteousness, man of goodness, man of excellence, man of virtue, or man of obedience. There are no holy works that are of any value to the offending party, for “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Is. 64:6). There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, a worshiper of Jehovah and a worshiper of Belial, a murderous Cain and an obedient Abel, a profane Herod and a pious John, a shameless heretic and a faithful pastor. All are ungodly, and all are convicted in their conscience that they are ungodly and “have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God” (Heid. Cat., LD 23, Q&A 60). You, in the courtroom of justification, are far from being perfect. You are ungodly and with all men stand condemned (Rom. 3:19-23).
For the believing sinner, who is ungodly in himself and stands guilty in the divine courtroom, there can be no more blessed and reassuring sight than the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. He is perfectly righteousness; His name is “THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” (Jer. 23:6). He is “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens (Heb. 7:26). His nature is “without blemish and without spot” (I Pet. 1:19). His blood is precious (I Pet. 1:19), because it justifies (Rom. 5:9), washes away sin (I John 1:7; Rev. 1:7), purges the conscience (Heb. 9:14), makes white (Rev. 7:14), redeems (Col. 1:14, Rev. 5:9), and makes a way into the presence of God (Eph. 2:13; Heb. 10:19). His death is a once for all offering to bear away sins (Heb. 9:28) and reconcile ungodly sinners unto God (Rom. 5:6-10). His curse that He bore, He bore for His own and bore it away (Gal. 3:13). His life, lived under the law (Gal. 4:4), was a life of perfect works (Heb. 10:7) that fulfilled every jot and tittle of the law (Matt. 5:17-18). His obedience is perfect and by it many are constituted as righteous (Rom. 5:19). His righteousness, it is the righteousness of God that avails before God for the deliverance of the whole world of elect mankind (II Cor. 5:21, John 1:29). His heart, it is a perfect heart of perfect love for God, even in the darkest hour of utter desolation on the cross (Matt. 27:46). All who are arrayed in the righteousness of the Lamb have no fear of death or hell (Heb. 2:9-15), and no one in the universe can lay anything to their charge (Rom. 8:33-34).
In justification, God the Judge pronounces the gracious verdict and it is received by the believer in true faith. No word could be sweeter. “Righteous!” The absolutely perfect righteousness of Christ, namely, His perfect obedience in fulfilling the will of God and suffering the penalty of God’s law, is imputed to the believer (Rom. 4:22-24). On the ground of that perfect righteousness, the believer, who is ungodly in himself, is pronounced righteous. He is free from the curse of the law. He is entitled to everlasting life with God. By faith, the believing, ungodly sinner in the courtroom looks away from himself and all his works that he accounts as dung (Phil. 3:8). By faith, he sees Jesus (Heb. 2:9) and looks only to Jesus, who is not only the Author and Finisher of his faith (Heb. 12:2) but also his righteousness before God (Rom. 3:22). In Jesus, God is able “to present us faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 1:24).
And, now, a question
How could anyone find or dare to attempt to find their justification—which includes the assurance of their justification—in their good works, in the worthiness of their faith, in the principle of holiness within their heart, or in anything else in them?
First, to look to our works for justification—which includes the assurance of justification—is not only a haughty act of pride, but it is to give to good works a function they do not and cannot have. To make good works any part of the ground upon which we stand for our confidence before God and His law is to heap upon good works an impossible task that those poor works were never designed to accomplish. It is like building a house on a foundation of watermelons instead of rocks. Fruits are good. In salvation also, fruits are good and have many good purposes, but they are not designed to be the ground of or part of what supports our assurance that we are faultless in the presence of God’s glory.
Second, should we look to our works for justification—which includes the assurance of justification—we look away from Christ, who is the end of the law for righteousness (Rom. 10:4). When we look away from Christ to our works, we do so exactly at that moment when God in the gospel sets forth Christ in all of His matchless beauty as our propitiation and righteousness through faith in His blood (Rom. 3:25-26). How provoking to God when sinners look to establish their own righteousness, not submitting to His (Rom. 10:3).
Third, to look to our works for justification—which includes the assurance of our justification—is at best a serious (hopefully ignorant) minimization of, and at worst a deadly and intentional assault upon the glorious reality of justification itself. There is nothing like justification. There is reason that the apostle Paul anathematizes those who pervert this doctrine (Gal. 1:6-9), that the whole sixteenth-century Reformation turned on this doctrine, and that the saints respond with vigorous objections when this doctrine is subverted in the least. Justification, which is the heart of the gospel, is simply astounding! When God justifies me, the ungodly sinner, He declares that I am absolutely perfect before His law so that He finds no fault in me! In justification, it is “as if I never had had nor committed any sin, yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me” (Heid. Cat., LD 23, Q&A 60)! Good works can help assure me of my status before God if justification is some measly inconsequential favor, such as God’s pronouncement that I am decent, basically good, or not quite so ungodly. But that is not justification! Justification is God’s legal pronouncement: “As to your legal status, you are perfect—absolutely perfect.” You and I will never come to that most astonishing conclusion of the gospel when we stand exposed before the awesome and penetrating gaze of the Judge in the courtroom and look at our works, even the very best of our works. Our only assurance of that blessed reality of our justification is found in the Lamb of God.
Fourth, to look to our works for justification—which includes the assurance of justification—is to lose assurance. To teach that good works are of no account toward our justification but yet they function to assure the believer of his justification is to deny justification exactly where it is most precious. In the hour of temptation, when my standing before God is called into question, how can I boldly say to the accuser of the brethren, “Who shall lay anything to my charge?” when I look to my works? In the hour of temptation, when I franticly look at myself and what is within me in hopes of quieting my raging conscience, I cannot find anything to clear and soothe my conscience, much less, satisfy the God who is greater than my heart and knows all things. My peace is in Christ, the Beloved in whom I am accepted.
Justification is by faith alone.
But does not the Heidelberg Catechism connect assurance and good works in Lord’s Day 32? To that we turn next time.