In the Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter XV, we read: “To justify, in the apostle’s disputation touching justification, doth signify to remit sins, to absolve from the fault and the punishment thereof, to receive into favor, to pronounce a man just. For the apostle says to the Romans: ‘God is he that justifieth. Who is he that can condemn?’ (Rom. 8:33, 34). Here to justify and to condemn are opposed. And in the Acts of the Apostles the apostle says, ‘Through Christ is preached unto you forgiveness of sins: and from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses, by him everyone that believes is justified’ (Acts 15:38, 39). For in the law also and in the prophets, we read, that ‘If a controversy were risen among any, and they came to judgment, and the judge should judge them; that is, justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked’ (Deut. 25:1). And in Isaiah 5:22, 23, ‘Woe to them which justify the wicked for a reward.’
“Now, it is most certain that we all are by nature sinners, and before the judgment of God convicted of ungodliness, and guilty of death. But we are justified, that is, acquitted from sin and death by God the judge, through the grace of Christ alone, and not by any respect or merit of ours. For what is more plain than that which Paul says? ‘All have sinned, and are destitute of the glory of God, and are justified freely, by grace, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 3:23, 24).
“For Christ took upon himself and bare the sins of the world, and did satisfy the justice of God. God, therefore, is merciful unto our sins for Christ alone, that suffered and rose again, and does not impute them unto us. But he imputes the justice of Christ unto us for our own; so that now we are not only cleansed from sin, and purged, and holy, but also endued with the righteousness of Christ; yea, and acquitted from sin, death, and condemnation (II Cor. 5:19-21); finally, we are righteous, and heirs of eternal life. To speak properly, then, it is God alone that justifies us, and that only for Christ, by not imputing unto us our sins but imputing Christ’s righteousness unto us (Rom. 4:23-25).
Then the article continues that we receive this righteousness of God not by any works on our part, but by faith alone, even as the apostle Paul teaches in Rom. 3:28: “We conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the works of the law.” The same is true of Rom. 4:2, 3, 5: “if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to boast; but not of God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness; but to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” And this is the fundamental keynote of all Scripture regarding justification by faith. And why is a man justified by faith, without the works of the law, or any works on his part? Because we receive Christ by faith. And therefore, according to the article, justification is solely the work of God in Christ and is solely by grace.
The same is emphasized in our own Belgic Confession, Article 22: “We believe that, to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Ghost kindleth in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, appropriates him, and seeks nothing more besides him. For it must needs follow, either that all things, which are requisite to our salvation, are not in Jesus Christ, or if all things are in him, that then those who possess Jesus Christ through faith, have complete salvation in him. Therefore, for any to assert that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides him, would be too gross a blasphemy: for hence it would follow, that Christ was but half a Savior. Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith without works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean, that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our Righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all his merits, and so many holy works which he has done for us, and in our stead, is our Righteousness. And, faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with him in all his benefits, which, when become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.”
The same is expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 60: “How art thou righteous before God? Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God; without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ; even so, 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; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.” And then also in Question and Answer 61: “Why sayest thou that thou art righteous by faith only? Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith; but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, is my righteousness before God; and that I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only.”
But the question is: how is this imputation possible? Is there not rather a double injustice involved in this reckoning of Christ’s righteousness to us? Christ, the Innocent, the perfectly righteous, is condemned to death and hell; and we, guilty sinners, go free and are considered worthy of eternal life. Would not such imputation in any human court of justice be considered the height of injustice? How then can God justify the ungodly by simply imputing a righteousness which is not ours, but which Christ hath obtained for us?
This question is perfectly proper, because it proceeds from the assumption that God’s verdict whereby He declares us free from all guilt must have a basis in fact. The question proceeds from the truth that God Himself is true, holy, righteous, and just. He cannot deny Himself. If He renders the verdict that we are righteous, that sentence must be based on truth. He is the Righteous One. He is the implication of all infinite perfections. His will is always in harmony with His own Being. If, therefore, He declares the sinner righteous, His verdict is itself based on His own righteousness and justice. God cannot simply pardon the sinner, that is, excuse him from paying the penalty for his sin. Although this may be possible in human justice, which is always imperfect, this is not possible with God. Yet we read in Scripture that God justifies the ungodly. And, therefore, we must ask and answer the question: how is this possible? Or: what is the ground of the verdict that God declares the sinner righteous?
In this connection, we must remember that Christ and His people are before God a legal corporation, of which He is the Head and all His people are members. This corporation was established by God Himself and in His eternal election. We are chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, Eph. 1:4. In the same way Adam is the head of all mankind in the legal sense of the word. In that capacity he sins for all; and in him we are all condemned. For thus we read in Rom. 5:12, 16, 17, 18, 19: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” And again: “For the judgment was by one to condemnation.” And again: “By one man’s offense death reigned by one.” And once more: “By the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation.” And finally: “By one man’s disobedience many were made sinners.” From this whole passage it is evident that there was a legal relation between Adam and the human race, so that they formed a corporate body of which Adam was the head and all men are members. The same is true of Christ and His elect. In this respect Adam is the figure of Him that was to come, Rom. 5:14. And the apostle Paul in this same chapter draws a parallel between Adam as the head of all mankind and Christ as the head of the elect. If through the offence of one many be dead, the grace of God and the gift by grace, which is by one man Jesus Christ has abounded unto many. And the free gift is of many offences unto justification. And again, “As by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by .the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” Rom. 5:15-19. Hence, in His death Christ stands before God at the head of all the elect.