Justification Without Works

“We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied: as David and Paul teach us, declaring this to be the happiness of man, that God imputes righteousness to him without works. And the same apostle saith, that we are justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ. And therefore we always hold fast this foundation, ascribing all the glory to God, humbling ourselves before him, and acknowledging ourselves to be such as we really are, without presuming to trust in anything in ourselves, or in any merit of ours, relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours, when we believe in him. This is sufficient to cover all our iniquities, and to give us confidence in approaching to God; freeing the conscience of fear, terror and dread, without following the example of our first father, Adam, who, trembling, attempted to cover himself with fig-leaves. And verily if we should appear before God, relying on ourselves, or on any other creature, though ever so little, we should alas! be consumed. And therefore every one must pray with David: O Lord enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.” 

Article XXIII, The Belgic Confession

The title of this article of our creed, “Of Justification,” is somewhat misleading, for the doctrine of justification has already been treated rather extensively in the preceding article. There is, however, a distinction. In Article XXII the Confession emphasizes the whole doctrine of justification by faith. In that article theConfession speaks of the fact that this justification can only be appropriated by faith. In this article theConfession presents the all-important truth that justification is without works. God imputes His righteousness to us apart from any merit in us. Justification is a legal concept which has to do with one’s legal position before God. Legally, and apart from Christ, all men stand guilty before God. All men fell in Adam, the legal and representative head of the race of mankind. In Adam all men are guilty before God. When man sinned in Adam he incurred a debt before God. With every sin he commits man only adds to that debt. According to the justice of God that debt can only be removed in the way of complete satisfaction. The debt must be paid. And, as long as that debt is not paid, man stands in a state of guilt before God. This is man’s legal position before God and His holy law. This legal position or state must be distinguished from man’s condition. This latter has to do with man’s actual life and nature. According to his condition, man apart from Christ is fallen, totally depraved and incapable of doing any good. All that man is able to do by nature is sin. Justification does not have to do with man’s condition but with his state. 

Justification is that act of God whereby the state of the elect in Christ Jesus is changed from that of guilt to that of innocence. While the article does not mention this, it certainly must be said that Scripture teaches that justification is an eternal, reality. Scripture teaches undeniably eternal justification. This means that eternally in the counsel of God the elect stand as perfectly justified and therefore eternally righteous in Christ. That “in Christ” is crucially important. The elect may never be divorced from Christ. Christ is always first in the counsel of God. God elected His people in Christ. And, therefore, justification may never be divorced from Christ. God views the elect as perfectly righteous in Jesus Christ. Eternal justification is taught already in the Old Testament. We read in Numbers 23:21: “He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the Lord His God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them.” God from all eternity did not see iniquity in His chosen Israel. As one would expect, this doctrine is presented in even clearer light in the New Testament. The Scriptures declare in Romans 8:1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for them that are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” The whole point is that there never was any condemnation for “them that are in Christ Jesus.” We find the same truth in that beautiful doxology of Ephesians 1:3-12: “. . . According as he hath chosen us in him (that’s Christ) before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.” (verses 4-7) Notice the legal terminology in this passage. The elect are chosen in Christ in order that they should be holy and without blame. They were predestinated unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ. That term, “adoption” has a legal connotation. Finally notice according to the passage the elect in Christ have the forgiveness of sins

That eternal justification of the elect in Christ is accomplished by Christ in His atoning death and resurrection. Concerning Christ the Scriptures tell us He was “delivered for our offences and was raised again for our justification.” (Romans 4:25) Christ as fully God and fully man stood before God in the place of the elect. And, Christ paid the debt for them on the cross by bearing for them the full wrath of God which was due them on account of their sin. On account of their offences Christ was delivered to the cross. And on account of their justification God raised Him from the dead. When God raised Christ from the dead He placed His seal of approval upon the finished work of the Savior. Thus the resurrection of our Lord becomes God’s proof of the justification of the elect. 

Finally justification will be finished and perfectly realized in the last day, the great day of judgment. Then when the exalted Christ appears at the end of the ages all mankind shall appear before Him. Christ, the Judge, will publicly declare before the whole world the elect to be perfectly righteous and worthy of everlasting life. In those justified saints shall be manifest the great glory of God Who forgave all their transgressions. 

The blessings of justification are presented in classic Reformed theology as threefold. These blessings consist in the forgiveness of sins. On the basis of the atoning work of Jesus Christ, God declares the elect to be free from the guilt of sins. God dismisses those sins and regards the elect as if he never had nor committed any sins. The second blessing of justification is called the adoption unto children. God, when He justifies the elect in Christ, adopts them as His own children. They are given all the rights and privileges of children. God is their heavenly Father Who provides them with every good thing. The third blessing of justification is the right to everlasting life. As the forgiven children of God in Christ, the elect may be assured of the right to everlasting life. That is their eternal inheritance. 

In this article there is little or no emphasis placed on the doctrine of justification as we have presented it above. In both this article and the preceding theConfession treats the doctrine of justification only from the point of view of its being a subjective blessing of salvation which the elect receive not by works but by faith. It looks at justification as it lives consciously in the heart of the child of God. For this reason theConfession views justification as synonymous with the forgiveness of sins. “We believe,” the Confessiondeclares, “that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and therein our righteousness before God is implied.” By this statement the Confession certainly does not mean to teach that our salvation consists entirely and only in the remission or forgiveness of our sins as if there were no other blessings of salvation enjoyed by the elect. Rather, the Confession means to emphasize that the remission of our sins or justification is the basic or fundamental blessing of salvation. It is indeed true that justification is synonymous with the forgiveness of our sins, and is therefore the basic blessing of salvation. Apart from the forgiveness of our sins there could be no salvation. But, if our sins be forgiven then all the rest of the blessings of salvation follow without fail. 

It is also true that this forgiveness of sins necessarily implies justification without works. One who has no need of the forgiveness of sins has no need of justification. It is foolish to speak of justification by works, for one who can perform good works stands in no need of justification before God. The Confession is careful to prove this all-important point. Without quoting directly it appeals to Psalm 32:1, 2 where we read: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.” Ample reference is also made to the third and fourth chapters of Romans. In Romans 3:28 the Scriptures declare: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Later in the same epistle the Apostle says: “And if by grace, then it is no more of works, otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace, otherwise work is no more work.” (Romans 11:6) Grace and works are mutually exclusive. And justification is undeniably by grace without works. This is also fundamental, for if justification as the basis for all of salvation is by grace alone, then all of salvation is without our works and based in no sense upon them. Salvation is by grace from its inception to its end.

Neither is this doctrine of justification some cold piece of dogma. It affords unspeakable comfort to the people of God. It is exactly in the consciousness of our justification that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:1) This is emphasized by theConfession which says that holding fast to this doctrine .we will always be “humbling ourselves before him, and acknowledging ourselves to be such as we are, without presuming to trust in anything in ourselves, or in any merit of ours. . . .” Furthermore this doctrine frees “the conscience of fear, terror and dread. . . .” And, “verily if we should appear before God, relying on ourselves, or on any other creature, though ever so little, we should alas! be consumed.” Holding fast to this foundation we will give the glory to God and we will have the confidence when we approach Him that He will certainly hear us.