Ques. 62. But why cannot our good works be the whole, or part of our righteousness before God?
Ans. Because, that the righteousness, which can be approved of before the tribunal of God, must be absolutely perfect, and in all respects conformable to the divine law; and also, that our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.
Ques. 63. What! do not our good works merit, which yet God will reward in this and in a future life?
Ans. This reward is not of merit, but of grace.
Ques. 64. But doth not this doctrine make men careless and profane?
Ans. By no means: for it is impossible that those, who are implanted into Christ by a true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.
Lord’s Day 24. Heidelberg Catechism.
God justifies the ungodly.
That is the keynote that resounds throughout Lord’s Day 23 and which we hear again in this Lord’s Day as we are once more placed before the judgment seat of the living God.
We hear His verdict pronounced over us: Not guilty! He finds no reason to condemn or to punish us, for He sees no transgression and, therefore, no guilt whatsoever.
Before we have fully recovered from our amazement we hear the divine declaration that we are righteous in God’s sight, perfectly obedient and in all respects conformable to the divine law.* God calls us His beloved saints, chosen and precious in His sight. He assures us of His divine approval and favor, His covenant fellowship now and eternally. In the great Day of days He will greet us with the hearty welcome, “Come, thou blessed, and inherit the kingdom that is laid away for thee.”
For us that can only mean one thing, God justifies the ungodly.
For my conscience condemns me that I have and do transgress God’s commands in all that I say and do, even every day and every second of the day. I transgress, not merely one or two commands, but all. I admit that when the law is read in the public worship on Sunday my conscience accuses me, especially in regard to this or that command, yet a bit of introspection convinces me that I transgress every single one of God’s commands.
Even so, I have not sufficiently cleared my conscience. Shamefacedly I must admit that I not only transgress, but also fail to obey God’s commands. I must daily confess sins of commission, but also of omission, for I do not do that which I should do. I do not love the Lord my God with my whole being. This becomes evident to me even in my prayers, in which Christ teaches me to make as my chief desire, “Hallowed be Thy Name.” At best I stammer this petition, yet this does not permeate all my prayers. How little I actually live to the glory of my God!
I can hide behind no excuses. There are no extenuating circumstances to which I might appeal. I cannot even promise to improve my way, for I realize that “I am evil, born in sin.” God desires truth within. My conscience accuses me that I am the chief of sinners.
Yet God declares me righteous by His own testimony in the Scriptures and by His Spirit in my heart (I John 3:20).
The question forces itself upon us, How is that possible? One might possibly assume that God speaks contrary to fact. A mother may see no fault in her little darling, so that when he is accused of having done some wrong in school the mother arises in his defense, saying, “My boy would never do a thing like that.” But God is not a man that He should lie. His verdict is a true verdict, based on strictest justice. God justifies the ungodly in His eternal righteousness.
For God justifies His people in Christ. Eternally He gave them to Christ, and made them one with Him, even as branches of a vine. We were in Christ from eternity. We were in Christ when He brought the sacrifice for sin on Calvary. When He suffered and died, we suffered and died in Him, so completely as if we in our own bodies had atoned for our sins and merited eternal approval of God. Christ assures us of this by His indwelling Spirit in our hearts. We are knit to Him by a bond of living faith, whereby we confess that we belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ, in life, in death, with body and with soul. We are transformed into His likeness in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness as saints in Christ Jesus.
Christ alone is all our righteousness. No sin of the past, present, or future can separate us from the love of God in Him. On the other hand, nothing that my hand might bring can add to that perfect righteousness which is ours in our Lord. It is all of faith, all works excluded!
What! no merit?
At this point many voices raise a storm of protest. What? No works? No merit?
The error of salvation by works is as old, as this world since the fall in paradise.
Adam and Eve did not face this problem before the fall. When they awoke in the morning they were eager to start another day in devotion to their God. They delighted in all the marvels of God’s creation. They joined their voices with the whole creation in praise to their Maker. With dominion over all the creatures they busied themselves all day long with serving God. The thought never occurred to them that they should have some time to themselves, much less that they should be rewarded for their labors. Theirs was a service of loving devotion, a foretaste of heavenly perfection, where the saints tell the praises of God in complete surrender to Him!
But immediately after the fall our first parents sought to cover themselves with their own fig leaves, still not realizing that no cover could be found anywhere apart from the atoning blood of the Savior. Their son Cain brought the firstfruits of his crop, expecting God to appreciate his gifts. Israel boasted that they were the people of the Lord in distinction from all other nations, as if they had a special merit in the sight of God. From them were born the sect of the Pharisees, who needed no Savior, because their good works far exceeded the requirements of God’s law, whereby they would merit prominent seats in heaven. We need only add to that basic error of the Roman Catholic Church, of the Pelagians and Arminians of various sorts, and of the preachers who proclaim a social gospel, and we realize that the sinful pride of self-righteousness is rooted in our very nature. Throughout Paul’s entire epistle to the Romans, as well as the epistle to the Galatians, the Spirit warns us that if our salvation is of faith, then all works are excluded, and if of works, then our faith means nothing.
Yet the question persists, does not Scripture speak of a certain merit? According to our sinful nature we can understand the vehement protest of the objector, “What! do not our good works merit, which yet God will reward in this and in a future life?”
There are numerous passages in Scripture that assure the people of God of a reward. In the Old Testament, Israel is told, “If ye walk in My ways, and keep My commandments, thou shalt eat of the fruit of the land and prosper.” Also in the New Testament, Jesus tells His disciples that no one has left father or mother, field or houses for His sake, but is richly rewarded both in this life and in the life to come. When Jesus speaks of the final judgment in Matthew 25, He assures us that those will be welcomed into the kingdom who have fed Him when He was hungry, gave Him to drink when He was thirsty, took Him in as a stranger, clothed Him when He was naked, and visited Him when He was sick or in prison.
It is in this assurance that the believers live and die, for they have Christ’s promise, “Behold, I come quickly; and My reward is with Me, to give every man according as his works shall be.”
Our Catechism points out that, “This reward is not of merit, but of grace.” To this every sincere child of God readily agrees.
Imagine a father in the home who figures out I exactly how many hours he works for each member of the family and holds them obligated to him accordingly. Or imagine a mother who expects commensurate wages for every hour that she spends scrubbing floors, washing dishes, caring for the children and feeding the baby, along with time and a half pay for every hour of overtime that she I spends when the family is sick. Or again, imagine a child who will obey his parents and run errands I only if he receives a proper reward. What kind of home would we have if love and acts of love were wanting?
We readily confess that we serve God, not out of anything in ourselves, but because the love of God is poured out in us. We are unprofitably servants, who never do more than our duty. Christ performs His work of love in and through us. We are the instruments, even the willing instruments, who by His grace may confess, as a Dutch Psalm expresses it, “My service of love to Thee has never yet vexed me.”*
The wonder of grace is that God rewards His own work that He performs through us. In the day of judgment all of our own works, that we have produced, will be consumed like straw and stubble in the fire. Nothing will remain except Christ’s work in us, which will be rewarded with a crown of glory and with our own personal place in Christ’s kingdom. All of Christ, none of self.
“Does not this doctrine make men careless and profane?”
From an entirely different direction arises a new objection. If we cannot merit salvation and the benefits of salvation by our own works, why do them? This is the argument of the antinomian in us.
Our old sinful nature raises the argument that, since we are righteous in Christ we need not strive for holiness and perfection. Or again, what difference does it make if we sin, since our sins are forgiven anyway? Or even, we should taste the evils of sin, in order that we may fully enjoy the rich benefit of forgiveness.
To this the child of God responds: God forbid! How shall I, as a new creature in Christ, still sin against my God? Can Christ in me grow careless and profane? Can the Spirit of Christ condone sin in me? On the contrary, it is Christ Who makes me sincerely willing to walk in all good works, to abhor sin and to flee from it. The approval and fellowship with God means more to us than life itself.
Christ’s righteousness is not like a coat that we put on or shed at leisure, but we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
That work of God is crowned with His blessing. To Him be the glory, now and unto endless eternity!
* See the answer to question 62 above.
* “Uw liefde dienst heeft mij nog nooit verdroten.”