Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa.
The truth that we now consider is the very bedrock of true Christianity. Justification is that truth that proclaims the glory of the sovereign God and the wonder of sovereign, particular grace in Christ Jesus. It sets before us the value of our religion. That God’s people are righteous before Him in Christ—that is the bedrock of true Christianity.
Any so-called Christianity established on anything other than the perfect and imputed righteousness of Christ is a sham. It is nothing more than a sham. For without the perfect and imputed righteousness of Christ which is our justification, we have no right to any of the blessings of salvation. “The curse of the Lord is in the house of the wicked: but he blesseth the habitation of the just” (Prov. 3:33).
Standing Before the Righteous Judge
There is hardly a concept more tremendous, more blessed for us and the church of Jesus Christ, than this truth as the Spirit applies it to our consciousness.
Righteousness is a legal concept that has to do with our legal status before God. The idea of righteousness calls us to stand before the truth that God is Judge. He is Judge of all. Moreover, God is the Holy One who Himself is perfectly righteous and who demands perfect conformity to His will.
When we speak, therefore, of our righteousness or justification, implied is the fact that we stand before God’s perfect justice. And according to His perfect judgment we stand before Him either as innocent or as guilty. That is true always.
It is not so that God postpones His judgment until the end of time. It is not true that God renders no verdict now, but is gracious and merciful to all, that He will judge the wicked and unbelieving only at the end of time. That is impossible. That is impossible because God is holy. He continually seeks Himself and His own glory, and always maintains His name and holiness over against the creature.
Although at the end of the history of this world there shall be a day of judgment, that judgment will only be the public pronouncement and execution of the perfect judgment that God is making throughout the ages, and the judgment He continually enforces and executes. So we read in Psalm 7:11, to mention just one example, “God judgeth the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day.”
You and I stand before the Judge of all the earth, the Judge who scrutinizes us, who makes no mistakes. He searches our hearts and uncovers the very thoughts that flow through our minds. He strips away the pious veneer that covers our lusts, and pierces even to the motives that govern all our actions.
The standard of His judgment is His perfect law, the law that also reveals His own glory. That law requires that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. That is God’s law. At every moment and in every place we stand before that inescapable calling.
To be righteous is to be in perfect conformity with God’s law. It is to be exactly what God has declared that we must be, those who stand in perfect submission of love to Him. Are you able to make that claim? Are you able to say, “All my words, all my deeds, all my thoughts, even the inner recesses of my heart and all my motives are in perfect conformity to the law of God”? Is that true of you?
This Judge does not corrupt justice. He does not declare guilty those who are innocent. Nor does He declare innocent those who are guilty.
We may not confuse righteousness with some kind of divine amnesty program. There have been times when governments have offered amnesty to those who are guilty of tax evasion. Those who have not paid their taxes according to law are then told, “All you have to do is come forward now and pay those past taxes, and there will be no charges against you; you will be viewed as completely innocent.” That is not righteousness. God does not simply pardon the sinner, give him an exemption from guilt and punishment, and let him go free. When the righteous Lord justifies the sinner, He does not violate justice and ignore the wrong. But the Lord declares with perfect justice that we are free from all guilt, that we are innocent, and that no charge can be leveled against us.
If we are righteous, we are free from any liability of punishment and death. If we are righteous, we are heirs of eternal life and glory. To be righteous means that as far as the law is concerned, we are completely untouchable. The law cannot condemn us.
But guilt marks us as condemned and liable to everlasting punishment.
The Pressing Question
The pressing question for you and for me, therefore, is this: What is God’s judgment of me? What does God think of me? As we are brought before the divine judgment seat and Him who sits upon the throne as Judge of all, what does He declare us to be—righteous or unrighteous? Guilty or not guilty?
If the question concerns the things that we have done, then the judgment is damning. Listen to Romans 3:10-18: “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that under-standeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: Their feet are swift to shed blood: Destruction and misery are in their ways: And the way of peace have they not known: There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
The Heidelberg Catechism puts the confession upon my lips, “that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil” (Q. & A. 60). That is the way we stand before the sovereign Judge, Almighty God. In that consciousness we must stand, before we shall ever understand the wonder of our justification.
That is what the apostle Paul had to see, as we learn inPhilippians 3:9. For all his religion, he had to see that “his own righteousness, which is of the law” was worthless! He had to see what Jesus meant when He said “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).
If we are going to set forth a theory of righteousness by works, or by faith and works, we shall perish with the Pharisees!
We stand before God as lawbreakers. And even standing before His face we are still inclined to all evil. That’s the way we stand before the Judge. Even conscious of the pressing question of our legal standing before God, we daily increase our guilt. By thought, word, and deed, with the sins that we commit as well as those sins of omission in failing to perform the will of God in all good works, we add to the mountain of evidence against us.
Do you know these things of yourself? Do you see the sinfulness of your own sin, the burden of your own guilt? Then you may know what a wonder is the biblical doctrine of justification.
An Amazing Declaration
Justification is the most amazing declaration that God could ever make. The righteous Judge of heaven and earth announces His righteous verdict. The court is called to order, and the sinner is made to stand before the divine Judge and to hear the proclamation.
“I, the Judge of all, declare this person not guilty.”
Can it be? Do we hear that correctly?
Our ears ring with amazement. God justifies the ungodly!
God does not justify anyone who says, “I am good.” He does not—because such a person is a liar. All are corrupt. You are corrupt. I am too, to my shame. But God is glorified in saving sinners. Blessed be His name.
So we read in Romans 4:5, “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” God justifies the ungodly! We are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).
In Romans 5, the inspired apostle develops this beautiful truth of justification, accomplished by the atoning death of Jesus Christ. “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died”—for whom? For those whom God chose from eternity? True enough, but that is not the emphasis. The emphasis is on the experience of those for whom He died. For whom did Christ die? For the righteous? No.
“In due time Christ died for the ungodly…. God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him” (Rom. 5:6, 8, 9).
Justification means that the supreme Judge, who is perfectly righteous, and from whom there is no appeal, declares that we are in perfect harmony with His law. He declares us innocent. It is as if I never had sin in my nature, nor had committed any sin! Indeed, it is as if I had fully accomplished perfect obedience to God’s law. God says—and it almost sounds contradictory to Scripture; but it isn’t, when you understand the ground of this amazing declaration—but God says, “In My judgment you have so much to your credit, that you are not only worthy of this declaration of not guilty, but you are worthy of a tremendous reward, that of everlasting life!”
Do you see why I speak in terms of an amazing declaration? That is justification.
This imputed righteousness can never be repealed. The Lord is not a man that He should lie, nor the son of a man, that He should ever repent or change His verdict. He who is faithful to His own Word and name shall never fail in the thing which He has spoken. When He declares you righteous, the verdict is final.
It is in the consciousness of that blessed truth that Paul writes in Romans 8:33ff.: “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth?”
It is important now that we go on to see how God can impute righteousness to those who are ungodly. What can possibly be the ground for such a verdict?