1. The Idea Of Justification, (cont.)
It should be plain, then, that, in this life, when the grace of justification is applied to the sinner, so that he hears the justifying verdict of God, and appropriates it unto himself, he finds within himself a double testimony, the one condemning, the other acquitting, the one accusing him that he has transgressed and still transgresses all the commandments of God, the other justifying him, and declaring him so perfectly righteous in the sight of God, as if he never had or committed any sin.
And yet, these two testimonies, both of which are of God, and are true, are not so related that they dualistically contradict and oppose each other, so that the believer finds himself in two states, that of righteousness and that of condemnation, but so, that faith has the victory, and the justifying verdict of God overcomes the accusing testimony of his natural conscience.
Never, as long as the believer is in the flesh, is the voice of his conscience that he has sinned and does sin daily silenced. For no matter how far advanced he may be in the way of grace, always he has but a small beginning of the new obedience, and the motions of sin that are in his members are very active. Always he is deeply conscious of his sin, and of his being worthy of condemnation and death, in himself. Besides, in the flesh, he is still connected with the whole human race, and the sin of the race, in Adam, is his sin. Of all this his conscience bears testimony. He is guilty in Adam, he is corrupt by nature, he daily increases his guilt by his actual sin. Indeed, the Catechism expresses it quite correctly when it teaches us to confess: “my conscience accuses me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil.”
Yet, when the grace of justification is applied to that sinner, he is conscious of another testimony. It is the testimony of the Spirit of Christ, wrought in his consciousness by the Gospel, received by faith, assuring him that he is perfectly righteous, “‘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.”
But, as was said, these two witnesses, the one of our natural conscience, the other of our liberated conscience in the Spirit of Christ, are not of equal value and power.
The justified believer does not say: I am both righteous and unrighteous, acquitted and condemned, worthy of eternal death and an heir of everlasting life.
On the contrary, the verdict of justification, wrought by the Spirit of Christ, through the Gospel, in his heart, is completely victorious, overcomes, transcends, swallows up the accusing testimony of his natural conscience. Standing before the tribunal of the sole Judge of heaven and earth, by faith, he declares: “Though I have sinned, and do sin, yet I am perfectly righteous. Though I am accused on every side, from within and from without, and though I confess that all these accusations are true, yet, in spite of it all, I know that God declares me free from sin and guilt, and worthy of eternal life and glory.”
The deep reason for this victory of faith is that it clings to God who justifies the ungodly.
Justification is the forgiveness of sins!
It is the adoption unto sons of God.
The justified sinner is he “that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly.”.
By faith, he shouts triumphantly: “If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea, rather that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.”.
He that receives the unspeakably blessed grace of justification does not say: “my conscience accuses me no more, I have no sin;” nor does he declare dualistically: “I am guilty and righteous before God;” but he has the victory by faith, and properly expresses his wonderfully blessed experience of God’s justifying grace thus: “though my conscience accuses me, yet am I perfectly righteous before the judgment seat of God!”
“Lord, if Thou shouldst mark transgressions,
In Thy presence who shall stand?
But with Thee there is forgiveness,
That Thy name may fear command.”
- And again:
“How blessed is he whose trespass Hath freely been forgiven,
Whose sin is wholly covered Before the sight of heaven.
Blessed he to whom Jehovah Imputeth not his sin,
Who hath a guileless spirit,
Whose heart is true within.”
The righteousness of justification is an imputed righteousness, a perfect righteousness, an everlasting righteousness, a wholly transcendent and victorious righteousness.
For God justifieth the ungodly!
2. The Ground of Justification.
“How art thou righteous before God?”
In this question, the Catechism inquires, not only into the idea and nature of the believer’s righteousness, but also into its way and its ground. It answers this question by pointing to Christ as the sole ground of our righteousness in the words: “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.” And again, in answer to the next question: “Why sayest thou that thou art righteous by faith only?” it teaches us as follows: “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.”
To seek an answer to the question: what is the ground of the believer’s justification? is by no means superfluous. Spontaneously, faith institutes this inquiry. Saving faith is not a certain vague, mystical feeling. It is a certain knowledge of all that God has revealed in His Word. The urge to give account of itself, to be able to indicate its own reason and ground, is inherent in faith. Moreover, it is for its own wellbeing that it give a clear account of the ground on which it rests. Especially with regard to the grace of justification, this is important. The clearer the understanding of the believer in respect to the ground of his righteousness before God, the more he will regard all other ground as sinking sand, put all his confidence in Christ only, and enjoy the true peace that passeth all understanding. On the other hand, if he be confused in his mind concerning the sole ground of his justification, fail to rely on it alone, and try to make his faith, his piety, his good works, his religiousness, or anything of self, a part of his righteousness before God, he will expose himself to the accusing voice of his own conscience, and the temptation of the devil, which are always on the alert for the attack to deprive him of the assurance of justification, and, as a result, of the joy of salvation.
Now, the inquiry concerning the ground of our justification proceeds from the correct assumption that God’s verdict whereby He declares us free from all guilt, perfectly righteous, and worthy of eternal life, must have a basis in fact.
In deepest sense, it proceeds from the truth that God Himself is true, holy, righteous, and just. He cannot deny Himself. He is truth, and all His works are verity. If He renders the verdict that we are righteous, that sentence must be based on truth. He is the righteous one. For He is the implication of all infinite perfections. A light is He, and there is no darkness in Him at all. His will is ever in harmony with His own being. If, therefore, He declares us righteous, His verdict is itself based on His own righteousness. And He is just. Always He rewards the good with good, and the evil with evil. If He, then, declares us worthy of eternal life, this declaration must be in accord with His own justice.
It follows that God cannot simply pardon the sinner, that is, excuse him from paying the penalty for his sin. This is often done by human magistrates. And, perhaps, because of the imperfection of human justice there is room for such a manifestation of mercy and leniency. A man is accused of murder. There is no objective, direct proof that he committed the crime. There are no eyewitnesses. Yet, circumstantial evidence is so heavily against him that the jury returns a verdict of guilty, and the judge sentences him to end his life in the electric chair. As a last resort, an appeal is made to the governor, and he, reviewing the case, and hesitating to let a man pay the penalty of death for a crime which he may not have committed, changes his sentence into life-imprisonment. Later, perhaps, when it appears that no further evidence is discovered against the condemned man, he pardons him entirely. But this is not possible with God. There is no possibility of an error when He judges. Besides, such pardoning is no justification. And God justifies the ungodly.
Nor is it possible to make an appeal to the mercy of God, in distinction from, and in conflict with His righteousness, to explain the fact that God permits the sinner to go free. For God’s mercy is never in conflict with His righteousness. All His virtues are one in Him. His mercy is ever just and righteous, and His righteousness is ever truly merciful. And again, even if, regardless of justice and righteousness, God would acquit the sinner, such acquittal would not be the same as justification. We must have an answer to the question: on what ground does the verdict of Him who cannot lie rest that the sinner is righteous and worthy of eternal life?
How can God reveal Himself as the one that justifies the ungodly?
That there is no ground for such a justifying verdict in man himself has already become sufficiently plain.
Besides, in the next Lord’s Day, this is emphasized once more.
It is not to be found in anything man is or does, has done or will do. Even after his being regenerated, called, converted, sanctified, the ground of God’s verdict whereby he is justified is never in the sinner. It is not because of his faith, or because of the good works he performs by faith, that God declares him righteous. Nor can these add anything at all to his righteousness before God. The sinner is justified before he is regenerated. It is on the ground of his justification that he receives all other blessings of grace. Hence, the ground of his righteousness is never in man.
It is outside of man, outside of the sinner himself.
The ground of the verdict of God justifying the ungodly is Christ alone. In Christ the righteousness of God is revealed, that is, the gift of righteousness of which God is the sole author, which He conceived from before the foundation of the world, and which He alone realizes and bestows on the sinner in the moment of his justification by faith, is Jesus Christ Himself. In Christ, God reveals Himself as the Reconciler, as the One that is righteous and just even when He justifies the ungodly. For “now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets: Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus.”. “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But 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. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” . And again: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus. … For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.” . “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given us the ministry of reconciliation: To wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” . It is in Christ that “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace; Wherein he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence.” . For he “was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification.” .
The righteousness of Christ, therefore, a righteousness which is of God, prepared by (Him for us, is the ground of our justification.
Let us consider, first of all, this righteousness as it is in Christ, and, secondly, the justice of God in imputing this righteousness of Christ to us.
Christ is the justified one par excellence. And His justification is the justification of all the elect, of all that believe on His name.
To understand this, let us consider that Christ is the Son of God, the only begotten God, that is in the bosom of the Father. On this confession rests the whole of the truth concerning our justification. If Christ is not very God, if He is not the God of our salvation Himself, the very foundation of this truth is removed. But He is God of God, co-eternal with the Father, and with the Holy Ghost. He came in the flesh. He, the Lord, who is above the law, came under the law. He came in the state of men. He became a servant, and must function as a servant, He, the Son of God in human nature. Even that was an act of (His own, freely performed. He was not of necessity born a son of Adam, He freely assumed our flesh and blood. What is more, coming under the law, He entered into the state of sinners. He was not a sinner. The guilt of Adam could not be imputed to Him, for He was, personally, the Son of God. The corruption of the human nature could not touch Him, for He was conceived by the Holy Ghost. He was holy and righteous. He knew no sin. But He entered into the state of sinners. He took the legal position before God of a sinner. He assumed the responsibility for sin. In that state it became His obligation to pay the penalty for sin. He must not merely suffer the punishment for sin, which is death: He must actively pay for sin. He must cancel the debt of sin, if, in the state in which He had voluntarily entered, He was to be justified. And to cancel that debt, He must satisfy the righteousness of God. This satisfaction could only consist in an act of love. For man must love God with all his heart, and mind, and soul, and strength. That is the demand of the law of God, and that demand is unalterable. Hence, when Christ, the Son of God, assumed the form of a servant, and entered into the state of man, he was obliged to keep that law of love. And when, as the servant of God, He entered into the state of sinners, it was His calling to love the Lord his God, even in His wrath, even when, in the hour of judgment God poured all the vials of His wrath and indignation over His head. This is what Christ did. He did so all His life on earth. In the state of a servant, and that, too, in the state of sinners, He functioned before the face of God in perfect righteousness and holiness. He never faltered. Step by step, as the shadows of death and wrath deepened, He remained obedient. And finally, He entered into the deepest death and desolation, and became obedient even unto the death of the cross. All the righteousness of God against Sin He perfectly fulfilled. He satisfied for sin.
And God raised Him from the dead!
That resurrection from the dead of the Son of God in the flesh is God’s sentence that His servant is justified.