The sixty-third question of the Heidelberger treats of the relation between justification and faith. “Why sayest thou,” the Catechism asks, “that thou art righteous by faith only?” And the answer is twofold: negatively, the Catechism replies, “Not that I am acceptable to God, on account of the worthiness of my faith;” and, positively, the answer is, “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.”

And this answer is Scriptural.

Already in the Old Testament we read of this righteousness by faith. When the Word of the Lord came unto Abraham, that not the one born in his house, but “he that shall come forth out of thine bowels shall be thine heir,” and God pointed him to the stars of heaven as an illustration of the multitudinousness of his seed, it is said of Abraham that “he believed in the Lord and he counted it unto him for righteousness.” Gen. 15:6. To understand this properly we must bear in mind that the faith of Abraham was faith in the promise of God, the one and the same promise essentially that was already given by God in the protevangel of Paradise. It was the promise of the seed of the woman, and the seed was Christ. It was this promise that was the object of Abraham’s faith. His faith, therefore, was saving faith. Abraham believed through Christ in God. And let us not overlook the fact that God accounted Abraham’s faith for righteousness. We must come back to this relation of faith and righteousness a little later. But even now we must remark that this passage presents that relation not as merely subjective on the part of Abraham, so that he was justified in foro conscientiae, but that it speaks of an objective act of God: God counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness. True, as the Catechism correctly remarks, that does not at all imply that faith as an act of man is in itself worthy of righteousness; nor can it mean that God reckons arbitrarily faith as righteousness, for God cannot reckon what is not true; but it undoubtedly does mean that all our righteousness is in Christ only, and that faith is the bond that unites us with Christ, so that through faith we are righteous in Christ even before God.

Thus the apostle Paul explains the relation between faith and justification especially in his epistle to the Romans. In chapter 4, verse 8, ff. the apostle refers to and elaborates upon the text of Genesis 15:6: “For what saith the Scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” The apostle shows emphatically that justification by faith is opposed to justification by works, so that even faith itself cannot be accounted as a work-basis for righteousness. Already in verse 2 the apostle had written: “If Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.” And in verses 4 and 5 he continues to emphasize that justification by faith is of mere grace, for he writes: “Now to him that worketh the reward is not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”

Moreover, the apostle in this chapter shows that it was not only the faith of Abraham, nor of his seed only, but also the faith of all that believe, whether of the circumcision or of the uncircumcision, that is counted for righteousness. For, the apostle argues, Abraham received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had before the circumcision, that he might be a father of all them that believe, and righteousness might be imputed to them also.

Even the promise that Abraham and his seed should be the heir of the world was through the righteousness of faith. vs. 13.

And this faith was imputed to him for righteousness, not because of the worthiness of his faith, but because it was strong to believe the promise of God, and through the promise to cling to Christ. “Before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were. Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be. And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body, now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither the deadness of Sarah’s womb: He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.” Rom. 4:17-22. It is plain, therefore, that faith is imputed by God unto righteousness, because it believes the promise, through the promise clings to Christ who is the promise, and through Christ relies wholly on God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were, the God of our complete salvation. And all this is not only true for Abraham but holds for us who believe in the same God of our salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. This the apostle expresses at the close of this beautiful chapter: “Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him; But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.”

The same truth is evident from Romans 3, verses 20 to 31. There the apostle writes: “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God 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.” We may interrupt the quotation here to call attention to the expression in verse 21, “the righteousness of God”. It is plain that by this expression is not indicated righteousness of God as an attribute, but as a gift of God to us. It is a righteousness which God from eternity has conceived in His sovereign counsel, a righteousness which He realized for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and which God Himself bestows upon us by the gift of, faith. It is, therefore, from the beginning to the end a righteousness, not of man, but of God alone.

And now we continue the quotation.

“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 which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.” Here, too, the truth of justification by faith only is emphasized throughout. And it is also evident that the Heidelberg Catechism expresses the relation of faith and justification correctly, when it declares that we are not justified because of the worthiness of our faith, but only because faith lays hold upon the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ. He is our righteousness before God, and we are justified freely by His grace.

In Rom. 5:1 the relation of justification and faith is conceived of rather from the subjective point of view. There we read the well-known words: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The expression “being justified by faith” is literally, according to the original, “being justified out of faith”. The emphasis, therefore, seems to fall on faith as being the source of our justification. And this certainly can only refer to our justification in foro conscientiae, that is, in our own consciousness.

The same truth is taught in Gal. 2:15-17. There we read: “We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid.” And again, in Gal. 3:5-11, the apostle teaches the truth of justification by faith only as follows: “He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.” And once more, in verses 22-24 of the same chapter, we read: “But the scripture have concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterward be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”

And this gospel of justification by faith only the apostles proclaimed in the world both to Jews and Gentiles. In the synagogue at Antioch the apostle declares: “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.”

We could quote more. But this is sufficient. For from all these passages it becomes abundantly evident: first of all, that we are justified by faith only; secondly, that this faith whereby we are justified is not another work: it stands opposed, not only to the work of the law, but to all merit: it is not meritorious in any sense; thirdly, that, nevertheless, it is accounted by God for righteousness; fourthly, that the basis of this imputation on the part of God is the promise to which faith clings, and the promise is Christ, so that His righteousness and holiness is the only and ultimate ground of our righteousness before God.

From all this it ought to be rather plain how we must conceive of the proper relation between faith and justification.

It is certainly not the ground or part of the ground of our righteousness before God. For it is not another work. That this is the relation is, however, virtually the view of all that deny the vicarious nature of Christ’s satisfaction and atonement. Thus, for instance, the governmental theory maintains that Christ died, not to atone and to pay for the sins of all the elect, but as a setting forth of the justice and righteousness of God, as an expression of what God might justly do to all sinners. If now they acknowledge the justice of God and repent, God is satisfied because His moral government of the world is maintained and vindicated in the consciences of men, and He freely forgives them their iniquity. It is plain that according to this view faith becomes a work, the work of man, rather than the complete reliance upon the righteousness of Christ.

Virtually all Arminians, who deny particular atonement, that is, the truth that Christ died only for the elect, and who for that reason must ultimately deny vicarious atonement altogether, present this view of the relation between faith and justification.

A few illustrations of this fact we have in the condemnation of the errors in the Canons of Dordrecht, II, B, 2-4. We read there that the Synod rejects the errors of those:

“Who teach: That it was not the purpose of the death of Christ that he should confirm the new covenant of grace through his blood, but only that he should acquire for the Father the mere right to establish with man such a covenant as he might please, whether of grace or of works. For this is repugnant to Scripture which teaches that Christ has become the Surety and Mediator of a better, that is, the new covenant, and that a testament is of force where death has occurred. Heb. 7:22; 9:15, 17.

“Who teach: That Christ by his satisfaction merited neither salvation itself for anyone, nor faith, whereby this satisfaction of Christ unto salvation is effectually appropriated; but that he merited for the Father only the authority or perfect will to deal again with man, and to prescribe new conditions as he might desire, obedience to which, however, depended on the free will of man, so that it therefore might have come to pass that either none or all should fulfill these conditions. For these adjudge too contemptuously of the death of Christ, do in no wise acknowledge the important fruit or benefit thereby gained, and bring again out of hell the Pelagian error.”

“Who teach: That the new covenant of grace, which God the Father, through the mediation of the death of Christ, made with man, does not herein consist that we by faith, inasmuch as it accepts the merits of Christ, are justified before God and saved, but in the fact that God having revoked the demand of perfect obedience of faith, regards faith itself and the obedience of faith, although imperfect, as the perfect obedience of the law, and does esteem it worthy of the reward of eternal life through grace. For these contradict the Scriptures: ‘Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God hath set forth to be propitiation through faith in his blood,’ Rom. 3:24, 25. And these proclaim, as did the wicked Socinus, a new and strange justification of man before God, against the consensus of the whole church.”

Especially in the last-named article, in which the grievous error of the Socinians, which was followed by the Arminians, is exposed, it is plain that faith is presented as a work of man, acceptable to God. It is not faith in the merits of Christ by which we are justified before God, but faith as a work, and the works of faith, though they are imperfect in themselves, are regarded by God as perfect obedience, and worthy of eternal life.

All this is clearly contradictory to the plain teaching of Holy Writ. It denies both the satisfaction and vicarious atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ and salvation by pure grace as over against all works and merit of man.