What justification is
When God justifies the guilty, elect sinner by imputing to him the righteousness of Christ, He not only subtracts something from the sinner’s account but He also adds to it. The Reformed faith teaches that in the act of justification God executes a kind of legal subtraction in clearing the sinner’s account of all his guilt. God pardons the sinner by canceling all his debts and declaring, “I forgive you. It is as if you never had had nor committed any sin” (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, LD 23). In the one act of justification, God also executes a kind of legal addition by imputing or reckoning to the sinner’s account the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ. God declares, “I pronounce you righteous. It is as if you have fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for you” (HC, LD 23). In its explanation of the doctrine of justification, Belgic Confession, Article 23 opens with the words, “We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake,” and then it immediately adds, “and that therein our righteousness before God is implied.” Even when justification is described as being essentially the legal negation of “remission,” the positive or legal addition of “righteousness” is still, necessarily, implied. When God justifies us, therefore, He removes our debt and adds to our account the positive righteousness of Christ so that we are reckoned before Him as perfect law-keepers who have given to God all the obedience His law demands.
Vivid is the portrayal of this wonder of justification in Zechariah 3. Joshua the priest stood on trial before Jehovah in the filthy garments of his own unrighteousness and God graciously took those filthy garments away. But God did more. He clothed Joshua, as He does every believer, with the clean garments of Christ’s righteous works (Zech. 3:3-5; Rev. 19:7-8). Justification with its two essential aspects—my filthy garment of unrighteousness removed and Christ’s spotless garment of perfect righteousness bestowed—is simply astonishing, and has massive ramifications for our salvation and life with God in His covenant. Robed in a garment of infinite worth, the believer exclaims, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, He hath covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Is. 61:10).
The gospel wonder of justification turns our hearts and minds to the perfect works of Christ who is our righteousness before God. Christ’s perfect works on our behalf are the basis for all that justification is as both a legal subtraction and a legal addition. God cannot cancel our debts unless Christ has paid them in full, and God cannot add perfect, positive righteousness to our account unless Christ has perfectly obeyed God’s strict law and fulfilled all righteousness for us. Always and forever we must learn Christ in all the glory of His saving works. The only sure defense against the perennial threat of ascribing to our good works a function they do not have is never merely to draw careful theological lines demonstrating what place and function our good works do and do not have, but to learn Christ and preach Christ and the gospel of His perfect works.
In order to help us understand and appreciate the constituent elements of the perfect righteousness of Christ that is imputed to us in justification, the Reformed tradition typically employs a distinction between the passive and active obedience of Christ as He stood as our substitute under the law. Christ’s passive obedience refers to His suffering of divine punishment for our transgressions. His active obedience refers to His willing and perfect performance of all the precepts of God’s law on our behalf. The distinguishable ideas of passive and active obedience may never be separated because in all His suffering Christ obeyed, and in all His obeying Christ suffered. Nevertheless, the distinction can be helpful because it draws our attention to the gospel truth that we are saved by Christ’s obedience.
Jesus willingly came under the law for us as our representative Head and was required to satisfy the demands of the law of God in two respects. First, all the punishment that the law threatens for the transgression of its precepts must be suffered by the one whom the law condemns as guilty. Secondly, all the obedience that the law demands in all of its precepts must be rendered in full. In justification, only if the strict demands of His justice are perfectly satisfied can God pardon us of our iniquity and pronounce us righteous, thereby receiving us into His favor and love as a covenant God.
Divine justice was satisfied in full for us when the Mediator Jesus Christ came under God’s law in our stead. Jesus was “made sin” for us (II Cor. 5:21) and suffered for our sins, the just suffering for the unjust all the curses and penal judgments of God’s wrath (I Pet. 3:18). Christ also obeyed in our place by rendering all the obedience that the law demands: “So by the obedience of one shall many be made [constituted] righteous” (Rom. 5:19). Our Mediator obtained perfect righteousness as the righteousness of God that can be imputed unto us in justification.
Christ’s obedience in Scripture
The Scriptures not only teach that Christ suffered all the punishment of the law in our place, but also what we might call His “active obedience.” Christ was born of Mary under the law (Gal. 4:4) so that He who is the Son of God and Lawgiver lived all His days under the law with all of its demands. Already at twelve years of age He expressed His firm resolve to execute every command of His heavenly Father (Luke 2:49). As the Mediator of the covenant, Jesus knew He was no private person under the law but the representative Head of all the elect. Therefore, He commenced His ministry of reconciliation at the Jordan determined to keep every ordinance of the Father for our salvation, saying thus to John the Baptist, “Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). Jesus carried out His ministry declaring, “For I came down from heaven not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me” (John 6:38); “as the Father gave me commandment, even so I do” (John 14:31); and according to prophecy, “Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me) to do thy will, O God” (Heb. 10:7, citing Psalm 40).
During His busy preaching ministry, Jesus declared to the crowds of Palestine that He did not come to destroy the law but to satisfy its every demand with perfect obedience as to letter and spirit, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets, I am not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17-18). As the servant of Jehovah He obeyed and even learned obedience by the things that He suffered (Heb. 5:8). He was obedient His whole life, including at the end when obedience meant suffering the torments of hell in His soul on the accursed tree, “…he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:7-8).
Jesus is the Lamb without blemish because the law finds in Him perfect obedience and not even the smallest taint of nature or conduct (I Pet. 1:19). He is the goal of the whole unbelievably detailed law written out over the pages of the Old Testament (Rom. 10:4). He perfectly fulfilled the moral law in loving God with all His heart, mind, soul, and strength. Also, all the various institutions respecting meats and drinks, the observance of days and feasts, various washings and purifications, and all the seemingly endless sacrifices find their fulfillment in Him. Christ sealed His perfect obedience to God with the declaration, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
Obedient Jesus is “the lord our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6), whom God has made unto us righteousness (I Cor. 1:30), even an everlasting righteousness (Dan. 9:24), so that if we are found in Him we have the righteousness of God (Phil. 3:9) witnessed by the law and prophets (Rom. 3:21). Obedience sharply distinguishes the two heads, first and last: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). Jesus is the only man who has ever lived His whole life in perfect obedience.
Christ’s obedience in our confessions
The Reformed confessions do justice to the biblical teaching of Christ’s saving obedience on our behalf. We are assured in the Lord’s Supper “that all His sufferings and obedience are as certainly ours, as if we had in our own persons suffered and made satisfaction for our sins to God” (HC, LD 29), and that “He hath fulfilled for us all obedience to the divine law and righteousness” (Lord’s Supper Form). As believers, we are always “relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours, when we believe in Him” (BC, Art. 23), so that the mark of all true Christians is that they are “continually taking their refuge in the blood, death, passion, and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ” (BC, Art. 29). That Christ represented us under the law so that His obedience can be imputed to us as our righteousness in justification is taught in Belgic Confession, Article 22, “But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness.”
Next time we will say more about Christ’s “active obedience” in Scripture, and then begin considering the saving significance of His obedience as we relate it to us, our salvation (specifically covenant fellowship), and our obedience.