Righteous Before God

Lord’s Day 23

Question 59. But what doth it profit thee now that thou believest all this?

Answer. That I am righteous in Christ, before God, and an heir of eternal life.

Question 60. How art thou righteous before God?

Answer. Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; 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; 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; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.

Question 61. Why sayest thou that thou art righteous by faith only?

Answer. 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; and that I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only.

From Lord’s Days 7-22 the Catechism has taken us, phrase by phrase, through the Apostles Creed, which gives us the substance or content of our faith—what we believe. Now, Lord’s Day 23 asks us, “So what?” or “What’s the point?” or “Is there any profit?”

The question itself is a good one, for believing all this is not easy: it condemns me, it demands the sacrifice of many earthly pleasures, it requires that I put away my own thinking and believe God’s Word, and it will often bring persecution and even death for believers. The world looks on and ridicules any and every one who believes all this. So, what’s the use? Is there any profit in this?

The profit of faith is not health or wealth. Believing does not guarantee an easy life to the child of God. Rather, the profit in believing all this is that I am united to Christ, and that makes me righteous before God and an heir of everlasting life.

What a beautiful, rich answer! The purpose of this Lord’s Day is not merely to set forth the correct biblical teaching on justification but to take the believer beyond that to the comfort that is ours through faith in Jesus Christ. Being justified by faith, we have peace with God (Rom. 5:1).

The Wonder of Justification

The Catechism does not use the word “justification,” but to be “righteous before God” is the same thing as being justified. Justification is a legal term that refers to the verdict that God, the Supreme Judge, gives to us. There are only two possible verdicts: innocent or guilty, righteous or unrighteous. In justification God declares His people innocent of any wrong doing (II Cor. 5:19).

Righteousness is not the same thing as holiness. Holiness has to do with a person’s character or nature, whereas righteousness has to do with his actions. God is holy, which means there is no moral blemish or spot in Him. Adam and Eve, as they were created sinless, were holy. God is also righteous because everything He does is in harmony with His own perfect holiness. We are righteous when everything we do conforms to the standard of God’s own holiness.

But, as we all know, our natures are not holy, but corrupt and sinful, and so we cannot do anything right. We are unrighteous. Every thought and word and deed is contrary to the holiness and the law of God. Because of this, we are all guilty and deserving of death.

And yet, God declares that we are innocent. He justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). This is the wonder of justification. Sinners are declared innocent by God. “He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel” (Num. 23:21).

The Catechism, in Answer 61, reminds us of this in a powerful and personal way. To the believer, this is what it means to be justified, “though my conscience accuse me that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace,” views me “as if I never had had nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all… obedience.”

Because of justification, I do not receive what I deserve, which is everlasting punishment in hell, but instead I am made “an heir of eternal life.” The Judge, against whom I have sinned and am still sinning, not only sends me out of the courtroom a free man, but He adopts me to be His child and makes me an heir of all that He possesses. Justification means eternal life in heaven with God. Because of justification, we can have assurance.

The Catechism talks about the struggle that we can sometimes have with assurance. My conscience will constantly remind me of my guilt and sinfulness. But there is another testimony, the testimony of God’s Word, which is that God has declared me righteous, even though I am a sinner. Both testimonies are true, but the testimony of God’s Word concerns our legal standing before God the Judge, whereas the testimony of our conscience concerns our condition, which will always remain far from perfect in this life.

For our righteousness, we must never look to our own conduct or character, but to what God has done for us in Christ. The basis of our justification is Christ, and the assurance of it comes only through faith in Him.

In Christ Alone

Apart from Jesus Christ, there is no possibility of justification. The righteousness that is mine as a believer is an alien righteousness, the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The basis on which God judges me as innocent is the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, and His suffering and death.

Jesus stands before God as the substitute for His elect. He does this primarily in His death and suffering, in which He pays the price for our sins—“the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:5). However, not only does He remove the debt of sin by His death, but He also, by His life of perfect obedience, fulfills the law of God for us. Just as a thief is not only punished for his crime, but must also repay what he stole, so Christ bears the punishment for our crime and also repays to God our debt of God-glorifying obedience.

The righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. God “grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ…as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me.”

The word “impute” is very important.

God does not impart or infuse the righteousness of Christ in the sinner. If He did, then the sinner would be righteous within, he would be self-righteous. Then God would begin to judge the sinner as innocent, and would receive the sinner based on what the sinner himself does. But the Bible teaches that even our best works are as filthy rags before God (Is. 64:6), and that if it were possible for us to do everything that we should do perfectly, still God would owe us nothing (Luke 17:10). We can never merit a thing with God. We can never make ourselves worthy of the reward of life everlasting.

Rather God imputes or credits to our account the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Imputation means that instead of holding $500 in your hands and using it as payment for your debt, someone else makes an electronic transfer of $500 to your creditor. The money is never in your possession, but legally it is considered to be yours. God counts to us the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. It is always an alien righteousness. We are only ever accepted by God through and on account of the righteousness and perfect obedience of Christ.

Our justification is entirely due to the grace of God! How thankful we ought to be!

By Faith Alone

We are justified by faith alone. Romans 4:22 says that Abraham’s faith “was imputed to him for righteousness.” What does this mean?

It cannot mean that faith itself makes us worthy before God. Many believe that God the Judge has decided that, because it’s impossible for man to live a life of perfect obedience, all He will require is the one work of faith. Faith is accepted by God as a substitute for obedience. The problem with this is that it makes faith, which is a work of man, the foundation for our righteousness, and it dismisses the justice and wrath of God against all our sin.

It also cannot mean that, after we believe, our faith, or the obedience that our faith produces, becomes the reason for our justification. This is also a popular understanding today. God, it is said, accepts us and justifies us because of our faithfulness. The problem with this view is that it makes justification conditional—it depends on my faith and faithfulness—and so justification is temporary and I can never really be assured of my standing before God.

To understand the meaning of “justification by faith alone” we must first correctly and biblically explain faith. There are five things to understand about faith.

1. Faith is a living union to Jesus Christ. We are counted righteous by faith, because of our union to Jesus Christ, not because faith is some substitute work, but because it brings us into contact with Christ and His perfect righteousness.

2. Faith is the gift of God. Faith is not a choice or an activity that man produces of his own free will. As long as a man is lost in sin, he cannot and will not believe. It is only through grace that we believe (Acts 18:27).

3. Faith always looks out to Jesus Christ. Faith is like the eye, which looks out to the world around, and never to itself. Faith, like the eye, receives its light from without (Phil. 3:8-9).

4. Faith is the opposite of works. Yes, we are called to do good works, but those good works have nothing to do with our standing before God. Good works are the result of grace. Faith says, “not my righteousness” but Christ’s alone (Rom. 9:16).

5. Faith is the God-given instrument by which we receive the righteousness of Christ, and so faith itself has no value. A good meal is in the food I eat, not in the silverware with which I eat it. All my value, all my righteousness, is in Jesus Christ.

Where is boasting then? It is excluded. My justification is all of grace. God has chosen me to be without blame (Eph. 1:4), He has provided the righteousness of Christ as mine, He has paid the price for my sin in the death of Jesus, and He provides the means by which I receive the righteousness of Christ.

What a wonderful blessing and comfort it is to be justified. This is the central blessing for the believer.

What profit is there in believing all this?

The Catechism could have said: God is our Father, Jesus is our Savior, Christ died for us, Jesus is Lord, we receive the Holy Spirit, we are members of Christ and His church, our sins are forgiven, and we will inherit eternal life and glory.

But instead it points to the one blessing that makes all these others true, that we are righteous in Christ, before God. All other blessings and privileges depend on this. To know that I am innocent before God the Judge, “to be found in him, not having mine own righteousness…but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith”—this is the longing of every child of God (Phil. 3:8-9).

Questions for Discussion

1. Summarize the content of your faith. What/who is the central object of your faith?

2. Does being a believer guarantee an easy life? What contemporary heresy teaches this, and how would you answer it biblically?

3. How would you, and how does the rest of the Bible, answer Job’s question in Job 9:2?

4. How can God justify the ungodly? Or to put it another way, how can He declare us just, while we are still sinners?

5. What is “double imputation”? What does the righteousness of Christ include?

6. What is the difference between “imputed” and “infused” righteousness? Which is correct, and why is this important?

7. Does God accept our faith, or perhaps our faithfulness, as a sufficient alternative to perfect obedience?

8. Discuss this statement: “We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone” (cf. Rom. 4 and James 2:17ff.).

9. How does the illustration of the eye help us to understand faith?

10. How does the truth of justification through faith alone, in Christ alone, help us in our struggle with assurance because of our sin?