Article 22 - Our Justification Through Faith in Christ
OUR JUSTIFICATION THROUGH FAITH IN CHRIST
We believe that, in order that we may obtain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith. This faith embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits, makes Him our own, and does not seek anything besides Him. For it must necessarily follow, either that all we need for our salvation is not in Jesus Christ or, if it is all in Him, that one who has Jesus Christ through faith, has complete salvation. It is, therefore, a terrible blasphemy to assert that Christ is not sufficient, but that something else is needed besides Him; for the conclusion would then be that Christ is only half a Saviour.
Therefore we rightly say with Paul that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith apart from works of law (Romans 3:28). Meanwhile, strictly speaking, we do not mean that faith as such justifies us, for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ our righteousness; He imputes to us all His merits and as many holy works as He has done for us and in our place. Therefore Jesus Christ is our righteousness, and faith is the instrument that keeps us with Him in the communion of all His benefits. When those benefits have become ours, they are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.
The fruit of Christ’s work as High Priest is caught in the term ‘justification’. The term ‘Justification’ means literally “to make just” (from two Latin words meaning ‘just’ and ‘make’). Justification is a judicial act of God the Judge by which He declares a sinner just, righteous, innocent – despite God being fully aware of the sinner’s sinfulness.
SCRIPTURAL EVIDENCE OF JUSTIFICATION
The notion of justification is so profound and precious that we do well first to consider a couple of choice Scripture passages.
“... for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Here the apostle Paul is adamant that all God’s elect have sinned, all people on the face of the earth fall short of the glory of God, so that not one of us can appear in God’s court without deserving condemnation. Yet, Paul insists, all God’s elect are justified! God does the unexpected: for Christ’s sake He receives the guilty. This is grace in its exciting splendor!
2 Corinthians 5:18-21
“Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ ... God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them ... For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
We do not make ourselves presentable to God, but God makes us presentable to Himself through Jesus Christ. God made Christ our substitute, crediting our sins to His account so that we in turn could be declared righteous, innocent.
THE VISION OF ZECHARIAH
The vision Zechariah saw helps us to understand the concept of justification. “Then he showed me Joshua the high priest (representative of the people) standing before the Angel of the LORD (the Angel is the Old Testament manifestation of the pre-incarnate Son of God, second person of the Trinity) and Satan (the word means ‘accuser’) standing at his right hand to oppose him. And the LORD said to Satan, ‘The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this (Joshua the high priest) not a brand plucked from the fire?’ Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments (symbolic of the sins that lay on him), and was standing before the Angel. Then He answered and spoke to those (the angels) who stood before Him, saying, ‘Take away the filthy garments from him.’ And to him (Joshua) He said, ‘See, I have removed your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes.’ And I (Zechariah) said, ‘Let them put a clean turban on his head.’ So they put a clean turban on his head, and they put the clothes on him. And the Angel of the LORD stood by” (Zechariah 3:1-5).
The vision is of a court case. Joshua the high priest, as representative of God’s elect, appears before God the Judge. Satan is also present, accusing Joshua before God. Joshua is obviously a sinner (notice his filthy clothes), and so unfit to appear in God’s presence, let alone enter God’s heaven. However, the Lord does not follow up Satan’s accusations and send Joshua to hell. Instead, God makes a declaration that Joshua is innocent, just, righteous. God demands that Joshua be given a change of garments – forgiveness of sins.
How is it possible for God to make such a declaration? Was Satan making false accusations before God about Joshua’s sins? In the nature of the case, we can certainly assume that the Accuser was listing transgressions Joshua had actually committed. But the Lord God declared the sinner innocent because of the work of the Angel of the LORD, the Christ (note that reference is made three times to the fact that Joshua was standing before the Angel of the LORD). Joshua’s innocence was innocence in Christ. God had poured out onto Christ the wrath the sinner deserved. Since Christ was Joshua’s substitute, Joshua was set free. Instead of God’s wrath, Joshua received God’s mercy. The basis for Joshua’s justification certainly did not rest within himself, for he was dressed in filthy garments, sinful. Rather, the basis for this declaration of innocence was God’s good pleasure in Christ. God’s declaration was an undeserved, free gift – grace! Here is pointed up the marvel of the Gospel: God the Judge declares sinners Not Guilty of their sins! As a result, God Most High graciously sees me as without sin, righteous! That is justification.
Graphically, justification describes God’s act of mercy whereby He takes His elect from Satan’s side and brings them back to God’s side so that they may be innocent in His eyes.
HOW GOD INVALIDATES SATAN’S ACCUSATIONS
What, though, has become of Satan’s accusations? Those accusations, we said earlier, were accurate. A look at Lord’s Day 23 of the Heidelberg Catechism helps us here. Question 60 asks, “How are you righteous before God?” One could ask the same question this way: how can I, a sinner, rightly be restored from Satan’s side to God’s side? In order to answer this question, this Lord’s Day lists three accusations the Holy Spirit lays upon the conscience of the godly.
- “I have grievously sinned against all God’s commandments.” I am not a ‘small-time’ sinner, offending from time to time against the odd command; I’m rather a habitual sinner breaking every command of holy God.
- I “have never kept any (of God’s commandments).” My past record is no better than my current performance. There has never been a day in my life that I have lived up to God’s standards and obeyed perfectly a single one of His commands.
- I “am still inclined to all evil.” My tomorrows shall be as dismal as my yesterdays. I am so extremely vulnerable to sin, so prone to sinning, that I shall not improve my record, no matter how hard I try.
The picture is tragic. These accusations, though, do not mean that I stand condemned before God. Rather, in the face of these accusations, this Lord’s Day goes on to describe what God does for me and to me – despite my condemnable record as His child. God knows exactly who it is that appears before Him.
- God knows that I sinned against all His commandments, yet He imputes to me the perfect satisfaction of Christ. God does not condemn me, but declares me innocent because Christ paid for my countless sins against all God’s commands. As I stand before God’s judgment seat, Christ is present there with me. What Christ obtained for me God imputes to me. Christ makes my account, so black with sin, white again; His payment for my sin is credited to me.
- God knows too that I never ever kept any of His commandments. Yet that did not stop God from declaring me righteous, innocent, for Christ’s perfect righteousness –He never once sinned, not even in His deepest suffering – covered my unrighteousness. Christ by His righteousness has obtained righteousness for me.
- The extent and depth of the evil within me is not hidden from God either as I stand before Him. God is pleased to cover my continuing depravity with Christ’s holiness.
In a word, God grants to me Christ’s perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness! Lord’s Day 23 sums it up this way, “He grants these to me as if I had never had nor committed any sin, and as if I myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me.”
Satan’s accusations, then, come to nothing! Those accusations, with which my conscience agrees, are set aside as irrelevant to this divine court case, because Christ has already covered those wrongs on my part with His perfect sacrifice on Calvary. That is why I in turn may silence my guilty conscience with reference to Christ’s completed work, and bask in the warmth of God’s forgiving grace!
RIGHTEOUS BY TRUE FAITH
What, now, is the bond that connects the merits of Christ to me the sinner? The bond that makes Christ’s work mine is faith. Lord’s Day 23 had asked how I was righteous before God, and gave this answer: “Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.... God ... imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ ... if only I accept this gift with a believing heart.” Faith makes Christ’s merits mine; faith is the instrument by which Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness and holiness cover my debt, my unrighteousness, my unholiness. As the apostle says: “... that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.... Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:26 & 28).
DeBres also quoted Romans 3:28 in this Article: “Therefore we rightly say with Paul that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith apart from works of law.” It is worth noting that in quoting this text, our confession has one additional word to what we read in our Bible, namely, “faith alone”. Luther in his translation of the Bible (into German) added the word ‘alone’ in order to drive home the truth that one can be justified only by faith, without needing to add works of the law to the faith. In light of the Roman Catholic insistence that one had to do good works in order to be saved (think, for example, of the sale of indulgences), we can understand this inclusion. The word ‘alone’ certainly makes clear Paul’s point in Romans 3.
FAITH: WHAT IS IT?
What, though, is faith? Faith, let it be said, is not a feeling; faith is an action. Faith is receiving, and then holding onto, anything and everything God says, despite whether I feel that what He says is true, makes sense to me, or is agreeable in my circumstances. Faith is that one accepts and clings to anything God says despite having every rational reason to do the opposite.
Elsewhere in his confession (Article 35) deBres calls faith the “hand of the soul”. We know what the ‘hand of the body’ is, and we know too what the hand of the body does. If you in your kindness would present me with a gift (say, a box of chocolates), it is my hand that must reach out to receive your gift. My reaching out to receive the gift does not mean that I am earning the gift; in fact, you have already obtained the gift, decided to give it to me, and are now presenting it to me. I can do one of two things. I can stretch out my hand to receive what you freely give, or, alternatively, I can keep my hand behind my back. In the latter case, you understand well enough that I am not interested in your gift; I do not want it, I am rejecting it.
Faith is the “hand of the soul”. God presents us with the gift of justification, the gift of being declared innocent through Jesus’ blood. He presents this gift freely, without our deserving it, without our asking for it or earning it. Now it is for me to receive what God has given. How do I do that? I do that by stretching out my hand – not the hand of the body, but the hand of the soul. That action, that receiving what God gives, that is faith.
Yet we need to take it further. If I receive the chocolates you present me, it’s not good enough that I stretch out my hand to receive – and then leave it stretched out with your gift in my hand. To benefit from your gift I need to act further; receiving includes drawing my hand (with the gift) back, includes perhaps unwrapping the gift and even sinking my teeth into a specimen. In a word, receiving includes making the gift my own. So it is too with the gift of salvation God gives in Christ and its resulting privilege of being reconciled to God. If God has become my Father again through Christ, then receiving this gift involves more than daring to echo God’s claim that I’m righteous; receiving this gift involves delighting in this righteousness – and that in turn exhibits itself in entrusting oneself to the care of this God.
We read in Hebrews 11 of the faith of various Old Testament persons. Repeatedly the faith of the person mentioned is evidenced through specific action. Notice the verbs: “by faith Abel offered...” (vs 4); “by faith Noah ... prepared an ark...” (vs 7); “by faith Abraham obeyed when he was called..., and he went out, not knowing where he was going” (vs 8). The faith of these men consisted of more than knowledge about God, or even knowledge that God was their God. Rather, the faith of these men is presented here as knowledge-combined-with-trust, which together translates into actions of obedience. James catches the point like this: “faith without works is dead” (2:26). Obedience to God’s commands, entrusting oneself to the good instruction of the God who graciously declared us righteous for Jesus’ sake, is integral to the essence of faith. One is saved by faith alone, not by works. Given what faith is, though, one must also insist that one is never saved without works.
This is a covenantal concept. God makes promises to me and I am to believe these promises. If I do not believe them, I cannot be saved. I must make a point of believing, that is, of receiving what He in grace gives to me. In the covenant it is my responsibility to do so, in all the ups and downs of life. Here we have the two sides inherent in the covenant: promise and obligation. God has promised me salvation and He gives me faith both to believe in and to hold on to these promises. When I believe I can only thank God that He gives the gift of faith.
Points for Discussion:
- Who benefit from Christ’s work?
- Explain why Joshua in the vision of Zechariah 3 could be given clean clothes. What is ‘justification’?
- Is God’s ‘declaration of innocence’ real or a wish? Why?
- What is the result for you of God’s declaration? See Romans 5:1; 8:1.
- What is meant by ‘imputation’?
- What is the function of faith in this justification? What is the significance of the phrase ‘by faith’?