OUR JUSTIFICATION THROUGH FAITH IN CHRIST
"For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Our holy God is a just God. His justice demands that all sin must be punished by His wrath. This means that I, a sinner, deserve to have God's wrath poured out on me. As a sinner I deserve nothing but God's damnation. However, with the words of Article 21, I confess that God's justice was satisfied because Christ bore God's wrath against my sin on my behalf. At His death on the cross Christ was my substitute, receiving the full measure of God's wrath in my place. To use the words of the above text, Christ was made 'to be sin for me.' As a consequence, God's mercy could be poured out on me.
THE BENEFICIARIES OF CHRIST'S WORK
For whom did Christ die? Did He suffer the burden of God's wrath in place of all people? Said Christ in John 10:26-28, "But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand." From these words of Christ it is clear that only some people are His sheep and others are not. It is only to His sheep that Christ gives the gift of eternal life. It is only Christ's sheep that benefit from His work. Similarly, in vs 15 Jesus says: "I lay down My life for the sheep." Jesus doesn't die for those who are not His sheep, but only for those who are.
In John 17:9 Jesus says: "I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me." Christ divides mankind into two groups, and prays for one group only: "those whom You have given Me." It would be most bizarre for Jesus to decline to pray for the one group ("the world") and the next day on the cross give up His life for both groups ("the world" and "those whom You have given Me").
Christ's work is limited in its extent; not all people are saved. The term used to describe the limited extent of Christ's work is Limited Atonement (in contrast to 'Universal Atonement' as taught by the Remonstrants).
The term 'Justification' means literally "to make just" (from
two Latin words meaning 'just' and 'make'). Justification is a judicial
act of God, by which God declares a sinner just, righteous, innocent. The
concept of 'justification' is illustrated by the vision Zechariah saw in
Zechariah 3. "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 Jesus, 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).
This vision illustrates what God's justification of the elect is about. Joshua the high priest, as representative of God's elect, appears before God the Judge. Satan is also present, accusing Joshua before God. However, the Lord does not follow up Satan's accusations. 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 statement? Weren't Satan's accusations correct? Yes, Satan was correct. But 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 an 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. We read that he was dressed in filthy garments, sinful. No, the basis for this declaration of innocence was God's good pleasure in Christ. This declaration was an undeserved, free gift of God. Here is pointed up the marvel of the Gospel, that I, sinner that I am, should be declared righteous, without sin. What's more, I am declared righteous by none other than holy God Himself.
Graphically, justification describes the action of God whereby He takes His elect from Satan's side and brings him back to God's side. See Figure 1.
SCRIPTURAL EVIDENCE OF JUSTIFICATION
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 don't make ourselves presentable to God, but God does so through Jesus Christ. God made Christ our substitute, imputing our sins to Him so that we in turn could be declared righteous, innocent.
"... 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 fall short of the glory of God; not one of us can appear in God's court in innocence; yet, all God's elect are justified. Here is a news most exciting to the lost sinner; God does the unexpected: He declares innocent the person who of Himself is guilty, very guilty. This is grace in all its glorious height!
RESULT OF JUSTIFICATION
"Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1).
If God says of me that I am innocent, then the sin which cost me Paradise is gone. It means that Paradise has been restored. 'Declared innocent' means that I may again have that relationship with God which used to be there in the beginning. In the above text, Paul was not necessarily describing the way he felt at the time. Rather, Paul made a statement of fact and we may echo his words, despite the way we might feel at any given time. The fact is that God has declared me just, innocent, meaning that He is angry with me no longer. Consequently, I may enjoy peace with God.
HOW GOD INVALIDATES SATAN'S ACCUSATIONS
Lord's Day 23, Q&A 60, asks, "How are you righteous before God?" One could also ask the question this way: how can I, a sinner, rightly be moved from Satan's side to God's side? In order to answer this question, this Lord's Day describes what it is my conscience accuses me of:
1) "I have grievously sinned against all God's commandments." Not only have I sinned; I have sinned against every last one of God's laws.
2) I "have never kept any (of God's commandments)." This is certainly condemning, for not only have I sinned against God's commandments, but I can't even point to any instance at any time where I perfectly obeyed God's commands.
3) I "am still inclined to all evil." My problem does not concern only what I did yesterday; tomorrow will be no better. I'm so extremely vulnerable to sin, so prone to sinning.
However, in order to answer the question as to how I am righteous before God, 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. Christ is present there while I stand before God. What Christ obtained for me God imputes to me. His payment for my sin is credited to me. My account, so black with sin, is made white again by Christ; He erased all my sins. (Figure 2, point 1).
God knows too that I never kept any of His commandments. God knows so well how unrighteous I am. Yet that did not stop God from declaring me righteous, innocent, for Christ's perfect righteousness covered my unrighteousness. Christ by His righteousness has obtained righteousness for me (Figure 2, point 2).
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. Christ's perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness, all of these, God imputes, grants, to me. Lord's Day 23 states, "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." What Christ has obtained on the cross is for me. This is fact, reality, no matter how I might sometimes feel to the contrary.
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 is the bond that unites Christ and me, the bond that makes Christ's merits mine, the instrument by which Christ's satisfaction, righteousness and holiness cover my debt, my unrighteousness, my unholiness. FAITH is the instrument by which Christ's merits become my own. This we read too in Romans 3:26 & 28. "... 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 3:28 has also been quoted in Article 22, "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 here 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, in the face of the heresies of the Great Reformation, the truth that one can be justified only by faith, without works of law.
FAITH: WHAT IS IT?
Is faith a feeling? No. Faith is an act of holding on to all that God says, all that God has promised, despite whether or not I feel that what He says is true or makes sense to me. Faith is this, that in spite of anything, I hold on to whatever it is that God says.
We read in Hebrews 11 of the faith of various Old Testament persons. "By faith Abel offered...." "By faith Noah...prepared an ark...." "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called..., and he went out, not knowing where he was going." Faith is presented here as more than knowledge about God. Faith is presented here as knowledge combined with trust, which together translates into action.
Lord's Day 7, Q & A 21, tells us that faith has two aspects. There we read, "What is true faith? True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in His Word. At the same time it is a firm confidence that not only to others, but also to me, God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation ..." Hence there are two aspects to faith: a sure knowledge and a firm confidence.
One cannot separate these two elements of faith: knowledge and confidence. Therefore it is true too that one cannot separate faith from living. God's promises to me are forgiveness of sins and justification through the blood of Jesus Christ. Faith is that I know these promises, hold on to them and know these promises to be true for me in the midst of the sins I commit day by day, hour by hour. I know that I am a sinner, guilty according to God's holy Law, damnable. No matter where I am or what I am doing, my sins accuse me, pointing up my guilt before God. It is exactly because my sins and guilt are such a reality in my life, no matter what I do or where I am, that my faith must also be at work no matter what I do or where I am. I cannot say that I have faith, make profession of my faith, and then put my faith on the shelf while I get on with life. In the face of the trials of this life, compounded as they are by my own sinfulness, by faith I hold on to the promise of God that I share in all Christ's satisfaction, righteousness and holiness.
Central to faith is the good news of Jesus Christ. Yet that does not mean that faith circles only around the matter of forgiveness of sins. Christ's work means that God has become my Father, and means also that the Holy Spirit has been given to me. As I grapple with the concerns of daily living, I may believe that God is my Father Who cares for me well. By faith, then, I obey God's commands, by faith I trust that the way He leads me is good. Faith is not something that can be shelved. Faith is action, is holding on to God's promises in ALL my circumstances. So faith is far more than mere knowledge, something of the head. Faith is a disposition of the heart. Faith touches me, it occupies my mind and heart, it guides me in all I do.
Faith, then, is to walk humbly with God at all times and in all places. Faith is to have a warm, close relationship with God. Inherent to faith is then also deep sorrow on account of my sins.
In order to benefit from what Christ has done one needs faith. Faith is to walk with God, holding on to all that God says, believing all that God has promised. Faith therefore is a realisation of one's unworthiness, and a realisation of God's mercy in the face of this unworthiness . Then I can stand in the court of God and say in response to the accusations of Satan: "But God, you promised that Christ died for me and made payment for my sins." We may remind God of what He promised in His Word, "that whoever believes in Him (Christ) should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). I believe that Christ died for me, a sinner, and He imputed to me His perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness. So I believe too that God will respond, "yes My child, your dirty clothes have been washed clean in Christ's blood."
SALVATION THROUGH CHRIST'S WORK AND FAITH?
It is Christ who covers my sin by His perfect righteousness. Yet Christ's work is not made mine automatically. To receive salvation through Christ's work I need faith. Faith plays a role between Christ's work and my salvation (Figure 3). But what role does faith play? Need I place a plus sign where the letter A is located, so that I get this equation: Christ's work + my faith = my salvation? If this were the case, then my faith would add to Christ's work, would complete it to make my salvation possible. In that case, I have made a contribution to my salvation.
Yet that is not Scriptural, for the apostle says that salvation is "by grace". Ephesians 2:8: "for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." No, I cannot say that my salvation depends on my faith in the same way that my salvation depends on Christ's work on the cross. I am saved because of Christ's work but not because of my faith.
What then? How am I to understand the relation between Christ's work and my salvation? Article 22 puts it like this: "faith is the instrument that keeps us with [Christ] in the communion of all His benefits." Yes, I need faith to be saved, faith plays a role between Christ's work and my salvation. But faith is nothing more than the instrument by which I share in Christ's benefits. I am not saved because of my faith; I am saved because of Christ through my faith (or "by faith").
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. In the covenant it is my responsibility do so, both
in 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.