GOD’S JUSTIFICATION OF SINNERS
(See Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 11)
God has a problem. The problem that God has has to do with His own nature. God is a gracious God – He is the God of all grace. And God is a righteous God – He is the God of all justice. When Adam sinned all mankind became sinners in the sight of God. Instead of remaining righteous, as God had created us, mankind became unrighteous. So, this presented God with a problem, so to speak. How can God show mercy toward sinners when His justice demands judgment against all our sins?
God’s problem, of course, is not something that snuck up on God. For that would suggest poor planning on God’s part. No, God wasn’t taken by surprise when Adam ate the forbidden fruit, thus breaking God’s covenant with mankind and plunging the world into a state of ruin. But nevertheless, God’s problem is still a real problem: How could He demonstrate His divine grace while at the same time satisfy His divine justice?
We deserve everlasting punishment for our sins because they are sins against the eternally righteous God. When Adam, our covenant representative, sinned we broke the eternal covenant of God as it was administered pre-Fall. To break the eternal and therefore everlasting covenant is to bring with it everlasting consequences. These everlasting consequences include everlasting punishment, i.e., judgment in the everlasting fires of Hell.
So, how is a gracious God supposed to save anyone from the punishment he or she justly deserves? Well, that’s what we’re looking at in the following. Therefore, we need to look at the Scriptural doctrine of Justification.
The Background of Justification
Justification gave birth to the Protestant Reformation, which is another way of saying that the Dark Ages ended when, by the grace of God, the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ ascended over Europe. The thousand years of relative spiritual darkness came to an end when God illuminated the mind of Martin Luther to see the true meaning of Biblical Justification.
Luther had known that he was most definitely a sinner. And like all unconverted sinners he saw red when he thought about the righteousness of God. Luther took the righteousness or justice of God to mean the justice whereby God punishes the unrighteous or the unjust, i.e., sinners.
As you know, it’s a red-rag-to-a-bull to talk about the justice of God to non-Christians. Well so it was every time Martin Luther read about the justice or righteousness of God in the Bible. Luther said, “My situation was that, although I was an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage Him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him.” (RC Sproul quoting Roland Bainton quoting Martin Luther! “Faith Alone”, pgs. 56-57).
The following quote about Luther is taken from Anthony Hoekema’s book “Saved By Grace”, (sorry about its length, but it’s worth reading): “Martin Luther had tried everything: sleeping on hard floors, going without food, even climbing a staircase in Rome on his hands and knees—but to no avail. His teachers at the monastery told him that he was doing enough to have peace of soul. But he had no peace. His sense of sin was too deep.
“He had been studying the Psalms. They often mentioned ‘the righteousness of God.’ But this term bothered him. He thought it meant God’s punitive righteousness, whereby He punishes sinners. And Luther knew that he was a sinner. So when he saw the word righteousness in the Bible, he saw red.
“One day he opened the Bible at the Book of Romans. There he read about the gospel of Christ which is the power of God to salvation (1:16). This was good news! But the next verse said, ‘For therein is the righteousness of God revealed’ –there was that bad word righteousness again! And Luther’s depression returned. It got worse when he went on to read about the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all the unrighteousness of men (v. 18).
“So Luther turned again to verse 17. How could Paul have written such terrible words? Had he, Luther, perhaps misunderstood them? ‘For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, “The just shall live by faith”’ (KJV). Suddenly the light dawned on him. The ‘righteousness of God’ Paul here had in mind was not God’s punitive justice which leads Him to punish sinners, but rather a righteousness which God gives to the needy sinner, and which that sinner accepts by faith. This was a spotless and perfect righteousness, earned by Christ, which God graciously bestows on all who believe. No longer did Luther need to seek the basis for peace of soul in himself, in his own good works. Now he could look away from himself to Christ, and live by faith instead of grovelling in fear.
“At that moment the Protestant Reformation was born. Bells began to ring in Luther’s soul. Peace and joy now flooded his being. Romans 1:17 now became for him the very ‘gate of Paradise’ –the key which unlocked the Bible.” (A. A. Hoekema “Saved By Grace” p.152)
So we see then, that what Luther had being seeing as bad news was transformed into good news the moment he understood the grace of God revealed in the Gospel. In other words, the non-Christian is angry with God for being angry with him for his sins. But when God removes the blinkers from the sinner’s eyes, he sees God in a new light – the Light of Christ. He sees that the righteousness of God that was condemning him is also the righteousness that pardons him and takes away the guilt of his sin.
But the righteousness of God that’s revealed in the Gospel is not the righteousness that God has in His own Person from all eternity. No, the righteousness that’s revealed in the Gospel is the righteousness that belongs to the Mediator, Jesus Christ. God’s divine justice, i.e., His righteous wrathful judgment upon sinners has been properly, really, and fully satisfied by the work of Jesus Christ. Herein lies the great revealing of the grace of God to guilty sinners. This is what Luther saw. This is what brought about the great collective mind-shift of the Western world – the Reformation.
The grace of God revealed in the Gospel is life transforming, nation transforming, world transforming; but that transformation hangs upon the nail of Justification by Faith.
That, briefly, is the background of Justification in our own age. The West is still living off the blessings of God poured out at the time of the Reformation.
The Basis of Justification
Before his conversion Luther thought that a man could transform himself into being just or righteous in the eyes of God by his own good works. In other words, it was widely taught that a man could make himself righteous (i.e., right with God) by doing righteous works, i.e. by trying to be good.
It was, and I believe still is, the teaching of the Romish church that justification has to do with God infusing grace or righteousness into you. Rome still teaches that God’s righteousness is infused into the sinner at baptism and by his or her consumption of the elements of its Mass. But all this does is to promote and propagate the constant struggle for personal righteousness that Luther was having before God effectually called him.
If God is infusing righteousness into you by the elements in the Lord’s Supper, then it is you who are making yourself righteous by partaking. If the elements of the Lord’s Supper infused righteousness into you, then you’d need to partake as often as you could to counter the sins you keep on committing afterwards! This, no doubt, is why Rome sees the need to have its Mass more than quarterly, indeed daily, and sometimes more! But it is also a belittling of God’s righteousness to suggest that one needs to keep on “topping up” one’s righteousness to counter one’s sins!
But Biblical Justification has nothing to do with being infused with God’s righteousness. God’s righteousness is not something that can be taken intravenously. God’s righteousness cannot be injected into your arm by a hypodermic needle, nor taken orally. No, those whom God effectually calls, He freely justifies by pardoning their sins. And they are justified before the righteous God by His accounting and accepting their persons as righteous. Did you get that? God pardons sinners for their sins. He accounts or declares them righteous. And He accepts them as righteous. To be pardoned is to have the guilt of your guiltiness before God removed. It’s to be forgiven – it is to have the penalty of your offence removed.
If you were a prisoner on death row, if you were to receive a pardon, you would no longer face the death penalty. When God pardons a sinner that sinner no longer has the wrath of God to face when he dies. It means that the fires of Hell have been extinguished for that pardoned sinner.
To be accounted righteous is to be called by God something you are not by nature. By nature you are unrighteous or unjust. But God by His grace declares or calls the regenerated and pardoned sinner righteous. And to be pardoned of your sins and declared righteous is to be accepted by God. Therefore as an unpardoned, and unrighteous sinner you are unacceptable to God. But as a pardoned and righteous sinner you are acceptable to God.
But this pardoning, accounting, and accepting by God has nothing to do with anything that God does in you or is already in you or done by you. Rather it is all for the sake of Christ alone. It is for Him, and because of Him anyone is pardoned, accounted righteous and accepted by God. Therefore justification has nothing to do with you being evangelically obedient to God. It’s got nothing to do with you attending the Romish Mass ten times a day!
And neither does God pardon, account you as righteous, and accept, i.e., justify you, by imputing faith, or the act of believing to you, or any other evangelical obedience for righteousness. Some in the churches think that God accepts faith or belief in Him as a substitute for righteous obedience to Him. But it only takes a moment’s thought to see that this brings you back into the bondage of sin from which justified sinners are set free! For if you think you are saved by faith, then you are believing that it is your belief or faith that is saving you. But the subtlety of this is exposed when it is understood that sinners are saved by grace THROUGH faith.
Faith is therefore the instrument, and not the ground or basis of our salvation. Faith is the outstretched hand by which the already regenerated sinner receives salvation. “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” Ephesians 2:8&9.
Now, this isn’t to suggest for a moment that the faith of a regenerated sinner is a dead faith. No, the faith of a justified person is always accompanied by all other saving graces. It’s a living faith. It is a faith working in love. But God isn’t scouring the earth looking and waiting for people to exercise faith in Him before He justifies them. For people who are dead in their trespasses and sins cannot exercise what they do not have.
But, if faith is the alone instrument of salvation and not its basis, then what exactly is the basis of a sinner’s justification? Well, to put in a nutshell what has been already stated, Jesus Christ is the basis of Justification. Our justification is grounded in Him and not anything in ourselves. Faith receives and rests on Christ and His righteousness for justification. The Gospel reveals the fact that the debt sinners owe to God is fully discharged by His obedient life and sacrificial death. His perfect life is substitutionary as well as His sacrificial death.
Think about it: It is commonly believed by non-Christians that God only lets people who are good into Heaven. If you believe that then it necessarily follows that you will try to get right with God (i.e., become righteous) by trying to be good. In other words, you’ll try to justify yourself before God by attempting to be good. But what happened to Martin Luther? Even better than that, what about Paul the Apostle? Was there ever a person who did more good works than the Apostle Paul before he was converted and was still a Pharisee? Well, what does he call all the “Brownie points” he thought he was scoring? Before God’s saving grace came to him he was the cock crowing on the dung heap, wasn’t he? What a pile of good works he had under him! After his conversion he considered them dung! You would need a pair of fisherman’s waders to wade through all his pre-conversion good works!
Well, what can wash away all his sins, your sins, and my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus!
This is all my hope and peace:
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
This is all my righteousness:
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Oh! Precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
no other fount I know,
nothing but the blood of Jesus.
(Robert Lowry 1826-99)
So, it’s Jesus’ obedience that gets you into Heaven. He kept every single dot over every single “i”, and every single stroke through every single “t” of God’s righteous Law unto death. Therefore Jesus’ good work is the righteousness that God imputes to the pardoned sinner’s bankrupt account. This is the righteousness that we need to get into Heaven.
But, it’s all very well having the righteousness you need to get into Heaven, but what about the penalty the sinner owes for breaking God’s righteous Law in the first place? This is the heart of the problem we were talking about earlier. How is God going to let sinners into Heaven? He has three options that we know of:
1. Turn a blind eye toward the sinner’s sin.
2. Destroy all of mankind.
3. Send His Son to live a perfect life as their representative and receive their punishment as their substitute.
The third option was God’s preferred option. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” John 3:17&18.
So, His righteousness is imputed to the bankrupt sinner’s account. This righteousness is received, not by infusion, but by the instrument of faith. But not only that; the sinner’s sins are imputed or transferred to Christ account. And when Christ was on the cross the sinner’s sins were disposed of as the Christ suffered God’s fiery wrath as the sinner’s substitute.
This then, is how God’s divine justice was fully satisfied, as well as how He expressed His divine grace to the world. As the Psalmist so poetically puts it: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed.” Psalm 85:11.
The Bonus of Justification
The bonus of Justification is that the justified sinner is justified forever. The justified sinner is justified forever because it is God who justifies. And God, as you know, being eternal is a forever Person. Christ’s works of obedience are of infinite worth. And His death on the cross is also of infinite value. Therefore, if it is God who justifies on the basis of His Son and His Son’s work, then that justification is forever. To be justified by God is to be forever declared righteous by God.
But the justified sinner should not think that he has been justified from all eternity. Neither should he think that he has been justified from the time of Christ’s death and resurrection. For the sinner remains a “child of wrath” until the Holy Spirit brings the benefits of Christ’s cross to him as an individual. Therefore, all mankind, including those chosen for salvation by God before the foundation of the world is on the broad road that leads to destruction. We were all marching through the fiery jaws of everlasting Hell. Therefore, we must never presume upon the grace of God, even when justified, which is to say that we ought to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.
If you are just about to fall off a very high cliff and someone snatches you to safety, how would you feel? You would be glad and trembling at the same time, wouldn’t you? If you were dangling by a thread over a fiery pit and someone rescued you in the nick of time you’d be even more glad and trembling! Well, the bonus of God’s justification is that you have escaped the everlasting fires of Hell and torment forever.
Before you were justified every disaster that came your way was a taste of what was in store for you as an unrepentant sinner. It was a reminder of the future final judgment of God. All the bad things that happened to you were little judgments of God. But now that you have been justified, the bad things that happen to you are no longer judgments, but rather chastenings from your gracious Heavenly Father.
Mum and dad might send little Johnny to his room for being bad. But mum and dad still love little Johnny. Little Johnny thinks it’s a bad thing to be sent to his room all alone. But mum and dad are chastening little Johnny for his own good. It’s only for a moment. But there is no return from Hell. The loneliness there is an everlasting loneliness. Yes, there will be other people in Hell, but they won’t be able to help you in your darkness. For they have no light themselves.
It’s one disaster after another in Hell. But, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” Romans 8:1. Therefore, if any disaster befalls the justified person, he may rest assured that God is not condemning him, but merely chastening him. God continues forever to forgive the sins of those that are justified. Therefore you can never fall from the state of justification, your state of righteousness. You can never fall out of Jesus’ hand. Therefore you can never fall into the fires of Hell.
Yet you may, by your own sins, at times fall under God’s fatherly displeasure. And you may even stumble around as if in a dark room and not have the light of His countenance shine upon you for a time. But this will last only until you humble yourself, and confess your sins to Him and beg His pardon and renew your faith and repentance. It’s just like little Johnny being restored to full fellowship with mum and dad once he’s finished sulking in his room.
Make sure that you have been justified by God; i.e., declared righteous by Him. Ask yourself if you believe that God has taken all your sins, past, present, and future, and placed them upon His Son on Calvary’s cross. And then ask yourself if you believe that God has taken Christ’s righteousness and given it to you.
Now ask yourself if your righteousness is your own righteousness? Or is it Christ righteousness plus your own righteousness? I hope neither! Therefore make absolutely sure that you have faith ONLY in His righteousness alone! Don’t be found guilty of having dung for righteousness, or guilty of mixing dung with righteousness. Make sure you have the pure, unadulterated righteousness of Jesus Christ.
For it’s by Christ’s righteousness alone that God justifies sinners – forever.