|Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.| -- Rom. iii.24.
The foregoing illustrations shed unexpected light upon the fact that God justifies the ungodly, and not him who is actually just in himself; and upon the word of Christ: |Now are ye clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.| (John xv.3) They illustrate the significant fact that God does not determine our status according to what we are, but by the status to which He assigns us He determines what we shall be. The Reformed Confession, which in all things starts from the workings of God and not of man, became again clear, eloquent, and transparent. So the divine Word, ordinarily lowered to a mere announcement of what God finds in us, becomes once more the fiat of His creative power. He found an ungodly man and said, |Be righteous,| and behold he became righteous. |I said to thee in thy blood, Live.| (Ezek. xvi.6)
In this way the various parts of the redemptive work are arranged chronologically each in its own place.
So long as the false and narrow idea prevailed that a man was justified after conversion on the ground of his apparent holiness, justification could not precede sanctification, but must follow it. Then man becomes first holy, and, as a reward or as a recognition of his holiness, he is declared righteous. Hence sanctification is first, and justification second; a justification, therefore, without any value, for what is the use of declaring that a ball is round?
The Scripture refuses to acknowledge a posterior justification. In Scripture, justification is always the starting point. All other things spring from it and follow it. |Christ was made unto us wisdom and righteousness,| and only then |sanctification and redemption.| (1 Cor. i.30) |Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we also have access.| (Rom. v.1) |Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.| (Rom. iii.24) And, |Whom He called, them He also justified; and whom He justified, them He also glorified.| (Rom. viii.30)
For this reason the Reformation made justification by faith the starting-point for the conscience, and by this confession bravely and energetically opposed Rome's justification by good works; for in this justification by good works that priority of sanctification found its root.
The Church of Christ can not deviate from this straight line of the Reformation without estranging itself and separating itself from its Head and Fountain of Life, vitally injuring itself. Sects which, like the Ethicals and the Methodists, detract from this truth sever the faith from its root. If our churches desire once more to be strong in the doctrine and bold in witness-bearing, they must not repose in lethargy on the mere form of the doctrine, but must heartily embrace the doctrine; for it presents this cardinal point in a superior and excellent manner. He only who heroically dares accept justification of the ungodly becomes actual partaker of salvation. He only can confess heartily and unreservedly redemption which is sovereign, unmerited, and free in all its parts and workings.
The last question that remains to be discussed is: How can the justification of the ungodly be reconciled with the divine Omniscience and Holiness?
It must be acknowledged that, in one respect, this whole representation seems to fail. It must be objected:
|Your argument is wittily thought out, but it does not stand the test. When an earthly sovereign decides that a man's state shall be otherwise than it actually is, he acts from ignorance, mistake, or arbitrariness. And since these things can not be ascribed to God, these illustrations can not be applied to Him.|
And again: |That an earthly judge sometimes condemns the innocent and acquits the guilty, and makes the former to occupy the status of the latter, and vice versa, is possible only because the judge is a fallible creature. If he had been infallible, if he could have weighed guilt and innocence with perfect accuracy, the wrong could not have been committed. Hence if sin had not come in, that judge could not have acted arbitrarily, but he would have acted according to the right, and decided for the right because it is right. And, since the Lord God is a judge who trieth the reins and who is acquainted with all our ways, in whom there can be no failure or mistake or ignorance, it is not thinkable, it is impossible, it is inconsistent with God's Being, that as the just Judge He ever could pronounce a judgment that is not perfectly in accordance with the conditions actually existing in man.|
Without the slightest hesitation we submit to this criticism. It is well taken. The mistake whereby a boy can be registered as a girl; the peasant's child for that of a nobleman; whereby a law-abiding citizen can be judged as a law-breaker, and vice versa, is out of the question with God. And, therefore, when He justifies the ungodly, as the earthly judge declares the dishonorable to be honorable, then these two acts, which are apparently similar, are utterly dissimilar and may not be interpreted in the same way.
And yet the correctness of the objection does not in itself invalidate the comparison. Scripture itself often compares men's acts, which are necessarily sinful, to the acts of God. When the unjust judge, weary of the widow's tears and importunity, finally said, |I will avenge her, lest she come at last and break my head| (Luke xviii.5 Dutch Translation), the Lord Jesus does not for a moment hesitate to apply this action, tho it sprang from an unholy motive, to the Lord God, saying: |And shall not God avenge His own elect, who cry night and day unto Him?| (Luke xviii.7)
It can not be otherwise. For since all acts of men, even the very best of the most holy among them, are always defiled with sin, either it would be impossible to compare any deed of man with the doings of God, or one must necessarily consider such deeds of men apart from the sinful motive, and apply to God only the third of the comparison.
And as Jesus could not mean that at last God must answer His elect, |lest they come and break His head,| but without speaking of the motive, simply pointed to the fact that the inopportune prayer is finally heard, so did we compare the wrong decision of the judge, declaring the guilty innocent, to the infallible decision of God, justifying the ungodly, since, in spite of the difference of motive, it coincides with a third of the comparison.
Moreover, human mistakes are out of the question with reference to the granting of pardon and reinstatement. Hence this expression of royal sovereignty is indeed a direct type of the sovereignty of the Lord our God.
But this does not settle the question. Altho we concede that the unholy motive of mistake can not be attributed to God, yet we must inquire: What is God's motive, and how can the justification of the ungodly be consistent with His divine nature?
We reply by pointing to the beautiful answer of the Catechism, question 60: |How art thou righteous before God? Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, tho 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 hath accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.|
That the Lord God justifies the ungodly is not because He enjoys fiction, or delights by a terrible paradox to call one righteous who in reality is wicked; but this fact runs parallel with the other fact, that such an ungodly one is really righteous. And that this ungodly one, who in himself is and remains wicked, at the same time is and continues righteous, finds its reason and ground in the fact that God puts this poor and miserable and lost sinner into partnership with an infinitely rich Mediator, whose treasures are inexhaustible. By this partnership all his debts are discharged, and all those treasures flow down to him. So tho he continues, in himself, poverty-stricken, he is at the same time immensely rich in his Partner.
This is the reason why all depends upon faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; for that faith is the bond of partnership. If there is no such faith, there can be no partnership with the wealthy Jesus; and you are still in your sin. But if there is faith, then the partnership is established, then it exists, and you engage in business no longer on your own account, but in partnership with Him who blots out all your indebtedness, while He makes you the recipient of all His treasure.
How is this to be understood? Is it the Person of the Christ who takes us into partnership? And, since God has no longer to reckon with our poverty, but can now depend upon the riches of Christ, does He therefore count us good and righteous? No, brethren, and again, no! It is not so, and it may not so be presented; for then there would be no justification on God's part. You have a bill to collect from a man who failed in business, but who was accepted as the partner of a rich banker, who discharged all his debts. Is there now the slightest mercy or goodness on your part, when you indorse that man's check? Doing otherwise, would you not flatly contradict solid and tangible facts?
No, the Lord God does not act that way. Christ does not blot out the debt, and obtain us treasure outside of God; nor does the ungodly enter, through faith, into partnership with the wealthy Jesus independently of the Father; neither does God, being informed of these transactions, justify the ungodly, who already had become a believer. For then there would be no honor for God, nor praise for His grace; it would be not the ungodly, but, on the contrary, a believer that was justified.
The matter is not transacted that way. It was the Lord God, first of all, who, without respect of person, and hence without respect to faith in the person, according to His sovereign power, chose a portion of the ungodly to eternal life; not as judge, but as Sovereign. But being judge as well as Sovereign, and therefore incapable of violating the right, He who has chosen, that is, the Triune God, has also created and given all that is necessary and required for salvation; so that these elect persons, at the proper time and by appropriate means, may receive and undergo the things by which in the end it will appear that all God's doing was majesty and all His decision just.
And, therefore, this whole ordering of the Covenant of Grace; and in this Covenant of Grace the ordering of the Mediator; and in the Mediator that of all satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness; and of that satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness, first the imputation, and after that the gift.
Wherefore God does indeed declare the ungodly just before he believes, that he may believe, and not after he believes. This justifying act is the creative act of God, in which is also deposited the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, and from which flow also the imputation at a granting of all these to the ungodly. Wherefore there is in this act of justification not the slightest mistake or untruth. He alone is declared just who, being ungodly in himself, by this declaration is and becomes righteous in Christ.
In this way alone it is possible fully to understand the doctrine of justification in all its wealth and glory. Without this deep conception of it, justification is merely the pardon of sin, after which, being relieved of the burden, we start out with newly animated zeal to work for God. And this is nothing else than genuine, fatal Arminianism.
But, with this deeper insight, man acknowledges and confesses: |Such pardon of sin does not avail me. For I know:
|1st. That I shall be again daily defiled with sin;
|2d. That I shall have a sinful heart within me until the day of my death;
|3d. That until then, I shall never be able to accomplish the keeping of the whole law;
|4th. That, since I am already condemned and sentenced, I can not do business in the Kingdom of God as an honorable man.|
The answer of justification, such as Scripture reveals and our Church confesses it, covers these four points most satisfactorily. It accepts you not as a saint, with a self-assumed holiness, but as one who confesses: |My conscience accuses me that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and have kept none of them, and that I am still inclined to all evil|; and yet, you are not cast out. It tells you that you can not depend upon any merit of your own, but must rely on grace alone. Wherefore it begins with putting you in the ranks of the law-abiding, of them that are declared good and righteous, |even so as if you never had had nor committed any sin.| As the ground of godliness it does not require of you the keeping of the law, but it imputes and imparts to you Christ's fulfilment of the law; esteeming you as if you had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for you. And effacing hereby the difference of your past and future sin, it imputes and grants unto you not only Christ's satisfaction and holiness, but even His original righteousness, in such a manner that you stand before God once more righteous and honorable, and as tho the whole history of your sin had been a dream only.
But the closing sentence of the Catechism should be noticed: |Inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.| And that |believing heart,| and that |embracing| -- behold, that is the very work of the Holy Spirit.