Speech #1 of Justification: The Heart of the Gospel
Rev. Ronald Van Overloop
It is my privilege to speak to you this evening on a most important subject. It is objectively important because it was the material principle of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and it remains such in Reformed churches. It is subjectively important for every child of God because it is knowing how I am right before God.
Martin Luther maintained that this truth was the difference between a standing and a falling church. If a church upholds the truth of justification by faith alone, then in Luther’s judgment it was a standing church. If they did not, then it was falling. The importance of the truth of justification by faith alone is also evidenced in the fact that thee two creeds which arose out of the Reformation, the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, maintain and defend this truth, and they do so in precise, powerful, and comforting terms: Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 23,24,51 and Belgic Confession, Articles 22 – 24.
The importance of this truth can also been seen in the kind of attention Satan gives to it. Throughout the history of the church Satan has attacked the truth of justification by faith alone. Some of his most deceptive attacks have been and are made when he distorts the language, using the words “justification by faith,” but making them mean something different. Most often Satan attacks the use of the word “alone.” Those who identify their position as “federal vision” are attacking this fundamental and precious truth, doing so in a most deceptive way. They will speak of the fact that justification is by faith and that it is through grace, but they add that justification is not only by faith, but also by the works which flow from faith. The result is that justification is not by faith alone!
And the importance of the truth of justification by faith alone is experienced. It was in the life of Martin Luther. And every believer has times when he wonders how he can stand before the holy God whose eyes will not behold iniquity. Every believer is aware of his sins and of the presence of great sinfulness within. We ask, How will I know when the great day of judgment comes that I can stand before that judgment seat without terror? Then everything that I have done, said, and thought will be exposed. How can I look forward to that day with a comfortable sense of God’s favor? How do we gain such assurance when my conscience accuses me that I have grossly transgressed all of God’s commandments? How can I have this assurance when others point out my errors? How can I stand before God? How does He receive me? The answer to these penetrating questions is found only in the truth of justification by faith alone. This truth is the heart of the gospel as far as the experience of every child of God is concerned.
What Justification Is
What is justification? Herman Hoeksema defined it as an act of the grace of God, whereby He imputes, puts on the legal account of one who is guilty and condemned but elect His perfect righteousness in Christ, acquitting him of all his guilt and punishment on the grounds of the merit of Christ’s work, and giving to this sinner the right to eternal life. Justification is a part of salvation from sin in Christ as God applies salvation to each of His elect.
Our creeds speak of justification in the same way. Both the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism describe justification as a work of God in the experience of a believer. Scripture declares, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose. For whom he did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified, them He also glorified” (Romans 8:28-30). This passage speaks of justification as a work of God – His legal declaration in the consciousness of the elect, called, believing sinner. When we speak of justification tonight, we will be speaking of it as a part of the work of God in saving every elect sinner, giving to them salvation from sin in Christ. Justification is God declaring to the consciousness of His regenerated and called children that they are forgiven and righteous.
God by His Spirit speaks to the consciousness of the humbled and broken sinner of His act of changing his legal position before God, the Judge, from a state of guilt to a state of innocence. God speaks to the repenting sinner of His work of having justified him in Christ. Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican concludes with the publican going “to his house justified.” The Pharisee and the publican went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stood and prayed with himself, “God I thank Thee, that I am not as other men are.” The publican found a place in a far corner and there He humbly pleaded for mercy – God’s undeserved pity for a miserable sinner. God spoke to the consciousness of that broken, humble sinner, working in him an awareness that God had done something for him. The humble sinner left the temple justified, rejoicing in the knowledge and assurance of his justification. Justification is the humble sinner hearing God declare that his legal status before the holy and righteous Judge is changed from one of guilt to one of innocence. Believing what God had spoken by His Spirit to his consciousness, the publican went home no longer beating his breast as he did in the temple, but happy with the blessedness of justification.
While God’s declaration of the justification of His elect children took place once at the cross of Christ, the justification which takes place in the consciousness of His children occurs repeatedly. Every time the sinner repents, God gives the humbled sinner the knowledge that all his sins and sinfulness are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. Why it is that the children of the heavenly Father are taught to pray repeatedly: “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”? In answering this question our spiritual fathers use the language of justification in the Heidelberg Catechism. “Be pleased for the sake of Christ’s blood not to impute to us poor sinners, our transgressions, nor that depravity, which always cleaves to us” (Q. 126). Every time we pray the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer we are asking our Father in heaven to justify us, that is, not to impute to us our sins and the sinfulness which lies within us. Justification is repeated, not because God’s act of justifying is imperfect, but because the sinner repeatedly sins and needs to be told, over and over, that his sins are not imputed to him.
There are two major elements in God’s declaration of an elect sinner’s justification. The one is negative and the other is positive. The first element of justification is that God instructs the elect ungodly that he is forgiven, delivering him from all the guilt and shame of his sins. The sinner knows that he is only worthy of condemnation and his conscience condemns him (Luke 18:13). But God declares him to be forgiven – perfect innocent. Listen to the Heidelberg Catechism. “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. (Q. 60). God forgives. He takes away my condemnation, the penalty I deserve, the shame that comes with the penalty, and the consciousness of the guilt which drove the publican to beat his breast in the far corner of the temple. God declares that our sin is gone. He declares that in His judgment we are no longer worthy of being condemned. For what can a justified sinner be condemned? His sin is gone. Long ago a catechism teacher taught me that to be justified means “just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned.” The Heidelberg says, “As if I never had had, nor committed any sin.”
The second element of justification is God declaring to the consciousness of the elect sinner that he is righteous. Simply put, to be righteous is to be right in God’s sight because God’s law has been perfectly fulfilled. God declares that in Christ the believing sinner has fulfilled His law (Romans 5:19). It does not matter what my sight sees or what others say they see in me. Righteousness is that God declares that I have done what is right. Again, the Heidelberg Catechism puts it very well: “as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me” (Q. 60). It is the reality of this second element of justification which makes the simple definition of justification (just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned) simplistic, because it does not speak of righteousness. Justification means that God declares one to be righteous. This is a real righteousness. God, the perfect Judge declares the elect, regenerated, called sinner to be righteous. The justified sinner is aware that he is worthy to be condemned to everlasting damnation, but God, out of His own good pleasure, merely of grace, for the sake of Christ declares this sinner to be perfectly righteous, and thus worthy of intimate friendship with God, both now and eternally in heaven. The present relationship with God is that the justified one is a child of God, graciously adopted into His family. And he is an heir of eternal life. Children are heirs, co-heirs with Christ of everlasting life with God.
We must say one more thing about the righteousness which God reckons to the account of the justified. It is God declaring one to be righteous by imputation. This is not yet God making him righteous by infusing or by renewal. This latter is sanctification which always follows justification. The righteousness which is ours in justification is something which God, as the Judge, declares to be ours legally, by imputation. The righteousness which God gives to the sinner is only the righteousness of Jesus. We have none. And this righteousness is nothing less than God’s righteousness. “By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets: even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe” (Romans 3:20-22). It is the righteousness of God – His own righteousness. God’s own perfect righteousness is reckoned on our account because of the perfect work of Jesus Christ.
Jesus earned this absolutely perfect righteousness. He did so by His perfect obedience to God’s law and by His suffering all the penalty of our sins. In His life and suffering Jesus was made to be sin for us. He was reckoned among sinners. Our sins were imputed to Him, so He carried every one of our sins and all of our sinfulness. He came into the likeness of our sinful flesh in order to bear the wrath of God for all of our sins. Romans 4:25 declares that He was delivered unto death because of, on account of, our offenses. His work of bearing God’s wrath was a perfect work, performed out of loving obedience to God. This merited forgiveness and righteousness. He fully paid our debt and He earned for us such perfect righteousness that God had to raise Him from the dead. Jesus no longer belonged under death and in the grave. Every one of our sins and all of our sinfulness was forgiven.
Even as Jesus was delivered to death on account of our offenses, so He was raised from the dead on account of our righteousness. His resurrection is proof that He had fully paid for all of our sin. When we see the empty tomb, then the Spirit communicates to us the truth of forgiveness, full and free. Our conscience may say the opposite. It may want us to look at all of our sins and to stare at the spiritual cesspool of sinfulness out of which all our sins arise. This would make us doubt our salvation. But the gospel points to the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His tomb is empty. He paid it all. We are justified. We are righteous.
How Justification Is Ours
How is justification ours? How do we know that we are righteous? How does God communicate it to us? How do we experience it? By faith alone! Faith is the means or instrument by which God imputes to the guilty sinner the righteousness of Jesus Christ. And faith is the means or instrument by which the guilty sinner experientially knows and enjoys his innocence and peace with God.
The Heidelberg Catechism presents the subject of justification after it treats the things one must believe. It arrives at the truth of justification with this question, What does it profit you now that you believe all the truths expressed in the Apostles’ Creed? Its beautiful answer is, “That I am righteous in Christ, before God.” It is not whether I am righteous before other humans. They are going to have a harder time believing that I am righteous. They, like my conscience, see that I still sin, that I still do things wrong. But God says, “You are righteous before Me, and you are so righteous that you are an heir of eternal life.”
Faith is that gift of God in the regenerated and called sinner, whereby the sinner is ingrafted into Christ and whereby he embraces and appropriate Christ and all His benefits, relying on Him. Faith embraces the declaration of the divine Judge. Faith appropriates to oneself the forgiveness in Christ and the righteousness of Christ.
Faith is a most fitting instrument to give to us the knowledge of our justification. It is so because faith is a believing and not a working. To say “faith” is to say “no work.” Faith is the opposite of works. Faith is a gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8,9). Faith is the bond which unites one with Christ. God objectively unites all the elect to Christ in election. When God regenerates the elect, then He objectively engrafts us by faith into Christ. This is the power of faith. This power of faith becomes active, so those who are objectively engrafted into Christ, subjectively hold to Him. They embrace Him, or “abide in Him” as Jesus says in John 15. Faith knows and trusts Christ for righteousness. It embraces Jesus Christ as He is proclaimed in the gospel. We trust Him Whom we believe. I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to take my sin, to pay for it all, and to earn righteousness which He puts onto my account. Faith simply believes – holding for truth that which God has revealed in His Word.
So how am I right in the sight of the perfectly holy God? This is the question which burns in every guilty sinner. This was Luther’s burning question. If the seraphim of Isaiah 6 were compelled to hide themselves and their faces before the thrice-holy God, then how can I stand before Him? Faith says, “I stand before Him, not on the basis of sight, but on the basis of what God has taught me in His Word. The Bible tells me that when Jesus died, He died for sin. And when He lived, doing perfectly the will of the Father, He earned for those He represented a perfect righteousness. God, for Jesus’ sake, puts that righteousness to my account. God allows me to stand before Him in that righteousness.
Faith excludes works. Repeatedly the Scriptures declare that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone without any works of man. “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace” (Romans 4:16a). “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight…” “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God: being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:20,23,24,28). To one who works there is a reward, but it is not a reward of grace; it is a reward of debt (cf. Romans 4:4). “To him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Faith believes on Him Who justifies the ungodly, for “Christ died for the ungodly,” who are without strength to do anything good (Romans 5:6). The ungodly have done nothing to deserve anything good from God. And Galatians 2:16 put it this way, “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”
Faith is a gift of God, not a work of man. There are many who speak of justification by faith, but they make faith to be a work of man. But the Bible and our Reformed confessions condemn such thinking. “Why sayest thou, that thou art righteous by faith only? 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.” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 61). Faith is not the righteousness, it is only the way God gives His righteousness to His people. Faith is not a work of man, but a gift of God. Therefore we may never think that faith makes one worthy or is of any merit before God. God so works in us to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13), so that when we believe, then it is still a work of God and not of us. Human works do not make up any part of our justification before God. Good works flow from our salvation, but in no way do they earn salvation or make us righteous before God. “Why cannot our good works be the whole, or part of our righteousness before God? Because, that the righteousness, which can be approved of before the tribunal of God, must be absolutely perfect, and in all respects conformable to the divine law; and also, that our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 62). “What! Do not our good works merit, which yet God will reward in this and in a future life?” Yes, our good works do receive a reward, but “this reward is not of merit, but of grace” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 63). It is all of grace. The good works which flow out of our salvation, which God will reward, do not make up the least part of our righteousness. When we stand before God now and in the judgment day, we may not think that it is ever because of something we have done. We do stand before God in righteousness, but it is all of grace through faith, without any works of man.
Precisely because faith clings Christ, we look away from ourselves and to Him. We cannot add to His perfect work. Faith in Christ declares that it is all of Him and nothing of us. If our works could add or help in our salvation, then our sins would detract from it. We are righteous before God only because He graciously justifies. He makes the imputation and the declaration of judgment. We cannot earn it and we cannot lose it. We are justified by faith without works. Then we can have peace with God!
Peace With God
Because justification is by grace alone through faith alone, there is peace with God (Romans 5:1). This is not just peace, but wonderful peace with God. Between God and us there is fundamental agreement and subsequent good will.
This peace is not something I will have or might have, but it is something I have now. The present possession of this blessed peace is experienced in the way of remembering that we are justified by faith alone through our Lord Jesus Christ. If we would only consider our sin, then we would lose the sense of peace with God. The devil loves to have us focus on our sin. He uses our conscience and other humans to point out our sins and our sinfulness. He wants us to think that we are not good enough. He wants us to compare ourselves to others, because this invariably makes us consider our works. He just wants us to look away from the cross of Christ. The devil loves to make us know such guilt that we can find no way out, but stay guilty and condemned. Over against the devil, God wants His children to experience guilt, but only as that which drives us away from the merit of works to the merit of the cross of Christ. For God guilt is the doorway through which we must pass in order to come into the awareness of being justified.
We are justified by faith through our Lord Jesus Christ. We must look at Him, and keep looking at Him. His perfect work is the only thing that can merit complete forgiveness and perfect righteousness. Faith in His cross and His resurrection assures us of justification. And so real is this forgiveness and righteousness that no one can or may lay a charge against us. “If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth” (Romans 8:31-33). If we are not justified, then we are condemned. And so the apostle continues, “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us” (Romans 8:34). God makes us look at Christ’s work to assure us of freedom from condemnation and the possession of justification. “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died.” Christ, our representative head, died for us. But there is more, “yea rather, that is risen again.” Remember that we already learned in Romans 4:25 that Jesus was raised for our justification. It gets better, “Who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.” At God’s right hand Jesus intercedes for us, pleading the riches of the merits of His cross, so God declares us justified. There is nothing that can separate us form the love of God and from our righteousness in Christ. That is why we have peace with God!
Forgiveness and righteousness are ours according to the riches of God’s grace (confer Ephesians 1:7). It is not according to the measure of our repentance nor of the exercise of our faith. God’s forgiveness is according to the riches of His grace. His grace is the only standard. Faith knows that we are God’s children by adoption, possessing every right of children, including an eternal inheritance. And faith knows that our righteousness can never be lost and that we are heirs of eternal life. Standing in His grace we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:2).
Peace with God is the ability to rejoice. We rejoice that we are not our own, but belong to our faithful Savior in life and in death. We need never be tormented by the thought that we do not measure up or are not good enough. Instead we have confidence in approaching God, our conscience free “of fear, terror, and dread” (Belgic Confession, article 23). The only acceptance that matters is God’s, and we are “accepted in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6). When God loves His beloved Son, then we may know that we are accepted in Him and loved for His sake.
Therefore, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. That is all that Paul had to say in answer to the Philippian jailor. Exercise your God-given faith to lay hold on Christ and His perfect work. Abide in Him. Realize how completely forgiven and perfectly righteous you are. This is the peace that passes all understanding. Then, O sinner, you may go home justified!
This lecture was hosted by the Evangelism Committee of the First Protestant Reformed Church of Holland. For an audio copy, please contact us.
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