Justification (The Westminster Confession of Faith – Chapter 11)

WCFThe Westminster Confession of Faith includes an entire chapter dealing with the doctrine of justification. It starts of with something of a definition:

“Those whom God effectually calls, he also freely justifies: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 11.1)

So justification is not a matter of “infusing” righteousness into a believer, and so making him or her to be righteous (which is the Roman Catholic position on justification), but rather a matter of: 1.) “pardoning their sins” (i.e. forgiveness), and 2.) “accounting and accepting their persons as righteous.” This is forensic or court room language. In justification, God both forgives all of our sins and views or accounts us as righteous in His sight (not just as if we had never sinned, but also as if we had always obeyed His will in all things).

How does He do this? How can God then (to use Paul’s phrase) “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26, ESV)? How can a holy and just God justify the wicked? The Confession goes on to say that it is “not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them.” So it is not on the basis of anything that we are or even that we become (i.e. infused righteousness), nor is it on the basis of anything that we do. Rather it is “for Christ’s sake alone,” on the basis of who He is and what He has done for us.

Notice also that while justification is through faith alone, that faith itself is in no way meritorious. Faith in and of itself does not justify; faith in and of itself is not accounted to us as righteousness. Rather, it is through faith alone that “the obedience and satisfaction of Christ” are imputed to us as our righteousness.

Notice also what the Confession explicitly excludes as the basis or grounds of our justification – “the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience.” The good works of obedience to God’s law  may be “the fruits and evidences of a true and living faith” (WCF 16.2), but they play no part in our justification. We are not counted righteous in God’s sight on the basis of them.

The justification of believers is a matter of God “imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.”  Even our faith itself is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8)!

The Confession’s chapter on justification continues by stating:

“Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.” (11.2)

So while faith alone is the only “instrument of justification” (cf. Belgic Confession Article 22), that faith is never alone in the one who has been justified. As the old saying (attributed to Martin Luther) goes, “Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.” Rather, the saving grace of faith is “ever [i.e. always] accompanied with all other saving graces.”

That means that all of the other benefits of Christ’s redemption (not just justification) are also communicated to us in Him, things such as adoption, sanctification, and even (in the life to come) glorification. This is what Paul is saying in Romans 8:29-30, where we read:

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (ESV)

Everything that is commonly considered as part of the ordo salutis (or order or salvation) is assured to everyone who is in Christ Jesus. And so if someone presumes to be justified by faith in Christ, but the other saving graces (such as sanctification) are yet absent, that person’s faith is nothing but “dead faith.” True saving faith “works by love.” Justification and sanctification must always be distinguished from each other, but never separated.

This chapter in the Confession goes on to speaking of the nature of Christ’s work of atonement:

“Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them; and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.” (11.3)

In other words, Christ’s death really did make satisfaction or propitiation for our sins. The justice of God was satisfied by His obedience and death (the active and passive obedience of Christ). And so our justification is a matter of justice toward Christ and His work, but grace alone toward us. Christ alone earned or merited our salvation by His work, which we receive all of the benefits of by the sheer grace of God! In this way both the justice and the grace of God are glorified!

The next thing that this chapter deals with is the idea of eternal justification or justification from eternity. It says:

“God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.” (11.4)

God’s decree of justification (i.e. His decision and plan to justify His elect) was from all eternity, and so cannot fail to come to pass in His appointed time. But we are not then to suppose that the elect were justified from all eternity. Not only that, but here the Confession also rules out the idea that the elect were justified when Christ died and rose again. We must not confuse the historia salutis (i.e. Christ’s accomplishment of our redemption in time through His death and resurrection) with the ordo salutis (or the application of Christ’s work of redemption to us).

Rather, we are not justified until the Holy Spirit (in our effectual calling – see Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.29-31) applies Christ and the benefits of His redemption to us. This is simply to affirm what Paul says in Romans 5:1, that we are “justified by faith” (emphasis mine).

This chapter of the Confession then turns our attention to a right understanding of the implications of our justification, saying,

“God does continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified; and, although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance.” (11.5)

Justification can never be intermitted or lost. Believers in Christ “can never fall from the state of justification.” But this does not mean that God literally no longer sees or notices our sins. In fact, we may at times, by means of our sins, “fall under God’s fatherly displeasure” and so experience His chastisement or discipline. God’s fatherly displeasure is in no way inconsistent with the doctrine of justification. As the writer of the book of Hebrews puts it:

“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:7-11, ESV)

God’s fatherly displeasure and discipline are not signs of wrath, but of love toward His justified and adopted children in Christ. Justification does not mean that we no longer need to confess our sins, ask for forgiveness for them, and renew our repentance from them.

The last thing that this chapter of the Confession points out to us is that justification has always been this way, both in the Old Testament as well as in the New:

“The justification of believers under the old testament was, in all these respects, one and the same with the justification of believers under the new testament.” (11.6)

Everything that the Confession of Faith states regarding justification (in 11.1-11.5 above) held true for the saints in the Old Testament, just as it does in our day! It cannot be emphasized enough that the way of salvation has always and only been by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Abraham, Moses, David, and the rest of the saints in the Old Testament were justified the exact same way that you and I are today – by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. They were justified the exact same way that believers have always been justified – through faith alone. The good news of the gospel has not changed.

Advertisements

Justification By Faith Alone (Belgic Confession Article 22)

with-heart-and-mouthThe Belgic Confession (1561) contains no less than two (2) articles dealing with the topic of justification. The first of these is Article 22 (“Our Justification Through Faith in Jesus Christ”), which is as follows:

We believe that, to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits, appropriates Him, and seeks nothing more besides Him. For it must needs follow, either that all things which are requisite to our salvation are not in
Jesus Christ, or if all things are in Him, that then those who possess Jesus Christ through faith have complete salvation in Him. Therefore, for any to assert that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides Him, would be too gross a blasphemy; for hence it would follow that Christ was but half a Savior.

“Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith apart from works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.”

First note the source of justifying faith – it is the work of the Holy Spirit who “kindles in our hearts an upright faith.” No doubt this is what Paul means in Ephesians 2:8 when he tells us that we have been saved by grace through faith, and then adds, “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (ESV). Even our very faith in Christ is the gift of God! Left to ourselves, none of us would ever believe in Christ for salvation.

Second, note the object (so to speak) of justifying faith – Jesus Christ with all His merits.” In other words, by faith we embrace or receive Christ Himself (His person) and all of His merits (i.e. His work – all that He has done for our salvation). In his exposition of the Belgic Confession (With Heart and Mouth), Daniel Hyde writes,

“By faith we look outside of our merit and ourselves. Like beggars, we receive only that which is given by another. What is given is the only One who has done anything good in the eyes of God, the only One who merited, that is, earned, and therefore was rewarded with righteousness to give to his people on the basis of his obedience to the law.” (p.294-295)

Notice thirdly the “instrument” of our justification – faith alone. We must be careful to understand that it is not faith of itself that justifies us, as if it were somehow inherently meritorious before God, but rather that faith itself is the only instrument by which we receive Christ and all of the benefits of redemption. Faith is “only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness.” Christ Himself is our righteousness. Christ Himself justifies us and saves us from our sins. 

Faith alone is the instrument of our justification, for it is through faith alone that we look outside of ourselves and “embrace Christ our righteousness,” and so are justified in Him!

 

Martin Luther on “Alien Righteousness”

AlienMartin Luther is often quoted as speaking of the imputed  righteousness of Christ in the justification of sinners as an “alien righteousness.”

Now that may sound like a rather odd phrase, but Luther here is not speaking of little green men. What he means is that such a righteousness is utterly foreign to us; it is not inherent or even infused in us, but is entirely from outside of us.

He says of this alien righteousness:

“[It] is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith, as it is written in I Cor. 1[:30]: “Whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”” (Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, p.155)

He spells this out in more detail later in the same paragraph, where he writes,

“Therefore a man can with confidence boast in Christ and say: “Mine are Christ’s living, doing, speaking, his suffering and dying, mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, suffered, and died as he did.””

Can you say those same things confidently? If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you can! For in your justification by faith in Christ, Christ’s own “living, doing, speaking, suffering and dying” are just as much yours as if you yourself “had lived, done, spoken, suffered, and died as he did.”

In justification, the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ is imputed to you by faith. That includes what is often referred to as His “passive obedience” (i.e. His suffering and death on the cross), as well as His “active obedience” (i.e. His life of perfect, sinless obedience to the will of His Father).

Now that really is good news that is out of this world!

Justification (Shorter Catechism Q.33)

1710_largeThe 500th anniversary of what is commonly held to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is nearly upon us! For it was on October 31st, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his now-famous “95 Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s invitation to debate these 95 points of doctrine or contention has been called the spark that lit the flame of the Protestant Reformation.

With this momentous anniversary almost upon us, I thought it might be helpful to post something on the protestant doctrine of justification. Justification by faith alone (sola fide) is often called the “material cause” of the Reformation. In other words, it was front and center in many of the debates, discussions, and even trials. The “formal cause” of the Reformation – the underlying foundational issue – was the authority of Scripture (or sola Scriptura).

The doctrine of justification has been called the doctrine by which the church stands or falls (Martin Luther), and the hinge on which the Christian religion turns (John Calvin). So what is it? What is the biblical doctrine of justification?

I believe that the simplest and most helpful definition of justification is found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, where it says,

“Q. 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

So the first thing we see there in that definition is that justification is “an act of God’s grace.” It is an act of the grace of God, and so it is a gift, freely given to all who are in Christ by faith. It is not earned, nor can it be. In other words, the basis of our justification is not found in anything inherent in us at all.

The second thing we see is that justification is a one-time act, as distinguished from sanctification, which is an ongoing “work of God’s free grace” (Q.35). There are no degrees of justification; there is no growth (or decay) in justification. In fact, as Westminster Larger Catechism Q.77 points out, justification “does equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation” (italics added). All genuine believers in Christ are equally, perfectly, and irrevocably (!) justified in Christ and so freed from God’s wrath! That is grace!

The third thing that we see here in this definition of justification is that this act of God’s grace in Christ includes the pardon or forgiveness of all of our sins. What a wonderful blessing (Psalm 103:2-3)! No wonder the Apostle Paul says,

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1, ESV)

Forgiveness and peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ! Is there anything that sinners could possibly need more than that? No wonder the gospel of Christ is good news!

But wait, there’s more! The fourth thing that we see in the Shorter Catechism’s definition of justification is that in it God not only pardons all of our sins, but He also “accepts us as righteous in his sight.” Being forgiven is one thing, but then also being accepted by a holy God as if we were righteous in His sight! Justification is much more than a clean slate! It is having a positively righteous slate or standing in the eyes of a holy God!

How is that even possible? How can sinners be accepted by God as righteous in His sight? What is the basis or ground of this new standing before God? The Catechism adds that it is “only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” When we come to Christ by faith, His perfect, spotless righteousness is reckoned or imputed to our account in God’s sight!

In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ did not just die in our place, but He lived in our place as well! This is often spoken of as the “active obedience” of Christ (in contrast to His “passive” obedience, wherein He suffered and died in our place). His obedience is reckoned as our obedience when it comes to our standing before God!

And how is the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to us and received by us? By faith alone. Period. Not by something we do; not by faith in Christ plus something else – faith alone. And it is by faith alone in order to ensure that it is by God’s grace alone (Romans 4:16).

What a wonderfully full and yet concise definition of justification! And what a beautiful and comforting truth! That is certainly something well worth considering, meditating upon, and celebrating.

 

The Second Commandment

Ten Commandments WatsonOur study through the ten commandments now brings us to the second commandment, which says,

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6, ESV)

The first thing that you might notice is that this commandment is much longer and more detailed than the first commandment, which simply says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). The very length of this commandment should get your attention.

The simplest way to summarize this commandment is to say that in it God forbids the sin of idolatryBut what is idolatry? In its most literal sense it is the use of images in worship. In the commandment above the Lord forbids us from the making of images, bowing down to them, and serving them. But it also includes worshiping God in any way that he himself has not ordained. That is the basic meaning of this commandment.

The old Puritan writer, Thomas Watson (1620-1686), put it this way:

“In the first commandment worshiping a false god is forbidden; in this, worshiping the true God in a false manner [is forbidden].” (The Ten Commandments, p.59)

That is a helpful way to understand the relationship between the first and second commandments. The first forbids the worship of false gods; the second forbids false worship, even of the one true God.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism points out that in this commandment the Lord gives us not only a prohibition against a particular form of sin (i.e. the making and serving of images of anything in all of creation), but also gives us several reasons why we should be careful to obey it:

Q. 52. What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment?
A. The reasons annexed to the second commandment are, God’s sovereignty over us, his propriety in us, and the zeal he hath to his own worship.

The first reason why we should be careful to obey this commandment is because God is sovereign over us – He is the Lord. In other words, we should not commit idolatry because God alone is God. In v.5 he calls himself “the LORD your God.” He alone is worthy of worship and obedience.

The second reason is because of God’s redemption and ownership of his people. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you have even more reason to refrain from any form of idolatry. If he is “your God” (v.5), then you simply have no business committing idolatry.

The third reason given here is God’s own zeal for His worship – that the Lord “is a jealous God” (v.5) who will judge the “iniquity” of those who commit idolatry. And what motive does the Lord assign to those who would practice idolatry? Hatred of God. Think about that. Idolatry is essentially an expression of hatred toward God. No wonder God warns of judgment against those who practice it!

If you truly love God you will keep his commandments (v.6), especially his commandments regarding his worship! We are not left to worship the Lord according to our own imagination or preferences. The second commandment shows that God is jealous (or zealous) that he alone be worshiped, and that he be worshiped according to his revealed will in Scripture alone.

 

Spurgeon on Writer’s Block (Psalm 51)

Treasury of DavidAs a pastor, I sometimes suffer from a kind of writer’s block when it comes to writing and preparing sermons. Oddly enough, this seems to happen more often (not less) when it involves a well-known and beloved passage of Scripture. (The 23rd Psalm, for example.)

There is something intimidating about preaching the Word of God in general, but this is even more the case when it comes to the most familiar texts.

And so it brought me a strange sense of comfort and encouragement to know that even Charles Spurgeon himself, the “prince of preachers” as he has come to be known, had the following to say about sitting down to write on Psalm 51:

“I postponed expounding it week after week, feeling more and more my inability for the work. Often I sat down to it, and rose up again without having penned a line. . . . Such a Psalm may be wept over, absorbed into the soul, and exhaled again in devotion; but commented on – ah! Where is he who having attempted it can do other than blush at his defeat?” (The Treasury of David, Vol. 1, Preface to Part 2.)

To borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).

You might suppose that such texts practically preach themselves, but they can really humble a pastor (not necessarily a bad thing). So if you are a pastor, and are tasked with the regular preaching of the Word of God – take heart! (Charles Spurgeon was human too!) 🙂

And if you are a believer in Christ, pray for your pastor(s). Preaching isn’t nearly as easy as some of them make it look!

The Only Head of the Church (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH 25.6)

1710_largeThe last section of Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 25 (“Of the Church”) deals with a point of doctrine which many readers today might consider as bordering on the irrelevant. It says,

“There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.6)

Simply put, we believe and confess that there is only one true head of the church – the Lord Jesus Christ. No one else can rightly claim such authority, not even “the pope of Rome.”

In Ephesians 1:22-23 the Apostle Paul writes the following regarding the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ:

“And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (ESV)

Similarly, in Colossians 1:18 Paul writes,

“And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” (ESV)

So the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ is the one true head of the church. How then, does He exercise His supreme authority in the church? In his commentary on the Confession of Faith A.A. Hodge notes that Christ does so through the following:

  1. His Inspired Word.
  2. His Apostolic Institutions (i.e. the ministry, sacraments, and ordinances).
  3. His Own Spiritual Presence. (p.318-319)

And so even though the Lord Jesus Christ is not now physically present on earth, He nevertheless rules over all things for His church from the right hand of God the Father Almighty. He needs no earthly vicar (a title often ascribed to the pope) to act as head in His place.

David Dickson notes that for the church to have any other head alongside Christ Himself would not be unlike thinking of her as a “monster” with two heads (Truth’s Victory Over Error, p.202).

The seven letters to the seven churches (found in Revelation chapters 2-3) portray the Lord Jesus as the one who “walks among the seven golden lampstands” (Revelation 2:1, ESV). The lampstands are the churches (1:20). And so Jesus is clearly portrayed, not as an absentee ruler, but as a very present King, walking among His churches and watching over them.

In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ needs no vicar, no pope, no other head to help rule over His church in His place. He is with us always, even to the end of the age, even as He Himself has promised (Matthew 28:20).