The 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.