The Confession of Faith Article 23: Justification
In attempting to say something about justification, it is necessary that we know what is meant by the word justification; it is to be acquitted from guilt and punishment and to be entitled to eternal life. This article then speaks of the nature and the essence of justification of the sinner before God, which is a judicial act. In some of the English writers we do not find this description in the same way as we do in the Dutch writers of the past. However, the most important is, of course, what God's Word says of it.
It is unbelievable that God, Who is the Builder of His church, would only lay the foundation, and that He would not finish it. There is no doubt that, from beginning to end, God does everything to the salvation of the church, just as the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, "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." This is the experience of all God's children; if the Lord was not the first and the last, then for them it would be lost.
Let us imagine that God's child was called from death to life, but never would or could receive an assurance regarding the forgiveness of sin by faith, always being persecuted by enemies who never give up. God's child would become desperate. Happily he or she may know that it is not this way, since God's Word speaks in many places of forgiveness. David gave a testimony of that great blessing in Psalm 32, saying, "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered." Paul wrote to the Romans, "Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
Justification, which is a judicial act, can be found in many places in God's Word just as it is described in this article, "We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ's sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied: as David and Paul teach us, declaring this to be the happiness of man, that God imputes righteousness to him without works. And the same apostle saith, that we are justified freely by His grace, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus." The author of the confession is very careful to stay close to God's Word, as no part of doctrine is more attacked and opposed than is justification without works.
Men want to do something themselves, but in changing this doctrine they take away the honor of God and the comfort of the church. The church confesses the truth of that which is taught in the catechism, that they have only a small beginning of obedience. Although they would like to live differently, it is impossible. How then can a holy and righteous God acquit such sinful men and forgive them their sins? We know this is only possible for Christ's sake by His active and passive obedience! Was this doctrine accepted? No. Think only how the apostle Paul had to fight against the Jews, who were satisfied with their self-righteousness and their being the children of Abraham. This same attitude is repeated in the history of the church throughout the ages, because man wants to maintain himself.
Augustine strongly defended the doctrine of justification against the Pelagians. The church of Rome followed in the same error of Pelagius, since they acknowledge Christ as Mediator, but not as a complete and perfect Mediator. Since the days of the Reformation the scriptural doctrine of justification is again brought on many pulpits; however, in our days there is much backsliding.
Justification is not for those who work, but for those who believe on Him. This is difficult for the Jews who are children of the covenant; it is difficult for the Roman Catholics who rest on their sacraments and good works. It is incomprehensible for the Greek who builds on his own wisdom, and it is contemptible for the Gentiles who rest on their qualities. How opposed they all are to this doctrine of justification, wherein God justifies the ungodly! Who is meant by this? Not a person who was ungodly before, but is now doing good works, so that he is pleasing God. No, not at all! It is a person who is in a state of ungodliness, who because of sin is without God. Such an ungodly one is justified by the Lord, without looking upon anything of or in that person himself – no works, no tears, nothing will give deliverance. Not one sacrifice on our side has any value before God. It is free grace from the beginning to the end, just as Paul says in Romans 11:6, "And if by grace, then it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work."
When God justifies the ungodly, then we may not explain it as if the Lord merely forgets their sins. No, it is an honest justification which is not contrary to God's attributes. Christ has taken the place of the elect, and has given perfect satisfaction for them. Thus God is satisfied by God. Christ has borne the curse of the law, but He has also fulfilled the law by always living to the honor of the Father. These merits of Christ are imputed to the ungodly but elect sinner immediately at the moment of regeneration.
Thus we have seen that the ungodly become righteous before God. There is more included in this article, which we will try, D.V., to explain in a following article. Already we may feel how great the blessing is of which David spoke and which is necessary for all of us, namely, "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered."
Is there not a justification before faith? Yes, indeed; if there was not a justification before faith, then the justification by faith was impossible. Here again we must turn to God's Word for our proof.
It is possible, because in Romans 4:25 it is stated, "Christ was raised for our justification." He was justified in His resurrection, and in Him the entire church is justified. We may even go further, because the justification is also from eternity in the decrees of God, as Paul expresses it in 2 Timothy 1:9, "Grace is given unto the elect in Christ Jesus before the world began." It means that the elect are justified from eternity in the decree of God and also in the resurrection of Christ; and this will be applied in the moment of regeneration when the ungodly are justified.
We may state that there is a justification before faith, but the justification by faith is also necessary in order to have the comfort of it. This will bring us in a state of reconciliation with God, which is the happiness of man.
Our article continues: "And therefore we always hold fast this foundation, ascribing all the glory to God, humbling ourselves before Him, and acknowledging ourselves to be such as we really are, without presuming to trust in anything in ourselves, or in any merit of ours, relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours, when we believe in Him." The last part is about the same as we find it in the catechism, "in as much as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart."
Faith cannot be missed to salvation, since it is the instrument which the Lord gives for accepting the merits of Christ. Without faith we never come into a true relationship with God and will never become partaker of Christ's merits. When the Lord gives faith, He also gives light in our life to see what we are. By that light of the Holy Spirit we become ungodly before God, we will weep because of our sin, and we will begin to miss the Lord. One of God's servants, who had lived many years, has told how that after the Lord had discovered his sin unto him, he wept more in a few years than that he had laughed in all his previous life. Those tears are signs of the true sorrow after God, but they do not wash away our sins.
We may have an historical knowledge that the sins of God's people are forgiven from eternity and in the resurrection of Christ, and also in regeneration, but how do I get the assurance thereof? Only when we with a believing heart may accept, rely, and rest upon the obedience of Christ. "This is sufficient to cover all our iniquities, and to give us confidence in approaching to God; freeing the conscience of fear, terror and dread, without following the example of our first father, Adam, who, trembling, attempted to cover himself with fig-leaves." We know that all our fig-leaves are not able to give deliverance, but that only the righteousness of Christ can save.
We must appear before the Lord's judgment seat unconverted in our own sight, with no ground in our experience and with a heavy burden of sin upon our shoulders. The comfort from God's Word received in former days is no foundation upon which we can rest. O! what will the outcome be!
Justification is a judicial act and is often compared with a court of justice. We find an example of this in Zechariah 3, which tells of Joshua the High Priest standing before the Lord in filthy garments, with Satan at his right hand to resist him, but Satan is rebuked by the Lord. In a present-day court room there are a number of persons, consisting of the judge, the accused, the lawyer, the accusers, and the clerk. All these we may apply to the Divine court, the court of the conscience.
God the Father is the Judge, Who maintains the injured justice of the Divine Being, the Triune God. He is omniscient and omnipresent, requiring satisfaction for the attributes of God. The accusers stand at the right hand of the sinner, and these are the devil and his helpers, whom the accused has served. The Law is also an accuser, because our life is not according to the Law, but we trespass in thoughts, words, and deeds. The sinner is the accused, but, elected by God, he is convinced of his sin, ashamed of his wickedness, feels that he is worthy of condemnation, and is silent under it. In his eyes the Lord may do what is right; he comes before God naked, laden with original and actual sins, with no other expectation than eternal darkness and hell. Think only of Hezekiah.
The advocate (or as we would say, the lawyer) and that is Christ, until now hidden behind the justice of God, pleads for the sinner. In ordinary courts a lawyer will only plead, but with Christ it is different. He also paid for the sin. On the ground of His obedience and merits, He may demand the acquittal of the sinner. The Judge, God the Father, is satisfied in the work of Christ, and in Him the sinner receives forgiveness. First the righteousness of Christ is imputed and now by faith it is accepted.
God the Holy Spirit gives knowledge to the sinner of this and seals the justification by faith through internal instruction. These sins will never be remembered anymore. The accusers must yield, as we also read in Zechariah, "The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan; even the Lord that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee; is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?" Even the law has nothing to say, because it has been fulfilled by Christ for the elect.
We should remember that it is not the Advocate, but the Judge who acquits. Not Christ, but the Father justifies the sinner and grants unto him eternal life. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputes not his iniquity. Such a man or woman will end with the benefits in the Benefactor. Then is fulfilled for the sinner the words of Romans 8, "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus. Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth?"
This is a great blessing, and even some of God's children may come by faith to peace with God; in Christ they may return to the Father and know Him as their father. These are two different things – to be acquitted by God as Judge, and in Christ to return to the Father without spot or wrinkle. They may appear before God as if they have never sinned, since the sin will never be found again. "My dove, my undefiled is but one." Here in time they will-glorify God for the great benefits received; they shall end in Him, Who justifies the ungodly.