Justification by Grace
God Justifies Sinners
It is God who justifies (Rom. 8:33). He is our Creator, our King and our Judge. The OT is full of this, and in the NT he makes himself known likewise. Indeed, there is no contradiction between the proclamation of the OT and that of the NT, as if God would have revealed himself first as the holy God, and only later as the God of love! The unity of the Holy Scripture implies that the OT terms for God and about his deeds retain eternal validity.
God is a righteous Judge. He judges the nations, and as the righteous God he tests the minds and hearts (Ps. 7:9). Those who fear him may expect their salvation from him, and they may appeal to his justice, which to them is a liberating justice. Those who do not bow before him must reckon with the fact that the righteous God will punish them.
Those who know God must also confess, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand” (Ps. 130:3)? On the occasion of his calling Isaiah hears the angels calling out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” and yet he is also heard to say, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:3, 5).
A biblical insight, brought to the fore by the reformed theology, is that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are closely connected and mutually coherent.
In the Bible man is continuously placed to face his responsibilities. Indeed, he is called by God to give account. We are all called to be accountable before God. “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13).
God desires that we stand in a right relationship to him. This is directed not only to the creation of man as God’s image, and God’s care and interaction with man, but also to the covenant of grace which he established voluntarily with sinful people. The Lord our God, who initiated this covenant and who keeps it going, is a God of love and grace. The people with whom he establishes the covenant of grace are sinners, who of themselves do not conform to the norms of the covenant. God is faithful, but from our side there is unfaithfulness. God wants justice, while from our side there is only injustice. Whatever we do wrong as people over against God’s majesty and goodness, this must touch him. God reacts in a divine manner.
Our attention is now directed to the threatening words of the Bible that speak of judgment, punishment, and God’s wrath. He will by no means clear the guilty (Ex. 34:7). The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). “For we know him who said, ’Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ’The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:30, 31).
If we as creatures already are accountable for all that we do and do not do, and our responsibility is aggravated even more on account of God’s covenant with us, when our situation is so desperate, should we then not be overwhelmingly amazed about the biblical message of justification for sinners?
God could have condemned us. To Israel he said, “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deut. 27:26). This phrase comes back in Galatians 3, and is also quoted in the Heidelberg Catechism. When reading Lord’s Day 4 we cannot lose sight of the close connection to Lord’s Day 2 where the law from which we know our misery is presented as the dual command to love God and to love our neighbour. God demands of us that we will not live without him, but that instead we will live with him and for him, and therefore also with the other and for the other. He desires that we — with all that we are and all that we have — live in connectedness with him and in service to him, and that based on the communion with him we will also serve one another in love.
Over against all that he demands of us in his law, stands our inclination to hate God and our neighbour. That is how it is worded in the H.C., with reference to Scripture passages such as Romans 8:7 and Ephesians 2:3. When we try to investigate the cause of this wrong inclination, we cannot avoid original sin; we end up at the fall into sin in Paradise. Through one man sin entered into the world, and as a result death came through sin. “...By the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners...(and) the law came in to increase the trespass” (Rom. 5:19, 20).
God would not be God if he would have approved that we separated ourselves from his love. With this we invite God’s anger. We must perish on account of God’s wrath. There will not be a single possibility to escape God’s wrath and to get back into his favour. He maintains his demand, but we continue in our default and are guilty. The composer of Psalm 90 says, “Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you” (v.11)?
In the reformed theology it is the task of the law to reveal sin and to make room for grace. Of the law, and especially in the Decalogue, it is true that it exposes indeed the magnitude of our sin, and convicts us more and more of our guilt. However, it does not provide any medication against it. It leaves the transgressor under the curse (Canons of Dordt, III/IV, art. 5).
It is entirely impossible to justify ourselves before God with an appeal to his law. The apostle Paul sheds light on this in the clearest way possible. In encountering God, we have no single excuse we can bring. There is no single way to exonerate ourselves, neither with an appeal to our weakness and good intentions, nor with a reference to the faults of others or to the situation of the world in which we live.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is meant as a warning to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and who despised others (Luke 18:9). They had figured that God would judge them no differently than they judged themselves. Yet the tax collector, who could no longer stand before God but knew himself to be under his judgment and so asked for grace, was justified — in contrast to the self-righteous Pharisee.
It is not what we say or think of ourselves that is decisive, but the judgment of God about our life. This is what we learn to recognize, based on God’s Word. Then we end up at the cross of Christ. It is precisely the sacrifice of Christ that points us to the magnitude of our guilt and the depth of our need. We would be desperately lost if this salvation had not been prepared for us.
The Form for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper states, “First, let everyone consider his sins and accursedness, so that he, detesting himself, may humble himself before God. For the wrath of God against sin is so great that He could not leave it unpunished, but has punished it in His beloved Son Jesus Christ by the bitter and shameful death on the cross.”
We need to be told how we stand in relation to God, and what matters in a right relationship with him. It is therefore told to us straight: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one...For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3).
Bowing under God’s judgment belongs with being justified by God’s grace, and that goes both ways.
Calvin is convinced, “that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and comes down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also — He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced” (Calvin, Institutes I, 1,2).
From a large number of Luther’s writings we can conclude that for him the act of bowing before the judgment of God precedes our being justified by God’s grace. Calvin says almost the same as Luther, but he does not emphasize the priority of the knowledge of oneself.
When a man is forced to weigh his life in the balance of God’s law, he will let go the thought of imagined righteousness and he will realize how immeasurably far he is removed from holiness. The law serves as a mirror (Institutes II, 7, 6&7). However it is a mirror framed in the window of the gospel. In Calvin’s commentary on Romans 8:3 we read, “for we shall never be clothed with the righteousness of Christ except we first know assuredly that we have no righteousness of our own.” But a little later he writes, “But he declares first that Christ was sent, in order to remind us that righteousness by no means dwells in us, for it is to be sought from him, and that men in vain confide in their own merits, who become not just but at the pleasure of another.”
God has his secret with each one who is his. As to how someone will personally gain the insight that he depends entirely on God’s grace, that is another matter. In the reformed theology we always need to emphasize that God will open our eyes to this by his Word and Spirit.
One of Calvin’s propositions is that we need to raise our hearts before God’s judgment seat in order to be seriously convinced of the undeserved righteousness (Institutes III, 12). This expression was important in the conflict with Rome. That can be left alone here; instead we will pay attention to its importance for our own times.
We are dealing with the opinion that man needs to come to his own conclusions when he wants to answer the question as to what is good and just. He claims autonomy for himself. This means that he is a law unto himself, or that he presents himself as the norm. The autonomy, according to the sense Kant gives to this term, is a corollary of human freedom, but it is not random. Newer thoughts and philosophies did not cease with Kant. Modern autonomy often gives expression to the idea that man is the measure of all things. He will decide what is good and evil.
The consequences of this concept for today’s morality are obvious everywhere. In connection to our theme we do well to pay special attention to the consequences in a religious sense.
What is sinful is now called a mistake, or a shortcoming, and not guilt. When you begin with man who decides, you will also end up with man. Man is by himself, alone.
The question about God’s existence may yet be asked seriously, but there is no room for the acknowledgment that God calls us to account. It only deals with how people succeed in life and what they can accomplish in this world.
However, we are not autonomous. That is not how we were created. Mindful of Genesis 3 we need to say instead that all human striving for autonomy represents the root of all evil and the source of all misery.
God determines what is right — not we. He establishes the law, and subjects us to it. He desires that we let him be our Lord and our God, that we love him with all our hearts, and that we put our trust in him alone. When we love him, we will also love our fellow human beings, who God made our neighbours.
It is a blessing that God has not left it to man with his presumed autonomy to find the right way. It is all grace that he gives our diagnosis in his Word, and that he provides the therapy. He does not expect either the one or the other from us, also not in the shape of any small contribution from us, even though at times we can discern some symptoms that things are not in order.
Although we have a normative conscience and distinguish between good and evil, it is impossible for us to deduce the norm from it that would be of unconditional force. According to Paul, “the work of the law is written on the hearts” (Rom. 2:15). That this is true also for gentiles appears from their actions. There is a testimony of the conscience and a self-evaluation by man in an accusing or excusing sense. God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
As we raise our hearts to God’s judgment seat — as Calvin said — we will hear his judgment on our life. It is important that we agree with that. That is not simply accepting it, as if we are only sinners. It is to acknowledge God as right, and that we may not be like what we are. Luther called this “becoming a sinner”.
When you make the words of the composer of Psalm 51 your own, and you confess, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (v. 4), you will also learn to pray, “Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities” (v. 9). In fact, that is also the question that occupied Luther’s mind: “How did I arrive at a gracious God?” Just as we become sinners before God because we believe from God’s Word that he accuses and judges us, so we are also justified, because we believe him at his Word that he is acquitting us because he is a gracious God. Faith enables God to say this. Faith that accepts the guilty verdict from God’s mouth is essentially the same as faith that accepts the word of acquittal from God.
We may not separate these two, by allowing for the acquittal but not wanting to hear the guilty verdict. “Whoever has not gone through the judgment, he has never heard the acquittal from God’s mouth.” Ref? We may no less stay focused on the judgment than that we may push the word of grace away from us. Doing so would mean that we place ourselves under the judgment without leaving any room for God’s grace in us.
It is an incomprehensible wonder for us that the same God who has to condemn us when he imputes our sins to us, also acquits us from guilt and punishment. Yes, it is amazing what we read in Psalm 32, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” There is no way that we could motivate God to judge us in our favour. We may not harbour any thought that he would show greater consideration for his grace for us than for others. We do not deserve it in the least. Also our humility before God does not add value as if at least we have accomplished this as a bare minimum.
Calvin remarks that he has said somewhere that forgiveness of sins can never be achieved without repentance, but that he has added that repentance can never be the cause of forgiveness (Institutes III, 4.3). Forgiveness, received in the way of repentance, is something different from forgiveness that is granted on the ground of the penitence shown.
Then why does God show people grace, which we call justification? He does so because he is moved by our lot and he does not want to leave us in our misery, but instead make us share in his communion. He acts in this way because he wants to do away with our guilt, and to let his righteousness triumph in our life.
Yet there is more. There lies a deep truth in the old expression that God takes reasons from within himself. He is moved in his inner being to look out for us. Already in the OT we read that he is pleased to forgive (Ps. 86:5). He says, “I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them” (Hosea 14:4). In the NT we are told, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
Calvin says that God finds cause within himself to do good to sinful man, so that it awakens in the sinner a sense of his goodness, and so that he puts all his confidence in God’s mercy and not in trusting his own works. According to the Holy Scripture, God finds nothing in man that could spur him on to do good, but it is his undeserved goodness toward man (Institutes III, 11, 16; III, 14, 5).
We need to take all this into account as we reflect on the significance of the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 8:33: “It is God who justifies.” They “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). It is entirely free, and therefore there is nothing that we can or must achieve or perform. It is free, gratis; no compensation, no obligations, it is entirely undeserved.
It is all without any inclination from our side. Paul writes, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). No one should think that he has to come up with any contribution to his justification or to his salvation.
We are justified. We may not understand the verb form in any different way that the purely passive tense. It does not say that we let ourselves be justified or acquitted, but that God accomplishes it all. He is the active Person.
If the essence of the phrase “through grace alone” shines through anywhere, it is certainly the case in our confession about our justification. All thanks are to God for his grace! He glorifies himself in giving grace to sinners. Therefore: “then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded” (Rom. 3:27). “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31).
We also see how it is purely grace alone when we read the clear formulation in Romans 4:5, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” In the Bible we find different indications and characterizations of sin. There can be sin due to weakness, or ignorance. Yet the word “ungodly” speaks without a doubt of the seriousness of sin. God has to turn himself against the ungodly. ‘“There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked”’ (Isa. 57:21). “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18).
In his work of justification of sinners God acts so generously and so radically, that the ungodly receive a pardon; they receive grace. There is no consideration of possible extenuating circumstances, no credits for any good behaviour that would give rise to God’s action. And yet he grants mercy. Justification is even more than a pardon. It is acquittal; God declares us free.
It seems like a strange acquittal when God justifies the ungodly. How is it possible? How can he do so when he definitely does not hold the guilty as guilt-less?
That would remain an open question, if the Bible did not address it. But by the light of God’s Word we may reflect on this further, and in doing so we will arrive at the centre of the biblical message of justification.