Dane K. Jöhannsson
Lead Pastor, Agros Reformed Baptist Church
Why another article on the doctrine of justification? Martin Luther once said, “Every week I preach justification by faith to my people, because every week they forget it.” Although we do not live in the same context as Luther and his people, still, we also often forget this doctrine (just like all people of faith have done at all times). We need the free grace of God in Christ set constantly before us afresh. It is the sum of the gospel, the hope of our souls, the strength by which we persevere in all circumstances.
Paul had to remind the Church in Galatia of this doctrine, which was his primary goal in writing his letter to them. Paul wrote to them saying, “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel”(Gal. 1:6), namely a false gospel that deceived them into thinking that they could be justified by “works of the law.” Paul remedies this misunderstanding, writing, “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.”(Gal. 2:16)
It is important that we frequently reflect upon this great gospel truth. We are just as prone as Luther’s hearers and the Galatian church to foolishly fall back into the error of thinking we are justified by our works. Our deeds play zero part in our salvation, except for the sinful deeds that made our salvation necessary. Oh, how often we falsely reason that our works have earned us a hearing with God! How frequently we entertain the snare of believing that our acceptance with God is even in part dependent upon us! Let us take a moment to once again remind ourselves of God’s free grace laid before us in the gospel of Jesus Christ, summated in the doctrine of justification.
The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith states in Chapter 11 paragraph 3:
“Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are justified; and did, by the sacrifice of Himself in the blood of his cross, undergoing in their stead the penalty due unto them, make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in their behalf; yet, in as much 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.”
Let us notice a few points which the framers of the confession make and then apply them.
First, we are told that Christ fully discharged our debt “by His obedience and death.” What is being discussed here is the doctrine of Christ passive and active obedience. Passively, Christ obeyed the whole of God’s law (Mat. 5:17), whereas we have broken the whole of God’s law. Actively, Christ suffered and died on the cross for the sins which we had committed (John 10:18).
These two aspects of Christ’s obedience are distinct but inseparable. His active obedience in suffering for our sins made His passive obedience of obeying the law acceptable before God. Had Christ only lived for us we would have had perfect righteousness added to us while retaining all our sins. However, Christ not only lived for us but also died for us, and thus He not only attained perfect righteousness for us but He also did away with all the punishment due for our sins. Christ, “by the sacrifice of Himself in the blood of his cross” took upon Himself “in our stead … the penalty due unto [us].” Jesus truly did “make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in [our] behalf.”
We can now be confident that Christ has “fully discharged” (completely done away with) all those things which made us unacceptable before God, and through His righteousness has made us completely acceptable before God. We are now “holy and without blame before [God].”(Eph. 1:4) This allows us to “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”(Heb. 4:16) This boldness to approach a holy and just God who will not allow sin to go unpunished comes by understanding that we approach Him by grace and are no longer accounted sinful before God, but rather, holy and blameless.
When we approach God looking at self we come fearfully, but when we approach God with an eye to His grace in Christ, we come boldly. Therefore, when we come to God let us cast all of our supposed good deeds and all of our sinful deeds at the foot of the cross of Christ and come boldly to God by Christ alone, naked in ourselves but clothed in Christ.
Secondly, we learn that Christ’s obedience and sacrifice of Himself on our behalf was accomplished and accepted on our behalf “freely, not for anything in [us], [our] justification is only of free grace, that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.” This is the crux of the doctrine of justification and is the hardest part for prideful sinners to accept. It is only of free grace, not in any way due to us. It is given freely to us who believe, to us who trust in Christ alone not because of anything we have done, are doing, or will do, but only because of God’s free love to us in His only begotten Son Jesus Christ.
When we operate on the false assumption that our justification has anything to do with us then we operate assuming that our works can add to or supplant the work of Christ. In doing this we act like those who “desire to be under the law.”(Gal. 4:21) We must realize the foolishness of this! If we seek to be justified by our keeping of the law then we cut ourselves off from Christ! Shall we seek to be justified by our works when Christ has freely accomplished it for us? God forbid! Rather let us place our faith in Christ alone and be in found in Him “not having [our] own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.”(Phil. 3:9) Any other way of justification would destroy the gospel itself and would be a false gospel, which cannot bring glory to “the exact justice and rich grace of God … in the justification of sinners.” Only the true gospel of Jesus Christ can do this.
God does not overlook sin, or simply “forgive and forget” without punishing sin and sinners to the full extent. The only way sinners can be justified and God’s exact justice and rich grace can be demonstrated is through the person and work of Jesus Christ. God will pour out His judgment upon all of man’s sins either in the satisfaction of the death of Jesus Christ on their behalf or in their eternal condemnation in hell.
Let us therefore not believe as those who will have their part in the lake of fire and in the second death, those who believe that their works can in any way justify them before God; rather let us believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ who has satisfied the justice and righteousness of God on our behalf. In doing this, God’s exact justice is magnified in the death of Christ for us, and His rich grace is magnified through our free acceptance in Christ.
This is why we need to be constantly reminded of the glorious gospel of Christ! We are prone to wander from the path of free grace into the hard ways where we serve the taskmasters of the law. Therefore we must magnify the work of Christ in our stead and our acceptance with God through Him. Remember the words of the great theologian and hymn writer, Augustus Toplady, and hide yourselves in Christ:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.
Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes shall close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown,
And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
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