At the heart of the gospel lies the radical proclamation that God justifies the ungodly.1 To make such a claim would seem impossible, even blasphemous, were it not announced in the Scriptures themselves. It is true, that to misunderstand this great doctrine of justification is to inflict massive damage upon the clarity of the gospel promise and the experience of all it contains. As Thomas Watson notes, “An error about justification is dangerous, like a defect in a foundation. Justification by Christ is a spring of water of life. To have the poison of corrupt doctrine cast into this spring is damnable.”2 This great doctrine of justification has been called the hinge upon which religion turns 3, and the article by which the church stands or falls.4
For these reasons, clarifying and proclaiming the biblical teaching of justification became the rallying point of the Reformation and the subsequent confessions that would be written in the following years. Likewise, it is a doctrine that is worth our attention and efforts to keep clear in our own minds. Therefore, I am giving several posts to the subject of justification by walking through various paragraphs given to this in the 1689 Baptist Confession.
PARAGRAPH 1: An Overview of the Doctrine
Those God effectually calls He also freely justifies. He does this, not by infusing righteousness into them but by pardoning their sins and accounting and accepting them as righteous. He does this for Christ’s sake alone and not for anything produced in them or done by them. He does not impute faith itself, the act of believing, or any other gospel obedience to them as their righteousness. Instead, He imputes Christ’s active obedience to the whole law and passive obedience in His death as their whole and only righteousness by faith. This faith is not self-generated; it is the gift of God. — Confessing the Faith, Chapter 11.1.”
It may be helpful to approach this paragraph by asking several questions: whom does God justify, how does it happen, why does God do this and lastly, what exactly transpires?
Whom Does God Justify?
First, there is the question of whom does God actually justify. The confession states plainly that the justified are those that are effectually called, and this is all of God’s doing. Chapter 10 of the confession gives thorough explanation of effectual calling, but the main emphasis here rests upon the completeness of our salvation.
Bear in mind that salvation is not simply conversion, it the entire transaction that secures our rescue from sin and union with Christ. “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:30, ESV). All the promises and assurance accomplished in justification are most surely given to the Christian.
How Does This Happen?
Secondly, there is the question as to how this actually transpires. This was a critical point for the writers of the confession, especially in an attempt to call out the very different understanding of justification that the Roman Catholic Church upheld. The confession uses a negative and positive statement. Negatively, justification is not achieved by “infusing righteousness,” meaning, justification is not moral transformation. Justification is not a change in us, it is a verdict about us.5 Positively, our justification is a declaration, more specifically it is a forensic term, “borrowed from law-courts, wherein a person arraigned is pronounced righteous, and is openly absolved.” 6
Why Does God Justify Sinners?
Upon hearing such news, the natural question is “why would God do this?” The confession answers, “He does this for Christ’s sake alone and not for anything produced in them or done by them.” The writers of the confession want to make clear the Biblical mandate of grace, not works. Our justification does not arise from something within us, but solely and squarely with Christ alone and what he accomplished.
What Exactly Happens in Our Justification?
The final statement of the confession speaks to the details of justification. It is here we ask, “what actually transpires in our justification?” Again, the writers use a negative and positive statement to explain, both dealing with the issue of imputation. Negatively, our justification is not obtained by God imputing faith or any other sort of obedience. Again, this stands against the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and the Council of Trent that declared a mixing of grace and works in justification. Positively, justification is an imputation of Christ’s own righteousness to our account. We are assured of the forgiveness of the guilt of our sins, which is provided in Christ’s passive obedience upon the cross. We are assured of the gift of a positive righteousness through Christ’s active obedience to the law.
Consider the wondrous news of the gospel: the righteousness that God demands, he also supplies in Christ!
- Romans 4:5 ↩
- Thomas Watson. A Body of Divinity, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2012), p 226. ↩
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, J.T. McNeill, ed., F.L. Battles, tr., (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 2006), 3:11:1. ↩
- Paul Althaus. The Theology of Martin Luther, (USA: Fortress Press, 1966), p 224. ↩
- Sam Waldron. A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Darlington, CO: Evangelical Press, 1999), p 157. ↩
- Thomas Watson. A Body of Divinity, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2012), p 227. ↩