60. How are you righteous before God?
Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.
— Heidelberg Catechism 60
It is symbolic that this question is so near the center of the catechism since this doctrine is at the heart of the Reformed confession of the Christian faith. Calvin called the doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide) the “principal axis” of the Christian religion. As sola Scriptura (according to Scripture alone) was the formal cause of the Reformation, the material cause was justification sola fide. The Roman communion confesses
If any one says, that by faith alone (sola fide) the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema. (Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Canon 9).
The dividing line between Rome and the Reformation is clear. Where Rome confesses that faith is the “beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification” (Council of Trent, Session 6, ch. 8) the Reformed confess that we are justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone. Rome and the Reformed have two distinct definitions of faith in the doctrine of justification. According to Rome, faith is necessary but not sufficient for acceptance with God. Thomas Aquinas taught, in his commentary on Romans and in his Summa, that faith is that which is formed by love (fides formata caritate), that “charity is the form of faith.” In this definition he subtly changed Paul’s teaching that faith “working by love” (Galatians 5:6), whereby he was teaching that true faith gives evidence of its existence by manifesting itself in acts of charity. This was exactly what James teaches in (James) chapter 2. By turning “working by love” into “formed by love” Thomas turned a fruit into that which makes faith what it is. In other words, Thomas turned faith, in justification, from the empty hand that receives what Christ has done, into the part of the ground of justification—remember, for Rome, justification is progressive sanctification. Thus, ordinarily, according to Rome, no one is ever actually justified in this life because no one is ever perfected in this life. For Rome, grace is “exciting” (excitantem) and “helping” (adjuvantem) but not definitive. Rome speaks of “converting one’s self unto his justification” (convertendum se ad suam ipso rum justiftcationem). Rome confesses:
If any one says, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence (fiduciam) in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone (fiduciam solam) is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema (Trent, Session 6, canon 12).
We confess that, by faith alone, resting in, trusting in, leaning upon Christ and his finished work, we have the entirety of our justification and it is through faith alone that we are saved. Good works are necessary as a fruit and evidence of justification and salvation, Rome confesses:
If any one says, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema (Session 6, Canon 24.
The Reformed understanding of Scripture is that believers are as justified and saved now as we shall be at the judgment. There are not two stages of justification, initial and final. Rather, we distinguish between justification and vindication. At the judgment it shall be declared to all that those to whom Christ freely imputed his righteousness, who received that righteousness with true faith, really were justified and saved.
For the Reformed justification is a once-for-all act, it is definitive. Sanctification is progressive and the consequence of justification. Rome does not distinguish justification and progressive sanctification. They are the same thing. According to Rome, we are only as justified now as we are sanctified and we are only as sanctified by grace and cooperation with grace. There is nothing new about the Federal Vision scheme of “in by baptism, stay in by cooperation with grace” (faithfulness) or the New Perspective doctrine of “in by grace, stay in by works.”
Rome knows a priori before she ever gets to Scripture that it could not teach justification as a definitive, once-for-all declaration that sinners are declared righteous by God for the sake of the righteousness of Christ earned for us and imputed to us and received through resting, leaning, trusting in Christ alone. She knows a priori that God can only recognize as righteous those who are intrinsically, inherently, actually righteous in themselves and that can only happen by the infusion of the substance of medicinal grace and the cooperation of the free will with that grace unto sufficient sanctification.
In part 1 we considered briefly the significance of beginning the answer with the words, “only by true faith.” This expression intentionally evokes Heidelberg Catechism 21, which we have already considered extensively. Rome has us saved by grace and cooperation with grace, through the formation of saving virtue formed in us by grace and cooperation with grace. The gospel message is that we are justified and saved not by anything done by us or in us but by grace alone, through faith alone and that faith is an outward-looking knowledge, assent, and confidence in Christ and his finished work. These are two very different conceptions of justification and salvation.
The question is how are right with God. Righteousness is necessary a legal category. It is fashionable in some circles to dismiss the question as if it were irrelevant to our age or as if we have matured beyond it or as if it were a parochial question (e.g., Western as distinct from Eastern). Let me ask you a question. Let’s say you go on vacation only to find upon your return that some folks have moved into your house, changed the locks, and claimed your house as their new home. What do you think about justice now? You paid the mortgage. You fixed the plumbing. You mowed the lawn but now it’s their house? “That’s not right!” That’s not what, you say? We might like to tell ourselves that righteousness is passé or parochial, in truth, it is unavoidable. In the nature of human existence the question of righteousness is unavoidable. We shall always have laws and where there are laws there is either righteousness (conformity to the law) or unrighteousness (transgression of the law). Laws are for sinners:
understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners (1 Tim 1:9; ESV)
Adam was created in righteousness and true holiness with the intent that he would know God rightly, love, and, after passing the probation, enter into eternal blessedness with him (Heidelberg Catechism 6). After the fall we are all under the law (Rom 7) for righteousness and the law is good and holy (Rom 7:7–12). The law promises life to all who obey but because our fall, we are unable to obey. In Adam we are all, by nature, sinners (Rom 5:12–21). As Paul says, after the fall, the law remains good, holy, and righteous but we do not. The demands of the law do not end simply because we are now, by nature, unable and unwilling to fulfill them perfectly. It says:
Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the law. Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10)
God’s law does not say to lawbreakers, “Good try but not quite. Try again.” It says “cursed.” That’s not a good state in which to be. According to Deuteronomy 28:20, cursedness manifests in frustration. It leads to destruction. Deuteronomy 29:20 says that one who is under a curse is not forgiven. He is under Yahweh’s anger, as it were, i.e., his holy wrath. Yahweh’s zeal for his own holiness “will smoke against that man” and his cursedness will result in his name being blotted out from under heaven. Our Lord Jesus said that to be cursed is to be eternally condemned:
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41; ESV)
When he cursed the fig tree (Mark 11:21) it withered and died. Clearly being cursed or accursed is a truly miserable state. A reasonable person would do all he could to avoid it. Tragically, the effects of sin are that we are, by nature, blind to own state. Paul says that we’re “dead in sins and trespasses” (Eph 2:1–4) and we don’t even realize it.
So we need righteousness. Because of our own condition we can only get this righteousness by faith. We cannot undo what we, in Adam, did. We cannot undo what we have each down individually, actually. You and I cannot make expiation (make payment for sin) or propitiation (to turn away God’s wrath) because whatever we do, we do as sinners. All our affections, our thinking, and our willing is corrupted by sin. Everything we touch is corrupted by sin. To paraphrase Cornelius Van Til, we are like man of sin, in a sea of sin, trying to climb a ladder of sin. It’s utterly futile. We’re toast.
This is why the gospel is such good news. The gospel is that Christ “became a curse” for us who believe:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”(Gal 3:13; ESV)
This brings us back to part 1 of this series. This is why faith is the “sole instrument” of our justification (Belgic Confession art. 22). This is why we confess in Belgic Confession art. 24 against all moralists (e.g., Rome, the Federal Vision, Norman Shepherd, the New Perspective and all their minions) that we are justified “even before we do good works.”
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph 2:8–9)
It’s not by medicinal, substantial grace and our free cooperation with that grace we are justified and saved but it is by God’s favor merited for us by Christ, who was born without sin, who obeyed God’s holy, righteous law for us, and who, by his powerful Holy Spirit raises dead sinners to life, gives them true faith, and through that true faith unites them to Christ.
There is no question whether there is cursedness and righteousness. There is no question whether we are, by nature, under a curse or whether we need Christ’s righteousness. Praise God that his righteousness earned for us is given to us freely, by God’s free favor.