The principal point at stake in justification is the glory of God. Ironically, in justification, when God gets the credit (i.e., the glory) man gets the benefits (i.e., forgiveness, declaration of righteousness and the fruits of saving faith such love, joy, peace, etc…). In contrast, where God gets no glory, man gets no benefits!
…this doctrine can never be taught, urged, and repeated enough.
Though not primary, there is a second truth, which must always be kept in mind in relation to justification:
Justification through faith alone gives sinners peace of conscience in the presence of God’s judgment.
Concerning justification, Martin Luther declared that sola fide is “the article with and by which the church stands, without which it falls.” But, it is also the standing or falling of the individual believer. In the opening paragraphs of his Commentary on Galatians, Luther writes,
…this doctrine can never be taught, urged, and repeated enough. If this doctrine be lost, then is also the doctrine of truth, life, and salvation, also lost and gone. If this doctrine flourish, then all good things flourish; religion, the true service of God, the glory of God, the right knowledge of all things which are necessary for a Christian man to know, (p. xi).
The strength or weakness of the believer’s grasp of justification and the degree of its domination in the heart and mind of a believer will determine the measure of the assurance of God’s favor that he enjoys.
Paul had a passion to make justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone the foundation stone of the gospel because he understood the great blessings it brings.
In justification, sinners have peace with God, joy in the hope of the glory of God, joy in hardships, no fear of His wrath, no anxiety of estrangement, and confidence of God’s love and favor and (Rom. 5:1-10).
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Rom. 5:1).
Justification not only safeguards the glory of God but it also ensures man’s eternal standing before a holy and righteous God. Calvin brings into perspective what is at stake for sinners when he writes,
“Therefore, we profit nothing in discussing righteousness unless we establish a righteousness so steadfast that it can support our soul in the judgment of God,” (3.13.3).
How may a condemned sinner hope to stand with confidence, fearless before God’s righteous judgment seat? What may allay the conscience that is overwhelmed with an acute knowledge of guilt for one’s sin and sins? There is not one reading this who has not experienced the condemning voice of the accuser,
Look, you have sinned. You have deliberately disobeyed God’s law. You are guilty. You are under condemnation. You ought to hide. How shameful. You are such a disappointment. How can you call yourself a Christian? You are not good enough to be a believer. Do you really think God is pleased with you? He is angry with you. You deserve to be punished for what you have done. You are guilty, guilty, guilty.
What is your refuge? Where do you go? How do you answer? What is your defense?
Evangelicalism and Assurance
It would be naïve to assume that most Evangelicals or Reformed/Presbyterians could answer this question. Regrettably, justification-based assurance today is little known in Evangelical circles (and in Reformed/Presbyterian circles). Such widespread ignorance has led to much legalistic teaching and hypocrisy or unnecessary grief and despair.
“…justification-based assurance today is little known…”
This is not unlike the church of the Middle Ages. In his day, Martin Luther protested against the subordination of justification to sanctification. Luther, like Calvin, understood the ongoing persistence of sin in the believer’s life. Both Reformers understood that regardless of how sanctified a believer may become in this life he still stood in need of God’s forgiveness.
Today, it has become all too common for pastors and teachers to base assurance on sanctification (fruit inspecting) at the expense of justification.
For example, one well-known Bible teacher writes,
“If you’re lacking assurance- if you’re plagued with doubts, have lost your joy, become useless in Christian service, empty in worship, cold in praise, passionless in prayer, and vulnerable to false teachers- whatever the problem, know there is a cure: obeying God’s Word in the power of the Spirit.”
Such guidance, while well intended, is not a sufficient remedy.
Good Works and the Foundation of Assurance
Why cannot good works be viewed as the primary foundation for assurance?
Calvin shows that good works (sanctification) cannot provide a primary foundation for assurance because “…saints are conscious of possessing only such an integrity as intermingled with many vestiges of the flesh,” (3.14.19).
Subsequent to and in similar fashion of Calvin, the Heidelberg Catechism states in Question 62,
Why can’t the good we do make us right with God, or at least help make us right with him?
A. Because the righteousness which can pass God’s scrutiny must be entirely perfect and must in every way measure up to the divine law. Even the very best we do in this life is imperfect and stained with sin.
Again, Question 114 in the Heidelberg Catechism asks,
But can those converted to God obey these commandments perfectly?
A. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God’s commandments.
“When good works are made the primary foundation for assurance, the focus is subtly shifted from Christ to self.”
Sanctification (i.e., good works) cannot be the primary basis for assurance because even the very best we do in this life is imperfect and stained with sin. The only sure, unwavering and perfect foundation is found in justification. Question 56 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks,
What do you believe concerning “the forgiveness of sins?”
A. I believe that God, because of Christ’s atonement, will never hold against me any of my sins nor my sinful nature which I need to struggle against all my life. Rather, in his grace God grants me the righteousness of Christ to free me from judgment.
When good works are made the primary foundation for assurance, the focus is subtly shifted from Christ to self. Such a shift has enormous ramifications for believers resulting in either hypocrisy or despair.
The Solution for Hypocrisy and Despair
The solution to both hypocrisy and despair is quite simple.
The law is the answer for hypocrisy (i.e., self-exaltation, those trusting in their own performance rather than in Christ’s performance). The spiritual exposition of the law humbles the proud believer by showing him the offensiveness of his self-righteousness. Thus, the sinner is driven outside of himself to Christ, wherein true righteousness is found (Gal. 3:24).
In view of that, the Heidelberg Catechism in Question 115 asks,
No one in this life can obey the Ten Commandments perfectly: why then does God want them preached so pointedly?
A. First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness. Second, so that, while praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, we may never stop striving to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection.
As the believer is brought to repentance and a deeper recognition of his remaining sinfulness, the more eagerly he looks to Christ. It is in this way believers are brought to a firm ground of assurance and that their boasting is silenced.
Justification is the answer to despair (i.e., condemnation, those weighed down with guilt; cf., Rom. 5:1; 8:1). The truth of justification takes the load of despair off the believer because he realizes for the first time that because of Christ there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! Calvin writes, “…Christ is called “King of peace,” [Isa. 9:6] and “our peace,” [Eph. 2:14] because he quiets all agitations of conscience,” (3.13.4).
As the despairing believer is brought into a greater awareness of his union with Christ he is brought to a firm ground of assurance where his fears are calmed and his despair lifted.
Why, if our good works are not sufficient to pass God’s scrutiny of judgment in the future, do we think that they are sufficient to provide assurance of God’s favor in the present? If the very best we do in this life as believers is imperfect and stained with sin, good works (i.e., obedience, repentance, etc…) can never serve as the primary cure for our doubts.
So, when the accuser overwhelms your conscience with accusations of guilt, how do you answer? What is your defense?