WCF 11: Of Justification
Those whom God “predestined he also called” (Rom. 8:30). The Father will draw to himself all those he has eternally given to the Son as his reward (John 6:37, 44). In the effectual call God changes sinners by giving them genuinely holy interests. Regenerated sinners truly know and love the Lord. We now want to live for his glory.
But what about our existing relationship to God and his law? If we only had changed minds, hearts, and wills we would still lie under the law’s curse (Gal. 3:10). To be reconciled to God we must gain a new, upright status before him. We must be justified. Thankfully, “those whom he called he also justified” (Rom. 8:30). Justification was the doctrine at the heart of the reformation controversy. It also speaks to the personal destinies of sinners like us.
The Doctrine of Justification
By nature, because of original sin and our actual sins we have a righteousness problem. God is righteous; we are not. Our sins separate us from our holy God (Is. 59:2). He is right to condemn the unrighteous (Prov. 17:15). And that is everyone—“No one is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks after God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10–12). And God has “fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness” by the crucified and resurrected Christ (Acts 17:31). The unrighteous “will go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46). To be reconciled to God we must be vindicated from the law that testifies against us (Col. 2:14).
But based on an honest reading of even the first dozen chapters of the Bible it is clear that no one can earn the status of righteousness. Humanity’s wickedness has been evident since the start. Even “righteous” Noah was imperfect (Gen. 6:9; 7:1; 9:21). So was Abraham. But “he believed the Lord and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Abraham’s trust—not his personal morality—was what made him God’s friend (Isa. 41:8). In truth, God “justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5). In justification God declares, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more” (Heb. 10:17). Even the most forgiving person still remembers sins done against them and occasionally struggles with bitterness and vengefulness. But not God. He promises to respect his legal declaration of righteousness for the sake of Christ who “by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father’s justice on their behalf.”
Believers in both testaments are justified in the same way. In fact, Paul uses the examples of Abraham and David to teach the doctrine of justification in his theological masterclass called Romans. It has never been possible, whether during the time of the Old Testament or the New Testament, to secure God’s blessing through personal performance. Nor is faith a work that qualifies as righteousness before God. Faith is in a different category from works. It is not a resting in our goodness but resting in Christ. Faith is simply the instrument by which unworthy sinners receives the Christ who is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30, 31). “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). We can never live well enough to boast in our righteousness. But even “the vilest sinner who truly believes” can boast in Christ’s righteousness; the moment you believe Jesus forgives all your sins.[i] Faith trusts that Jesus covers our sins with his precious blood and gives us his life for righteousness. The judgment in favor of believers is decisive. Believers are being sanctified until the moment of death. But through justification Jesus’ one sacrifice has perfected them for all time (Heb. 10:14). In no way can anyone in Christ come under God’s judgment (Rom. 8:1).
The Application of Justification
Justification may seem passive. It is truly a “receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness.” But the doctrine, in fact, calls for action.
Justification Requires Faith
God chose us in Christ “before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph. 1:4). So the justification of the elect is eternally guaranteed in Christ. And 2,000 years ago, “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). But the benefits of Jesus’ death on the cross must be received as our cure for sin by trusting in the Savior. And it isn’t enough to know true things about Christianity or to have an accurate knowledge of Jesus. You must trust that only Jesus’ blood and righteousness wash away your sins.
Justification Leads to Good Works
Anyone who says that it doesn’t matter how they live since they are saved by grace completely misunderstands grace (Rom. 6:1, 2). Justification is one of many links in the golden chain of salvation. On one side is the link of the effectual call, whereby elect sinners receive new spiritual life with a zealous interest in godliness. On the other side are the links of adoption and sanctification, whereby children of God and are increasingly helped to live like their older brother Jesus Christ. Justifying faith is “not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”
Justification Calls for Ongoing Penitence
In justification God pledges to nevermore hold our sins against us. Still, ongoing sin is like a self-induced chronic illness, weakening the spiritual vitality offered to us in the gospel. In the spiritual life justified believers can truly displease God. How grievous! We who make it our aim to please God (2 Cor. 5:9) hate to displease him. We desire more than anything to know God’s pleasure toward us. For a Christian dark and doubtful thoughts about God are like a nightmare. Believers must constantly “renew their faith and repentance.”
Justification Produces Humility
Justifying faith is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8). So where is the boasting? Faith is the act of letting go of merit and holding on to Jesus. So justification glorifies not the believer but the God who justifies the believer. It magnifies “both the exact justice and rich grace of God” (11.3). Justification is not an infusion of righteousness which obliges God’s acceptance of a formerly unworthy sinner. The believer who knows that his righteousness is in Christ alone also believes that he is truly a hell-deserving sinner. Nothing but God’s grace distinguishes him from the most notorious sinners who will be cast into that place “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 24:51). Believers are justified by grace through faith in Christ alone.
Justification is a glorious doctrine. But you won’t experience its glory by merely affirming the doctrine. You must trust in the God who in Christ justifies sinners.
William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has authored numerous books including, with Joel Beeke, Contending for the Faith: The Story of The Westminster Assembly.
[i] Fanny Crosby, Trinity Psalter Hymnal 236.