On what grounds does God justify sinners? The question asks, “What is included in our justification?” On what basis can God declare wicked sinners just? David and Paul teach us that God imputes righteousness to him apart from works (Rom 4:6; Ps 32:1). And the same apostle says that we are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom 3:24). We are justified by the pardon of sin and the imputed righteousness of Christ—the ground of our justification.
PARDON OF SIN
John Calvin in the Institutes of the Christian Religion wrote, The righteousness of faith is reconciliation with God, which consist solely in the forgiveness of sins. Scripture explains that the wrath of God rests upon those he judges as sinners. This judgment is ultimate:
Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear (Isa 59:1–2).
Sin separates man from God. As long as God judges a man according to his sins, he is an enemy of God. Nevertheless, as offensive and perverse as our sin may be Isaiah says, Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save. Scripture explains that God embraces the unrighteous through the forgiveness of sins.
Complimentary to Isaiah’s teaching, the apostle Paul teaches that man is God’s enemy until restored to grace through Christ: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life (Rom 5:8–10).
According to Paul everyone God receives is justified and everyone justified is reconciled through the death of Christ. It has to be this way, how can a righteous God have fellowship with sin. Therefore, anyone God embraces is reconciled and justified. This work necessarily involves the remission of sins.
2 Corinthians 5:19 supports this conclusion, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting men’s trespasses against them. Paul mentions the removal of trespass and reconciliation together, because each one is reciprocally contained in the other. God justifies and reconciles us to Himself, when he does not count our sins against us.
In the epistle to the Romans, the apostle makes use of David’s testimony to prove that God imputes righteousness to man apart from works, for David said:
Blessed is the man whom God credits righteousness apart from works. Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin (Rom 4:6–8).
In this passage, blessedness comes from righteousness. This blessedness is defined by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness apart from works and it is further defined as the forgiveness of sins. God forgives and covers our sin with the blood of Christ.
Paul is not describing our sanctification. He is describing a legal act whereby God declares us to be righteous—justification. This judgment is based on the finished work of Christ. Therefore, it is impossible to improve this act, apart from improving the work of Christ. In this one time act of God (judgment), he declares a sinner righteous, not because the sinner has been morally improved, but rather this declaration is based upon the work of Christ. This is a great source of comfort for the believing sinner.
In Luke chapter 1, Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied that Jesus would, Give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. Paul likewise preached:
Through this man, forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and every one that believes in him is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses. Through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and every one that believes in him is justified (Acts 13:38–39).
God does not declare us righteous based on our own obedience, instead we are declared righteous because of Christ’s imputed righteousness, He who knew no sin was made the atoning sacrifice of sin for us so that we might be made the righteousness of God in Christ (2Cor 5:21). Calvin rightly understood that Jesus not only atoned for our sins, but also provided us with his perfect righteousness. This is why Paul can conclude that we are the righteousness of God, because we relate to the Father through the imputed righteousness of Christ.We are not declared righteous before God because of our own righteousness, rather we are judged righteous before God as a result of Christ’s righteousness. John Calvin put it like this:
We are justified before God solely by the intercession of Christ’s righteousness. This is equivalent to saying that man is not righteous in himself but because the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation.
We confess in the Belgic Confession that we do not trust anything in ourselves, or in any of our own merit, rather we rely and rest upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours when we believe in him (article 23).
You need to confess that your righteousness does not originate with you. It originates with Christ. It has been legally credited to you as a gift. Through your legal union with Christ, you possess the righteousness of Christ. This is consistent with what Paul says elsewhere, that sin has been condemned in Christ. Sin has been condemned in Christ’s flesh that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us.
For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit (Rom 8:3–4).
The fulfillment of the law Paul alludes to is the righteousness of Christ. The righteousness of Christ satisfies the righteous demands of the law. Therefore, through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness the law is fully met in us. Paul says the same thing in another statement:
For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous (Rom 5:19).
Just as Adam’s sin was imputed to his posterity resulting in condemnation and death, so also the perfect righteousness of Christ, the last Adam, is imputed to his posterity resulting in justification and eternal life.
Just as Adam’s sin is imputed to all his posterity, likewise the obedience of Christ is imputed to everyone legally united to Christ by the instrument of faith. Scripture provides a beautiful illustration of this in Jacob. Jacob did not deserve the blessing associated with being the first-born. Jacob, however, in an attempt to persuade his father that he was the first-born concealed himself in his brothers clothing. The clothing allowed him to have the odor of the first-born and Isaac was pleased: So he went to him and kissed him. When Isaac caught the smell of his clothes, he blessed him and said, ‘Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed’ (Gen 27:27). Isaac blessed Jacob as if he was Esau—the first-born. Jacob received the blessing while impersonating his older brother. In like manner, we have been concealed under the righteousness of the first-born Son, so that we may be judged righteous in God’s sight.
In Christ, God hides and clothes us with the righteousness of Christ. When our heavenly Father looks upon us, He is satisfied by the odor of His first-born Son, Jesus Christ. Compare this with Adam’s attempt to cover himself. Adam felt the shame of his sin; as a result, he realized his nakedness. In desperation, he sewed fig leaves together in an attempt to cover himself. In an attempt to appear just before God by our own merit, we sow together our filthy rags.
Alone we are exposed to the severe judgment of God. We need the righteousness that can stand before God. It is the righteousness of Christ alone. We must smell of Christ to be justified, it is necessary that our sins be washed away by the blood of Christ, the pardon of sin, but we must also be clothed with his righteousness.
A FREE CONSCIENCE
Without presuming to trust in ourselves or in any merit of ours, we rely and rest by faith solely upon the obedience of Christ crucified. Only then can we approach God in confidence. Knowing that God will accept us as his beloved sons and daughters frees our conscience of fear, terror, and dread, so that we do not have to follow the example of our first father Adam, who hid from God covering himself with fig leaves. In Christ we are exposed only to God’s grace, mercy, and Fatherly love.2