Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (2): Comforting

Another aspect of the truth of justification by faith alone as proclaimed, defended, and developed in this book, is the comfort that it brings to the believing child of God. Corruptions of justification by faith alone make light of man's sinfulness and “the awesome holiness of God” (p. 489). Engelsma paints a vivid picture of “standing before the holy God in judgment according to divine justice” (p. 489).

One who contemplates standing before the holy God in judgment according to divine justice, all his life opened up, all his motives exposed, all his secret thoughts and desires made known, all the spoiling of his best works by a grievous coming short of perfect love for God and the neighbor, to say nothing of the words and deeds spoken or done in secret in outright violation of the law of God—such a man or woman makes up his or her sanctified, wise mind that on that great day and in that awesome courtroom he or she will raise one plea, and one only: “God be merciful to me the sinner!” That is, “Forgive me, and declare me righteous for the sake, only for the sake, of the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ, whom thou thyself hast given to be my righteousness, especially in his suffering and death.”

One who has even the slightest knowledge of the holiness of God has his mind made up, in all sincerity, that he will bring in the final judgment absolutely nothing of his own obedience and no work of his own as his righteousness upon which the verdict of the Judge must depend (pp. 489-490).

As the author repeatedly points out throughout the book, the believer standing daily in the courtroom of God and entering the judgment at the moment of death “plead[s] the merits of Jesus Christ, and those only” (p. 405). “The idea of marching into the courtroom of the final judgment waving these little, defiled things [the believer's good works—AJC] as deserving what awaits him is to him (and this also is grace) not only the height of wickedness, but also the height of absurdity” (p. 402).

Comforting to the Reformed believer are three truths concerning justification by faith alone that are clearly set forth in the Reformed confessions. In fact, the confessions so clearly set forth the “gospel truth of justification” that, writes Engelsma, “No Reformed teacher has any excuse for deviating from the right doctrine of justification. No Reformed church member has any excuse for being misled by heretical teachers. No Reformed church has any excuse for approving or even tolerating a false doctrine of justification” (p. 92).

First, justification is the legal act of God whereby the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to the account of the elect sinner (p. 93). Abhorring all of his own good works, the believer boldly stands in God's divine courtroom and hears the declaration, “Not guilty, for the sake of Jesus Christ and him crucified! Righteous, with the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, which by this declaration I impute to you!” (p. 116).

It cannot be emphasized enough that the righteousness of justification is “wholly and exclusively the doing and dying of Jesus Christ outside the justified sinner....it is a righteousness accomplished for us by another, not at all a righteousness worked within us, taking form as our own efforts” (p. 118). The author reminds the reader that Luther described this as an “alien” righteousness (p. 119).

The second comforting truth regarding justification is that justification is by faith only, completely excluding the sinner's works (p. 95). “The works of the justified sinner that are excluded in justification, the Reformed confessions identify as all the sinner's works, especially the good works that proceed from a truth faith by the operation of the indwelling Spirit of Christ” (p. 98). Again, what believer dares even to contemplate coming into God's courtroom waving “little, defiled things” as deserving the Judges' pronouncement, “righteous!”

A third comforting truth of the gospel truth of justification properly understood is that faith is the “means, or instrument, by which the justified sinner receives the righteousness of another” (p. 100). In other words, justification is unconditional. “The confessions deny that the sinner's activity of believing is itself his righteousness with God, is regarded by God as the sinner's righteousness, or functions as a condition that the sinner performs to make himself worthy of justification” (p. 101). As Engelsma is at pains to point out, the Reformed confessions thoroughly condemn justification “on the condition of faith” as the heresy of Arminianism (p. 101). The Reformed believer confesses the obedience of Jesus Christ as the sole ground of his justification. Nothing else.

That faith is a condition the sinner performs in order to receive the saving benefits of Christ's works is a grievous error. Yet some, under the banner of Reformed, promote this error. Take, for example, Mark Jones, who writes, “The Reformed held firmly to the view that the elect have no role in impetrating their salvation. That honor belongs exclusively to Christ. But in the application of salvation, man plays a role. Thus, the application of justification depends on faith. Faith is an antecedent condition to receiving the blessings of justification, adoption, and sanctification” (p. 63). Further, Jones writes, “The covenant of grace may be unconditional in its origin, but ultimately it requires that conditions be met on man's part because Christ's death was a moral cause” (p. 63). Later, on page 64, Jones identifies “faith” as one of the conditions.[1]

Along with this error is joined the comfort-robbing false doctrine, characteristic of Puritanism, that those who are justified by faith alone doubt their justification and “remain in doubt whether they are saved” (p. 210). This will have to wait for next time.

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[1] Jones, Mark. Antinomianism: Reformed Theology's Unwelcome Guest?, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2013. Those who have read the Acts of Synod & Yearbook of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America (2017) will be aware of Mark Jones' book.

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This post was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.

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