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Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness (6): Justification by Faith Alone

Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness (6): Justification by Faith Alone

By Martyn McGeown. Precious article in the series: Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness (5): Forgiveness and Justification Distinguished.


Third, we speak of justification by faith alone: God justifies us by faith alone without works when we believe in Jesus Christ. The ground or basis of our justification is the perfect lifelong obedience of Jesus Christ, as well as his atoning sufferings and death. In one word, Scripture calls that Christ’s righteousness. We are not justified on the basis of our righteousness, whether our good works, our faith, or our repentance. We are justified on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone. “God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism A 60). “Only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God” (A 61). “Jesus Christ, imputing to us all his merits and so many holy works which he has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness” (Belgic Confession Art. 22). “The obedience of Christ crucified alone… is sufficient to cover all our iniquities and to give us confidence in approaching to God” (Belgic 23). 

How, then, do we become partakers of Christ’s perfect righteousness so that it becomes ours? God imputes it to us or he reckons it to our account by faith. The instrument or means of justification is faith, not works. Faith is the only appropriating instrument: we are not justified by working, or by repenting, but by believing. “But what doth it profit thee that thou believest all this? That I am righteous in Christ, before God, and an heir of eternal life… inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart” (Q&A 59, A 60). “I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only” (A 61). Justification by faith alone is the chief way in which Scripture and the creeds speak of justification. 

If we have been justified, our sins have been forgiven. Yet even after justification we commit sin. When that happens, we do not need—strictly speaking—to be justified again (although we might use that terminology); we need to be forgiven. We need to be forgiven in our consciousness concerning particular sins so that we know God’s forgiveness and are assured of it. Or to use Jesus’ illustration “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit” (John 13:10). We are washed—we have had a bath, as it were (or we are justified by faith)—and when we get our feet dirty as we walk through this world, we do not need to be justified again; we need to be forgiven. 

The Canons distinguish between the state of justification and the forgiveness of particular sins. We learn this especially in Head Five. When a believer (who has already been justified) commits a gross transgression of God’s law he “incurs a deadly guilt” (Canons 5:5); yet Canons 5:6 says that such a believer “does not forfeit the state of justification.” As far as his status before God is concerned, he is justified—unchangeably so—but as far as that particular sin is concerned he is guilty, he knows himself to be guilty, he comes under God’s chastisement, and he needs to be forgiven, forgiven in his own consciousness. He needs to hear God say about that particular sin, “I forgive you, my child; I put away—I send away, I let go of—your sin.” And there are times when God withholds that word of pardon from his children to chastise them, to show them the seriousness of their transgressions, and to teach them the bitterness of his fatherly anger.  The Westminster Confession 11:5 is strikingly similar to the Canons at this point: “God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified; and although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may by their sins fall under God's fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance” 

An impenitent child of God is miserable until “God certainly and effectually renews him to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for his sin, that he (the believer) may seek and obtain remission (forgiveness) in the blood of the Mediator” (Canons 5:7). That was David’s experience and confession: he was justified before God (that was his state); yet when he committed the gross sins of adultery and murder God’s hand lay heavy upon him, and he had no peace of conscience. How miserable David was until he repented! How miserable we are when we walk impenitently in sin! Canons 5:5 shows us the path that God has ordained for us: “[And they] sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, until, on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them.”  

God willing, next time we want to examine more closely the relationship between repentance and the remission of sins.

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