Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.
— Heidelberg Catechism 60
In part 2 we considered what it means to ask the question “how are you right before God?” In order to understand the teaching of the catechism on justification we must remember that it is explaining to believers how justification works and what it means for our assurance and our spiritual life. This is why it turns almost immediately to a highly realistic account of the believer’s struggle with sin. The background to this way of thinking and speaking is the Pauline, Augustine’s, and Reformed doctrine of man (anthropology). Calvin’s reading of Roman’s 7 is echoing in the background.
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Rom 7:15; ESV)
For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom 7:22–24; ESV)
We are not perfectionists. Believers continue to struggle with sin. Why bring up this reality under justification? First, because it is the experience of every Christian. It’s important to put that experience into its biblical framework lest believers despair and give up. We have always had strains of perfectionism (i.e., the doctrine that believers can, if they will, attain to entire sanctification or perfect sanctification in this life) in the church but it’s been particularly strong since the 18th century and so much so that it has affected the way Reformed people talk and think about sanctification. The Heidelberg Catechism is not perfectionist. The Reformed faith is not perfectionist. We confess that my conscience accuses me
that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil
and the assumption of the catechism is that accusation is essentially accurate. Our conscience does not lie when it says that believers remain, in themselves, terrible sinners. We captured this reality, this truth in our slogan “simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously just and sinner). The perfectionist wants to say simultaneously just and completely sanctified.
Second, because the moralist (Romanist, Federal Visionist, et al) cannot say “simul iustus et peccator.” For the moralist may only justify us when we are intrinsically, actually righteous. That means, of course, either that the moralist must lie about his sins or lower the bar of justice. The Christian need do neither. That truth is an acid test as to whether one is secretly a moralist. When you sin (not if but when) do you say to yourself, “Uh oh, I’m out of favor with God now”? If so, you are a moralist and you need to repent of your unbelief. Jesus did not die to make it possible for you to be right with God so long as you are sufficiently sanctified. I don’t care what the Top Men are telling you about how sanctified you must be in order to be “finally justified“—as if there was such a thing as being provisionally justified. The gospel tops the top men. The gospel is that by God’s free favor alone (sola gratia), Christ’s perfect righteousness (his condign merit) has been imputed to us and we receive and rest in and lean upon Christ for our righteousness. Our standing with God is not like the stock market. It does not rise and fall with our actual, gradual sanctification, which itself is a gospel mystery. The Spirit is at work in us, sanctifying us but you don’t know where he comes from nor where he goes. You cannot measure his work and when you do you will not estimate it correctly. Ours is, by his grace and Spirit, to continue to die to sin and live to Christ. Ours is to trust that his promises are true: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). Scripture does not say, “Since we have begun to be justified” nor does it say “since your justification has been inaugurated.” It says “we have been justified….”
Our defense is Paul’s “but God:”
- “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
- “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…” (1 Cor 1:27).
- “For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.” (Gal 3:18).
- “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us…” (Eph 2:4).
So your conscience will continue to testify against you all your life. That’s just the way it is. If your conscience does not so testify then you are an unbeliever or confused. The believer says to himself, “Yes, conscience that is all very true but something else is true. God the Son has accomplished all righteousness for me and that is enough, so be quiet.”