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 3 we considered what it means to say “although my conscience accuse me.” The answer to our conscience is not found in our subjective experience. It lies only in the objective truth of the gospel, the Good News, that Christ has accomplished something for me, outside of me. This is so because our problem, though intimately related to what is within us (sin and death) is ultimately outside of us: God’s holy justice and wrath. In other words, our greatest problem is not the misery and suffering that sin brings but rather our greatest problem is the judgment that sin brings.
In the garden God said: “the day you eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). The Hebrew text says literally “to die [the] death” (מ֥וֹת תָּמֽוּת). It is the same language used by the serpent in Genesis 3:4 when he contradicted our Lord: “You shall not surely die [the] death.” This and similar expressions (Gen 20:7; 26:11; Exodus 19:12; 21:12, 15 occur elsewhere to signal the certainty of punishment. This penalty was not a mere or hypothetical possibility but an inevitability.
In Galatians 3:10, the Apostle Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26:
Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’
This is why it is so important that the gospel says to us: “of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ …” When, in Ephesians 2:8, Scripture says “For by grace you have been saved through faith” grace signifies divine favor toward sinners merited for us by Christ. It’s important that we do not think that grace is a substance or a medicine with which we are infused toward sanctification/justification. That’s the medieval and Romanist scheme but it is not taught by Scripture, which consistently speaks of grace not as an uncreated (God) or created (grace) substance.
Rome teaches that we are justified because and to the degree we are sanctified and we are sanctified (and therefore justified) by the infusion of medicinal grace of “charity poured forth into our hearts.” It was premised on a misinterpretation of Romans 5:5 “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” It is a misinterpretation because God’s Word says in Romans 5:1 “Therefore, since we have been justified (Δικαιωθέντες) by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The word that we translate as “having been justified” is a passive participle signaling something that has been done for us. In contrast, the medieval/Romanist view says that justification is sanctification which is something being presently wrought in us by grace and cooperation with grace. The tense of the participle, in this context, signals that justification is something that has already been completed. We are justified now. Rome says that we were initially justified in our baptism, we lost that and we may be justified in future, if we are sufficiently sanctified. There is no way to reconcile the medieval/Romanist view with Paul’s view. The medieval/Romanist view rests on assumptions that Paul did not share, namely that God can only say of us “justified” if we are intrinsically, actually, personally righteous (i.e., fully sanctified). Scripture does not teach this. We know that believers are already justified by faith (ἐκ πίστεως) because we have peace with God. As they say, “no justice, no peace.” That’s true. God is not at peace with those who are not righteous. We have peace because, by God’s favor alone merited for us by Christ, through faith alone, we are righteous. The Spirit has been poured on us, charity has been poured forth into us believers, because we are just before God not in order to be just.
It’s not as if the “poured” metaphor is unimportant. Our Lord Jesus said, “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). God the Son did not become incarnate in order to make it possible for us to cooperate sufficiently with grace unto justification but in order to fulfill all righteousness for us. This is why the Protestant Reformers insisted so vigorously on the expression “for us.”
Where the medieval/Romanist doctrine says that we are finally justified because and only to the degree we finally sanctified, Scripture says that the basis of our justification before God is the righteousness Christ accomplished for us, which is credited to us. Paul uses this verb in Romans 5:13: “sin is not counted (ἐλλογεῖται) where there is no law” (ESV). Paul says to Philemon (v. 18) “charge (ἐλλόγα) that to my account.” In Romans 4:7–8 Paul quotes Psalm 32:1–2 (31:1–2 in the LXX)
Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count (λογίσηται) his sin (ESV).
Sinners whose sins (lawless deeds) are forgiven, whose sins are covered are blessed. The second clause explains the first. Forgiveness and covering of sins are logically related. Those who sins are not covered, are not forgiven. It’s not that the sins are not actually present but that they are covered. The next sentence explains the first: the basis of forgiveness is reckoning, counting, or imputing. The verb Paul uses, following the Greek translation of Psalm 32 is in the same family as the other verb we’ve already noticed.1
Paul was explaining Genesis 15:6: “Abraham believed God and it was imputed (חָשַׁב) to him for righteousness.” He says,
Now to the one who works, his wages are not imputed (λογίζεται) as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is imputed (λογίζεται) as righteousness.
Abraham was not justified because he was sanctified nor because he cooperated sufficiently with grace. He was justified through faith alone, by which gift he trusted in the Savior to come, Jesus. Abraham is the pattern for New Covenant believers because, in the words of Jesus, “Abraham saw my day and rejoiced” (John 8:56). Abraham had true faith. Christ’s righteousness for him was imputed to him and that righteousness was received through faith. Christ’s righteousness was imputed to him (Rom 4:9) before he was circumcised, before even had opportunity to cooperate with grace. His sanctification was a grace that was a consequence of the grace of justification whereby God declared him to be righteous even before he had done good works (Belgic Confession art. 24; Westminster Shorter Catechism 33). In his explanation of Genesis 15:6, this same verse, in Galatians 3:7, Paul adds it is those who are “of faith” (in contrast to works) who are Abraham’s sons. His circumcision was a seal of the righteousness that had already been imputed to him (Rom 4:11). Paul says that the story of Abraham’s justification sola gratia, sola fide is recorded for our sakes, so that we will have confidence that we too, who have believed in Christ, are also now already justified, that Christ’s perfect, whole obedience has been credited to us (Rom 4:22). Because we are now justified on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed our sins, with which we struggle all through this life, are not being imputed (λογιζόμενος) to us (2 Cor 5:19).
The English verbs impute, credit, and charge are, of course, a commercial terms. It’s a banking term. We use “credit cards” in which merchants treat us as if we have money that we may or may not have. It’s also a legal term. When we are declared righteous in court it is not because there is no sin in us but that our sins are not imputed to us before the law. We are regarded as if we have fulfilled the law and as if we have not transgressed it.
Remember, this is not as the Romanist critics and apologists say, a legal fiction. It is not our half-hearted, broken, decrepit “righteousness” (e.g., cooperation with grace) that is being credited to us. That would be a “fictive” doctrine of justification or a legal fiction as they say. No, that is the Roman doctrine of congruent merit. Rather, we say that Christ’s perfect, whole, complete, active and suffering (passive) righteousness is credit to us. The righteousness that is credited to us is intrinsically worthy. It has condign merit. So we reject the medieval/Roman doctrine that believers have, by grace and cooperation with grace, condign merit and we reject the doctrine of congruent merit in justification (Heidelberg Catechism 60) but we do not reject every notion of merit altogether. The idea that the Reformed reject every doctrine of merit is contrary to what we confess where we repeatedly contrast our lack of condign or congruent merit with the reality and presence of Christ’s condign merit for us. Herman Witsius wrote,
But if this righteousness had not been sacred and inviolable, Christ would have been under no necessity to submit to the covenant of the law, in order to merit eternal life for his people. This therefore is evident, that there ought to be a merit of perfect obedience on which a right to eternal life may be founded. Nor is it material whether that perfect obedience be performed by man himself, or by his surety.
The basis of our standing with God is not within us but it is real and it is outside of us, it is objective. It is Christ’s. He has satisfied God’s righteous law and endured his holy and just wrath for us. In justification, when God looks at us, he does not see our sins. He sees only Christ’s perfect righteousness for us. That is why believers are not under a covenant of works but under a covenant of grace. Christ’s real and perfect righteousness does not belong properly to us and yet we must lay hold of it. More on that in the next post.
1. Paul omits the last sentence of Ps 32:2, “and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.