Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
Faith: The Instrument of Justification
For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God,
and it was accounted to him for righteousness."
Romans 4:3 NKJV
Question 73 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?” It gives the answer, “Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, not as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness.” Last week we examined the nature of justifying faith. This week we consider how faith brings about our justification.
The heart and soul of the gospel is justification by faith alone. When a sinner believes in Jesus Christ, when he trusts in Him alone for forgiveness and for righteousness, at that moment the sinner is forever justified in the sight of God. The Bible is very clear that whoever believes in Jesus Christ has eternal life (John 3:16). It was not by any good works, nor by any rituals such as circumcision or sacrifices, but when Abraham believed God, at that very moment, God accounted righteousness to him (Rom. 4). So also, Scripture makes it very clear that it is only “by faith” that we will be accounted righteous before Him (Acts 15:9; Rom. 3:28-30). Here we ask, with the Catechism, how does God justify a sinner through his faith?
Faith does not justify “because of those other graces which do always accompany it.” The person who believes in Jesus Christ with real, saving faith is by definition a person with a contrite heart (Ps. 51). Thus, if I am truly trusting in Jesus for salvation, then I must be convicted that in and of myself I am a sinner. This contrition or lowliness of heart is a grace from God and as such it is a true blessing. Jesus preached, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are the meek” (Matt. 5:3,5). So we are talking about good gifts from God, which necessarily accompany saving faith, and as such they are saving graces. In other words along with saving faith, God always gives the saving grace of repentance (see Larger Catechism question 76). Yet, a sinner is not justified because he is so sorry for his sins that God justifies him as a reward or payment for his sorrow. Justification is by grace and not by works. Therefore, it cannot be by 99% free grace and 1% compensation for a certain amount of sorrow for sin or anything else! Faith does not justify because it makes the sinner better.
Likewise, faith does not justify because it produces good works and is, therefore, not dead but living faith. We understand from James 2 that faith without good works is dead and dead faith cannot justify a sinner before God. However, justification is not a reward or payment for having living faith; as if living faith were such a good thing that once you possess it God now owes you justification. It is a sin not to believe in Jesus with living faith! It is a sin not to do the good works of the Law. Jesus is the Savior of the world and we are sinners. To acknowledge Him as such and ourselves as such is only doing what we ought to do anyway. Thus a man’s possession of faith and good works does not negate his sin, nor can his good works satisfy God’s requirement for perfect righteousness.
When God justifies a sinner He declares that sinner to be righteous in His sight. That is what justification is: God’s verdict of “not guilty but righteous” to the sinner. The basis for this declaration is not the faith of the sinner! That is, a sinner is not justified merely because he believes in Christ. Faith cannot substitute for righteousness and thus qualify the sinner for justification. God justifies sinners on the basis of real law-works righteousness and that righteousness is not the sinner’s faith but the perfect works of Jesus Christ. Faith justifies completely and entirely because through faith God imputes to the sinner the righteousness of Jesus. Faith is the God given instrument that receives the gift of justification. It is not some great accomplishment on the believer’s part; it is just an empty hand given by God. Why is it that God would give the perfect righteousness of His only Son to sinners merely because they trust in Him for it? Because of the great honor this brings to Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ is so able to save, so worthy of God’s everlasting blessing and glory, that to merely believe in Him will, by the sworn promise of God, always bring the sinner full and imperishable justification in His sight. Praise God for such a mighty Savior that everyone who merely believes in Him will not be disappointed (Rom. 10:11 NAS; 1 Peter 2:6 NAS)!