Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
Justification by God's Free Grace
… being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus
Romans 3:25 NKJV
Question 70 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “What is justification?” It gives the answer, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.” Last week we considered justification as a single act of God, which is completed in a moment. This week we examine the nature of that act: that it is entirely of God’s free grace.
God acts to justify His people. What is His motivation for so acting? Or to ask it another way, what accounts for the act of justification by God to particular sinners? An old Reformed hymn says that “Whate’er My God Ordains Is Right.” God does nothing without purpose. There is always a good reason for everything God does. All that God does is good and shows forth His glory (Gen. 1:31; Eccl. 3:11; Ps.19; etc.). Furthermore, the gospel makes it clear that God acts to justify sinners. The Catechism describes this justification as God pardoning all their sins and accepting them as righteous in His sight. The source or cause for this act of justification is simply said to be “of God’s free grace.” As the Scripture at the head of this article says, sinners are “justified freely by His grace.” Thus, when we seek to answer what is it that moves or motivates God to justify sinners, what accounts for this action? We see that it is nothing in the sinner or in any other part of God’s creation past, present, or future. The cause for God’s individual act of justification to every single sinner is to be found entirely within God Himself. God is just but God is also gracious. The act of justification is an act of God’s free grace.
Grace is the unmerited favor of God given freely to sinners. By definition grace is free, yet neither the Scripture above, nor today’s Catechism question is redundant by adding the word “free” to grace. The fact is, we sinners need to be constantly reminded that there was nothing in us that moved God to justify us. Accordingly, the addition of the word “free” is not so much a matter of repetition but one of emphasis and reminder. God’s act of justification towards us was entirely of grace, yes even of free grace. While we were yet sinners – that is, while we were still loving, choosing, and indulging in sin with no desire for God – Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). When God considered the possibility of justifying sinful man, all that He saw in man, both in actuality and in potentiality, could only move Him to condemn us. It was the attribute of grace within God’s perfect being by which God moved to justify sinners.
In the act of justification God pardons the sinner of all of his sins. The sinner does nothing to get this pardon. It is an act of God’s free grace. Because God is not only gracious but just, Jesus must do a great deal to pay for that grace – a doctrine we will look at in a later question – but as respects the sinner, the act of pardoning is entirely free, it is completely of grace. However, this forgiveness is only one half of our justification. The other half is the imputed righteousness of Christ. In justification God not only pardons the believer’s sins, but He declares him to be righteous. He accepts us as if we had lived a full life of perfect obedience to Him in every thought, word, and deed. The verse that wonderfully sets forth this truth is Rom. 4:5: “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” God justifies the ungodly! God calls sinners, who are in and of themselves sinners, “righteous.” How can God do that and still be a truthful God? Because the righteousness that God imputes to us, though it is not the result of our own works, is real and true righteousness. The Catechism calls it “the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ.” Christ achieved perfect works-righteousness in His life. He kept God’s law perfectly. The wonderful news of the gospel is that Christ did not do this for Himself, but for you! If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, God sees you not only as “not guilty” but as “positively righteous.” And God can do this and be truthful because Jesus paid the penalty for your sin and performed the obedience for your righteousness. The result for every believer is justification by grace alone!