Justification by Grace Alone
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. Ephesians 2:8-9NKJV
Question 71 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “How is justification an act of God’s free grace?” It gives the answer, “Although Christ, by his obedience and death, did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified, yet in as much as God accepteth the satisfaction from a surety, which he might have demanded of them and did provide this surety, his own only Son, imputing his righteousness to them, and requiring nothing of them for their justification but faith, which also is his gift, their justification is to them of free grace.” Last week we examined why justification is received by faith alone. This week we consider how this justification is entirely of the free grace of God.
The first thing we observe in the answer to this week’s Catechism question is that justification is accomplished by the obedience and death of Jesus Christ. As we noticed last week, every Christian is justified by works-righteousness, not his own works-righteousness, but the works-righteousness of Jesus Christ! The Catechism declares that Jesus made “a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice.” Why is that necessary? Because God is perfect. His justice, righteousness, holiness, and goodness are perfectly manifested and displayed in all that He does. God in His infinite wisdom has ordained and permitted sin for a time. Sin is destructive in its nature. It offends the perfections of God. Particularly the justice of God demands that sinners perfectly compensate God for their offensiveness to His perfections and the harm they have caused to His works. God’s justice is the greatest and highest justice imaginable. If God were to allow His own justice to go unsatisfied, then there would be no hope that all of the lesser evils done to men, women, and children in this world would ever be set right. Therefore, if sinners are to be saved AND God is to remain perfectly just, someone must fully satisfy God’s justice for all of the evils committed by sinners. That satisfaction of God’s justice is what Jesus did on the cross. It was a proper sacrifice in that it was offered entirely to God the offended party, by a perfectly righteous man on behalf of the guilty offenders. It was a real sacrifice in that Jesus, a real man, really bled and died to pay for all of those offenses committed by real men. And it was a full satisfaction in that Jesus paid for every single sin that all of His elect would ever commit. Jesus paid it all. Therefore, before He died He said, “It is finished.”
God’s justice, transgressed by sinners, has been fully satisfied in the perfect life and atoning death of Jesus on the cross. Jesus’ offering was “in the behalf of them that are justified.” Thus, God accepted the satisfaction of our sins, not from us, but “from a surety.” Surety is an old word which simply means, “One who has become legally liable for the debt, default, or failure in duty of another,” (Webster’s 1994). We failed in our legal responsibility to render to God what we owe to Him. Jesus came to pay our debt so that we could go free. Jesus came because God sent Him. In other words God Himself provided our surety. He could have justly required us to satisfy for our sins, which would involve an eternity in Hell to pay for each one, but instead He sent a surety on our behalf: His only begotten Son (John 3:16). The way we receive the benefit of what Jesus did in His perfect life and atoning death is by faith alone. When you trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, He becomes your surety.
Accordingly, justification is God’s act. He sent His Son to live the perfect life of obedience for which He created us to live, and then to die on the cross in order to satisfy the just penalty we owe for breaking God’s law. The righteousness Jesus earned in His life by perfect obedience is imputed to us, which means God accounts or credits it to us as if we had achieved it. The transaction whereby we receive the righteousness of Christ required by God’s justice is through the instrument of our faith. Yet as the Catechism points out, even this faith is the gift of God. Thus, the Scripture at the head of this article declares, you are saved “by grace through faith.” The grace that brings salvation, that sent Christ, that gave birth to our faith, is not of ourselves, it is “not of works,” but “it is the gift of God.” Therefore, justification, from first to last, remains to us an act of God’s free grace. A grace dearly paid for by Christ, but entirely free to us. Even the faith to receive justification was purchased for us by Christ so that no one can boast of choosing Jesus. Praise Jesus Christ for living and dying for you, in order to purchase the grace by which you are saved!