Pardoned of All Sin and Declared to be Righteous!
For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us,
that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
2 Corinthians 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.” Thus far we have looked at justification as a momentary act, and as being by God’s free grace. This week we examine what God does in the gracious act of justification, and the basis for this divine action.
God acts to justify sinners. That action is motivated entirely of the free grace of God. In the act of justification God does two things. First, God pardons all of the sins of the sinner. Sin is a transgression of God’s law. The just penalty for breaking God’s law is death and Hell forever. God’s law is so perfect and so good, and man owes God so much, that for any man to break any single one of the laws of God is to do something infinitely more heinous than the worst atrocity against another human being that can be imagined. There is simply no way that a man can satisfy for the offense done to the perfectly righteous and holy God, even in a single act of sin. Therefore, in order for God to not eternally punish but instead to justify a sinner, He must first pardon the sinner of all of his sins.
However, even a pardoned sinner, though guiltless, is not yet justified in the sight of a holy God. For God created mankind not merely to avoid sin, but to glorify and enjoy Him by actively obeying Him perfectly. Sinless man would realize all righteousness only as he perfectly obeyed, for that is what the law of God commands: righteousness itself. Likewise, any departure from God’s law must be accounted an act of immeasurable evil and rebellion. So, a pardoned sinner must still live a life of perfect commandment-keeping in order to be declared righteous, or just in the sight of God. Accordingly, the Catechism defines justification not only as God pardoning sinners, but second, as His accepting and accounting them as righteous in His sight. To sum up then, in justification, God pardons the sinner of all of his sins, and He accepts and accounts him as righteous in His sight.
The elephant in the room at this point is, “How can God do this?” How can God declare a sinner, someone who is not righteous, to be righteous in His sight? Would not such an action implicate God in doing something that is false? Some works-righteous theologians have made this charge against the Protestant, Evangelical Gospel. They say that for God to declare a man just, who is not in and of himself just, would make God complicit to an untruth, or as they call it, a “legal fiction.” How do we answer this charge? Notice how soundly the Catechism refutes such a gross distortion of the Biblical doctrine of justification: “not for anything wrought in them or done by them but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ.” When God accepts and accounts a sinner as righteous in His sight, He does so on the basis of real righteousness! It is not by the righteous acts of a sinner, which could never rise above the status of “filthy rags” before the eyes of a holy God (Isa. 64:6). Such would indeed be a true legal fiction: for God to accept the sinner’s best works (or sufferings) as having satisfied His perfect justice. Such a “gospel” could never save anyone. No, what God does in justification is what the Scripture verse at the head of this article so beautifully declares. Jesus, who is in and of Himself perfectly righteous, is “made” sin for us. That is, God imputed to Jesus all of the sin that His people have committed by breaking His commandments. And so when Jesus died on the cross, God’s wrath towards His people was satisfied (see Isa. 53): His death atoned for our sin. Likewise, we, who are in and of ourselves sinners, “become” the righteousness of God in Jesus. That is, God imputes to us the righteousness that Jesus achieved in His life of perfectly obeying all of God’s commandments. And so when Jesus obeyed the law, God’s requirement for His people was fulfilled: His obedience satisfied for our righteousness. Thus, God acts in a two-fold imputation to justify us: our sin is imputed to Jesus; His righteousness is imputed to us. Next week we will look at what we must do to receive it.