The Westminster Confession Of Faith. Section XI.1-2
It has been traditional in Reformed theology to deal with the doctrines pertaining to one’s salvation in what is called the ‘ordo salutis’ – “a technical term of Protestant dogmatics to designate the consecutive steps in the work of the Holy Spirit in the appropriation of salvation.”1 A weakness in such a definition is that it has been understood as an order that is strictly consecutive or sequential. A better way to understand the dependencies is to look upon some of the associated doctrines as being concurrent, that is as happening at the same time. For example, strictly speaking, justification and definitive sanctification both happen concurrently, and both are consecutively or sequentially after regeneration or effectual calling (also being concurrent), which concerns repentance and faith as God’s gifts to his elect.
Many object to treating the subject of salvation in such a “clinical” or “logical” fashion, but as one proceeds, it will be more evident why this order is so crucial to keep in mind. Such an order is stated and presupposed by the authors of the Confession, just as it is here with the subject of justification, as being sequential to effectual calling. “Those whom God effectually calls, he also freely justifies.” Justification follows upon effectual calling, because true or genuine faith is the ‘instrumental’ means of one’s justification. This is what they mean by “freely justifies.” The entire process is all of sovereign grace. This is why they tell us what justification is not. Some want to make justification to be based upon one’s works, in whole or in part, although they want to stress that these works are also a gift of sorts, of God’s grace.
The RCC thus speaks of the ‘infusion’ of righteousness, because their conception, like some in protestant circles, wants to suggest that justification itself changes one’s character seen in one’s conduct, and so in this way God justifies based upon, in part or whole, on these works. Thankfully, there was the RCC as the context in which the reformers and puritans protested, because it highlights the fact that in any given time in history there have always been two, and only two, kinds of religion – man-centred or God centred.2 For this reason the authors of the Confession were clear as to what justification is specifically. Therefore, God “freely justifies…by pardoning their (“Those whom God effectually calls”) sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous: not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them.”
Some want to suggest that no grid, as they caricature the ordo salutis, should be imposed on the scriptures. However, as one studies the Confession one can see that it was in fact the scriptures that guided their thinking and not the reverse. Paul saw this sequential order when he stated that those “whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.” (Rom. 8:30) Notice that in this order he does not include sanctification. Justification is its own branch, as it were, stemming from effectual calling. The Shorter Catechism succinctly states at A. 33, that justification is “an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us.”
In the larger scheme of things, salvation applied is sequential to our being in the lost condition of the fall, or our total depravity, total meaning that it affects every part of our being. Therefore Paul made the point that “it is God who justifies.” (Rom. 8:33) “Justification does not mean that one is to be, or be made, or become inherently good, holy, or upright. To the contrary, it is the sinner who is justified, and at the very instant that he is declared just by God, he remains inherently sinful and unworthy. This does not mean that internal holiness is left unprovided for in the plan of salvation. Not at all. True believers are sanctified, as surely as they are justified.”3 The present writer is postulating that at the time of justification, one is also instantaneously definitively sanctified through the same finished work of Christ. However, progressive sanctification is just that – ‘progressive’.
Justification is a judicial declaration, as is condemnation (Cf. Dt. 25:1). Justification as a declarative act does not itself constitute one as righteous. “We must therefore carefully distinguish between such an act as regeneration (which institutes a change of nature) and justification (which declares a change of status). But here is the marvel of justification. God does what a human judge cannot and must not do. He declares righteous those who are really ungodly (Rom. 4:5, 3:19-24, etc.). If men were to do so it would be abomination (Prov. 17:15). But God does so and yet is not unrighteous in doing it. The question is: how? The answer is: God provides a just and legal basis upon which to declare the unrighteous to be just. And he does this by imputation.”4 Therefore, we are justified “for Christ’s sake alone.”
“Luke 7:29 says that the publicans justified God. Now certainly, the publicans did not infuse grace into God, nor did they give him any ability to do good works. Far from making God righteous, they declared that he was already righteous. It should be completely obvious that the publicans produced no change whatsoever in God’s character. That justification does not refer to a subjective change is seen also in other verses. There is the figure of speech in Matthew 11:19; “Wisdom is justified of her children.” Luke 10:29 says, “But he, willing to justify himself…” where the lawyer did not intend to alter his character but intended to defend it. He meant to declare that he was already just. That justification is a declaration is more clearly seen when we notice how the New Testament contrasts it with condemnation.
So too Romans 8:33-34 says, “It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth?” The same contrast is also found in Romans 5:16 and 18. Other verses, though they do not explicitly use the two words, imply the same contrast, such as John 3:18. From this contrast we may conclude that since the verb ‘condemn’ does not mean to make a person guilty or to make his character evil, but means to declare that he already is guilty, the verb ‘justify’ does not mean to make a man just, or to improve his character, but means to declare that he is now just, not guilty, innocent. Indeed a good verb to contrast with ‘condemn’ is ‘acquit’. A judge acquits a man when he declares that the man is not guilty. Justification then is a judicial act. It is God’s declaration that this sinner is not guilty, but righteous. But how can this be so?
How can a sinner be righteous? It should be clearly understood that even faith is not the basis of justification. The ground or basis of justification is the object in which the faith rests; that is, Christ and his righteousness. God acquits the sinner, declares him not guilty, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness having been imputed to him. Sometimes the expressions are shortened in Scripture, as in Romans 5:5, so that faith is mentioned while the object of the faith is left understood; but this is because the true basis of justification had been clearly expressed a few verses before, in Romans 3:21-26. Then again, the great passage in Romans 5:12-19 shows that as it was one act of man that brought condemnation, so it was by the righteousness of one man that justification is possible. God requires and supplies complete sinlessness.”5
“It is the personal righteousness of Christ’s sinless obedience that is put to our account, on the basis of which we are declared not guilty. Read the same references again. Cf. also Tit. 3:57; Eph. 1:7; I Cor. 1:30; Phil. 3:9; and even Jer. 23:6, for remember, the Gospel is in the Old Testament and with it justification by faith. It has been necessary to insist that justification is a judicial act of acquittal, for only so can salvation be by grace. However, the ordinary idea of acquittal does not exhaust the Biblical concept of justification. Section I also says that God pardons the sins of those who are justified and accepts their persons as righteous. Perhaps the idea of pardon needs no explanation, for its meaning is easily understood; but the idea of acceptance needs to be distinguished from both pardon and acquittal. The governor of a state may pardon a convicted official without restoring him to favor and to his office.
Appointments to office, if honest, would depend on the future conduct of the pardoned man. But it is otherwise with Biblical justification; for if favor with God depended on our future conduct, eventual salvation would be based on our works-clearly contrary to Scripture-and we could never have an assurance of success. When our position depends on Christ’s merits instead of our own, we need have no fear.”6 Furthermore Clark goes on to make the added point that it is just this conception of justification that led people to claim that Paul was justifying continuance in sin. “In the time of the Apostle Paul, objectors argued that justification by faith alone encouraged men to sin. That they raised this objection in Paul’s day shows clearly that Paul did not teach justification by works. But in Romans 6 Paul shows with equal clarity that the objection is unfounded.”7
“Justification is God’s judicial act of acquittal, but acquittal never comes to a man without regeneration and effectual calling. God never pardons a man without removing his heart of stone and supplying him with a heart of flesh. Christ’s perfect righteousness is never imputed without the sinner’s being raised from the dead and given a new life. Faith in Christ, then, is always accompanied by other saving graces; and the second chapter after Justification in the Confession is Sanctification.”8 As Shaw also states, we must not confound justification with sanctification, which would pervert both law and gospel. “Justification is a judicial act of God, and is not a change of nature, but a change of the sinner’s state in relation to the law.”9 However, the present writer believes that progressive sanctification is based on definitive sanctification, which occurs concurrently with justification.
The authors of the Confession were also clear in stating that faith is not what is imputed, it being rather a gift at our regeneration. “Not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith: which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God.” “Imputation means to ‘reckon, think, or regard’. When an innocent man is reckoned or thought to be guilty, he will complain that men are falsely imputing guilt to him. They consider him to be what he actually is not. So it is with us. God (without doing wrong) regards us to be righteous. The reason that God can do this is that Christ kept the law perfectly and thus worked out a perfect righteousness which he then freely offered to the Father on our behalf for this purpose.”10
“God is able to reckon us free from guilt. The reason is that Christ placed himself in our room and stead so that God could consider our guilt to belong to him. He was condemned just as we are justified. We speak of ‘double imputation’ because of Christ’s active (perfectly obeying God’s law) and passive (fully suffering the penalty of the law against sin) obedience. God regarded his righteousness to be ours, and our guilt to be his. Without imputation of both (our guilt to him and his righteousness to us) there would be no basis for justification. But upon this basis God is able to declare us righteous in his sight. And this declarative act is justification.”11 This is what Paul meant when he stated that God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:26). “From this it clearly emerges that the sole ground of our justification is the obedience of Christ.”12
We should be confessing with Paul when he testified that he wanted to “be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.” (Phil. 3:9) “Since we have no righteousness of our own, and since we must have perfect righteousness before God in order that he might declare that we are, there can be no mixture of our righteousness with that of Christ imputed to us. Saving faith is simply “receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness,” and is for this reason ‘the alone instrument of justification.’”13 This faith is a gift received and occurring by our regeneration, along with true repentance. Furthermore, this affirmation is opposed to any who would base justification on any admixture of our supposed righteousness with that of Christ’s.
“This means that at the instant we begin to trust in Christ we are then and there declared to be legally without sin, guilt or future punishment. This declaration cannot depend upon anything done by the sinner. Faith which is not ‘doing’ but only dependence upon what Christ has done, instantaneously results in complete and eternal justification, provided it be true faith. If it is true faith it will also produce good works which are the sure evidence thereof.”14 This conception of the Confession, as stated here by Williamson, also excludes any idea, rearing its ugly head again today, that there are supposedly two types of justification, one in a person’s present, and then one in the future. ‘True faith’, which is a gift along with repentance in our regeneration is, as stated previously, “the alone instrument of justification” with the righteousness of Christ being the ‘ground’.
Confusion arises when people take a definition of faith, which rightly shows itself to be ‘true’ by how one goes on to live, and bring it back into the branch of justification, as though this somehow justifies making our works to be mixed with Christ’s as the ‘ground’ of our justification. Some want to suggest that this is a ‘new’ way to look upon justification, when it is not new at all. Again, the fact of the matter is, if Paul were in any way suggesting this approach he would not have been accused by some of a conception of the gospel that justifies continuing in sin. Furthermore, the authors wanted to state that faith “is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.” Thus, to be precise, good works are not the evidence of justification, they are rather the fruit bearing evidence of regeneration, this being ‘true’ faith.
“The pardon of sin is unquestionably one important part of justification. It consists in the removal of guilt, or the absolution of the sinner from the obligation to punishment which he lay under by virtue of the sentence of the violated law. The pardon which God bestows is full and complete. It includes all sins, be they ever so numerous, and extends to all their aggravations, be they ever so enormous. Thus saith the Lord, ‘I will pardon all their iniquities whereby they have sinned, and whereby they have transgressed against me’ (Jer. 33:8). All the sins of the believer are at once pardoned in his justification; his past sins are formally forgiven, and his future sins will not be imputed, so that he cannot come into condemnation (Ps. 32:1, 2; John 5:24.”15
“The righteousness of Jesus Christ is the sole ground of a sinner’s justification before God. It is not his ‘essential’ righteousness as God that we intend, for that is incommunicable; but his mediatory or surety-righteousness, which, according to our Confession, consists of his ‘obedience and satisfaction’. In the Old Testament, the Messiah is mentioned under this endearing name, ‘The Lord our righteousness’ (Jer. 23:6); and it is predicted that he should ‘bring in everlasting righteousness’ (Dan. 9:21). In the New Testament, Christ is said to be ‘made unto us righteousness’; and we are said to ‘be made the righteousness of God in him (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21). It is declared that ‘by the obedience of the one shall many be made righteous’, and that ‘by the obedience of one, the free gift comes upon all men unto justification of life’ (Rom. 5:18, 19).”16
“The Scriptures constantly affirm that we are justified “through” or ‘by means of’ faith, but never ‘on account of’ or ‘for the sake of’ faith. Rom. v. 1; Gal. ii. 16. To our doctrine of justification the famous passage in James ii. 14 is often objected. But Paul and James are speaking of different things. Paul teaches that faith alone justifies. He is arguing against Pharisees and legalists. James teaches that a faith which is alone-that is, a dead faith-will not justify. He is arguing against nominal Christians, who would hold the truth in unrighteousness. Paul uses the word “justify” in the sense of ‘God’s justification of the sinner’; to which faith, and not works, is prerequisite. James uses the word to “justify” in the sense of ‘prove true’, or ‘real’; in which sense faith is justified or proved genuine by works.”17
Williamson sums up his treatment with the following, “justification is by faith. But there can be no faith except in one who is regenerated by the Spirit of God (Eph. 1:4,5,11, 2:4-10). These sections teach us (1) that those who are effectually called (regenerated and converted) are also justified, (2) that justification is judicial, (3) that it is effected by imputation, (4) that it is conditioned by, and instrumentally applied through faith (which is a gift of God).”18 Williamson adds a fifth point, namely “that while justification is by faith alone, it is invariably proactive of good works.”19 The present writer objects to a finer point here, that it is not justification per se that is proactive of good works, but rather of regeneration. As also mentioned earlier, it is important to bear in mind that there is such a thing as definitive sanctification.20
Supplementary scripture: I Kgs. 8:46; Ps. 143:2; Is. 53:6, 12; Zech. 3:1-5; Jn. 1:12; 3:18; 5:24; Acts 2:28; 10:44; 11:18;13:38-39; Rom. 11:6; II Cor. 7:1; Gal. 2:16; 3:6-9; 5:6; Js. 2:17, 22, 26; 3:2; I Pet. 2:24; Heb. 9:22, 28; 12:14.
1. (Wikipedia Cf. Murray, ‘Redemption Accomplished and Applied’)
2. (Clark, 120-123)
3. (Williamson, 104)
4. (Ibid., 104-105)
5. (Clark, 123-124)
6. (Ibid., 124-125 Cf. Phil. 3:8)
7. (Ibid., 125)
8. (Ibid., 125)
9. (Shaw, 175)
10. (Williamson, 105)
11. (Ibid., 105)
12. (Ibid., 105)
13. (Ibid., 105)
14. (Ibid., 105)
15. (Shaw, 174)
16. (Ibid., 178)
17. This might also help explain N.T. Wright’s position, because despite the fact that he admits that justification is a judicial declarative act, nevertheless he cannot conceive of God imputing his own righteousness to the defendant. As he states, it makes no sense to say that the judge somehow gives his own righteousness to the defendant. (Wright, ‘What Saint Paul Really Said’ 96-99. Horton, 93). However, the Reformed view is not that the divine righteousness is what is in view, but very specifically the righteousness of Christ, and this is not unfused, by imputed is the ground of justification.
18. (A.A. Hodge, 185)
19. (Williamson, 105)
20. (Ibid., 103)
21. (Murray, ‘Collected Writings Of John Murray 2:Systematic Theology’ Banner Of Truth, 277-284)