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Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

Justification - Practical Aspects

Written by Rev. G.R. Procee
Last time we considered some doctrinal aspects of justification. We saw that justification can be explained as the gracious and judicial act of God whereby He acquits a person of guilt and punishment and grants him the right to everlasting life. The sinner is declared righteous before God. The question that remains is how does justification take place in oneÕs life? What happens in the practice of spiritual life?

The Holy Spirit first convicts of sin. I realize that I cannot stand before a righteous and holy God. God is angry with me because of my sins and yet I cannot do without God. I experience something of the fact that I am worthy of hell and that I deserve GodÕs punishment. But the noteworthy fact is that I do not pray: ÒSend me to hell,Ó but rather, ÒO God, be merciful to me the sinner.Ó I plead for God's undeserved grace in spite of my sins.

Why is it, that a sinner who knows he deserves to be damned prays for mercy? That is because in this uncovering of the soul, the Holy Spirit also shows something else. He shows the sinner something of God's grace and mercy. In the darkness of conviction the Holy Spirit always lets a ray of light fall into the soul. The light of the gospel shines in the soul. The promises of the Gospel give hope and open the perspective of God's grace.

Sinners are acquitted from guilt and punishment when they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. God acquits them from sin and punishment. In this respect we must distinguish between two matters. God in heaven acquits a sinner. That is, the Lord forgives the sinner who pleads on the finished work of Christ and in faith flees to the Saviour. Besides this, there is a second matter. That is that the acquittal or forgiveness of sin is made known to the sinner. The sinner becomes aware of the forgiveness of sins and enjoys assurance of the forgiveness the Lord gives.

The assurance of forgiveness of sins is proclaimed in the promises of the gospel. Those who embrace this promise with a believing heart receive an inward impression of the forgiveness of sins by the power of the Holy Spirit. Some receive an immediate and strong impression of the forgiveness of sins, while others receive this more gradually. God publishes the forgiveness of sins in the heart and makes known to the sinner that his or her sins are forgiven.

Such faith is dependent upon the Holy Spirit Who works and strengthens faith. The Spirit makes the Word effectual in the heart. He seals the forgiveness of sins to the heart by granting faith to embrace Christ Jesus. The stronger the faith, the stronger is also the awareness and assurance of the forgiveness of sins.

Such faith is nothing else than a view of Christ. In all my sins I see the Lord Jesus who as it were shows me His pierced hands while GodÕs Spirit testifies to my soul that there is full forgiveness in ChristÕs perfect sacrifice. My soul with my weight of sins is led to rest in the Saviour and receive peace with God.

We find this described in Lord's Day 23 of the Heidelberg Catechism. There we find three matters that accuse my conscience. The Catechism beautifully explains that these accusations are covered by the merits of Christ.

The first accusation is that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God. Over against this the Catechism places the perfect satisfaction of Christ. The second accusation is that I have kept none of the commandments. Against this the Catechism places the perfect righteousness of Christ. He has kept all the commandments of God perfectly. The third accusation is that I am still inclined to all evil. Against this the Catechism places the perfect holiness of Christ. Here we find the perfect medicine against every shortcoming from our side. Christ has attained perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness which covers my entire existence.

His holiness covers the ungodliness and the uncleanness in which I was born. The full wrath of God was unleashed against Jesus Christ and therefore the friendly countenance of God shines upon me. When by true faith I have a view of Christ, my conscience is quieted and the devil ceases its assaults. No more accusations can be brought against the children of God. By faith GodÕs child may rest on the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. No longer do they have to fear the punishment and wrath of God.

Some people have thought that justification takes place because the sinner exercises faith. In this view I have to show my faith to God and I am justified because of my faith, as if my faith has value before God. That is not the case at all. The Catechism refers to this and states: ÒNot that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faithÓ (Answer 61). We are justified by faith and never because of our faith.

Faith is only the instrument by which I am justified. It is the vehicle of grace. Faith is the empty hand of the beggar. The hand in itself has no value; it is just an empty hand. But by this hand the sinner receives the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ. Faith does not save us. Christ alone saves us and we embrace Him by faith.

Some have contended that the righteousness of Christ is imparted to the sinner and that God justifies the sinner because of the imparted righteousness of Christ within. Those who think this way hold that Christ and His righteousness outside of us do not justify us, but that we are justified by the righteousness of Christ within us. In that case, strictly speaking, Christ is not the cause of our righteousness, but we, with our justification, imparted to us by Christ, are the cause of our righteousness. This would deny a forensic (or judicial) righteousness and point to an inherent (or innate) righteousness. The idea of an inherent righteousness as the basis for our justification is totally foreign to Scripture. A sinner is justified on the basis of the righteousness of Christ and not because of any quality or righteousness put in me. I am declared righteous but not made righteous.

At the time of the Reformation Andreas Osiander taught that justification was based on the indwelling righteousness of Christ. He belittled the fact that God justifies the sinner by grace, based on the finished work of Christ outside of man. Osiander was rebuked by Luther. The ground of our justification does not lie in any righteousness Christ imparts to us, but it is based on the finished work of Christ outside of us. This is a reason for great comfort and joy. Salvation and justification are firmly rooted in Christ, outside of me.

John Calvin emphasizes the necessity of contrition in connection with justification. There is no forgiveness of sins without experiencing contrition. The way to receive peace with God is by contrition without making this contrition the cause of forgiveness of sins. Calvin writes:

And we have said in some place that forgiveness of sins can never come to anyone without repentance, because only those afflicted and wounded by the awareness of sins can sincerely invoke God's mercy. But we added at the same time that repentance is not the cause of forgiveness of sins. Moreover, we have done away with those torments of souls which they would have us perform as a duty. We have taught that the sinner does not dwell upon his own compunction or tears, but fixes both eyes upon the Lord's mercy alone.

Throughout the history of the church, people have given accounts of the experience of their justification. An example of this is the Dutch secession minister H.H. Middel, who explains the justification in his conscience before the judgment throne of God (Dutch: "rechtvaardiging in the vierschaar der conscientie"). Middel explains how God the Father looked at him as a righteous Judge who was angry with him. Christ was hidden to him. After struggles that lasted for months, Middel at last accepted the justified wrath of God as punishment for all his sins, although his soul was greatly sorrowful at the thought of having to be without God forever. While he was in this situation he heard, as it were in his soul, the words: ÒFather I do not want this one to descend into corruption, I have found reconciliation for him.Ó Middel writes how the eyes of his soul were drawn to the most merciful Mediator and he looked to Him representing Him as his Surety. He writes that the sins and guilt were taken away and the love of God was poured out in his heart. ÒMy soul was delivered and by faith I was granted to embrace the merits of Christ for the forgiveness of all my sins.Ó

Middel emphasizes that his experience should not be the norm for others. He recommends that others go by the teachings of Lord's Day 23 of the Heidelberg Catechism, that justification is by faith in Christ.

Middel does emphasize that every sinner will have to die to the law by the law. This is essential in order to be receptive for the free grace of God. He complains that many in his day bypass this element of knowledge of sin. We will never be able to come to Zion if we have not been acquainted with Sinai. The steps and stages of self-knowledge can vary, but every sinner who will be saved will know himself to be totally miserable and poor of spirit, in order to have a true need for the Surety and Saviour.

Middel's point of view regarding the necessity of contrition agrees with what Calvin expressed. Both authors see the necessity of awareness of sins as a condition for receiving forgiveness of sins.

GodÕs child will daily live out of the blessing of justification. Daily he needs to be washed in the blood of Christ for forgiveness of sins. In this sense we can say that justification lasts a lifetime. For all God's children justification starts when they become sinners before God, begging for grace in Christ Jesus. It stops when God takes them up to be with Him in glory.

1. John Calvin, Institutes, Book III, Chapter IV, par.3.
2. H.H. Middel, Eenvoudig verhaal van Gods menigvuldige reddingen uit de grootste noden, Utrecht, 1983, p. 29-31.

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