Bragging Rights

March 11, 2014

In Ephesians chapter 1, notice that the “riches of His grace… lavished upon us” in verses 7-8 are part of God’s eternal purpose of “uniting of all things in Christ” in verse 10.   This is very significant.  Will God be gracious to you? Forgive you? Redeem you?  Yes.  But how can you be sure God will do these things?  Because these things are all part of His plan to unite all things in Christ, and to bring glory to Himself.  Rest assured – it’s not all about you.  And this is comforting, because we like to think of our salvation as being both all about us and dependent upon us; but fortunately it is neither.  God is doing this for bragging rights, and He will not be ashamed by the outcome.

Just and the Justifier

March 19, 2010

In my last article, comparing an Anabaptist view of justification with a Reformed view, I said this:

“So in one view I am justified when, by my works, my life mimics Christ’s righteousness; in the other view, I am justified when, by faith, Jesus’ righteousness becomes my righteousness.”

Another way of saying this is that in the later view, I am justified by imputation. I am not justified because of a righteousness that inheres in myself; rather, I am justified because someone else (Christ) was righteous, and the righteousness of that someone else is applied to me as though it were mine. Christ’s righteousness is imputed to me.

But an objection arises at this point. How can we say that God calls righteous that which is not righteous? God would not lie, the objection goes, and so it would be wrong to suppose that God would ever call me righteous unless I actually became righteous in reality.  I want to interact with that objection here.

Those who would raise this objection generally fit into two groups. One group will try all their lives to attain to justification through the unmitigated righteousness of their own works, hoping to eventually achieve a state of actual sinlessness; the other group is essentially the same, the only significant difference being that the people in this group say the grace of God plays a part in their attaining to a state of sinlessness. But both groups share a reluctance to consider themselves justified until they reach a state of actual sinlessness.

I see several problems with this objection, and with those views. But before I get to them, I want to agree with a part of the premise underlying the objection, and that is that God is just. God does not lie, God does not cheat — “the decrees of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:9). I vigorously affirm the perfect justice of God.

But in affirming God’s perfect justice, I am not arguing away from imputation; rather, I am affirming a premise given by the apostle Paul in his argument for imputation. And this leads to my first answer to the above objection: God’s perfect justice is the best single argument for justification through imputation. And that’s why Paul spends so much of the book of Romans developing that very argument.  In Romans 3:21-26, Paul says there is something that God did, which He had to do in order to be both just and a justifier of sinners. Now before we even talk about what God did to pull this off, we have to acknowledge that being both just and the justifier is a problem requiring a divine solution. God had to do something special in order to be both just and a justifier. Why is this? Well, precisely because of the objector’s premise — God doesn’t lie. No judge can set the guilty free and remain just, any more than He can declare the innocent to be guilty and remain just. God had to do something to make this work, and before He did it, there was something about the state of things that made His justice and His justification of sinful man in conflict with each other. This is Paul’s argument. According to God’s perfect justice He has judged us all to be sinners worthy of death; but because He loves us He is not desirous that we perish. But because He is just, He cannot simply sweep the sin under the carpet; so if God’s going to save any of us sinners without compromising His justice, something big has to happen. And this is the thing that Paul describes in Romans 3.

Now before we talk about what that thing is, we already have enough information to know what it is not. In other words, before we discover how God justifies the sinner, we already know how He doesn’t do it. He doesn’t do it by the law; for we are all guilty before the law, and the law requires that we die. But what is sin, but a violation of God’s law? Therefore we know that God does not justify the sinner by the sinner’s sinlessness. And this would be true whether that sinlessness is graciously attained to or not. Wait — go over that again — how do we know this? Well, if man were justified through sinlessness, then what about that arrangement would make it a problem for God to be both just and the justifier? What is there about righteousness-through-sinlessness that would require God’s special intervention to preserve God’s justness? It would already be a just arrangement at the face. Why would Paul even need to write this section of Romans 3? To ask it is to answer it; therefore we know that God does not justify a man by means of that man’s sinlessness.

But the objection has other problems as well, even if Romans 3 is completely ignored. Remember, the objector will maintain that justification comes by sinless living from here on out. God wipes the slate clean by forgiving past sins, the argument goes, and God continues to forgive future sin as we grow more and more holy, until eventually we grow right out of sin and become actually righteous, at which point we are declared righteous and justified. See? — no cheating on God’s part — we become righteous, and then He calls us righteous and justifies us. Perfect justice. But the problem is that this kind of justice cannot account for how the past sins were forgiven in the first place. If by the phrase “God doesn’t lie” you mean “God doesn’t call the unjust ‘just’,” then you must also mean “God doesn’t call the guilty ‘forgiven’.” The objection to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness on the grounds of God’s justice proves too much, because it rules out any kind of pardon whatsoever. This is not to say God isn’t just; rather, God’s justice does not mean what the objector thinks it means.  True text-book sinlessness has to start from the womb, and none of us can claim that kind of sinlessness, no matter how perfectly we live after our conversion. According to strict justice apart from imputation, even 40 years of sinless living after conversion, were it possible, still would not result in righteousness, because it provides no mechanism for forgiveness of past sins; and an appeal to God’s perfect justice only makes that point more emphatically.

And this leads to my third answer to the objection. Those who object to imputation really only want to object to half of it; they think of it as though it only flows in one direction. But it flows in both directions, and not even the objectors dare deny the other half of it. The problem is that the math by which they object to the one half excludes the other half as well. Here’s what I mean. At issue is whether or not Christ’s righteousness can be imputed to me, and the objectors object on the ground that imputation itself constitutes an act of injustice. When “God cannot lie” is raised as objection to imputation, it is implied that imputation is a form of lying. So here’s my question on this point: was God lying when He made Christ a curse for us? What about when He caused the chastisement of our peace to be on Christ? Was God acting unjustly when the wrath that was due us was directed toward Christ? When Christ died in my place by God’s sovereign decree, was that God’s unrighteousness at work, declaring the innocent to be guilty? Or, rather, did Christ not really bare my sins after all? This is absurdity! And yet, if imputation of Christ’s righteousness to me were an act of injustice, then so also wold be the imputation of my sin to Christ on the cross.

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” God be thanked and praised that He sent Christ to be the propitiation for our sins! “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

Amen!

No False Comfort

March 12, 2010

I am wanting to do some writing on justification (in my spare time).  This is the first of several, hopefully.  We’ll see how it goes.

Hebrews 4:15 tells us that we have in Jesus a sympathetic high priest, not one who was untouched by our weaknesses, but rather one who was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.

I have to admit that for years I had a nagging complaint in the back of my mind about this passage.  I knew it was supposed to bring comfort to me, but I couldn’t help seeing it as a false comfort.  I mean, what good does His sympathy really do me in the big picture?  There has to be some kind of difference between us and Christ, right? Because we all sin and He did not; and whatever the ontological difference that accounts for this fact, it would be like a finger on the scale, wouldn’t it?  How can I really see Jesus’ example or sympathy in any useful way pertaining to my salvation, given the finger on the scale?  How can Jesus’ sinless life ever be of any comfort to me, when I know I can never in this life attain to sinlessness?  And how can God not know this?  It seemed like I was being patronized.  That was my secret, nagging complaint.

But that was before I left anabaptist thought for reformed thought.  And here’s why that shift in thinking makes all the difference.  As an anabaptist, I saw Jesus’ sinless life as merely an example, and believed that if I followed His example, perhaps I too could be justified.  I believed my righteousness came only by my adherence to the law.  “The man who does these commandments shall live by them” (Romans 10:5).  So when I would read Hebrew 4:15, I would understand it this way:  “Jesus walked a mile in your shoes and He did fine, so no excuses.  Jesus obeyed the commandments and lived by them, and so can you.”  I knew that somewhere in that passage was something that was supposed to bring me comfort, but the only hint of comfort I was able to identify was that Jesus could sympathize with me, as if to say “God still expects sinlessness from you, but ever since the incarnation, the Godhead now knows how hard it is.”  Well woopty-doo.  Not much comfort there.  Not much relief from overburdening guilt.   Not much hope for sinful man.   Is that the gospel? ’cause I don’t see any real good news anywhere.

But the reformed view of scripture is not like this.  The reformers recognized that although Jesus’ sinless life does serve as an example for all Christians, the fact of His sinlessness plays a much more significant role in God’s justification of man, and the reformation placed much needed emphasis on this role.  Whereas anabaptist thought seeks righteousness by imitation of Jesus’ sinlessness, reformed thought sees righteousness as belonging to God alone.  Righteousness does not inhere in man, and it never can, which is why the gospel is exactly that — good news.  The glory of the gospel — the gospelness of the gospel —  resides precisely in the fact that God’s people are saved by Jesus’ righteousness being accounted as though it were ours.  So in one view I am justified when, by my works, my life mimics Christ’s righteousness; in the other view, I am justified when, by faith, Jesus’ righteousness becomes my righteousness.

Seen in the latter way, Hebrews 4:15 no longer seems like a poor attempt at patronization, a sorry sympathy, a false comfort.  No, rather, it appears as a glorious, unspeakably wonderful gift!  Christ’s perfect obedience to the law is the righteousness by which all the faithful stand before God justified.  Praise be to God, who has borne my transgressions, to whom my sin has been accounted, and whose righteousness has been accounted to me!