The doctrine of justification is the article of faith that determines whether the church stands or falls. The church stands when she proclaims this God-honouring, soul-saving and liberating message and the church falls when she neglects to do so. The answer we give to the question, “how can we be just in the sight of our Maker?” manifests the character of our religion. Do we trust in our own righteousness or in the righteousness of God revealed in the cross of Christ? We are only righteous in the sight of God when the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. We are justified by faith and not by works.
The doctrine of justification by faith is a biblical doctrine. In God’s purpose it was the task of the apostle Paul to give a full exposition of this doctrine. The letters he wrote to the Galatians and the Romans are especially important in this connection. However, the kernel of the message of justification by faith we already find in the Old Testament. Paul argues from the Old Testament. The faith of Abraham teaches us that a man is justified by faith alone and not by works. The prophet Habakkuk testified: “but the just shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4).
Our Lord Jesus Christ made this clear not only in his teachings, but also through his actions, that he came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. He received sinners and ate with them. The message of our Lord Jesus Christ was a message of unconditional forgiveness; forgiveness not based on man’s merits but only on God’s free grace and sovereign mercy. He gave a most striking example of this message in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The publican pleaded in Luke 18:13: “God be merciful to me a sinner.” And this man went down to his house justified.
When we study the Bible we can greatly profit from the insights of former generations. We are not the first generation that has read the Bible. Neglecting the rich sources of insight from former ages and generations stands in contradiction to the article of faith: “I believe an holy, catholic church, the communion of saints.” Spurgeon once made the following remark: “People who pay very great attention to what God revealed to them usually pay very little attention to what God revealed to others.” We must try to understand the Scriptures in communion with other saints. At the same time we must caution that the insights from other generations in the Scriptures must be tested by the Scriptures themselves. Not the church, not the Lord’s people, but only the Word of God is infallible.
Looking at church history with regard to the doctrine of justification the first person we need to pay attention to is Augustine: the greatest church father of the Western Church. Augustine knew by experience that he was saved by God’s grace alone. However, the first year after his conversion his doctrinal views regarding the place of the grace of God in man’s salvation were somewhat confused. Augustine gained deeper insight into the nature of God’s grace in his conflict with the British monk Pelagius. Augustine stressed more and more that man is by nature depraved and that he can be healed only by the grace of God.
The most important work Augustine wrote in this connection is De spiritu en littera (The Spirit and the letter); a work based on 2 Corinthians 3:6: “for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” In this work Augustine stresses that the law cannot be fulfilled by natural man. The law commands but since Adam’s fall it cannot give the power to fulfill. Augustine denies the fact that when Paul stated that a man cannot be justified by the works of the law, he had only the ceremonial side of the law in view. Referring to Romans 7:7, “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” Augustine shows how Paul taught that this is also true with regard to the moral commandments.
The law is given to us so that we may seek grace and grace is given that we may fulfill the law. When saved by grace a man loves not only God but also his commandments. It is his desire to glorify God. It is not a matter of compulsion. The love of Christ constrains him.
Augustine stressed that man is saved and justified by grace alone. But for him, justification, as such, is not the declaration that we are right in the sight of God because Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. For Augustine justification meant that we are made righteous. He pointed to the Latin word ‘facere’ in this connection. He did not make the distinction between justification and sanctification. Where Augustine used the word justification we as Reformed Christians use the words regeneration and sanctification. Nevertheless, Augustine makes clear that man’s sins are forgiven not because of any merits found in him but purely of grace alone. For his best works man needs forgiveness. So although there is a formal difference between the theology of Augustine and that of the Reformers, in actual content they are very closely related to each other.
In the formal treatment of justification as making men righteous, Roman Catholic theology could align itself with Augustine. But when Augustine teaches that regeneration is purely grace and that the forgiveness of our sins is wholly apart from a consideration of our works Roman Catholic theology, with the exception of the Jansenists, – an Augustinian stream in the post-Tridentine Roman Catholic Church, did not see eye to eye with Augustine. In the line of Augustine the Jansenist denied every synergistic view of grace. They taught the total depravity of man and the gracious election of God. The teaching of the Jansenist, was condemned in several papal bulls, the most famous being Unigenitus (1714).
The Stance of the Reformation
The Reformation can be seen as an Augustinian revival. Among others, because he was an Augustinian friar, Luther had a special interest in the works of this church father. The Reformers argued that Augustine with regard to the doctrine of grace was completely on their side and not on the side of Roman Catholicism. Warfield taught that the Reformation was the final triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over his doctrine of the church. For the first time a clear distinction was made in theology between justification and sanctification. In this respect the doctrine of the Reformers surpasses the doctrine of Augustine. The Reformation emphasized the forensic nature of justification. The Larger Catechism of Westminster gives the following definition of justification: “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 anything 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.”
Luther greatly benefited from the writings of Augustine but declared at the same time that by the grace of God he himself was given a deeper insight into what it meant that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel. This righteousness is not that we are renewed in the image of Christ, but it is the alien righteousness of Christ outside us. At the same time a justified man is really a new man because his sins are imputed to Christ and Christ’s righteousness is granted to him. He is made one with Christ like a wife is united to her husband.
For Luther justification is not only the declaration that we are righteous in the sight of God, but also the creation of a new relationship with God. We find the same in Calvin when he closely connects justification by faith with the mystical union with Christ. Christ dwells in the believer and the believer dwells in him. John Murray said in this connection that justification is not only a declarative act, but also a constitutive act. Justification by faith alone is not fiction. The alien righteousness of Christ is the real possession of the believer who is united to Christ by the Holy Spirit. This close relationship between the forensic declaration of forgiveness of sin and being right with God and the mystical union with Christ was not always retained in later Reformed theology.
The New Perspective
The insight of the Reformation in Paul’s doctrine of justification is greatly questioned in this decade. Three names must be mentioned especially: E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright. Sanders, in his work Paul and Palestinian Judaism questions the portrait of first century Judaism given in many scholarly works. He disagrees that first century Judaism could be characterized as legalistic. This is, according to his opinion, a Christian and especially a Protestant prejudice. Sanders characterizes first century Judaism as covenantal nomism. Sanders states that first century Judaism professed that Israel was elected out of God’s sovereign good pleasure. It was a matter of grace. Works were not necessary to enter into the covenant but necessary to stay in the covenant. The character of Paul’s religion was not fundamentally different from other forms of first century Judaism. Where other forms of Judaism placed Israel’s election as God’s gift, Paul placed faith in Jesus Christ as his gift of God. Paul’s real difficulty with other forms of first century Judaism was that they were not Christian.
James Dunn agreed with Sanders to a great extent. He also thinks that first century Judaism cannot be characterized as legalistic, but he questioned that Paul’s only point was that the other forms of first century Judaism were not Christianity. Dunn was the first to use the expression “new perspective”. The new perspective on Paul is different from that of the Reformers but also from the Christian view in general. It asserts that in the 16th century both the Reformers and the Roman Catholics missed the real point of Paul’s message regarding justification.
According to Dunn, Paul’s message on justification is not soteriological but ecclesiological. The message on justification was just a corollary of Paul’s mission to the gentiles. Paul did not want to retain circumcision, the Jewish festival calendar and the dietary laws as boundary marks for the Christian church. The only boundary marks were the confession of Christ as Lord and the possession of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s teaching on justification was not anti-legalistic but anti-nationalistic.
Wright, in his work Climax of the Covenant, reasons that the real emphasis of Paul’s message regarding justification is the new stage in salvation history that has arrived with the coming of Christ. First century Judaism considered itself, spiritually speaking, still in exile. Paul proclaimed that with the work of Christ the exile has ended. The difference between him and his opponents lies in the fact that his opponents did not realise that a new stage in salvation history had dawned. The position of the Dutch New Testament scholar Jacob van Bruggen is quite close to that of Wright. In connection with the new perspective, Paul’s calling is usually not seen as a conversion but just a realization that he was not in step with the ongoing development of salvation history.
A Short Appraisal of the New Perspective
We must say that Paul’s doctrine of justification has implications for the doctrine of the church. But we are wrong to assume that his message on justification has only to do with the boundaries of the church of the New Testament. Paul’s mission to the gentiles was a consequence of his teaching on justification by faith and not the reverse. Since he was called he knew that only through Jesus Christ there was access to God and not through the law. That was the reason why he preached justification by faith to Jews and gentiles alike. He excluded in justification not only the so-called boundary markers but all the works of the law; also the works that are of a moral nature.
Justification has to do with forgiveness of sin. See what Paul says in Romans 4:6-8: “Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.” Justification has to do with redemption from the wrath to come. Antithetical to the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel is the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness. (Romans 1:18). A final quotation in this connection: “Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.” (Romans 5:9)
Paul’s calling was not just a calling to a mission and a realization of the true state of development of salvation history, it also constituted his conversion. Not a conversion from Judaism to Christianity but to a true understanding what Judaism ought to be in the light of its own Scriptures. According to Paul the church consisting of Jews and gentiles was the real embodiment of the promises of God. Jews who rejected Jesus as the Christ did not understand the real meaning of their own Scriptures. When called by God, Paul received a new view of God, of himself, of Christ, of the Scriptures and the history of Israel.
It is certain that in first century Judaism there was an awareness of God’s grace, but that does not mean that it cannot be characterized as legalistic when we include more refined forms of legalism. According to the rabbis, Israel was the only nation that accepted the torah which was offered to all the nations of the world. God called Abraham from Ur because of the merit he found in him. Obedience to the torah was a constitutive element for remaining in the covenant. The rabbis showed us evidence of concern that the law demands perfect obedience. The rabbis denied the total depravity of man.
The way they approach God is fundamentally different from the way the Christian approaches God through the Mediator Jesus Christ in holy self-condemnation and holy confidence. Perhaps first century Judaism can be characterized as covenantal nomism, but real Christianity cannot. Covenantal nomism as Sanders presents it, is clearly a refined form of legalism. There is not a personal entrance into the covenant or a personal appropriation of the covenant that is purely a matter of grace. The message of effectual calling and regeneration so essential in Christianity is lacking. Lacking is also the awareness that we need forgiveness even for our best efforts.
The so-called new perspective is not far removed from the medieval scholastic position that Paul only rejects the keeping of the ceremonial law in justification. Many biblical scholars today have little knowledge of church history and the history of exegesis. They do not realize that insights presented as new are not so new at all, and were defended earlier in church history and rejected on solid grounds.
The position of Reformed theologians embracing the new perspective can be characterized as covenantal nomism. It is a form of Reformed theology that does not give credence to regeneration and effectual calling. Having grace is merely a matter of belonging to the church and being a living member of it is just a matter of showing it in your works. When people reason this way, justification by faith alone as a living and experiential reality does not function. Their theology must be characterized as being tainted by the legalism Paul so ardently condemns.
The Nature of Justification
What is justification? It is not a making of oneself righteous. It is not sanctification. It is not only a matter of belonging to the Christian church because you profess Christ as Lord. Justification has to do with God as Judge. Justification is the declaration that you are free from guilt and condemnation in the sight of God. It is an anticipation of future judgment. To your utter astonishment and wonder you are declared not guilty, although you know you are. That justification is of a forensic nature is very clearly shown in Romans 8:33-34: “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.”
In essence justification is the same under the Old and New Testament dispensation. Abraham was already justified by faith. David gloried in the free forgiveness of his sins. The only real difference between the Old and New Testament believers in this respect is that the New Testament believers know that the ground of justification is actually laid. That ground is the work and blood of Christ.
The Ground of Justification
Justification is not according to our works, it is all a matter of grace. In Titus 3:7 we read: “That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” The relation between the justification of the ungodly and God’s grace is clear, but how can we relate the justification of the ungodly with the righteousness of God, with the wrath of God that is revealed against all unrighteousness and wickedness? Does God not contradict Himself when He justifies the ungodly? For in Proverbs it is stated: “He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the LORD.” (Proverbs 17:15)
The answer to this mystery we find in Romans 3:24-26: “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.”
Christ was set forth as propitiation of our sins. He bore the wrath of God in our place. The justice of God against all our sins is revealed in the cross of Christ. He bore the penalty in order that everyone who believes in him may have forgiveness of sins and eternal life. So God is just and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus, at the same time. His righteousness imputed to us is the only ground of our justification. By the obedience of Christ many are made righteous. (Romans 5:19).
The Instrument and Time of Justification
The ground of justification is the obedience of Christ; that he died in our place and that he always prays for us. The instrument of justification is faith. True faith is a self-despairing trust in Christ. A living faith is a saving and justifying faith. How aptly Toplady said:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me;
Let me hide myself in thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
Nothing in my hand I bring;
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
We are not justified some time before or after faith is first exercised. There are no justified unbelievers or believers that are not justified. The very moment a sinner, regenerated by the Holy Spirit, flees to Christ he is justified. Calling, regeneration, justification and sanctification are different blessings but they cannot be separated from each other in time. The order of calling, justification, and sanctification is a logical order but not a chronological order. The very moment you are called according to God’s purpose the gospel becomes to you the power of God unto salvation in which the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith. The sinner who believes in Christ is also the man who is made a new creation. Justification is never without sanctification and sanctification never without justification. See 1 Corinthians 6:11: “but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.”
In his little booklet with questions and answer for catechism classes Abraham Hellenbroek, one of the most famous representatives of the Dutch Second Reformation, emphasized that there are no stages in justification. This is one of the essential differences between justification and sanctification. Every believer is equally just in the sight of God. Every believer has received complete forgiveness of sins. Let me give a quotation of that good Protestant bishop J.C. Ryle: “I hold firmly that the justification of a believer is a finished, perfect and complete work; and the weakest saint though he may not know and feel it, is as completely justified as the strongest (…) I would go to the stake, God helping me, for the glorious truth, that in the matter of justification before God every believer is complete in Christ. Nothing can be added to his justification from the moment he believes and nothing taken away.”
Justification in the Court of God and in the Court of Conscience
What is the relationship between justification and assurance of faith? In the Canons of Dort there are several statements about assurance of faith in the context of the perseverance of the saints and declension in grace. In the fifth chapter of the Canons of Dort we read: “But God, who is rich in mercy, according to his unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from his own people even in their grievous falls; nor suffers them to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption and forfeit the state of justification, or to commit the sin unto death or against the Holy Spirit; nor does he permit them to be totally deserted, and to plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.” Every believer is in the state of justification and adoption. His state can never change. But Ryle was certainly right when he said in the quotation I gave that a believer may not know and feel that he is justified.
In various ways God assures his children that they are in the state of grace and justification. In the Canons of Dort three ways are mentioned: “This assurance, however, is not produced by any peculiar revelation contrary to or independent of the Word of God, but springs from faith in God’s promises, which he has most abundantly revealed in his Word for our comfort; from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit that we are children and heirs of God (Rom. 8:16); and lastly, from a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience and to perform good works. And if the elect of God were deprived of this solid comfort that they shall finally obtain the victory, and of this infallible pledge of eternal glory, they would be of all men the most miserable.” So the promises of God, a good conscience and the testimony of the Holy Spirit are the means the Lord uses to give assurance of justification, grace and salvation.
When I mention the testimony of the Holy Spirit we come to the rich area of Christian experience. The Holy Spirit testifies with our Spirit that we are children of God and that nothing will separate us from the love of Christ when he points us to the promises of the gospel, when he enlighten our minds in the knowledge of Christ and when he fills us with joy and peace in believing. We must never separate the three ways in which the Lord gives us assurance of faith. The Holy Spirit directs us to the promises of God as the vehicles in which Christ comes to us. Directing us to Christ, he conforms us into his image.
Assurance of faith is not static. It is stronger on time than at other times. I quote again the Canons of Dort: “Of this preservation of the elect to salvation and of their perseverance in the faith, true believers themselves may and do obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith, whereby they surely believe that they are and ever will continue true and living members of the Church, and that they have the forgiveness of sins and life eternal.” The strength of assurance usually corresponds to the strength of our faith.
Paul states in Romans 8:16: “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.” It is not without reason that Paul uses the present tense. Again and again we have to ask the Holy Spirit to give us new assurance and fresh manifestations of the glory of Christ. Let me quote a hymn of John Newton:
The manna, favoured Israel’s meat,
Was gathered day by day;
When all the host was served, the heat
Melted the rest away.
In vain to hoard it up they tried,
Against tomorrow came;
It then bred worms and putrefied;
And proved their sin and shame.
So truths by which the soul is fed
Must e’er be had afresh;
For notions resting in the head
Will only feed the flesh.
Nor can the best experience past
The life of faith maintain;
The brightest hope will faint at last,
Unless supplied again.
Dear Lord, while in thy house we’re found,
Do thou the manna give;
O let it fall on us around,
That we may eat and live.
In classical Reformed theology a distinction was made between justification in the court of God and in the court of conscience. Every believer is declared just in the court of God, but not every believer has a clear insight of it in the court of his conscience. Here we come to the area of assurance of grace. Knowing in the court of conscience that you are justified is the same as having assurance of faith. Classical Reformed theology connected justification in the court of conscience with the three ways of coming to assurance I mentioned and especially with the testimony of the Holy Spirit.
In the 19th century in The Netherlands this aspect of Reformed theology was given an interpretation it originally did not have. Justification in the court of conscience was equated with a very special and well defined crisis-experience. This idea came into existence, as far as I can see, in the conventicles: gatherings of God-fearing people where religious experiences were related and discussed. The people who defended this view of justification in the court of conscience, thought that without such a crisis-experience you could not or ought not to have assurance of faith. It was very confusing when sometimes this assurance of justification seemed to be equated with justification itself. So people began to speak not only about believers who lacked the assurance that they were justified, but about believers who are not justified at all!
I do not wish to question the godliness of quite a number of people who hold these views. I am sure of the genuineness of their religious experiences, but in the light of Scripture we must seriously question the way they frame their experiences in a theological scheme. Justification is not the same as having assurance and to come to assurance you do not need a crisis-experience. When you defend this view you are, with regard to assurance of faith, not far from Rome. Rome thinks that assurance of faith is only possible when you are given an extra-ordinary revelation. The Canons of Dort distanced themselves from this view.
We already heard before how in the Canons of Dort it was stated: “This assurance, however, is not produced by any peculiar revelation contrary to or independent of the Word of God, but springs from faith in God’s promises, which he has most abundantly revealed in his Word for our comfort; from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit that we are children and heirs of God (Rom. 8:16); and lastly, from a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience and to perform good works. And if the elect of God were deprived of this solid comfort that they shall finally obtain the victory, and of this infallible pledge of eternal glory, they would be of all men the most miserable.”
The Assurance of Justification and the Importance of the Preaching of the Gospel
The Lord uses the preaching of the Word for a twofold purpose. I quote question and answer 84 out of the Heidelberg Catechism on the keys of the kingdom.
“Q. How is the kingdom of heaven opened and shut by the preaching of the holy gospel?
A. Thus: when according to the command of Christ, it is declared and publicly testified to all and every believer, that, whenever they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, all their sins are really forgiven them of God for the sake of Christ’s merits; and on the contrary, when it is declared and testified to all unbelievers, and such as do not sincerely repent, that they stand exposed to the wrath of God and eternal condemnation, so long as they are unconverted; according to which testimony of the gospel, God will judge them both in this life and in the life to come.”
Let me start with the second purpose. Unbelievers are warned in order that they would realise that they are lost sinners, that they do not have peace with God. They are warned in order that they would come to themselves just as the prodigal son and flee with a broken heart to the only Saviour. The task of a preacher is to preach the law to condemn all flesh and to proclaim the Saviour in order that sinners would flee to him for justification, life and salvation. The sinner is saved, when faith is given to him. That faith is a saving and justifying faith.
The first purpose of the preaching of the gospel is according to the Heidelberg Catechism to console believers. Believers have peace with God, but more often than once they are afflicted. When we use the distinction between justification in the court of God and in the court of conscience, we can say that the purpose of the preaching for believers is that the judgment of the court of conscience concurs with the judgment of the court of God. A believer has peace with God, is righteous in the sight of God, but often he cannot see it, he cannot fathom it. It is important that the preaching is clear on this point. “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” An unbeliever can never realize too clearly that he is a child of wrath. A believer can never realize too clearly that he has peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
The preaching of the gospel is the instrument used by the Holy Spirit to comfort believers. Believers may lack joy and assurance because sermons fail to give a clear and distinct witness of the power of justification by grace alone. Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress went thought the wicket gate and came into the House of Interpreter. That is a symbol for the church wherever the gospel is faithfully preached. It is remarkable that the distance from the House of Interpreter to the Cross where Christian was relieved from his burden was very short.
Believers often lack peace and assurance because they do not clearly see the distinction between justification and sanctification. They think there is only ground to believe that they have peace with God when they are more conformed to Christ than they are now. But that is wrong. Although believers have only a small beginning of the new obedience they may believe that they have complete peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have to learn again and again:
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
The task of the preacher is to assure everyone who flees to Christ that he has peace with God. A believer in darkness must first of all use the promises of God. Using the promises of God, trusting in Christ we experience the power of the gospel of justification by faith alone.
Justification as a State and a Reality with Ongoing Significance
Justification is first of all a state. We are either in the state of condemnation or in the state of justification. And when we are in the state of justification it is impossible that we will ever fall out of it. Through our own fault we may lack joy, peace and assurance in believing, but a believer has peace with God even when he does not feel it.
Justification is a state but we can also say it is a reality with ongoing significance. In his commentary on Romans 8:31 Calvin says: “Justificationmay fitly be extended to the unremitted continuance of God’s favour, from the time of our calling to the hour of death.” I can also say it with the last stanza from M’Cheyne’s hymn – The Watchword of the Reformers:
Even treading the valley, the shadow of death,
This ‘watchword’ shall rally my faltering breath;
For while from life’s fever my God sets me free,
Jehovah Tsidkenu my death song will be.
We must not restrict the significance of justification to the beginning of spiritual life. Again and again a believer must confess and now I quote answer 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism “Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil.” In this life a believer has to testify with the Psalmist: “If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” (Psalm 130:3), and “enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.” (Psalm 143:2)
In that way every time anew the power and joy of justification by faith alone is experienced. Again I quote the Heidelberg Catechism: “notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ, even so, as if I had never had had, nor committed any sin; yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me, inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.” It is very significant that question 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism says: “How are you righteous before God?” and not “How did you become righteous before God?” In the hour of death a believer has no other ground of justification than in the hour he first believed.
The doctrine of justification by faith alone is a doctrine of consolation for poor sinners. So we may and must preach it. Luther spoke in this connection about anguish; in German Anfechtung. Only in the way of anguish of soul we learn the value of the righteousness of God revealed in Christ. Leaning on Christ a sinner can live and die. O that we may say with Paul. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20).