Shorter Catechism Q. 33
Q. 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.
Gen 15:5–6; Rom 4:20–25; Phil 3:7–9
Abraham was almost 100 years old when God spoke to him in Genesis 15. He and Sarah tried as long as they have been married to have a child. But year after year, decade after decade, they were met only with disappointment. Then God took Abraham, showed him the stars in the sky, and said, “So shall your offspring be.”
Right. Who can believe this? Both Abraham and Sarah were so old. They were as good as dead in their inability to conceive, as well as their inability to hope for a different future. But Abraham believed, because he never forgot Who was making this promise. If God created the world out of nothing, why can’t he do what he says he will do? If the promise came from anyone or anywhere else, the only reasonable response would have been, “That’s not funny.” But if the promise is made by the Creator of the universe, who also promised to redeem sinners through the Seed of the Woman (see Genesis 3:14–15), then the only right response is to respond like Abraham and believe. “Amen!”
Abraham believed. But what did he believe? He believed God does not lie. He believed God is able to do what he says. He believed that God is a redeemer, and that he will not let the hope of redemption die. Abraham trusted God, and his faith was counted to him as righteousness.
Nice story. But so what? Paul says what God did for Abraham, he also did for us (see Rom 4 passage cited above). As Abraham trusted God and was counted righteous, so we believe, and righteousness is counted to us.
Here’s the thing. God demands righteousness from us. Not a half-hearted attempt at it, not a flawed caricature of it, but a full blown and perfect righteousness of our heart and action. But where the gospel of Jesus Christ radically parts ways with the religions of the world is what God does about his demands for righteousness. All other religions, including all perversions of Christianity, demand righteousness from man be offered up to their god. So all of world religion basically consists in either trying to placate or bribe the gods, or trying to better oneself to earn salvation. Only in the gospel of Jesus Christ does God give what he demands. God gives perfect righteousness to his people that they may have acceptance and confidence before him.
This giving of perfect righteousness (sometimes called righteousness being counted to us or righteousness being imputed to us) is the glory of the gospel. We often say we are saved by grace and by faith. But what does that really mean? Salvation by grace and by faith means we are not saved by anything we have done in the past or will do in the future. We are saved because Another Person has achieved our salvation. It is by grace because we freely benefit from what the Other Person has done. It is by faith because we receive it by trusting Jesus.
The essence of the Christian gospel is that God takes the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ - his flawless and impeccable righteousness in which he obeyed all of God’s law body and soul - and counts his righteousness as our own. With his righteousness covering us, we are no longer sinners deserving of judgment. God sees us as exactly as righteous, holy, pure, good, loyal, faithful, and true as his son Jesus Christ. When we trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are more than forgiven. It’s not so much that our infinite debt of sin is wiped out and our spiritual ledger records 0 - no debt, but also no asset either! When God covers us with the righteousness of Jesus Christ, our sins are indeed forgiven and our infinite spiritual debt goes from negative infinity to 0. But it does not end there! The perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, let’s call it a positive infinity, is credited to our account. So God sees us as no longer debtors to him, and not even as people whose position before him is precarious, as people who can at any moment fall into debt of sin again. But we have an inexhaustible wealth of Christ’s righteousness to once and for all make our place before him sure.
Too good to be true? Certainly! Amazing? No other word fits! We struggle with our sin every day. We are battered and tired. We feel dirty and discouraged. But there is no more condemnation for those in Jesus Christ. This gospel fills our heart with gratitude. We want to worship God for it. We want to give our lives to him because of it. Are you moved by it?