Belgic Confession Articles 22-23 treat faith and justification by faith alone.
Belgic Confession, Article 22; Day 1: The True Knowledge of this Great Mystery
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I Tim. 3:16: “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness ...”
Paul writes to Timothy that the Christian faith is a “mystery.” Some have thought that this means that Christianity is an incomprehensible riddle or an enigma. Since that is so, they have concluded, there is no point in trying to understand the Christian faith. It is beyond human comprehension. Others have said that Christianity can only be understood by the initiated—those who are “let in” to the secret by means of special ceremonies and rites.
If that were true, we and our children could not be Christians. We are very thankful that that is not what the Bible means by mystery.
A mystery in the Bible is something which has not been revealed before but now has been revealed; or a mystery is something hidden in God’s counsel—God’s eternal plan for all things—which had been known before only in part, but now has been fully disclosed to God’s people in the light of the fullness of New Testament revelation. Paul develops this idea in Ephesians 3. There he tells the Ephesians that in the past the Gentiles’ inclusion in the church of God was a mystery in the Old Testament: “Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs …” (vv. 5-6). It is not that the salvation of the Gentiles was completely unknown in the Old Testament, but it was not known as clearly or fully as it is known now. Thus it was a mystery.
A mystery, then, is a truth of God’s counsel which we cannot know except by revelation, and which now has been made known, which had not previously been made known to the extent to which it is now known by New Testament Christians.
The great mystery of the Gospel has been explained in the previous articles of the Belgic Confession—the incarnation of Jesus Christ; the union and distinction of the two natures in the one person of Christ; and the manifestation of God’s justice and mercy in the satisfaction of Christ on the cross. These truths were not completely unknown in the Old Testament. They were depicted in types and shadows, and God gave some remarkably explicit prophecies concerning these truths. But in the New Testament the veil has been removed and we see clearly what was known only dimly in the Old Testament. We are partakers of a great mystery!
Article 22 deals with a new question. Given what Christ has done in His incarnation, His life of obedience and His atoning death, how do the benefits of His death and resurrection become ours personally? If Christ has done everything on the cross which is necessary for our salvation, how are we actually saved?
To this question there have been several answers. Some teach that Christ has done all that He can, and now you must do your part. The common presentation of this view is of a Christ who now offers salvation to whomever will accept it. But this is a denial of the power of Christ. The Biblical, Reformed and confessional answer is that the same Christ who purchased salvation applies that salvation to His people by working faith in them.
And saving faith is the subject of this article of the Belgic Confession: what is faith; where does faith come from; what does faith look to; and how does faith bring us into possession of salvation? These questions we will address in future meditations.
Belgic Confession, Article 22; Day 2: Faith’s Knowledge of Christ
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
II Peter 1:8: “… ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ .”
Unlike our Heidelberg Catechism the Belgic Confession does not give a definition of faith, but we can certainly find the main elements of faith in this article. We must be clear, however, at the beginning, that there is a distinction between objective faith (what we believe) and subjective faith (our activity of believing). The focus of the Confession is on the latter: by the activity of faith we become partakers of Christ. What kind of faith is that?
First, we read of faith as knowledge (by faith we “attain the true knowledge”); second, we read of faith’s object (“an upright faith which embraces Jesus Christ with all His benefits, appropriates Him”); third, we read of the confidence of faith which finds all things in Christ (“and seeks nothing more besides Him”).
There is much confusion about faith today. For some, faith is simply a vague feeling, but it has no content. For others faith is a leap in the dark, a step out into the unknown and unknowable. For still others, faith is belief without evidence or belief in the face of all contrary evidence. An atheist, such as Richard Dawkins, derides faith in Jesus Christ as credible as belief in the “flying spaghetti monster” or the “tooth fairy”!
The first element of saving faith is knowledge. A believer knows, not only about God, but a believer knows God in Jesus Christ. In fact, so precious is this knowledge that Christ calls it “eternal life.” “And this is life eternal that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).
We must stress this point in our anti-doctrinal age. We who believe know who God is, what God has done in Jesus Christ; and the more we know, the stronger our faith becomes. To claim faith without knowledge is to worship an unknown God as did the heathen in Athens (Acts 17:23) or to worship what we do not know as did the Samaritans (John 4:22). Faith is not ignorance.
The source of this knowledge is the Word of God. We cannot know anything of God without the Bible. Faith believes everything revealed in the Word of God—the history, the miracles, the doctrines, the promises—and faith is informed and increased by the Word of God, especially by hearing the preaching. That is why preaching must have content—the minster may not bring silly stories and moral lessons to entertain the people of God. That is why, too, we must hear preaching. A Christian who absents himself from preaching, and does not read the Scriptures at home, must expect to have weak faith. A Christian who diligently attends the means of grace ought to expect an increased and strengthened faith.
But none of this means that faith is merely intellectual. The knowledge of faith is the knowledge of love, the knowledge of a personal relationship, the knowledge of the covenant. The covenant is friendship. Friends know about one another. They know one another’s likes, dislikes and interests. And friends know one another. They have communion, they share one another’s life, they spend time together, and they communicate.
What a privilege that the infinitely glorious God would condescend to know us, and to permit us to know Him, through faith in Jesus Christ!
Belgic Confession, Article 22; Day 3: An Upright, Not Counterfeit, Faith
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
James 2:19: “ … the devils also believe, and tremble.”
The story is told of an interview between a minister of a church and a prospective candidate for membership. “What do you believe,?” the minster asked. “I believe what the church believes,” was the answer. Somewhat confused, the minister asked again, “What does the church believe?” “Oh, the church believes what I believe,” was the reply. Somewhat frustrated, the minister asked again, “But what do you and the church believe?” To this final question the man replied, “The church and I believe the same thing!”
That is not the upright faith described in our creed. The word upright simply means true. There is true or saving faith, and there are other species of false or non-saving faith. It is very important that we know the difference between these things because without faith it is impossible to please God, and one can certainly not please God by a counterfeit faith.
The first species of false faith is “implicit faith.” One with implicit faith blindly follows what the church says. In fact, it is not even necessary for a man with implicit faith to know what the church teaches. Implicit faith is found in many who entrust their soul to the church. They assume that the church has the truth, and, because they are in some sense connected to the church, they will be saved. You might discuss doctrine with such a person, and he will tell you that he does not need to bother with doctrine because the minister or priest studies these things and he simply trusts him. This species of faith makes ignorance a virtue, and denies that faith is knowledge. It is because we reject “implicit faith” that we insist on thorough catechism for our members.
The second species of false faith is temporary faith. Temporary faith is the response of some to the gospel. They are initially very excited—a mere emotional response—but when difficulties come they are offended and fall away. They were never truly converted. Christ says that they have no root (Matt. 13:21). Having no root, they do not live out of Christ. Emotional froth is not faith.
The third species of false faith is historical faith. The demons have such “faith.” They know that there is one God, and they tremble (James 2:19). A man with historical faith knows the facts of the Bible and he even “believes” them—he believes that there was a man called Jesus; he believes that there is a place called heaven—but he does not appropriate these things to himself (Acts 8:20-24). He does not trust in the Christ revealed in Scripture. He cannot say, as Paul did, “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day” (II Tim. 1:12).
The fourth, and final, species of counterfeit faith is miraculous faith. Multitudes had this faith in the days of Jesus (John 2:23-25). They believed that He could perform miracles; they were recipients of miracles; and some even performed miracles in His name, but they did not believe in Jesus Christ (Matt. 7:22-23). When the miracles ended, and the truth of Christ was presented, they turned away.
True faith, unlike all these counterfeits, is a certain knowledge and hearty confidence in Jesus Christ, a faith which expects all things necessary for salvation from Christ alone. It is that “upright” faith of which our Belgic Confession speaks.
Belgic Confession, Article 22; Day 4: Faith Keeping Us In Communion with Christ
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
John 15:4: “Abide in me, and I in you ...”
“Faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with [Christ] in all His benefits.” By these words the Belgic Confession teaches the same truth as the Heidelberg Catechism, that faith is a bond which unites the sinner to Jesus Christ.
This implies that by nature we are not united to Jesus Christ. Something must happen to us so that we become united to Him. The illustration of Scripture, especially in John 15 and Romans 11, is of a branch which is engrafted into the living Vine. The illustration comes from horticulture or gardening. A gardener is able to take a branch from one plant, make an incision in the trunk of another plant, and join them so that a bond is formed between the two plants. The branch then begins to live out of the life of the new plant, and it even bears fruit from the life of new plant, even if the plant is a different species! This living connection between the two plants is called a graft. The process of making a graft is called engrafting.
Perhaps you have encountered other illustrations—faith is like a water pipe conveying water from a reservoir; or faith is like a socket connecting an appliance to an electricity supply. These illustrations, although useful, are inferior to the one the Bible uses, because they are not living connections. A graft, unlike a water pipe or electric socket, is not a mechanical or static connection. In grafting, the gardener does not simply glue a branch onto a trunk. That would not create a living bond. For the bond to be effective the branch must live out of the trunk of the other plant; it must receive the goodness from the sap of the Vine.
However, the graft which the human gardener is able to create by skilled horticulture is still a limited illustration. Can the gardener pick up an old, dead, withered twig and attempt to make a graft with a living tree? No, because the twig is dead! It must be living before it is attached to the trunk of a new tree.
The miracle of salvation is greater. God is not limited as is the human gardener.
In salvation, the Holy Spirit takes a sinner—who is like an old, dead, withered stick lying on the ground, severed from the only source of life—and He unites that sinner to Jesus Christ (John 15:1-2). The sinner certainly does not have any power of himself to unite himself to Jesus Christ. Nor, in fact, does the sinner even desire it. He is dead! The Holy Spirit gives to the sinner the life of Jesus Christ in uniting him or her to Jesus Christ.
We call that vital connection, bond or union faith.
That aspect of faith is much neglected today by many who see faith simply as something we do. Before we do something—before we become active in faith—God does something. And our activity depends entirely on His.
To express this theologically, before the activity of faith—looking to and believing in Christ—there must be the “faculty” of faith, or the bond of faith. Another illustration is that of sight. Before a man sees, he must have the faculty of sight. You can no more expect an unbeliever to believe without the faculty of faith than a blind man to see without the faculty of sight.
And once we are united to Jesus Christ by the bond of faith we begin to believe: we begin to live out of the Saviour to whom we are united. As Romans 11:17 puts it we partake of the root and fatness. What a wonder!
Belgic Confession, Article 22; Day 5: Faith Expecting All Things From Christ
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
Hebrews 11 is the great chapter on faith—it describes the activity of faith of a great cloud of witnesses from the Old Testament Scriptures (Heb. 12:1). The opening verse gives the closest to what we have in Scripture to a definition of faith. It is two things, substance and evidence.
Substance is not the word we might have expected to read. We think of substance as the “stuff” out of which things are made. Clearly, that is not the meaning of substance here. When the Bible speaks of faith as substance it means something substantial, solid, weighty. The idea is steadiness of mind, a firm and solid resolution and assurance concerning things which are not seen. The things “not seen” are not unicorns or leprechauns or hobgoblins (imaginary, mythical, nonsensical things), but things “hoped for,” that is things promised by God and therefore confidently expected—the spiritual realities of salvation and eternal life.
Thus, it is fitting that the Belgic Confession speaks of the expectation of faith. In faith we look to someone from whom we expect good things.
The believer expects all good things from Christ alone. By faith he can see them, those invisible things come clearly before his mind. Thus the Confession declares with unshakable confidence, “those who possess Jesus Christ through faith have complete salvation in Him” and “when [Christ and all His benefits] become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.” Therefore, by faith, the believer knows—knows with an absolute, unshakable, undeniable certainty—not only that there is a heaven, eternal life, future glory, kingdom of God, and everything else promised in the Gospel, but that these things are ours, even ours!
Do you know that? Believer in Jesus Christ, you do and you must!
Second, faith is evidence. We all know that science likes to boast of solid evidence. We hear that unbelieving scientists mock Christians because we believe without evidence or contrary to the evidence. Not so! Faith is evidence. The word “evidence” in Hebrews 11:1 means conviction or proof. Through faith the believer is convinced that what God has promised is true. The believer does not require any other “evidence” than the Word of God itself. This is something we must remember. When an unbeliever asks for evidence, we cannot give it to him in the form in which he demands it. Was Noah able to give “evidence” to the world of his day? Was Abraham able to give evidence? Neither should we expect to give (or be given) evidence today. The words of Abraham to the rich man are true: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 6:31).
A believer is convinced by faith itself. An unbeliever can never be convinced because he has no faith. To try to convince an unbeliever without faith to believe is akin to trying to convince a blind man without the faculty of sight to see. Faith is a miracle—certain knowledge, assured confidence, absolute conviction—worked in the heart of man, worked in our hearts and in the hearts of our children.
Belgic Confession, Article 22; Day 6: Faith As Assurance
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
II Timothy 1:12 For I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day."
One who has faith knows that he has eternal life. One who has faith knows that he belongs to Jesus Christ now and forever. One who has faith knows that nothing will separate him from the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:31-39). In other words, faith is personal assurance of salvation, and personal assurance of eternal election. Without this assurance a man cannot live—and he certainly cannot die—for Christ. In fact, without this knowledge we dare not die at all.
Assurance of salvation is something which God desires for all His children. In giving us faith, He gives us assurance, because faith is assurance. About this there should be no doubt. What father would be happy if only a few of his children really believed that he loved them and that he was their father? How would a loving father react if he knew that many of his children were afraid to come to him because they believed that there was a distinct possibility that they did not really belong to him? If earthly fathers find such a thought intolerable, how could our Heavenly Father be pleased that His children live and die without any assurance of His love? And how cruel would God be to leave His children in suspense about such an important thing? Without such assurance no prayer, no good works, no worship are possible.
The devil knows that if he can cause God’s children to doubt their salvation he can ruin their experience of the Christian life, cut the throat of their comfort and lead them to despair. Doubts are part of the “fiery darts of the wicked” which can only be quenched with the shield of faith (Eph. 6:16).
The Bible presupposes that the people of God know that they are saved and that they know that they are among the number of God’s elect. Everywhere the apostles address God’s people this way. Often the apostles urge believers to make their calling and election sure. Doubts are not normal, healthy or useful in the Christian life. Doubt is sin, the enemy of faith. Jesus rebuked His disciples more than once for doubt. To Peter He says, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” (Matt. 14:31). To Thomas—we call him “Doubting Thomas”—Jesus says, “Be not faithless, but believing” (John 20:27). James rebukes the man who prays with doubts: “But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering …” (James 1:6).
The ministry of the Gospel must never foster or encourage doubts. There are preachers who do this. They encourage a morbid self-examination, a spiritual navel gazing. Are you really converted, they ask. In such churches the number of doubters is so great that very few church members come to the Lord’s Supper! That is a travesty, the fruit of preaching which discourages faith and encourages doubt. Apostolic preaching does not encourage doubt. It rebukes doubt. It urges to faith. It seeks to strengthen and build up faith.
How, then, can I know that I am an elect child of God? I do not look for assurance in experiences or in feelings. I know that I am elect by faith. Only the elect have faith. Faith itself is the assurance of salvation. And when I have doubts—and remember that all Christians struggle with doubts in one form or another and at various times in their lives, especially when they fall into sin or are vexed by some affliction—I view that doubt as sin, confess it as such and cry to God, “Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
Belgic Confession, Article 22; Day 7: Faith Kindled by the Holy Spirit
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Philippians 1:29 “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him ...”
We have seen in the previous meditations that faith is, first, knowledge; second, a bond; and, third, confidence (expectation). There are many professing Christians who believe that a sinner can work up this knowledge and confidence—they usually ignore the truth of faith as a bond—by the exercise of his own freewill.
According to this view—Arminianism—every sinner has in himself the capacity to believe, and all that is necessary to bring him to faith is persuasion. This explains Arminian evangelism—the emotional appeals, the high-powered evangelist, the music, the atmosphere. Everything in such evangelism is designed to appeal to the sinner’s emotions and especially his will. If some less radical Arminians find a place for the Holy Spirit, they still insist that the sinner has the possibility to resist or cooperate with the “wooing” of the Spirit. The work of the Spirit is not, and cannot be, according to Arminianism, irresistible or effectual.
This is not at all the truth of the biblical concept of faith as explained in our Belgic Confession. That is set forth in a beautiful expression—“to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Ghost kindleth in our hearts an upright faith.”
That the Holy Spirit “kindles” faith in us means, first, that without the kindling power of the Holy Spirit we are dark and cold. To kindle means to ignite, to start a fire, which brings both light and heat. Our hearts are cold; in them there is no affection for Jesus Christ. Quite the contrary. We love darkness rather than light and we will not come to the light because our deeds are evil (John 3:19-20). Our hearts are dark; in them there is no knowledge of the true God or of Jesus Christ, but horrible darkness and blindness. Can such a heart—cold, dark, lifeless—produce the slightest spark of faith? Of course not!
For this reason, the Bible speaks consistently of faith as a gift, a gift which God breathes into us and works in us, or kindles in us. Ephesians 2:8 teaches that faith is “not of yourselves: it is the gift of God;” and Philippians 1:29 teaches that it is “given”—graciously and freely granted—to us to believe.
But the Arminian has a subterfuge. He says, “Yes, faith is a gift but you must accept it.” Notice how the Arminian changes faith from a gift into an offer. But notice, too, the absurdity of that position. How do we supposedly accept this gift of faith? By believing! So, we can have the gift of faith if we believe. That would be to say to a blind man, “I will give you the gift of sight, if you see!”
What a difference the work of the Holy Spirit makes! In a dead, lifeless, cold, dark heart the Spirit kindles a true and living faith. Now there is the light of the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ! Now there is an assured confidence in the Saviour! Now there is hope and joy in believing! Let us never be tempted to rob the Spirit of His glory by attributing that great miracle of kindling saving faith to ourselves!
Belgic Confession, Article 22; Day 8: Faith Seeking Nothing More Besides Christ
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Galatians 2:20: “The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God.”
Faith is not common to all men. Often we hear that all men have faith—that faith is simply trust in something. Thus people say that when you sit on a chair you exercise “faith” in the chair that it will not collapse under you. But that is not faith. That is a weighing up of probabilities. You assume that the chair was built to sustain your weight; no one has broken the chair before you; you have no reason to think that the chair will break now.
When we say that we believe in Jesus Christ we mean much more than that. Faith confidently and with full assurance seeks all good things from Jesus Christ. That is because we know Jesus Christ. Therefore, when our faith in Jesus Christ brings us hardship—and it will—we do not cast away our confidence. Faith is childlike trust. Why does a child trust his father? Because he knows his father—he knows his father’s character, and he knows his father’s love. This knowledge gives the child confidence in the presence of his father. The same child behaves differently around strangers, because he does not know strangers. As Jesus said about His sheep who know Him as Shepherd, “And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers” (John 10:5).
The New Testament teaches that faith is confidence by means of two prepositions—small words which indicate position or movement. First, the New Testament speaks about believing into Jesus Christ; second, the New Testament teaches that we live out of Christ and that we are justified by (lit., “out of”) faith. These expressions teach us that the source of life for the believer is Jesus Christ, and that by believing he partakes of the benefits of Jesus Christ. These expressions also strengthen our conviction that faith is a bond which unites us to Jesus Christ and out of which we live.
Moreover, the believer has faith exclusively in Jesus Christ. He does not believe in other saviours, and he does not divide his allegiance between saviours. If all things necessary for salvation were not found in Christ, Christ would be but “half a Saviour.” Of course, the Belgic Confession, a Reformation creed, has Roman Catholicism in mind—Rome taught that the saints, especially Mary, contributed to salvation. But we must not forget the error of self-salvation—the error that we can contribute something to our salvation in the form of good works.
The answer to all self-salvation is the sufficiency of Christ. Remember the Vine and the branches. The branches receive the sap from the Vine through the graft. The branches do not suck the sap from the Vine and from some other plant at the same time. . For the branches there is no other source of life. If the branch ever becomes separated from the Vine—which, of course, could never happen— it will die. The same is true for us. We live out of Jesus Christ, not out of ourselves, nor out of Jesus Christ and someone else. “Without me,” says Christ, “ye can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Let us seek all things in Jesus Christ alone, by faith alone.
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 1: Salvation: the Remission of Sins
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Psalm 32:1: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”
Articles 22-23 of the Belgic Confession belong together because Article 23 is a continuation of Article 22. Both deal with justification by faith alone. The peculiar emphasis of Article 23 is the utter graciousness of justification. From it all of our works must be excluded.
First and foremost says the Belgic Confession, “we believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and therein our righteousness before God is implied.” Remission is another word for forgiveness. Salvation is forgiveness of sins because it is the chief blessing and the blessing without which we have nothing. That is David’s emphasis in Psalm 32. As a king he had experienced many good things in life—he lived in a beautiful palace; he had many faithful servants; he had riches; and in his kingdom there was peace. But none of those things meant anything to David when he did not know the forgiveness of sins. David fell into gross public sin for a time, and refused to repent. During a prolonged period of impenitence David experienced the opposite of the blessedness of forgiveness. God’s heavy hand of chastisement was upon him, and he knew no peace, no joy and no satisfaction in God (Ps. 32:3-4). But in the way of confession and repentance David had come again to experience the joy of the forgiveness of sin. That was the occasion of his writing Psalm 32.
The conclusion of Psalm 32 is really the first verse: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” In the Psalm, which Paul quotes to prove gracious justification in Romans 4:6-8, David describes sin using three words: “transgression, sin and iniquity.”A transgression is the crossing of a boundary, in this case the boundary of God’s Law. In transgressing the Law David deliberately, willfully and wickedly rebelled against God. The Law said, “Thou shalt not.” David said, “I will disregard the Law, and I will do what I want.” This was a rebellious shaking of the fist in the face of God! And this sin arose from hatred of God in David’s heart. A sin is a missing of the mark. Observe an archer. He has a target, but instead of aiming at the target he turns his bow and shoots in the opposite direction. That’s sin. When we sin we refuse to aim at the mark which is the glory of the God. We shoot at a different mark, the mark of our own pleasure, our own glory. Iniquity, the third word David uses—behold how manifold sin is that the Bible uses so many words to describe it!—means something twisted, perverse or bent. Our calling is to conform to the standard of God, but we pervert our way and refuse to walk uprightly according to God’s commandments.
Transgression, sin, iniquity! High-handed rebellion against the Almighty!
The wonder—the great blessedness of which Psalm 32 speaks—is that God forgives. The word “forgive” in Psalm 32:1 is to lift up or to carry away. Sin like a heavy burden was crushing David, and God carried that burden away, bringing relief to David’s soul. What blessedness! The second word in Psalm 32:1 is “covered.” The word means to blot out or to cover over. When God forgives our sins He covers them up so that He does not see them with a view to punishing us for them. David had tried to cover his own sins, but this had led only to misery.
God lifts our sins; He carries them away; He covers them; He blots them out. That’s forgiveness. And we who know that forgiveness are blessed above measure.
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 2: Forgiven for Jesus Christ’s Sake
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
I John 1:7: “… the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin ...”
Yesterday we rejoiced in the forgiveness of sins, and we especially noticed what sin is and what it means for God to forgive us our sins. God lifts or carries away, and God blots out or covers over, our sins, transgressions and iniquities, and does not punish us for them. But the question which begs to be asked is this: How can that be possible?
The answer the Belgic Confession gives is “for Jesus Christ’s sake.” That expression which we hear so often, especially at the end of many prayers, contains a wealth of meaning. God forgives us for the sake of Christ, or because of Christ, or on the basis of what Christ has done for us.
Both Abraham and David, who lived in the Old Testament before the coming of Christ, understood that. Every child of God has understood that to a greater or lesser degree. Every believer in Israel, who stood before a sacrifice of a bleeding lamb and trusted in God for the forgiveness of sins, understood that. We must understand that too, and we do by faith
No child of God trusts in himself for the forgiveness of sins. Pardon is found in another, namely Jesus Christ. Take the example of David. He stands before God defiled by the sin of adultery and his hands dripping with Uriah’s blood. What is his plea, on what does he base his hope for pardon? God does not say to David, “You have sinned, but I am willing to overlook your sin and hopefully you will do better in the future.” God does not say to David, “Your sins are very serious and my Law says that the sinner must die, but I will take into account your good works. At the end of your life I will look at how you have done and if your good works outweigh your bad works, I will forgive you then.” David did not have any good works. He did not plead any good works. The only “works” David mentions are transgressions, sins, iniquity and guile.
Moreover, Psalm 32 declares that David was a passive recipient of, not an active participant in, salvation. “Blessed is the man whose transgression is forgiven.” Not “blessed is the man who forgives his own transgressions,” or “blessed is the man who carries away his own burden of transgressions,” or even “blessed is the man who helps God carry away his own transgressions.” “Blessed is he whose sin is covered.” Not “blessed is he who covers up his own sins” (David had tried that—it was called “guile” or deceit—and that had made him miserable)
How, then, can God bless the sinner and make him happy by forgiving his sins? The answer is that another—Jesus Christ—carried away our sins, blotted them out and thus covered them over in the sight of God. Upon Jesus Christ, the great son of David, and the eternal Son of God in our flesh, God piled the load of David’s guilt—and ours! Imagine that burden! That heavy load of guilt, which would have crushed a mere man, Christ carried to the cross, and there He suffered under the heavy wrath of God. God removed the load of guilt from us and placed it on the shoulders of Christ. On the cross, too, Christ blotted out our sins. No amount of scrubbing and no amount of soap could have removed one stain of our sin. Christ covered our filthy stains, not by “brushing them under a rug,” but by fully satisfying God’s wrath for them, and then rising again from the dead, having conquered the power of death, sin, hell and the devil.
Thus God is satisfied, Christ is glorified, and we are blessed!
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 3: Justification: God As Judge
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Deuteronomy 25:1: “They shall justify the righteous and condemn the wicked”
Justification by faith alone is the heart of the Gospel. By it the Reformers answered from the Bible the urgent question, “How can I, a sinner, be right with God?” The answer is that God justifies us freely by His grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone
To understand the doctrine expounded here we must understand several key concepts. The very first thing we must comprehend is that in justification God acts as the Judge
A judge is one who examines a defendant with respect to the law, and then, having examined him, determines whether he is innocent or guilty; and, if the defendant is guilty, the judge determines and officially pronounces the sentence of punishment. If the defendant is innocent, the judge officially pronounces him innocent and free from punishment. When the Bible reveals that God is Judge, we must understand that God evaluates all His rational, moral creatures with respect to His Law. Have men and angels kept His Law or not? God evaluates all of us with respect to that great question. In fact, God is always judging, and man must know (and does know) that he is always being judged. The conscience of a man—remember that man’s conscience is that little “judge” in his heart, a “judge” placed there by God Himself—either accuses or excuses a man with respect to the moral worth (or demerit) of his actions (Rom. 2:15). The eyes of the Judge are everywhere, and no man can escape Him
It is important that we stress this at the very beginning. Justification deals only with a man’s relationship to the Law of God. Every other subject, although important in its own place, is irrelevant to the subject of justification. When we consider the great doctrine of the justification of sinners, therefore, we must think of God only as Judge
Perhaps an illustration will help. Imagine for a moment that you stand before a human judge. The judge in the courtroom will examine you with respect to the question of your guilt or innocence. He will weigh up the evidence and make a judgment, and the one question he will ask himself will be this: “Has this person committed a crime or has he kept the law?” The judge will not be interested in your character—that you are generally a nice person. The judge will disregard the fact that you have up to this point been law-abiding—that you have had a clean driving record, let’s say. The question will be, “Have you committed the crime?” If you have—and if the judge is a just judge—the verdict will be and it will have to be “guilty!” If you have not, the verdict will be “not guilty!” This is the case even if the judge before whom you stand is a friend, a close relation, or even your own father
That was God’s requirement for judges. They had to condemn the wicked, that is, declare that the wicked were guilty and punish them accordingly. They had to justify the righteous, that is, declare that the righteous were innocent and deal with them accordingly. God forbade them to justify the wicked, by turning a blind eye to their crimes, or by accepting bribes; or to condemn the righteous, by accepting false testimony against them.
The astonishing truth is that God justifies those who are sinners. The question we must answer is: how is that possible? That question only the glorious doctrine of justification by faith alone answers.
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 4: Justification: God’s Legal Declaration
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Proverbs 17:15: “He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the LORD”
Yesterday, we considered the important truth that in justification God is the Judge, and we began to examine what exactly God does in His capacity as Judge. Judges examine evidence, determine guilt or innocence, and then declare a verdict.
We could define justification briefly thus: “Justification is God’s legal declaration of righteousness"
First, justification is legal. It pertains to the law, to things judicial or forensic. All of those terms are used in theological works on justification. Notice first the words “legal” and “judicial.” They mean “pertaining to law.” That word “forensic” may be less familiar, but it too pertains to law. Forensic medicine, for example, is medical examination with a view to presenting a case in court. Blood samples, traces of hair, DNA and fingerprints are part of the “forensic” examination of a crime scene. Thus, the language of a law court is prevalent in texts which deal with justification. At issue in justification are only guilt or innocence, only acquittal or condemnation. The one who is justified is accused of a crime—a transgression of God’s Law in this case—and he is acquitted before God’s judgment seat. How that happens we will examine later. For now we want to stress that that is what happen.
Second, justification is a declaration, or an official pronouncement, verdict, statement or judgment. When God justifies, He speaks about a person’s relationship to the Law. If the person is not in harmony the standards of God’s perfect Law, God pronounces him guilty, and thus God “condemns” him. If the person is in harmony with the standards of God’s perfect Law, God pronounces him innocent, and thus “justifies” him. The fact that in the Bible “justify” and “condemn” are opposites proves that justification is a declaration. When God condemns the sinner, He does not make the sinner wicked or ungodly. Similarly, when God justifies us, He does not make us morally good
That explains, too, Proverbs 17:15. God abominates the wicked judge who “justifies the wicked” and “condemns the righteous.” The judge must not declare the wicked to be righteous, or the righteous to be wicked. His legal declaration must be in truth. And, as we shall see, God’s righteous declarations are in truth. To summarize: justification is the declaration from God’s judgment seat that a person is righteous, not guilty, and therefore not worthy of punishment. It is not something which God does inside a sinner to make him morally good, but is a declaration concerning his position with respect to the Law. Someone has wisely remarked that when God justifies He acts in His capacity as the Judge, not as a surgeon.
Third, justification is God’s legal declaration. When Almighty God justifies, that verdict is final. It cannot be overturned, appealed, changed, increased, decreased or lost. A man is either justified or he is condemned. There is no middle ground. Thus Paul dares anyone to overturn the justifying verdict of God: “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth …?” (Rom. 8:33-34)
Justification: God’s legal declaration concerning us that we are righteous. What a wonder!
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 5: Justification: A Declaration of Righteousness
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 3:22: “Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe ...”
Yesterday we did not finish explaining our short definition of justification: “God’s legal declaration of righteousness.” We need also to define and explain righteousness because righteousness is absolutely vital in justification.
Righteousness is conformity to a standard or a norm. The word “righteous” in Scripture means straight, level or even. Something righteous conforms to and is in harmony with a given standard. The opposite of righteous is crooked, twisted, bent or perverse. Thus, the word “iniquity” (one of the words for sin in the Bible) means crookedness or perversity. Scripture says that God is righteous or just. That raises a question: if God is righteous, and righteousness is harmony with a standard, with what standard is God in harmony? The answer is Himself: God is unswervingly committed to Himself as the highest and only standard. There is no higher standard outside of God to which He would have to conform. Therefore, whatever or whoever is in conformity to God’s standard of righteousness is righteous and is declared righteous; and whatever or whoever deviates from God’s standard is unrighteous and is declared unrighteous. It really does not matter if you conform to the standards of society, or even to your own standards. Do you conform to God’s standard
Clearly we do not, for we are sinners. Therefore it would appear that our justification is impossible.
God is righteous. Therefore He must punish sin and sinners for their unrighteousness. That is one way in which the Bible speaks of righteousness. Martin Luther knew that aspect of God’s righteousness, and it troubled him greatly. He understood that, since God is righteous, He will and must punish all those who do not conform to the standard which God has revealed in His perfect Law. Imagine Luther’s confusion, therefore, when he read in Romans 1:16-17, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ … for therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith …” Luther could not make sense of this. On the one hand, the Gospel is good news for poor sinners. On the other hand, the Gospel reveals the righteousness of God, which, as Luther understood it, is God’s perfect character according to which He punishes sinners. How could God’s righteousness possibly be good news for sinners such as Luther
Luther could have no peace until he understood that the righteousness of God means more than that; and that it is something which God gives to sinners so that they can stand before Him without fear of condemnation. The Belgic Confession has this in mind when it states that “Christ … is our righteousness” (Article 22).
Romans 3 gives the answers to Luther’s problem. There Paul speaks of the righteousness of God again. This righteousness is “manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets” (v. 21). And, crucially, this righteousness is “unto all and upon all them that believe” (v. 22). The righteousness of God, then, is not merely one of God’s perfect attributes, but something He bestows upon us. It is the righteousness from God, the only righteousness which satisfies the demands of God’s holy Law
Do you have that righteousness? Believer in Christ, you do!
Belgic Confession, Article 22; Day 6: Christ Our Righteousness
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Jeremiah 23:6: “ … and this shall be His name whereby He shall be called, the LORD our righteousness.”
In previous meditations we have seen that justification is God’s declaration that we are in perfect harmony with the standard of God’s perfect Law, free from all guilt, and worthy of eternal life. In other words, justification is “God’s legal declaration of righteousness. “
The issue that we must address is this: on what basis can God justify us? We noticed earlier that the calling of a judge is to justify the righteous, and to condemn the wicked (Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15). We also know that God always justifies according to truth (Rom. 2:2). Could an opponent of the Reformed Faith not argue that we are teaching that God does what no human judge may do, that He is justifying the ungodly? (Rom. 3:26; 4:5). How can God do that and remain just? Does God simply pretend that we are righteous when in reality we are not? Does God turn a blind eye to our sins and bless us anyway? We answer with the blessed truth that the basis of our justification is the righteousness of another, namely Jesus Christ.
We are not righteous in ourselves. We certainly are not in perfect harmony with or in perfect conformity to the Law of God. And yet, when He justifies us, God declares that we are righteous! He does so because Christ, whose righteousness becomes ours in justification, is our righteousness. That is how the Belgic Confession explains it, “Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness” (Art. 22) and our justification rests on “the obedience of Christ crucified” (Art. 23).
For Christ to be our righteousness, He must meet all the demands of the Law for us and in our place. We can never meet these demands, and, since God will never set aside His demands without denying Himself, Christ humbled Himself to meet those demands for us.
First, Christ paid for all our transgressions against the Law of God. He did that by suffering the wrath of God especially on the cross and by dying under God’s curse. Second, Christ obeyed all the commandments of God’s Law, and never deviated from the path of God’s righteousness. This—Christ’s lifelong obedience and His atoning death which satisfied God’s justice—is our righteousness before God. On the basis of this God accepts us as righteous, without any guilt and worthy of all the blessings of salvation. God declares concerning us, “This one, whom I see in my beloved Son Jesus Christ, is righteous. I see no sin in Him. I see only the merits of my Son and the many holy works which He has performed. And because of what I see I am perfectly satisfied that this one is in harmony with Me, with My Law, and I pronounce blessings upon him.”
That was Paul’s confession in Philippians 3. Paul had tried to be justified by “the righteousness which is of the law” (v. 9). That righteousness, hypothetically speaking, would come to one who by hard work had managed to live in harmony with God’s Law. Paul called that “my righteousness (v. 9). Paul rejected that righteousness as an impossibility—he even calls it loss or dung! (vv. 7-8)—and clings to the righteousness of Jesus Christ, the righteousness which Christ Himself had wrought for Paul and for all believers by His life and death.
That righteousness—the righteousness which comes from Christ and not from us—is the only basis for justification.
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 7: The Error of Romish Justification
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Luke 18:14: “I tell you: this man went down to his house justified rather than the other."
In previous mediations we have carefully defined the elements of the Reformed doctrine of justification. We have done this deliberately because justification by faith alone is the heart of the gospel, the “article of a standing or a falling church” (Luther) and “the hinge on which salvation turns” (Calvin). We have also done this so that we can contrast it with the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. Truth is always clearer against the background of error.
It should not surprise us that the Roman doctrine of justification is the antithesis of what we have been learning from the Belgic Confession.
First, in Roman Catholicism justification is not so much a legal declaration as a moral renewal, or a legal declaration based on a moral renewal. Roman Catholicism downplays the legal aspect of justification. Instead of a declaration of righteousness, Rome speaks of a making righteous. Rome teaches that justification is a moral, cleansing work in the soul which brings about a change in the one justified. This may sound reasonable and even biblical, but remember a judge does not improve the moral character of a person in his courtroom: he simply makes a declaration concerning him. Remember, also, that we do not deny that God changes our moral character when He saves us, but that that change has nothing whatsoever to do with justification.
Thus, according to Rome, in justification God pours (or “infuses”) virtue into the sinner’s heart, which makes him inwardly holy and good. The devilish nature of Rome’s doctrine is that she calls the virtue infused into the soul “grace.” And this “grace” is dispensed through the church in her sacraments and increased in the soul by the performance of pious exercises.
Second, on the basis of the change wrought in the sinner by the infusion of virtue (“grace”) into his soul, God declares the sinner to be justified and worthy to receive more grace. Thus, grace is increased in the soul, and the sinner is “further justified.” However, if the sinner commits a serious sin (“mortal sin”) he loses grace, loses justification, and must be “re-justified” by the infusion of more grace, again through the sacraments. Hear what Rome herself says in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), “No one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity and for the attainment of eternal life” (paragraph 2010).
We draw several conclusions. First, Rome teaches that justification is a process. The Bible teaches that it is the finished act of God. Second, Rome teaches that justification is a moral work in the sinner. The Bible teaches that it is a declaration concerning the sinner’s status before the Law of God. Third, Rome teaches that the basis of justification is the sinner’s own righteousness—a righteousness wrought by the Spirit by means of faith, the use of the sacraments and good works. The Bible teaches that the basis of justification is only the righteousness of Christ—all the merits and holy works which Christ has performed in His living and dying for us.
Rome’s doctrine of justification destroys comfort. How can we know if we are righteous enough to gain salvation? Any sinner who trusts in his own righteousness—whether the works of the law or even those works supposedly wrought by charity and the Spirit in his heart—is lost because his works can never reach the standard required by God’s Law.
This is a standard which only Christ has met. Away with any other righteousness!
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 8: Righteous by Faith Alone
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 3:28: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.”
In justification God declares elect sinners to be righteous—to be in perfect harmony with and conformity to the standard of God’s Law, and thus with God Himself—on the basis of the righteousness of another, namely Jesus Christ. That righteousness consists of the “merits and so many holy works” of Christ—His obedience.
The issue we address now is: how does that righteousness become ours?
And the answer of the Bible is by faith.
Remember that faith is that spiritual bond which unites us to Jesus Christ as well as the activity of believing in Him, which consists in a certain knowledge and a hearty confidence in Him. The Belgic Confession teaches that faith “embraces Jesus Christ, with all His merits, appropriates, Him and seeks nothing more besides Him.” Notice the verbs: faith seeks (and therefore finds) Christ, embraces Him and appropriates Him; and in so doing faith lays hold of Christ’s righteousness. Moreover, the Belgic Confession states, “faith is an instrument with which we embrace Christ our Righteousness,” and “faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins” (Art. 22)
Faith is only an instrument: it is the appropriating organ by which we lay hold of Jesus Christ. It is that which unites us to Jesus Christ and by which what Christ has done for us in life and death becomes ours. Remember the graft: the branch itself is nothing without the graft; but even the graft itself is nothing without the Vine into which we are engrafted.
When the Bible speaks of justification by faith—or through faith or “out of” faith—it contrasts the truth with the false teaching of justification by works or justification by the law (or “out of” the law). We do not become possessors of a righteousness pleasing to God by works. We cannot work hard enough to produce such a righteousness of our own; we cannot even work so that we can purchase Christ’s righteousness. This is true for two reasons. First, we can never meet the demands of the law for perfect obedience. Second, we can never satisfy the demands of the law for a payment of our sins. Therefore, justification by works must forever remain an impossibility for sinners.
Paul speaks of the righteousness of God “without the law” (Rom. 3:22) and insists that we are justified “without the deeds of the law” (v. 28). That word “without” means that the law is completely exclude from justification. No law of any kind, not the law of Moses, not the moral law, not the law of love, not the civil or ceremonial law, not the law of nature, no law at all justifies a sinner. When it comes to justification all law is excluded. The righteousness by which we are justified has nothing to do with our keeping the law. Law is completely out of the picture.
This is necessary to exclude boasting. We come to be justified, not bragging about our obedience, but clinging to the obedience of Jesus Christ. And through believing we are justified. Only through believing.
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 9: Faith: Not the Basis of Justification
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 4:5: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness ...”
Justification is the legal declaration of God that a person is in harmony with His Law. The basis for this legal declaration is the righteousness of another, namely Jesus Christ. We receive this righteousness by faith alone without works.
You may have noticed that in the Belgic Confession Articles 22-23 overlap somewhat. That is because they both teach justification by faith alone. In a systematic treatment some issues must still be addressed. What do we mean by “justification by faith alone”? What exactly is the role of faith? That must be clarified.
In every age there have been those who have twisted or perverted the doctrine of justification. The Arminians are guilty of this perversion when they teach that faith itself is our justification before God or faith itself is our righteousness. This error the Belgic Confession rejects: “However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our Righteousness” (Art. 22) Notice the careful distinction: faith is not the basis or ground of justification, but the instrument or means of justification. This careful distinction comes from a careful study of God’s Word: the Bible teaches repeatedly that we are justified by faith (“through,” “by” or “out of” faith), but it never teaches that we are justified on account of, or on the basis of, faith.
This is true for a number of reasons. First, our faith cannot be the ground of our justification because our faith is imperfect. The faith of the strongest Christian is very weak. Mixed in with our faith are much unbelief and sin. Every Christian can identify with the man who cried out to Jesus with tears, “Lord, I believe. Help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Our faith is, therefore, not a righteous basis for our justification. Second, our faith cannot be the ground of our justification because our faith does not fulfill the demands of God’s Law. Even if our faith were perfect—not weak, imperfect, unstable, changing and faltering—it would not answer the charges of God’s Law against us (we have sinned and deserve death) or the demands of God’s Law concerning us (we owe God lifelong, perfect obedience in love with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength). Only Christ has done that, and therefore only His obedience can be our righteousness or the basis of our justification. The Arminians’ error is to deny God’s justice. They imagine that God will accept something less than perfect obedience—our faith. But then God would deny Himself and would not be just. Such is impossible.
The Arminian objects by quoting Romans 4:5, “his faith is counted for righteousness.” In v. 3, Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” It would appear that the basis for Abraham’s justification was Abraham’s faith, that faith itself was Abraham’s righteousness. But that is emphatically not what Paul is teaching here. First, as with us, Abraham’s faith was weak and faltering. Read Genesis to observe how God had to test and purify Abraham’s faith through trials. Second, faith in v. 5 refers to the object of Abraham’s faith which is Christ. Abraham, even in the days of types and shadows, saw Christ, and believed in Him. God reckoned to Abraham not his faith—as if that were something meritorious—but that which Abraham embraced by faith, Jesus Christ and His righteousness.
The same is true for us. Our righteousness is Christ’s righteousness received by faith alone.
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 10: The Blessed Non-Imputation of Iniquity
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Psalm 32:2: “Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity ..."
Justification, which is the subject of Belgic Confession Article 23, is not merely the forgiveness of sins. Let us remind ourselves that justification is “God’s legal declaration of righteousness.” In justification God the Judge makes an official legal declaration that the sinner who stands before Him is righteous, that is, that the sinner conforms perfectly to, and is in complete harmony with, the absolute standard of God’s holy Law. That means, negatively, that the sinner is not guilty of any sin—no sin can be laid to his charge—;and positively, that the sinner possesses legally a status of perfect, positive righteousness, because he possesses all of the “merits and so many holy works” of Jesus Christ by faith.
If we might so speak, forgiveness of sins is only half a justification. Think of a man who stands before a judge accused of a crime. He is found not guilty, and is free to go. But he is not positively righteous! If God merely forgave our sins, we would not go to hell, but we would not be worthy of heaven either. To go to heaven we must not merely have no sins to our account. We must be positively righteous. That is why the Belgic Confession adds, “[in the remission of our sins] our righteousness before God is implied.”
This brings us to the last great biblical and theological word which we must know to understand the doctrine of justification. We looked at “legal, judicial and forensic” (pertaining to law); we looked at “declaration” or “pronouncement;” we looked at righteousness. Now we consider “imputation”: “Christ imputing to us all His merits …” (Article 22) and “God imputeth righteousness to him without works” (Article 23).
To impute means to reckon, to consider, to account something to someone. When something is imputed it is counted as legally belonging to someone, so that either a person bears the responsibility for another’s guilt, or receives the credit for another’s virtue. Paul wrote to Philemon, “If he (Onesimus) hath wronged thee, or oweth thee aught, put that on mine account. I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it” (vv. 18-19). Imputation concerns accounts or records, therefore; and in justification, imputation concerns legal accounts or records. Imputation answers this question, “How can the perfect record which Christ wrought in His righteous life become mine; and how can my sinful record of horrible crimes against the Law of God become Christ’s, so that I am not punished on account of my own sins, but am rewarded for the virtues, merits and holy works of Christ?”
In justification God performs a twofold imputation. First, He imputes, reckons or accounts all of our sins to the record of Jesus Christ. Imagine that for a moment! To the sinless, holy, righteous Son of God are imputed all our sins. As it were, Christ says of us, “If my people, whom I love, have wronged Thee or owe Thee anything, Father, put it on My account. I, Thy only begotten and ever beloved Son, have written it in My own blood. I have repaid it.” That is why David speak of the blessedness of the man “unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity” (Ps. 32:2). The Lord has already imputed our iniquity to Christ. Christ, entering the world with our iniquity on His account, was punished for that iniquity—not His iniquity, but ours! That was the solemn responsibility Christ assumed for us in His life and death.
The second imputation—Christ’s righteousness to us—we will see in the next meditation.
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 11: Righteousness Freely Imputed
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 4:6: “… the blessedness of the man unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works ...”
Yesterday, we began to treat the subject of imputation. We saw that one part of imputation is that God imputed or reckoned the guilt of our sins to the account of Jesus Christ, who thus took full, legal responsibility for our sins, and whom God punished accordingly. Only the doctrine of imputation explains how God was just in punishing His own, only begotten, ever beloved Son in our flesh for our sins, which He personally never committed. Legally, in imputation, He assumed the position of one guilty for our sins. And He remained in that state of condemnation—a state of guilt before the Law of God—until He fully satisfied God’s justice.
But there is more to imputation—the positive aspect. Remember that Jesus Christ lived a perfect life of obedience to the Law of God. He did more than die on the cross: in the words of the Belgic Confession, Jesus Christ performed “many holy works which He had done for us and in our stead” (Article 22). That is the “obedience of Christ crucified alone which becomes ours when we believe in Him” (Article 23). We know that the righteousness of Christ becomes ours when we believe in Him because we have seen that faith is that bond which unites us to Christ and all His benefits. But how exactly does the righteousness of Christ become ours by faith? God imputes that righteousness to us. God reckons to us the righteousness of His Son which is called the righteousness of God. God credits that righteousness to our account.
Think of a legal transaction. We enter the courtroom of God with a criminal record, a “rap sheet” as it is called colloquially by some. On that record are all of our crimes against the Law of God—a very long list of felonies. We are guilty of breaking all of God’s commandments, of keeping none of them, and therefore we are worthy of the ultimate penalty, eternal death. In addition, we are guilty—as we learned in Article 15 on Original Sin—of the original guilt in Adam. God does not reckon any of those crimes to our account. He expunges the record. Those crimes are imputed to another, who Himself has a perfect record—no crimes of any kind, only perfect righteousness. But now we have no record at all—nothing in the “negative column,” but also nothing in the “positive column.” In double-imputation, God takes the perfect record of Christ—all His holy works, merits and obedience, which we have not performed, and which He performed for us during His life and death—and reckons it to our account. Now, so to speak, we have nothing in the negative column, and we have perfect righteousness in the positive column.
That imputation of Christ’s righteousness is the basis for our justification. As far as God’s Law is concerned we are righteous, and therefore worthy of all the blessings of eternal life. We are even worthy—because of double-imputation—to be adopted as God’s beloved children. Here, then, is the wonder of justification. A condemned sinner facing the death penalty is, after the legal transaction called justification, declared to be an adopted son and an heir of eternal life. The only response to that truth is to cry out with David, “Blessed is the man …!”
Are you that blessed man (or woman)? Believer in Jesus Christ, you are!
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 12: Alien Righteousness
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Philippians 3:9: “And be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.
Alien righteousness! This is not the title of a science fiction novel, or of a Hollywood Blockbuster movie, but is an expression made famous by Martin Luther to describe the righteousness which is the basis of our justification.
When we encounter the word “alien,” we might immediately think of “little green men” from outer space. However, the word “alien” is also used in immigration law to denote a foreigner. The idea of “alien” here, however, is that the righteousness which forms the basis of our justification before Almighty God our Judge has its source outside of us, and indeed outside of this world. It is, in the highest sense, “the righteousness of God.” In Romans Paul writes about the righteousness of God, “even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe” (3:22) Notice those words, “unto all and upon all.” Righteousness is not only something which God has and is—He is the God of perfect justice—but something which God gives to and confers upon others.
The righteousness on the basis of which we are justified is called the righteousness of God, first, because the Person whose righteousness it is, and who works that righteousness for us, is God. In fact, only the eternal, only begotten Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, could and did work such righteousness. That righteousness is, as the Belgic Confession explains it, “the obedience of Christ crucified alone.” It is called the righteousness of God, second, because the Holy Spirit, who also is God, worked that righteousness in the life and death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God made flesh. It is called the righteousness of God, third, because it is a perfect, utterly flawless and pristine righteousness, sufficient to cover all the sins of all the elect from the beginning to the end of the world. This—the righteousness of God, the alien righteousness of Jesus Christ—is the only righteousness which will be able to satisfy God. God satisfies Himself with His own righteousness
We can see now why Luther chose “alien righteousness” to describe the righteousness of our justification. This righteousness in no way has its origin in us. We did not produce one scrap of this righteousness. All of our righteousnesses—not just all our sins, but all our righteousnesses!—are as filthy rags (Is. 64:6). Although Paul, as a Pharisee could claim that “as touching the righteousness which is in the law [he was] blameless,” he counted all his legal achievements as “loss” and as “dung” (Phil. 3:5, 7-8). Why? Because in comparison to the pristine, perfect, heavenly, alien righteousness of Christ his so-called “righteousness” was dung. What a vivid picture that is: a man who stands before Almighty God trusting in the righteousness of the law stands before God dressed from head to toe in filthy, dung-covered rags, and thus is a foul stench in the nostrils of the holy God!
The Reformers rejected all righteousness but the alien righteousness of another, Jesus Christ. God does not justify us on the basis of our personal moral character. We are sinners! God does not justify us on the basis of our imperfect obedience to the Law. He demands perfection because He is righteous. God does not even justify us on the basis of the work of the Holy Spirit in us. That work is never perfect or complete in this life. God does not first infuse goodness into us and then on that basis justify us. That goodness is never perfect this side of heaven. Only the righteousness of another—the alien righteousness of Christ—is the sure ground for justification
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 13: The Righteousness which is of the Law
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 10:5: “For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, that the man which doeth those things shall live by them.”
We are justified only on the basis of the alien righteousness of another, Jesus Christ, which, as the Belgic Confession explains it, “becomes ours when we believe in Him.” This, the Belgic Confession adds, “is sufficient to cover all our iniquities and to give us confidence in approaching to God.” A major question and controversy swirling around the time of the Apostle Paul—as the church was emerging from Judaism—and at the time of the Reformation—as the church was emerging from the gloom of medieval Roman Catholicism—was “what about the Law?”
We have seen that the Law must be excluded from justification—that is, we have seen that our obedience to the Law must be excluded from justification. This Gospel of justification and righteousness without the law was offensive to the Jews, who highly revered the Law; and one of the charges against the Christians was that they were enemies of God’s Law. This was the charge against Stephen: “This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law” (Acts 6:13). But Paul, although he spoke against the error of finding righteousness and justification in obedience to the Law, never spoke against the Law itself: “The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). The problem is simply this: the Law of God is good, but we are sinners. The Law, Paul writes elsewhere, “was added because of transgressions;” and “if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law” (Gal. 3:19, 21).
The Law of God, then, is good. It perfectly reveals God’s perfect standard and sets forth how a man should behave if he would live in fellowship with God. But, first, the law can only show us what God demands. It cannot give us the strength to perform what God demands. Paul writes that the law “was weak through the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). The law itself was not weak, but man’s flesh—his sinful nature—is unable to keep the law; and even the believer is unable to keep the law perfectly. Second, since the law demands perfection, God will curse and condemn the man who does not keep the law to perfection. Paul challenges the man who says he wants to be righteous by keeping the law to realize the terms under which he will be judged. God does not grade on a curve. He demands a perfect score! “As many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10). James makes a similar statement, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10). You may have heard the expression, “Three strikes and you’re out!” With God’s Law, it is, “One sin and you are damned!” In fact, as we saw in Belgic Confession Article 15, we enter the world under God’s condemnation already because of Adam’s sin.
To seek righteousness in keeping the law, then, is arrogant folly. It is to trample underfoot the righteousness of Christ; it is to insult the Spirit of grace; and it is to bring down upon oneself the full burden of the wrath of God and the curse of His Law. What blessedness that we have the righteousness of Christ—the one who was cursed for us.
Let us come empty-handed into the Judgment of God trusting only in that righteousness.
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 14: The Judaizing Error
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Galatians 5:3: “For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law."
We have seen that the righteousness of the law cannot justify us because, although the law reveals to us God’s perfect standard, we cannot perform it. To this argument theologians in the Roman Catholic church have replied, “But the law to which Paul refers is only the Old Testament ceremonial law. Good works in obedience to the moral law are not excluded from justification.” In the Old Testament there was a threefold law—that will be subject of Article 25 of the Belgic Confession. First, there was the moral law of the Ten Commandments. That law is summed up in the command to love God and the neighbour. Second, there is the civil law which governed Israel as a nation. This included rules concerning agriculture, commerce and civil penalties, such as capital punishment by stoning for various offences. Third, there is the ceremonial law which governed Israel’s worship. This included dietary laws, laws concerning cleanness and uncleanness, and all the ordinances pertaining to the priests, the tabernacle and the temple.
In the early New Testament church, Gentiles were being saved. This was a source of controversy among the Judaizers, certain Jews who professed Christianity but who were really false brethren and heretics. These Judaizers said, “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). These men, also called the Pharisees, insisted that “it was needful to circumcise [the Gentile converts] and to command them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). The church met in Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit guided them to reject the teachings of the Judaizers and Pharisees. The doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone was preserved!
However, the Judaizers did not give up easily. They infiltrated the churches in Galatia and began spreading their heresy there. Paul’s response was the epistle to the Galatians. In it he exclaimed that those who had turned away from the Gospel of grace to be circumcised had followed another, that is a false, gospel (Gal. 1:6); and he pronounced the curse of God on all other gospels and their teachers (Gal. 1:8-9).
Why did Paul make such an issue about circumcision? Because circumcision represented the works of the law. You might say that the tiniest, most insignificant work of the law—the simple act of circumcision—was the first step on the slippery slope of apostasy from Christ. “Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing” (Gal. 5:2). By being circumcised, says Paul, you are not merely submitting to one Jewish ceremony: you are signing up to a plan of salvation which will obligate you to keep the whole law. “For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law: ye are fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4). And, as we have already seen, with the law it is an “all or nothing proposition.” Put your trust in circumcision, you must keep all the laws of God perfectly.
Instead of putting your trust in circumcision—or in our modern context, instead of putting your trust in baptism, church ordinances, good works, the keeping of the Ten Commandments, or any other work of man—we find all our salvation in Jesus Christ.
Christ will not be half a Saviour, providing only some of the righteousness as the basis of our justification: “If righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain” (Gal. 2:21).
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 15: The Error of the New Perspective
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Matthew 5:20: “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
There is a movement in the church world today which denies justification by faith alone. This movement is called “The New Perspective on Paul” (NPP). The Belgic Confession does not address the NPP as such—how could it when the error in its present form did not exist?—but we should address it. The most popular contemporary proponent of the NPP is N.T. Wright.
Wright redefines the concepts we have carefully studied—justification and righteousness—and rejects imputation. Wright removes justification and righteousness from Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) and places them in Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). For Wright, justification is not about how a person is saved from sin and blessed with eternal life, but how a person is declared here and now to be a member of the church. In the Old Testament, the “badge” or “mark” of membership among God’s people was circumcision. Gentiles who became Jews in the Old Testament had to be circumcised. In the New Testament, with the coming of Christ, the new “badge” or “mark” must be one which does not exclude Gentiles—circumcision did that—that is, the new “badge” or “mark” is faith. Therefore in the New Testament both Jews and Gentiles are justified—declared to be members of the people of God, the church—by faith. Thus, when Paul argued with the Judaizers about circumcision, he was not arguing about salvation; he was arguing about who is a member of the church.
Righteousness for Wright is God’s faithfulness to His people in putting the world right by the cross and resurrection of Christ. Wright does not believe that God imputed our sins to Christ and punished Him in our place. For Wright the cross is simply a display of how righteous God is, and the resurrection is a vindication of that righteousness. Moreover, righteousness, according to Wright, cannot be imputed to a guilty sinner to be the basis of his justification. Thus Wright denies the Gospel and tears down the foundation of our justification before God, leaving us exposed to God’s wrath and curse.
Wright’s “gospel” is that God declares believers part of His people on the basis of faith. However, their remaining as His people depends on their faithfulness to Him (i.e., on their good works). Wright’s conclusion is this: “Future justification, acquittal at the Last Assize, always takes place on the basis of the totality of the life lived.” The “Assize” is the judgment.
We repudiate Wright, by “relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone.” Any follower of Wright’s advice who enters the Judgment relying on the “totality of [his] life lived”—or even on one work—will be damned. Why? Because the good works of the sinner can never even begin to compare with the perfect standard which God demands in His holy Law. What good, then, is a “gospel” which tells us that we might be in God’s favour today, but which announces to us that our remaining in fellowship with God depends on us? If a man understands his sin, he must be utterly beside himself with terror to enter the Judgment relying on himself, and we urge him to flee instead to the perfect righteousness of Christ our Lord. We reject Wright’s “righteousness,” and we abominate Wright’s “justification” as Paul does—dung!
Let us beware of slippery—but popular—heretics such as N.T. Wright!
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 16: The Error of the Federal Vision
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 9:6: “Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel."
Hot on the heels of the New Perspective on Paul, which we considered yesterday, comes the Federal Vision (FV). These two errors are modern (that is, current), and dangerous, and are a repudiation of the Reformation Gospel of justification by faith alone as summarised in our creeds, such as the Belgic Confession.
But some might ask, is it really appropriate to include polemics in meditations? Polemics is the art of theological warfare, the defence of the truth and the repudiation of error. First, the truth always shines more brightly against the background of error. Second, one who loves the truth will fight or contend for it (Jude 3). Third, one who loves the church will not hesitate to raise the alarm when danger threatens. The devil is always seeking to rob the church of truth, and thus of comfort. And if the church has no comfort, there can be no heartwarming meditations—which I hope these articles are. Devotional material is not fluff because the Holy Spirit does not comfort us by means of fluff, but by means of the truth applied to our hearts (I Cor. 2:12).
The FV is an error concerning the covenant. We should remember that the covenant is the gracious bond of friendship which God establishes with us and our children in Jesus Christ, in which He declares Himself to be our God and takes us to be His people. First, the FV teaches a conditional covenant, that is, a covenant with many more than the elect, which depends upon man for its maintenance and fulfillment. In practice, this means that all the children of believers are elect, regenerated and justified in Christ. But by “elect” and “in Christ” the FV does not mean unconditionally chosen in Christ in eternity and guaranteed salvation. Election in the FV is temporal (pertaining to time), temporary (not necessarily permanent) and therefore losable; and since justification—the subject of Belgic Confession Article 23—is a blessing which flows from election, it too is losable.
Therefore, it is perfectly possible, according to the FV, for a person to be justified for a time, but then to forfeit justification by his sinful behaviour. It is possible for the bond of faith, which supposedly all baptised children to Jesus Christ, to be severed by sin. It is possible, says the FV, for a person who is saved in the present to be damned on the Last Day, and thus to perish forever. In fact, it is possible, says the FV, for every believer—for you, the believing reader and for me, the believing writer—to perish forever. How, then, are we justified, and how do we remain justified, according to the FV? By covenantal faithfulness! By faithfully keeping the conditions of the covenant—faith and the good works which flow from faith. What, then, is the basis for justification? Not the perfect, imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ—the men of the FV in general oppose the concept of imputed righteousness—but one’s own Spirit-worked, faith-inspired works. All that theological fancy footwork—the works are the Spirit’s works in us and they flow from faith and operate by love—does not hide the fact that justification in the FV is by works! If justification is in any sense by works, it is not the utterly gracious justification of the Scriptures. Thus, the FV, too, is a repudiation of the Gospel, and an attempt by Satan to move us away from the only sure foundation—the alien righteousness of Christ, imputed to us
The only answer to the FV is that the covenant is unconditional. The blessings earned by Christ on the cross are for the elect only (whether elect adults or children), and they can never be lost. That’s the firm foundation of our salvation—not the treacherous quicksand of the FV!
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 17: Simul Iustus et Peccator
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 4:5: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”
Simul iustus et peccator is Latin, and, like the term alien righteousness, was coined by Martin Luther. The phrase means, “at the same time justified and a sinner.
Justification is God’s legal declaration that a believing sinner is, for the sake of the imputed, alien righteousness of the Son of God, which Christ wrought in His lifelong obedience and atoning, sacrificial death on the cross, righteous, that is, that the sinner is in perfect conformity to and in complete harmony with the Law of God. Upon this believing sinner the holy God pronounces the verdict of “Righteous! Not guilty! Worthy of eternal life!"
But the justified person is still a sinner. Paul expresses this very strikingly in Romans 4:5—the one whom God justifies is ungodly! We might have expected Paul to write that “God justifieth the godly,” or, at the very least, “God justifies the man whom He has made godly,” but instead Paul writes, “[God] justifieth the ungodly,” that is, God justifies the one who is, and who remains, ungodly, impious and wicked. The word “ungodly” is consistently used of the wicked in the book of Proverbs, for example. The reader will immediately see the problem: according to Romans 4:5, God does what God Himself forbids human judges to do—they shall “condemn the wicked” (Deut 25:1); “he that justifieth the wicked ….[is] an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 17:15)!
But the problem quickly evaporates when we remember that when God justifies the sinner and declares him to be righteous, He does so on a righteous basis: the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. That is why Paul writes, “that he might be just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). He is the justifier, and He is just in so justifying.
Therefore we say that the sinner is both righteous and at the same time a sinner, simul iustus et peccator. As far as his legal status is concerned, he is righteous. As far as his actual condition—the real circumstances of his life—he is a sinner. In this life we are justified—that is our status before the Law—but we only begin to enjoy the blessings of freedom from the bondage and corruption and sin in this life. We only begin to be holy, and that holiness does not contribute one whit to our justification, which, because it is based upon an alien righteousness, is complete and unchanging.
Thus we confess that justification is only a declaration of righteousness. It is only the official verdict from the Judge concerning the legal status of the sinner, his relationship to the Law of God. Justification does not change the sinner’s character. This does not, however, mean that the justified sinner will forever remain ungodly, or that he will continue to walk in ungodliness; but it does mean that justification has nothing to do with God’s making the ungodly sinner godly. The justified sinner does indeed become godly, but that is a distinct work of God, the work of sanctification, the subject of Belgic Confession, Article 24.
Our legal status as justified believers never changes, and God continually testifies of that to us in the Gospel. But, despite our legal status, we are still sinners. We still struggle with and commit sin. Sin does not affect our justification—we are not more justified when we do good works or less justified when we sin—but it does affect our enjoyment and experience of salvation. That is why we, even as justified sinners, continue to pray for the forgiveness of sin.
Simul iustus et peccator. The confession of every believing sinner!
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 18: Legal Fiction!
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 10:3: “For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.”
We noticed in an earlier meditation the Roman Catholic view of justification. Instead of imputed righteousness, Rome teaches infused or imparted righteousness, the idea that the Spirit works grace in the heart of the sinner who uses the sacraments of the church. Then on the basis of virtue in the heart—an acquired, internal righteousness—the church member is justified. The more grace in the heart, the more justified a person becomes, but even the most justified person in this life—with very few exceptions—must be purified in purgatory after death. The result is that no member of the Roman Catholic church can ever know if he has accrued enough grace in his heart to merit justification now and on the Last Day. The result for the sinner who understands sin and the holiness of God is and must be terror.
Rome scoffs at the Reformed, biblical and confessional view of justification by imputed righteousness as “legal fiction.” Rome is especially offended by the “as if” language of Reformed theologians. We believe that God views us in justification “as if [we] had never had had, nor committed any sin, yea as if [we] had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for [us]” (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 23, Q&A 61). To “as if” Rome cries out “legal fiction!” Modern heretics have also criticized the doctrine of imputation, characterizing it as “the shuffling about of heavenly ledgers” (or accounting books); and have said that it is impossible for righteousness to be transferred to a guilty sinner from the sinless Christ. These objections come from the NPP and FV movements as we have see.
The Reformed believer is not afraid of the charge of “Legal fiction!
First, if our justification is “legal fiction,” how can we possibly explain the cross of Christ? If it is impossible for God to impute Christ’s righteousness to us, it is also impossible for God to impute our sins to Christ, and for Christ to bear the punishment for them. Then we must satisfy God’s justice for our own sins, and that is impossible. Was God playing “legal fiction” at the cross? God forbid! Second, the “legal fiction” argument supposes that God is playing “Let’s pretend” in His judgment hall. God would be pretending that the sinner is righteous when the sinner is, in fact, not righteous. But God is not pretending because the righteousness which is the basis of our justification is not a “make-believe” righteousness but Christ’s righteousness. Christ’s righteousness is real! Christ’s lifelong obedience is real! Christ’s atonement on the cross is real! And God’s act of imputing that righteousness to us is real! Third, it is not that the demands of the Law are not met—they must certainly are—but the demands of the Law are not met by us. It is not that God agrees not to enforce the demands of His Law—He insists on them most strongly—but that God does not demand them from us. And the reason God does not demand perfect obedience from us is that Christ has already fulfilled the demands for us. That is not “legal fiction,” but grace!
Let us turn the “legal fiction” charge back on our detractors. All who deny that justification is by faith alone based on the imputed, alien righteousness of Christ alone must face this question. On what basis are you justified before God? On what basis can God declare you—here and now, and in the Final Judgment—to be righteous? If God—as Rome, NPP and FV contend—justifies sinners on the basis of an imperfect obedience to His Law, God is unjust.
Imperfect righteousness as the basis of justification is the real “legal fiction”!
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 19: A Conscience Free From Terror
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 5:1: “Therefore being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Belgic Confession Article 23 ends by rejoicing in the subjective effect of justification upon the conscience of the believing sinner. In one word justification gives peace.
Peace is to found only in God because God is “the God of peace” (Rom. 15:33). This means that, first, God is peace, harmony and perfect blessedness within Himself. Imagine a tranquil lake on which there is not the slightest ripple. That is a wonderful image of God in whom there is no agitation, anxiety, confusion or tension. As the God of peace He is at peace with Himself and He is at peace with all that which is righteous, all that which conforms to and is in harmony with God Himself.
However, the same God of peace is the God who is at holy war against the wicked. Within God there is no agitation but between God and sinners there is enmity. Sinners hate God and show their hatred daily by their sins; and God is justly offended by man’s rebellion and will punish sinners both in time and in eternity in His terrible wrath.
Man is not at peace because man is not righteous. And since man is not righteous God is at war with man and pursues sinful man with His wrath and curse. “The wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked” (Isa. 57:20-21). All of man’s attempts, therefore, at creating peace are doomed to failure—Christ Himself who takes peace away from the earth (Rev. 6:4) smashes their false “peace” to pieces—because man is unrighteous and at war with God Himself. But in justification God establishes peace between Himself and His people. He does this by removing the cause for the enmity, which is our sin. Christ is our peace (Eph. 2:14). Christ is the righteous basis for peace between us and the holy God.
The conclusion is obvious. We who are justified by faith are not only not at war with God but we knows ourselves not to be at war with God, and we know that God looks upon us in peace. We know that there is true harmony between us and our God. We enjoy blessed fellowship with the Triune God in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. In other words, we have both objective peace in the cross and subjective peace in our own consciousness.
Contrast that with one who is attempting to justify himself before God by his own works, and who is not relying on the perfect obedience, righteousness and merits of Jesus Christ alone. He is following the example of Adam, who “trembling attempted to cover himself with fig leaves.” The Belgic Confession expresses what every child of God knows: “If we should appear before God, relying on ourselves, or on any other creature, though ever so little, we should, alas! be consumed.” And we can add the testimony of Article 24, “We would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences continually vexed, if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Saviour.”
What about your conscience, reader? Is it “continually vexed” or do you have peace with God. If you are relying upon yourself for justification, you cannot know peace, and God Himself will not declare you righteous and give you peace. That peace, which passes all understanding, and which enables a sinner to live and die happily, is the treasured possession of all believers whose only plea is the perfect, imputed, alien righteousness of Jesus Christ alone. Is it yours?
Belgic Confession, Article 23; Day 20: Ascribing All Glory to God
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 4:2: “If Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God ...”
Justification is a humbling doctrine. That is why our flesh hates it and unbelievers—especially religious unbelievers—reject it. One who truly believes and understands this doctrine must be humble. The Belgic Confession urges us to humility by reminding us that in our salvation all the glory is God’s. Of course, it is! God determined salvation in His eternal decree; God set His love upon us, and sent His only begotten Son to work out a perfect righteousness for us as the basis of our justification; God punished His own Son on the cross in our place, thus removing from us the curse of the Law and satisfying His own justice; and God even worked faith in our hearts by the Holy Spirit in order to impute to us by free grace the righteousness of Jesus Christ. “And therefore,” declares the Belgic Confession, “we always hold fast this foundation, ascribing all the glory to God, humbling ourselves before Him.”
What an abomination to be proud in the presence of God! Are we, perhaps, proud in the presence of man? Do we continue to compare ourselves with others, and imagine, in the vain imagination of our mind, that we are better than others? Never look at the unbeliever with disdain and say to yourself, “I thank God that I am not as other men are. I am glad that I believed in Jesus.” Remember that you have believed in Jesus because God graciously opened your eyes, kindled in your heart a true faith, and united you to Jesus Christ. Remember that you are just as sinful as any unbeliever you meet. The only difference is that your sins are covered by the blood and righteousness of Christ and his are not. Will a man on death row, who has been graciously pardoned, boast because he did something to earn his pardon? Therefore we must never boast as if we contributed something to our justification and salvation. And we may never assume a haughty attitude towards unbelievers.
There is a place for glorying and boasting: it is not before God, but it is in God. We boast in the grace, mercy and love of God. We boast in the spotless righteousness of God imputed to us. We boast in the unchangeable decree and verdict of justification from God’s judgment seat. But we never boast of what we have done. Our justification is not based upon our works. Will a man boast in filthy rags and dung? Our works do not even contribute one stitch to the spotless, seamless robe of Christ’s righteousness.
Here is a good test in evaluating any doctrine, including the doctrine of justification. Does it lead to boasting or does it give all glory to God? The Belgic Confession concludes that we do not “presume to trust in anything in ourselves, or in any merit of ours” but that we “rely and rest upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone.” Does your doctrine lead you to that conclusion? If it does not, you must quickly reevaluate it, repent and believe the truth.
“Where is boasting then?” asks the apostle. “It is excluded. By what law? Of works? Nay: but by the law of faith” and later he adds, “If Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory, but not before God” (Rom. 3:27, 4:2).
Let us then humble ourselves in the presence of our God, praising and thanking Him that in Jesus Christ He has given us perfect righteousness, and let us never rob God of any part of His glory by daring to ascribe even the smallest part of that righteousness to our own works.
“He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord!” (I Cor. 1:31).