"Him that justifieth the ungodly." Here is the very heart of the Gospel. Many have argued that God can only pronounce just, and treat as such, those who are inherently righteous; but if this was so, what good news would there be for sinful men? Enemies of the Truth insist that for God to pronounce just those whom His law condemns would be a judicial fiction. But Romans 4:5 makes known a Divine miracle: something only God could have achieved. The miracle announced by the Gospel is that God comes to the ungodly with a mercy that is righteous, and in spite of all their depravity and rebellion, enables them through faith (on the ground of Christ's righteousness) to enter into a new and blessed relation with Himself.
The Scriptures speak of mercy, but it is not mercy coming in to make up the deficiencies and forgive the slips of the virtuous, but mercy extended through Christ to the chief of sinners. The Gospel which proclaims mercy through the atonement of the Lord Jesus is distinguished from every religious system of man, by holding out salvation to the guiltiest of the human race, through faith in the blood of the Redeemer. God's Son came into this world not only to save sinners, but even the chief of sinners, the worst of His enemies. Mercy is extended freely to the most violent and determined rebel. Here, and here only, is a refuge for the guilty. Is the trembling reader conscious that he is a great sinner, then that is the very reason why you should come to Christ: the greater your sins, the greater your need of the Saviour.
There are some who appear to think that Christ is a Physician who can cure only such patients as are not dangerously ill, that there are some cases so desperate as to be incurable, beyond His skill. What an affront to His power, what a denial of His sufficiency! Where can a more extreme case be found than that of the thief on the cross? He was at the very point of death, on the very brink of Hell! A guilty criminal, an incorrigible outlaw, justly condemned even by men. He had reviled the Saviour suffering by his side. Yet, at the end, he turned to Him and said, "Lord remember me." Was his plea refused? Did the Physician of souls regard his as a hopeless case? No, blessed be His name, He at once responded "Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise." Only unbelief shuts the vilest out of Heaven.
"Him that justifieth the ungodly." And how can the thrice holy God righteously do such a thing? Because "Christ died for the UNGODLY" (Romans 5:6). God's righteous grace comes to us through the law-honouring, justice-satisfying, sin-atoning Work of the Lord Jesus! Here, then, is the very essence of the Gospel: the proclamation of God's amazing grace, the declaration of Divine bounty, altogether irrespective of human worth or merit. In the great Satisfaction of His Son, God has "brought near HIS righteousness" (Isaiah 46:13). "We do not need to go up to Heaven for it; that would imply Christ had never come down. Nor do we need to go down to the depths of the earth for it; that would say Christ had never been buried and had never risen. It is near. We do not need to exert ourselves to bring it near, nor do anything to attract it towards us. It is near... The office of faith is not to work, but to cease working; not to do anything, but to own that all is done" (A. Bonar).
Faith is the one link between the sinner and the Saviour. Not faith as a work, which must be properly performed to qualify us for pardon. Not faith as a religious duty, which must be gone through according to certain rules in order to induce Christ to give us the benefits of His finished work. No, but faith simply extended as an empty hand, to receive everything from Christ for nothing. Reader, you may be the very "chief of sinners," yet is your case not hopeless. You may have sinned against much light, great privileges, exceptional opportunities; you may have broken every one of the Ten Commandments in thought, word and deed; your body may be filled with disease from wickedness, your head white with the winter of old age; you may already have one foot in Hell; and yet even now, if you but take your place alongside of the dying thief, and trust in the Divine efficacy of the precious blood of the Lamb, you shall be plucked as a brand from the burning. God "justifieth the ungodly." Hallelujah! If He did not, the writer had been in Hell long ago.
8. Its Instrument
"Being justified freely by His grace" (Romans 3:24); "being now justified by His blood" (Romans 5:9); "being now justified by faith" (Romans 5:1). A full exposition of the doctrine of justification requires that each of these propositions should be interpreted in their Scriptural sense, and that they be combined together in their true relations as to form one harmonious whole. Unless these three propositions be carefully distinguished there is sure to be confusion; unless all the three are steadily borne in mind we are sure to land in error. Each must be given its due weight, yet none must be understood in such a way as to make its force annul that of the others. Nor is this by any means a simple task, in fact none but a real teacher (that is, a spiritual theologian) who has devoted a lifetime to the undivided study of Scriptures is qualified for it.
"The righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ" (Romans 3:22); "A man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:28); "even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law" (Galatians 2:16). What is the precise place and influence which faith has in the important affairs of justification? What is the exact nature or character of justifying faith? In what particular sense are we to understand this proposition that we are "justified by faith"? and what is the connection between that proposition and the postulates that we are "justified by grace" and "justified by Christ's blood"? These are matters which call for the utmost care. The nature of justifying faith requires to be closely defined so that its particular agency is correctly viewed, for it is easy to make a mistake here to the prejudice of Christ's honour and glory, which must not be given to another--no, not to faith itself.
Many would-be teachers have erred at this point, for the common tendency of human nature is to arrogate to itself the glory which belongs alone to God. While there have been those who rejected the unscriptural notion that we can be justified before God by our own works, yet not a few of these very men virtually make a saviour of their own faith. Not only have some spoken of faith as though it were a contribution which God requires the sinner to make toward his own salvation--the last mite which was necessary to make up the price of his redemption; but others (who sneered at theologians and boasted of their superior understanding of the things of God) have insisted that faith itself is what constitutes us righteous before God, He regarding faith as righteousness.
A deplorable example of what we have just mentioned is to be found in the comments made upon Romans 4 by Mr. J.N. Darby, the father of the Plymouth Brethren: "This was Abraham's faith. He believed the promise that he should be the father of many nations, because God had spoken, counting on the power of God, thus glorifying Him, without calling in question anything that He had said by looking at circumstances; therefore this also was counted to him for righteousness. He glorified God according to what God was. Now this was not written for his sake alone: the same faith shall be imputed to us also for righteousness" ("Synopsis" vol. 4, p. 133--italics ours). The Christ-dishonouring error contained in those statements will be exposed later on in this chapter.
"How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God? Answer: Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, nor of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and His righteousness" (Westminster Confession of Faith). Though this definition was framed upwards of two hundred and fifty years ago, it is far superior to almost anything found in current literature on the subject. It is more accurate to speak of faith as the "instrument" rather than as the condition, for a "condition" is generally used to signify that for the sake whereof a benefit is conferred. Faith is neither the ground nor the substance of our justification, but simply the hand which receives the Divine gift proffered to us in the Gospel.
What is the precise place and influence which faith has in the important affair of justification? Romanist answer, It justifies us formally, not relatively: that is, upon the account of its own intrinsic value. They point out that faith is never alone, but "worketh by love" (Galatians 5:6), and therefore its own excellency merits acceptance at God's hand. But the faith of the best is weak and deficient (Luke 17:5), and so could never satisfy the law, which requires a flawless perfection. If righteousness was given as a reward for faith, its possessor would have cause for boasting, expressly contrary to the Apostle in Romans 3:26,27. Moreover, such a method of justification would entirely frustrate the life and death of Christ, making His great sacrifice unnecessary. It is not faith as a spiritual grace which justifies us, but as an instrument--the hand which lays hold of Christ.
In connection with justification, faith is not to be considered as a virtuous exercise of the heart, nor as a principle of holy obedience: "Because faith, as concerned in our justification, does not regard Christ as King, enacting laws, requiring obedience, and subduing depravity; but as a Substitute, answering the requirements of the Divine Law, and as a Priest expiating sin by His own death on the cross. Hence, in justification we read of `precious faith... through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ' (2 Peter 1:1) and of `faith in His blood' (Romans 3:25), and believers are described as `receiving the atonement' and `receiving the gift of righteousness' (Romans 5:11,17). Therefore it is evident that faith is represented as having an immediate regard to the vicarious work of Christ, and that it is considered not under the notion of exercising virtue or of performing a duty, but of receiving a free gift" (A. Booth).
What is the relation of faith to justification? The Arminian answer to the question, refined somewhat by the Plymouth Brethren, is, that the act of believing is imputed to us for righteousness. One error leads to another. Mr. Darby denied that Gentiles were ever under the law, hence he denied also that Christ obeyed the law in His people's stead, and therefore as Christ's vicarious obedience is not reckoned to their account, he had to seek elsewhere for their righteousness. This he claimed to find in the Christian's own faith, insisting that their act of believing is imputed to them "for righteousness." To give his theory respectability, he clothed it in the language of several expressions found in Romans 4, though he knew quite well that the Greek afforded no foundation whatever for that which he built upon it.
In Romans 4 we read "his faith is counted for righteousness" (v. 5), "faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness" (v. 9), "it was imputed to him for righteousness" (v. 22). Now in each of these verses the Greek preposition is "eis" which never means "in the stead of," but always signifies "towards, in order to, with a view to": it has the uniform force of "unto." Its exact meaning and force is unequivocally plain in Romans 10:10, "with the heart man believeth unto ("eis") righteousness": that is, the believing heart reaches out toward and lays hold of Christ Himself. "This passage (Romans 10:10) may help us to understand what justification by faith is, for it shows that righteousness there comes to us when we embrace God's goodness offered to us in the Gospel. We are then, for this reason, made just: because we believe that God is propitious to us through Christ" (J. Calvin).
The Holy Spirit has used the Greek prepositions with unerring precision. Never do we find Him employing "eis" in connection with Christ's satisfaction and sacrifice in our room and stead, but only "anti" or "huper," which means in lieu of. On the other hand, "anti" and "huper" are never used in connection with our believing, for faith is not accepted by God in lieu of perfect obedience. Faith must either be the ground of our acceptance with God, or the means or instrument of our becoming interested in the true meritorious ground, namely, the righteousness of Christ; it cannot stand in both relations to our justification. "God justifieth, not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ" (Westminster Catechism).
That faith itself cannot be the substance or ground of our justification is clear from many considerations. The "righteousness of God (i.e., the satisfaction which Christ rendered to the law) is revealed to faith" (Romans 1:17) and so cannot be faith itself. Romans 10:10 declares "with the heart man believeth unto righteousness" so that righteousness must be a distinct thing from believing. In Jeremiah 23:6 we read "The LORD our righteousness," so faith cannot be our righteousness. Let not Christ be dethroned in order to exalt faith: set not the servant above the master. "We acknowledge no righteousness but what the obedience and satisfaction of Christ yields us: His blood, not our faith; His satisfaction, not our believing it, is the matter of justification before God" (J. Flavel). What alterations are there in our faith! what minglings of unbelief at all times! Is this a foundation to build our justification and hope upon?
Perhaps some will say, Are not the words of Scripture expressly on Mr. Darby's side? Does not Romans 4:5 affirm "faith is counted for righteousness"? We answer, Is the sense of Scripture on his side? Suppose I should undertake to prove that David was cleansed from guilt by the "hyssop" which grows on the wall: that would sound ridiculous. Yes; nevertheless, I should have the express words of Scripture to support me: "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean" (Psalms 51:7). Yet clear as those words read, they would not afford me the least countenance imaginable from the sense and spirit of God's Word. Has the hyssop--a worthless shrub--any kind of fitness to stand in the stead of the sacrificial blood, and make an atonement for sin? No more fitness has faith to stand in the stead of Christ's perfect obedience, to act as our justifying righteousness, or procure our acceptance with God!
An apology is really due many of our readers, for wasting their time with such puerilities, but we ask them to kindly bear with us. We hope it may please God to use this article to expose one of Darby's many grievous errors. For "grievous" this error most certainly is. His teaching that the Christian's faith, instead of the vicarious obedience of Christ, is reckoned for righteousness (Mr. W. Kelly, his chief lieutenant, wrote "his [Abraham's] faith in God's word as that which he exercised and which was accounted as righteousness"--see article 5) makes God guilty of a downright lie, for it represents Him as giving to faith a fictitious value--the believer has no righteousness, so God regards his poor faith as "righteousness."
"And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness" (Genesis 15:6). The one point to be decided here is: was it Abraham's faith itself which was in God's account taken for righteousness (horrible idea!), or, was it the righteousness of God in Christ which Abraham's faith prospectively laid hold of? The comments of the Apostle in Romans 4:18-22 settle the point decisively. In these verses Paul emphasizes the natural impossibilities which stood in the way of God's promise of a numerous offspring to Abraham being fulfilled (the genital deadness both of his own body and Sarah's), and on the implicit confidence he had (notwithstanding the difficulties) in the power and faithfulness of God that He would perform what He promised. Hence, when the Apostle adds, "Therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness" (v. 22), that "therefore" can only mean: Because through faith he completely lost sight of nature and self, and realized with undoubting assurance the sufficiency of the Divine arm, and the certainty of its working.
Abraham's faith, dear reader, was nothing more and nothing else than the renunciation of all virtue and strength in himself, and a hanging in childlike trust upon God for what He was able and willing to do. Far, very far, indeed, was his faith from being a mere substitute for a "righteousness" which he lacked. Far, very far was God from accepting his faith in lieu of a perfect obedience to His Law. Rather was Abraham's faith the acting of a soul which found its life, its hope, its all in the Lord Himself. And that is what justifying faith is: it is "simply the instrument by which Christ and His righteousness are received in order to justification. It is emptiness filled with Christ's fulness; impotency lying down upon Christ's strength" (J.L. Girardeau).