Chapter 7: The Cross A Completed Justification
Pardon through the blood of the cross is preliminary to advancement through its righteousness. The criminal who is pardoned by the state, is not on that account received into favor—rather is he still regarded as a disgraced and degraded man; and it requires singularly meritorious services to reinstate him at court. So pardon through the cross does not so restore the sinner to the favor of God as to give him a title to all the blessings of the Divine kingdom. It is indeed a great matter that the death of Christ has procured his pardon; but this is not all that he needs. By this, he is simply acquitted from the penalty of the law; he escapes from punishment; he is merely kept out of hell, and has "attained the midway position of God’s letting him alone." He asks for something higher; he seeks the privileges of a loyal and obedient subject; he desires to be entitled to the reward of righteousness; he desires to stand restored, reinstated in the favor of his heavenly Prince, and not merely a fair candidate for gracious advancement, but the titled possessor of kingly, of heavenly honors. This title the cross of Christ gives him. To every believer, it is a completed justification. Thus it is that his entire salvation is not the work of man, but from beginning to end the work of Christ, and will be to the glory of Him who "is all in all." And this is one of the attractions of the cross.
The prominent point of divergence of all false religions from the true, will be found in ignorance, denial, or perversion of this great truth. Among the radical errors of the church of Rome, is the doctrine of human merit and of works of merit. The belief of that anti-christian system is, that all that Jesus Christ has done for men is to enable them to merit the favor of God for themselves; that his merits make them deserving; and that his merit consists in giving merit to their own obedience. It teaches that there are good works over and above those which God requires, and which constitute a fund of merit to be distributed as an offset to all our failures and sins, and are to be regarded as a claim for favor otherwise forfeited. When, after many painful struggles, a few pious and devoted men, who had been educated in the bosom of that church, had become so convinced of her apostasy as to resolve on a separation from her communion, and a systematic organization of a reformed church, the great means on which, under God, they relied, next to the circulation of the Holy Scriptures, was the great doctrine of the sinner’s acceptance through the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Of all the truths which produced such mighty results in the state of the world at that period of conflict, and which was honored by its Divine Author in effecting the Reformation, none stood forth more prominent than this. "This article reigns in my heart," said Luther, "and with this the church stands or falls."
Justification is the reverse of that state of condemnation to which man as a sinner is adjudged by the law of God. It is not the creature’s act, but purely the act of God. It is not the moral character of the creature that is affected by it, but his legal relationship to God. It is not the work of the Holy Spirit on his heart, nor his own personal exercise of a gracious disposition; but the sentence of God, as Lawgiver pronouncing him just, and accepting him as a righteous man. It is not an acquittal of the charge of personal wickedness; for in the very act of justification, there is the strongest implication of that charge. Nor is it in any form, or degree, a vindication of the sinner’s conduct, nor any excuse or palliation of it; but, on the other hand, a direct condemnation of it, and in the most emphatic terms.
"It is God who justifies." It is the act of God, originating in his free, unmerited grace, whereby he judges the disobedient to the rewards of the obedient—the unjust to the rewards of the just; securing to them all the positive blessings which his law secures to an unoffending and perfectly obedient subject. Be they adoption into the Divine family and all the privileges of the sons of God; be they the Divine guardianship and favor in time of trouble, and the Divine presence as they go down to the dark valley; be they "the resurrection and the life," when they dwell in the dust, or the cheering sentence of approbation, when they stand at the bar of judgment; be they what they may, which the law secures to the sinless and obedient, the act of justification secures to the believer.
Thus to "justify the ungodly" is a most important measure in the Divine government, and may not be performed slightly, nor without good and sufficient reasons. What that is which renders it right and just for God to do this, and which constitutes the foundation, the ground, or the meritorious cause of justification, is very distinctly revealed in the sacred writings. Our first parents were, in the more rigid acceptation of the phrase, in a state of probation, and put upon their good behavior. On condition of maintaining their integrity during this period of trial, they were to be confirmed in holiness and happiness, and to become the possessors of eternal life. It is an unvarying principle of the Divine government, that eternal life is bestowed in approbation of a perfect righteousness. "The man that does those things shall live by them." Such a righteousness is good, and will stand in the day of reckoning. It is spotless and pure; it is the righteousness of the unfallen, and whoever possesses it, shall find it a complete and completed justification. If any are to be found among our race who have perfectly obeyed the law of God, they have a legal right to acquittal from punishment, and to the reward of a perfect obedience.
Now, this great principle of the Divine government is abundantly magnified by the cross of Christ; and in every instance of salvation, eternal life is still bestowed in approbation of a perfect righteousness. Such a righteousness deserves, and has a claim of merit on such a reward; nor is the reward ever bestowed except for such a righteousness. The idea of merit, as attaching itself to a perfect obedience, has, I am sensible, been repudiated by some writers; but if the word itself be not destitute of meaning, and if there be such a thing as merit in the moral world, it is found in a perfect obedience to the holy law of God. But such a righteousness belongs not to any of the apostate descendants of Adam. "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God." "By the deeds of law shall no flesh be justified." If man, who is as an "unclean thing," and all his righteousness as "filthy rags," is ever just with God, it must be by the righteousness of another. The sinner has no good works, no obedience which can, either in whole or in part, come in the place of a spotless righteousness, and constitute the ground of his acceptance with God. To all the intents and purposes of his justification, once a sinner he is always a sinner. His opportunity for securing a title to eternal life by the deeds of law was lost by his first offence, and can never be regained. Yet is there a way, by which, according to the gracious method of reckoning revealed in the gospel, God is "just, and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus;" and sinner though he is, through "the free gift," which "is of many offences unto justification," he is entitled to life eternal, because, by the Divine appointment, there is a righteousness which comes in place of his own, and in the working out of which he himself has no share.
Whose is this righteousness, and whence does it proceed? In answering this question, we must have recourse to a plain, yet important principle in the Divine government. No finite being is capable of rendering an obedience to the law of God which is capable, upon legal principles, of exerting a meritorious influence on the behalf of others, because his entire and unceasing service is due to God on his own account. The holiest finite being in the universe has not one act of obedience to spare beyond that full measure of holiness which is necessary to make good his own title to eternal life. An infinite being only—one who, by his nature, is placed above all necessary or original obligation, and who, from his infinite perfection and essential supremacy, is able to invest his obedience with a merit that is infinite—can provide a righteousness which may be reckoned to the account of the unrighteous. This was the great expedient to which the wisdom and love of God had recourse as the basis of his glorious gospel, and as the means whereby he could show himself "a just God and a Savior."
There was such a righteousness, which he could acknowledge—a righteousness which he could look upon with satisfaction—an obedience with which he is well pleased. It is a righteousness that stands "separate and aloof" from all created righteousness, and one that not only meets the demands of the law, but so magnifies it and makes it honorable that its worth can never be diminished, nor its resources exhausted. It is difficult to misinterpret the plain language of the New Testament on this important topic. "As by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so, by the righteousness of one, the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous." The principle of representation is the great principle of the mediatorial government; the first revealed to man, the first in importance, and that to which every legal dispensation is subservient. It was completely developed when the holy Sufferer of Calvary stood in the sinner’s place, and became "obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." Though both God and man, he "was made under the law," and "fulfilled all righteousness." He had no native pollution like other men, and he committed no actual transgression. Temptations and trials such as no other being ever endured, the seductions of friends, and the fury of enemies, did not even contaminate his pure and holy mind. The severe temptations of the wilderness only demonstrated his unbending integrity. The fiery darts of the adversary fell harmless at his feet, quenched and cold before his majestic goodness. Humbling as was the defeat of the first Adam, triumphant was the victory of the second Adam in the recovered Paradise.
"By one man’s firm obedience fully tried,
Through all temptation, and the tempter foiled
In all his wiles, dejected and repulsed,
An Eden raised in the waste wilderness."
Never had the foe been driven from the conflict with such defeat and shame, and never, but on Calvary, did the Conqueror win such unfading laurels, and such an untarnished crown. To say nothing of his Divine character, the perfect obedience of the man Christ Jesus is the most important and interesting fact in the history of our race. It stands alone, and we may well contemplate it with wonder. Among the millions who have already lived upon this earth, or who will hereafter be found upon it, in vain may you seek but for this one man, who can look up before the face of heaven, and assert his rights as a spotless, unsinning man before the justice of his Maker. One alone there is, of the posterity of Adam, in whom the race may glory. Shame and confusion of face belong to us; but the spotless obedience of the virgin’s Son will forever remain the redeeming quality of human nature.
But this alone does not constitute our vicarious righteousness. The obedience which gives the believer a title to eternal life, is the obedience of the God-man Mediator, and more especially to the mediatorial law, the obligations of which he had voluntarily assumed, and which required him to suffer and die in the place of the disobedient; it is his "obedience unto death." Through all the length of his bitter way of tears and blood, he held his course sinless and uncontaminated, until, with the same spirit which led him to say in anticipation of his work, "I delight to do your will, O my God," he could affirm at the close of it, and with no consciousness of imperfection, "I have glorified you on the earth—I have finished the work which you gave me to do." Into this entire course of spotless and self-denying obedience was thrown the whole glory of God manifested in human nature, the fullness of Him in whom "dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily." There is surely something in obedience like this which deserves high and distinguished approbation, performed as it was by God manifest in the flesh, in subjection to a law to which it was infinite condescension to be subjected, and not for his own sake, but for guilty men. There is a merit in such a righteousness, and it deserves reward. From beginning to end it was a work of the merit of perfect righteousness, and has claims which are available, not to the sufferer alone, but to all those whom he condescends to make bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh.
There is nothing far-fetched in this. If ten imperfectly righteous men would have saved Sodom, what shall not such a righteousness as this accomplish? If it be a principle of the Divine government to reward perfect obedience, what shall be the reward of him with whom the Eternal Father is so "well pleased," and so delights to honor? What is there unreasonable—what is there unscriptural—in the supposition, that, in carrying out the principle of representation of which the first Adam was "a figure," the Supreme Lawgiver should constitute the second Adam, the Lord from heaven, the representative of all who should believe in him? What if he should award to the obedient Sufferer of Calvary the boon which his benevolent mind so urgently desired, the "joy that was set before him" when he "endured the cross, despising the shame?"
What if, for the sake of testifying his high regard for a perfect righteousness, that rare pearl in our fallen world—a righteousness thus complete, thus perfected by all the glory of the Divine nature, added to the sinless obedience of the man Christ Jesus—he should allow others of his race, and purely for his sake, to have the full benefits of his own solitary obedience? What if he should become "The Lord Their Righteousness?" and since, "by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ." It is even so.
This, as I read the Scriptures, is the substance of their instructions on the subject of the believer’s justification. Such is the ground and meritorious cause of his being accepted as a righteous man. This is his sole title to eternal life. He has nothing else, seek it where he will. It is not his own righteousness, but the righteousness of another. It is not what he has done, but what Christ has done. It is not anything within himself, but something outside of himself, and a "transaction in which he had no share." It is not a reward for services which he has rendered, but a reward gratuitously provided and bestowed on him, for services which Christ has rendered. It is not his own merit, but the merit of one into whose completed work is thrown the bountiful merit of his humanity and Deity combined. "I do not frustrate the grace of God—for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain." The apostle Paul counted all things but loss, that he might "be found in him, not having his own righteousness which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith." How sure the title! How much more full the reward than if the believer himself had been sinless, or had been clad in the most spotless robe of the purest seraph before the throne! Well did the great Mediator say, "I have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly."
While speaking on this part of our subject, it may be desirable for us to have some definite impression of what is meant by the righteousness of Christ, or of that in which this righteousness consists. The phrase is obviously used in the New Testament to denote different shades of thought. It is called the righteousness of Christ, because it is truly and properly his, and performed by him. It is called the righteousness of God, because it is the method of justification of God’s providing. It is called the righteousness of faith in distinction from the righteousness which is of the law, and because it is received by faith. Nor is it infrequently represented as the believer’s righteousness. "Surely shall one say, In the Lord have I righteousness and strength." The apostle speaks of "putting on Christ," and the prophet represents the church as saying, "He has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness." These and similar representations express the thought, that it is righteousness which is made over to the believer, and put, as it were, upon him, and that he enjoys the full benefit of it just as though it were his own. I do not find in the Scriptures any ground for the distinction between what is called the active and the passive obedience of the Mediator; or between his obedience to the precept, and his obedience to the penalty of the law. His righteousness consists in both. It is his obedience unto death." It is "his will to serve, and his will to suffer." The one may not be separated from the other. It "was obedience for him to suffer, and it was suffering for him to obey." His righteousness may be said to consist of his suffering obedience and his obedient suffering, both qualified and receiving their high character from his two distinct natures as God and man in one person, and as the appointed, voluntary, and accepted Mediator.
The inquiry is a very natural one, How do the benefits of the Redeemer’s righteousness become ours? The answer is easy, and easily understood. The righteousness of Christ is not infused into us, imparted to us, as the Romanists affirm; nor is it in anyway transferred to us, as has been incautiously taught by some loose writers among Protestants. As has already been intimated, according to God’s gracious method of reckoning in the gospel, believers are treated as righteous, because Christ himself, their covenant head and representative, is righteous. His righteousness is imputed to them, or set down to their account. Though it does not properly and personally belong to them, it is reckoned to them as if it were their own. They are "made the righteousness of God in him." Blessed is the man "unto whom God imputes righteousness without works"—or in other words, a righteousness which he himself does not work out. "But of him are you in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us righteousness." But there is another idea in relation to the way in which the righteousness of Christ becomes ours, in addition to the fact that it is made so by God, and by his gracious act of imputing it. It becomes so by the faith of those who receive it. All mankind are not among the justified. It is not every one who is born in Christian lands, nor every descendant from a long line of pious ancestry, nor every one who receives the ordinance of baptism, to whom "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness:" it is not the bold infidel, nor the thoughtless sinner, nor he whose god is mammon—it is not the sabbath breaker, the intemperate, the liar, the licentious—no, nor yet every moral man, nor every serious man, nor every awakened sinner, nor every man who unites himself with the visible church of God. Though the righteousness of Christ is the sole ground of justification, that justification belongs only to a particular and well-defined class of men. The great principle of the gospel on this point is, that no man is justified, or has any part in the righteousness of the Son of God, who remains dead in trespasses and sins. It is but a compendious expression of this equitable principle, that this righteousness be received by faith, as well as imputed by God. "Being justified by faith, we have peace with God;"—"All that believe are justified;"—"The justifier of him which believes in Jesus;"—"He that believes shall be saved;"—"Christ is the end of the law for righteousness, to every one that believes!" To all believers the righteousness of Christ stands in the place of their own, and answers the same ends. All others are under the curse. The law demands the imputed righteousness of another on its own account; while the gospel demands faith in those who are justified on their account. The former is demanded by the Lawgiver in order to vindicate him in justifying those who have violated his law; the latter is demanded by the moral character and condition of apostate men, which disqualifies and forbids them from enjoying the benefits of this salvation without becoming "the children of God, by faith in Jesus Christ." Both are equally necessary, though for different reasons; the former to answer the claims of the Divine law, the latter to answer the restoring and purifying ends of a gospel which saves not in sin, but from sin.
The previous thoughts will assist us in determining the question, When does justification take place? There are two errors in relation to the time of justification—the one referring it to an eternity that is past, the other referring it to the judgment that is to come. The idea that it does not take place until the final judgment has arisen from the impression, that as it is a judicial act, it is properly performed only by the Judge as seated on his throne, and from the fact that not until then are the full benefits of it realized. But this latter idea overlooks the thought so abundantly taught in the sacred volume, that a justified state is still a state of gracious and paternal discipline. As for the former, it is a mere impression, and is well countervailed by another and more scriptural impression, that God has not left his people to the barren and comfortless doctrine that their acceptance is a matter to be decided on hereafter. The Scriptures speak of their justification as an act performed in time; nor, with but a single exception, do they ever, so far as I now remember, speak of it in the future tense. In regard to the notion of eternal justification, while the reasoning to support it is intelligible, it is inconclusive. The reasoning is this—since the meritorious ground of justification is the righteousness of another, and the imputation of that righteousness the act of God, it holds good for the ends for which it was designed from eternity; and more especially, as God from eternity purposed to justify his people, must that purpose be regarded as always valid. But the reason is purely sophistical. If the purpose of God to justify his people was to justify them through faith, their faith as truly entered into his purpose as the righteousness of his Son. The righteousness of Christ, though the only ground of their justification, does not put them in a justified state until they believe. It avails them nothing in unbelief. It cannot belong to them before they receive it, any more than it can belong to them if they never receive it. "He that believes not is condemned already, because he believes not in the name of the only begotten Son of God." Men are very apt to draw false conclusions from premises that are true, when they disjoin the truth of God, and put it out of its proper place. Justification respects men as believers or unbelievers, and not as elected, or unelected. The elect are unbelievers until they believe. They are out of Christ, and under condemnation. So long as they abide in unbelief, the wrath of God abides on them, and the demands of his justice are against them in all their force. In opposition to these two errors, we affirm that God’s act of imputing, and the believer’s act of receiving, the righteousness of his Son, are simultaneous. The act is complete at the time of its being performed. It is a decision, not in an eternity past, nor in an eternity to come, but one pronounced in time, and taking effect at once. The moment a sinner believes, he passes from a state of condemnation to a justified state. "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." "Whom he called, them he also justified." Their sanctification is progressive; they have many a foe to struggle with, and not a few mournful inequalities in their spiritual course; but their justification is as complete from the moment in which they "receive Christ Jesus the Lord," as it will be when they stand before God in judgment. It is matured from the first and always matured; because it rests not upon themselves, but upon their Divine master. It varies not with their changeful frames and feelings, nor with the mutable evidences of piety within their own bosoms; because it rests on the great fact that never changes—the Redeemer’s obedience to the death of the cross.
One of the great attractions of the cross therefore is, that it furnishes this completed justification. This is one of its strong attractions, because it is one of its strong truths. Be not tempted to glory in any other, or to dream of any other way of making your cause good before God, save by the righteousness of faith. It is a fact worthy of remembrance in the history of the church, that those who have given the world the most abundant evidence of large measures of the spirit and power of godliness, have confided least in their own righteousness, and most gloried in a righteousness not their own. The more distinguished you are in spiritual attainments, and the nearer access you are allowed to enjoy to the unutterable glory, the more will you "count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus your Lord."
Let this great truth give you courage. I have said that it is a strong truth. Where is there a stronger truth than that, once justified, you are always justified? Your light may wax and wane; your religious experience may be fitful, and your hopes alternately bright and obscured; your comforts may be few, or many, and you may be growing very gradually to the stature of a perfect man in Jesus Christ; but there is no waxing or waning, no alternate light and darkness, no growth or enlargement of your justification. It matters not whether he hopes, or fears—the believer is justified. Nothing impairs the righteousness of God his Savior, or changes his Divine promise and purpose. His own hopes may be obscured, he may walk in darkness, the sin that dwells in him may weaken his own inward sense of his justification; but his own impressions of his justification are not his justification itself. He may come to the tranquility of a peaceful, or the transports of a triumphant death, or may pass away under the cloud; but he does not die less safely, because he may die less triumphantly. It is all one with him when he dies, or where he dies, or how he dies; if a believer in Jesus, he dies safely. His justification is the same, whether he dies today, or fifty years hence. He may say more boldly, but he can never say more truly, "In the Lord have I righteousness and strength," than in "that blessed hour when he first received him." It is as true now, when he may peradventure be passing many a gloomy day under the hidings of God’s face, that neither the law, nor sin, nor death, nor hell, can "lay anything to the charge of God’s elect," because "it is God that justifies," as it will be when every cloud is scattered and his sun goes down upon his throne of gold. Trembling believer, distressed believer, nothing shall separate you from the cross. You may lose sight of the cross, but the cross will not lose sight of you. You may lose your hold upon the cross, but the cross will not lose its hold upon you. "Whom he justified, them he also glorified." "Being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him."
Let this great truth also keep you humble. "Here grace reigns." You have nothing whereof to glory. The cross is the attraction of grace. Born under a broken covenant, and possessing a character matured in practical wickedness, justice binds you over to all the law can inflict; but in the place of this condemnation, you have a justifying righteousness wrought out by another, which is itself both the expression and the gift of grace unutterably rich and free. "Though you have lain among the pots, yet shall you be as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold." "You are all fair, my love; there is no spot in you." "Come and hear, all you that fear God, and I will declare what he has done for my soul;" for he "has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness." "Not unto me, O Lord, not unto me, but unto your name give glory!"
The cross is a withering thought to all the hopes of the purely self-righteous. The vain effort to make your way to heaven by "works of righteousness which you have done," is only to rush on the avenger’s sword. Your courage will fail. You are welcome to the effort; but you have no alternative but to abide the precept and fulfill the law. And I forewarn you that it will cost you care and pains, watchfulness and agony, utterly beyond the power of man. Already have you a burden of guilt too heavy to be borne. And when you have struggled with it until your strength withers, and every hope is crushed, and your heart sinks within you, I pray God it may not be too late for you to look to the cross of the atoning, justifying Savior, and remember who it was that came "to seek and to save that which was lost."
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