Larger Catechism, #71

The Larger Catechism

Question 71

71.       Q. How is justification an act of God’s free grace?

A. Although Christ, by his obedience and death, did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified;[291] yet in as much as God accepteth the satisfaction from a surety, which he might have demanded of them, and did provide this surety, his own only Son,[292] imputing his righteousness to them,[293] and requiring nothing of them for their justification but faith,[294] which also is his gift,[295] their justification is to them of free grace.[296]

Scriptural Defense and Commentary

[291] Romans 5:8-10, 19. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life…. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. [292] 1 Timothy 2:5-6. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time. Hebrews 10:10. By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Matthew 20:28. Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. Daniel 9:24, 26. Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy…. And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined. Isaiah 53:4-6, 10-12. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all…. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. Hebrews 7:22. By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament. Romans 8:32. He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? 1 Peter 1:18-19. Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. [293] 2 Corinthians 5:21. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. [294] Romans 3:24-25. Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God. [295] Ephesians 2:8. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God. [296] Ephesians 1:17. That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.

Introduction

The previous question emphatically stated that justification is an act of God’s free grace and this question explains exactly how it can be. This question may appear to be unnecessary. But this important question is more perceptive than one might imagine. The Protestant doctrine of justification by faith underwent great scrutiny due to its strong legal (and biblical) definition. That is, since justification means a person is declared innocent and righteous, then wherein lies the grace? If the payment has been paid, then justification is an act of justice and not one of grace. That is, if satisfaction was required, then justification cannot be a gracious act but one that is legally required. In order for justification to be gracious, some of have maintained, atonement cannot satisfy divine justice. (see my paper “Arminianism Exposed”) Vos framed the question in this helpful way: “Why does it seem contradictory to say that justification is an act of God’s free grace?” He answers, “It seems contradictory to make this statement, because our justification was purchased by the payment of a price; if purchased and paid for, then how can t be at the same time a free gift? This is the problem that this question of the catechism explains.”[1]

Grace and Justice

The LC offers the following subordinate clause, “Although Christ, by his obedience and death, did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified…” The following verses support the point: “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life…. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” (Romans 5:8-10, 19)

Paul clearly teaches that we are “justified by his blood” (5:9, e˙n twˆ◊ aiºmati aujtouv) which is Paul’s short hand for what he said in 3:24, 25, “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood (e˙n twˆ◊ aujtouv aiºmati).”[2] Justification assumes the blood shedding that propitiated God. As the LC states, Christ “did make a proper, real and full satisfaction to God’s justice in the behalf of them that are justified.” Those who are justified are justified on the basis of Christ’s shed blood. His death satisfied divine justice.[3]

The point behind this subordinate clause is to underscore the fact that free grace in justification does not mean God’s divine justice had been overlooked. Grace and justice are not mutually exclusive in God’s dealings with us through His Son. The gracious act of justification is founded on Christ’s real and full satisfaction. Note the words — “proper, real, and full satisfaction.” It was “proper” or the appropriate and necessary satisfaction. The satisfaction was not contrived or remotely sufficient— it was the proper satisfaction. The adjective “real” denotes its genuine nature. The satisfaction was neither a façade nor a fairy tale. The satisfaction was not a meaningful “narrative” but a real divine satisfaction. In was also full, not partial, incomplete, provisional, etc. His death fully satisfied divine justice. This clause serves as the basis for answering how justification is gracious. Vos says that the “sinner cannot be justified unless God’s justice has first been satisfied” (155).

Grace and Surety

We are do not ordinarily use the word “surety” in our day. It means guarantor, a sponsor, a pledge, a bond, etc. So the LC states: “yet in as much as God accepteth the satisfaction from a surety, which he might have demanded of them, and did provide this surety, his own only Son.” The answer states that God accepts the satisfaction from a “surety” — from someone else, from a sponsor who guarantees the debt owed. In this case, Jesus guarantees that the debt will be paid; he satisfies that debt through His death. Various verses are offered to support this point (1Tim. 2:5-6; Heb. 10:10; Mt. 20:28; Dan. 9:24-26; Is. 53:4-6, 10-12; Heb. 7:22; Rom. 8:32; 1Pet. 1:18-19, see above for the actual verses).

The grace comes in the fact that God both sends the Son (Jn. 3:16) and accepts His ransom as the basis for satisfying His divine justice — “the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:5).[4] Who brought this come about? Who made this happen? The Messiah was “smitten of God [My™IhølTa]” (Is. 53:4); it pleased the Lord to bruise him (Is. 53:10) because “the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand” (Is. 53:10). God’s will was to smite and bruise His Son so that His [God the Father, h™Dwh◊y] purpose would prosper.

The catechism notes that God “might have demanded of them,” that is, God could have required that we personally satisfy divine justice. God could have demanded that we pay for our own sins. In His love, wisdom, and holiness, He provided someone who would be our guarantor. Vos says, “Salvation is free to sinners, but it cost the precious blood of Christ to make it free for us.” (155)

Couldn’t God have simply overlooked our sins and forgive? Could He not by fiat declare that we are just? Who could argue against Him? God cannot deny Himself — He cannot clear the guilty (Ex. 34:7; Num. 14:18; Nah. 1:3). Wisdom has contrived a way to meet His just demands — He would have it paid by the death of His Son; Jesus would pay the ransom for our sins (1Tim. 2:5-6). The surety was God’s idea. He can be just and the justifier (Rom. 3:26). Because God provided the surety, it is His act of grace.

Grace and Righteousness

The catechism further states the following regarding God’s Son whom the Father sent: “imputing his righteousness to them, and requiring nothing of them for their justification but faith, which also is his gift, their justification is to them of free grace.” All these elements are further demonstrations of God’s grace. The first one is imputation. In providing the surety, God in turn also imputed His Son’s righteousness to our account (see our study of LC #70 for what imputation means). This imputation is God’s free gift to us! Remember, Rom. 3:24-25 states that we are justified by his grace; justification by definition means imputation. Another element of grace in justification is that it comes to us by faith. We do not earn this righteousness, it is received by faith (more on this in the next LC question). This faith is itself a gift (Eph. 2:8). God enables us to believe. All of these element point to God’s grace.

The Gift of Justification

At its heart, justification is the gracious act of God. The Bible speaks of it in several ways,  “Justification is by grace (3:24), by faith (3:28), and connected with the resurrection (4:25); it is in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 6:11), in the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:11), in Christ (Gal. 2:17), and here it is by his blood. 30 These are all facets of God’s great saving act, and the various ways of expressing it center impressively on the truth that it is all of God (8:33).”[5] Justification is something God does and His act of declaring that we are innocent, forgiven, righteous, no longer under condemnation, etc. is an act of His free grace!


[1] Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, 155.

[2] In both texts (Rom. 5:9 & 3:324, 25), the phrase “by his blood” is almost exact; only the possessive pronoun (aujtouv) has been rearranged.

[3] As mentioned before, see our study of LC #38 & 39. In those studies, we expound the biblical teaching of Christ’s vicarious atonement and the role of active and passive obedience.

[4] The LXX has paidei÷a ei˙rh/nhß hJmw◊n e˙p∆ aujto/n which means “the discipline/chastisement of our peace [was] upon him.” It is “our peace” (‹…wn‹EmwølVv).

[5] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (PNTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 224-225.

 

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