Tag Archives: Justification

Four Essential Pictures

I’m currently reading Tim Challies’ book Visual Theology.  This book presents many theological basics not only with text, but also with infographics.  This kind of approach aims to help those who learn best with visual helps.  I’m appreciating the book in many respects and will probably write a review in the near future.

As good books do, this one got me to thinking, particularly about the place of pictures in Reformed theology.  While we don’t believe it’s lawful to make images of God, this doesn’t rule out diagrams or other visual helps.  In fact, embedded in our theology are several essential pictures.  Even apart from an actual picture, these doctrines come across to us via some particular image we’re to hold in our minds.  Let’s look at four important doctrines and the associated pictures.

Covenant

In Scripture, the covenant of grace is portrayed in terms of a relationship.  When you think “covenant of grace,” you should immediately picture a relationship.  In Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 1 (and elsewhere), God speaks in terms of a marriage relationship with his people.  In the New Testament, this is taken over into the relationship of Christ (the groom) and his church (the bride).  While there may be contractual elements in the covenant of grace, the essence of it is a relationship.

Regeneration

The Bible gives several pictures of regeneration and one of those is a heart transplant.   When you think “regeneration,” you can picture someone receiving a new heart.  The Holy Spirit uses this picture in Ezekiel 11:19, “…I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh…”  This one picture does not exhaust everything the Bible says about regeneration, but it is one helpful conceptual peg on which to hang the doctrine in your mind’s eye.

Justification

Whenever you think about justification, you need to think “courtroom.”  The courtroom image is essential to this doctrine.  One of the key ways that people often get justification wrong is by saying that it is God making us right with himself.  However, justification is, in its very nature, a judicial matter.  It involves a judge making a declaration, issuing a verdict.  This is why Romans 1-3 describes man’s condition before God as a judge.  For example, Romans 2:2, “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.”  Starting at the end of Romans 3, the Spirit explains how a negative judgment can be averted through Jesus Christ.  After all that, we get Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Condemnation is what we would receive from the Judge if we did not have Christ.  In its essence, therefore, justification involves the picture of a courtroom.

Adoption

Adoption is a beautiful word that pictures family.  Having been purchased by Christ, having been justified by him, we are now included in God’s family as his dearly loved children.  God is no longer our Judge, but our Father and we relate to him as such.  Nowhere is this stated more explicitly than Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'”  We’ve gone from the courtroom (justification) to the family room (adoption), and that’s a wonderful place to be!

To summarize:

Covenant —> Relationship

Regeneration —> Heart transplant

Justification —> Courtroom

Adoption —> Family

Reformed theology has more pictures, but those four are crucial to understand.  When you get those, you grasp several basics of the Christian faith.


Seven Terms You Need to Know

It was my first time visiting Australia.  As I sat around the dinner table with an Aussie family, the father and his sons began discussing a cricket game from the day previous.  I listened intently, but it was as though they were speaking a foreign language.  I was quite sure that it was still English, but the words were unfamiliar — and the thick Aussie accent didn’t help!  However, I’m quite sure that if these Aussie blokes were to head to Canada and sit around a dinner table with some fellows talking hockey, they would experience the same.

Last summer, my brother-in-law came to visit us from Canada and went vacationing with us around Tasmania.  We spent our evenings watching 20-20 cricket on television.  We were determined to learn this game.  With the help of some context (and occasional help from Google) by the end of our vacation we had it mostly figured out.

The Christian faith presents us with similar challenges.  Like cricket or hockey, Christianity has its own unique vocabulary that needs to be learned.  As newcomers or covenant children are discipled in the faith, there are certain terms that they need to grasp in order both to be established as a disciple and to grow as a disciple.  Today let me briefly introduce to you seven essential Christian terms.  Every disciple of Jesus needs to know these:

ELECTION — Before the creation of the universe, God the Father chose (elected) a certain number of definite individuals to salvation in Jesus Christ, purely on the basis of his grace and good pleasure.  A key Bible passage is Ephesians 1:1-14.

EFFECTUAL CALLING — This is a work of God the Holy Spirit.  It’s a process where the Holy Spirit convinces sinners of their plight and brings them to spiritual life so that they can and do believe in Jesus Christ for salvation.  A key Bible passage is John 6:44-45.

REGENERATION — Also known as the new birth — without it there is no salvation.  This is the moment when the Holy Spirit miraculously changes a heart of stone into a heart of flesh.  Regeneration is the transfer from death to life.  A key Bible passage is John 3:1-9.

JUSTIFICATION — God’s declaration as a judge that a sinner is right with him (righteous) only on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done for that sinner in his life, death, and resurrection.  This can only be received through resting and trusting in Jesus Christ.  A key Bible passage is Romans 3:21-31.

ADOPTION —  All those who are justified are received into God’s family as one of his adopted children.  He is our Father and we are his beloved children with the privilege of a promised inheritance in the future.  That inheritance is life forever in the new heavens and new earth.  A key Bible passage is Romans 8:12-17.

SANCTIFICATION — This is the process by which Christians grow in looking like Jesus Christ.  It is a life-long process of growing in hating, fighting, and overcoming the evil and rebellion in our lives.  A key Bible passage is Romans 12:1-2.

GLORIFICATION — The Christian’s hope for glory which comes either with death or the return of Jesus Christ (whichever happens first).  We shall some day be perfect and sinless, sharing in the glory of our Saviour.  A key Bible passage is 1 John 3:1-3.

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Taken together all of the above make up what is known as the Order of Salvation.  In Reformed theology, you’ll often see these things referred to with the Latin expression Ordo Salutis.  These are the logical steps which make up the rescue of a Christian from sin and deserved condemnation.  With each of these, there is far more that could and should be said, but the above provides just a basic orientation.


More than Forgiven, More than Innocent

One of the biblical themes that I never get tired of preaching and teaching is justification.  Every time I’m faced with teaching it, I know that I’m going to be personally encouraged again with the riches of the gospel.  I have no trouble at all getting pumped about justification.  It’s just so amazing what God gives to sinners like me.  This kind of theology always brings me to doxology.

Yet, sadly, I find that there are Christians for whom this just doesn’t float their boat.  It doesn’t impress them.  It doesn’t leave them in awe and wishing they could love God more than they already do.  There are various reasons for that.  In some cases, perhaps it’s because they’re not really Christians — after all, unregenerate hearts don’t get excited about the gospel.  In other cases, perhaps it’s because they haven’t been taught justification very well.  In the latter scenario, it’s more a matter of ignorance.  Believers are robbed of joy and God is robbed of glory because these believers have been somewhat short-changed in how they’ve been taught.

I want to put my finger today on one particular point where I’ve periodically found a lapse in how justification is taught in Reformed churches.  I’m doing this for the sake of joy.  I’m doing this to help brothers and sisters exult with me in the treasures we have in Christ.  I’m doing this so that we’ll all be more impressed with God and the gospel.

Justification is always described in courtroom terms.  There is a judge (God), and there are the accused (us).  We’re accused of sinning against God’s laws, never having kept any of them, and still being inclined to all evil.  We’re faced with an eternal death sentence from the Judge.  Into this picture steps Jesus Christ.  He is our advocate, our Mediator.  He intercedes for us with his work on our behalf.  There’s a verdict from the judge.  Now this is where things sometimes go off the track and we might miss something of how the rich the gospel truly is.    Some say that the judge’s verdict is “innocent.”  Because of what Christ has done, we are declared innocent, they say.

Part of the trouble may stem from the illustration.  We’re imagining a courtroom.  Our experience with courtrooms is limited to this earth.  Whether in person or on the screen, we know that generally judges issue two types of verdicts:  guilty or innocent.  You are either found guilty and punished or you are acquitted and go free.  Since we’re using this illustration of the courtroom, it’s natural to go with the positive outcome and describe it as a verdict of “innocent.”

We’re not entirely wrong in doing that.  In justification, God does forgive us all our sins because of Christ’s work on the cross.  You can say that he wipes our slates clean.  Our accounts are cleared of all our wrong-doing.  As a consequence, we are indeed innocent, acquitted.  That in itself is something quite amazing.

A non-Reformed writer once portrayed justification simply and only in these terms.  He compared it to a game of golf.  In golf, if you’re in a tournament or something like that, you can get these do-overs called “mulligans.”  This writer said that God wipes our score-card clean of all our mistakes, and now we get a mulligan.  We get to try again.  How is that good news?

There is a better way to understand all this, but it begins with going back to God’s demands.  God justly demands that all our sins be addressed through his infinite wrath.  Christ met that demand of God’s justice by being our substitute on the cross.  However, God also demands perfect obedience going forward.  He does not relax that just demand of a perfect life because we’re forgiven.  This is where a good gospel gets even better:  we have Christ’s perfect obedience throughout his life to meet that demand.  Romans 5:18-19 teaches us that Christ’s obedience is a key element of our righteousness before God.  That obedience is credited to us, it’s put on our accounts.  Therefore, in the sight of the Judge, it is as if we ourselves had always been and always will be perfect obedient.

Consequently, the verdict that’s issued is not merely “innocent” or “acquitted.”  It’s something far better:  righteous!  It’s a verdict that you won’t find in an earthly courtroom.  But in the heavenly courtroom, God declares sinners to be righteous — not only forgiven, but also seen in Christ as perfectly obedient.  Sinners are seen as Christ is seen.  This is to be seen in the very Greek word for justification:  dikaioo.   That word and its relatives all pertain to “righteousness,” which is, by definition, a far richer word than innocence.

Because God’s courtroom is so much more amazing than any earthly courtroom, what the Judge does after the verdict is even more amazing.  Since he sees the sinner as he sees his Son, he takes that sinner and brings him or her into his family. The Judge takes the sinner out of the courtroom and into the family room.  He says, “You are my child and I am your Father.”  That can happen because justification is more than being found innocent or acquitted.

That’s why I find justification so incredibly encouraging.  Not only am I innocent before God, I am positively righteous in his eyes.  This is something that cannot be undone.  I have everything I need to stand before him, both in this life and in the age to come. It all comes to me through my Saviour Jesus Christ, through his substitution.  I am God’s righteous child through a life I did not live and through a death I did not die.  Wow!  Can I love him just a little bit more?


The Glorious Gospel of Imputation

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I love Starr Meade’s book of family devotions based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  To catechize our children during family worship, we’ve been using Training Hearts, Teaching Minds for many years.  In fact, we’re on our second copy of it — the first one just fell apart after some years of heavy daily use.

Tonight at our church catechism class, I have the joy of teaching Lord’s Day 23 again.  Lord’s Day 23 deals with justification, God’s declaration that we are right with him on account of Christ’s righteousness.  Included in justification is the crucial notion of imputation.  Our sins are imputed or accounted to Christ, and his righteousness is imputed or accounted to us.  This goes to the basis of our justification.  Starr Meade has an excellent illustration that explains the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience, his obedience to the law and his suffering obedience.  I plan to use this illustration tonight with my catechism students:

Imagine that you need a great deal of money for something important.  However, not only do you not have a great deal of money; you are deeply in debt.  Along comes your friend who has worked hard for years to build a big savings account in the bank.  He feels sorry for you and offers to pay your bills.  Now you are no longer in debt.  This is something like Jesus paying for our sin by his death on the cross.  Now we no longer owe God anything for all our sins against him.

However, just because your friend paid your debt does not mean that you have solved your problem.  You still need a great deal of money and you have absolutely none.  So now your friend does something else for you.  He has your name added to his bank account so that now you can use all his money.  This is something like Jesus living a life of perfect obedience to God in our place.  He is the One who is righteous.  He is the One who did the obeying, but all his righteousness is credited to us.  God counts the righteousness of Christ as ours. (Training Hearts, Teaching Minds, 111-112)

To put it another way, through Christ we don’t merely have our slates wiped clean of all our sins.  We also have our slates filled with all of his God-pleasing obedience in our place.  This, and this alone, makes us acceptable in God’s sight.


We Distinguish…(Part 4) — Law/Gospel

Law-Gospel2

In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

Despite being found in the Three Forms of Unity, today’s distinction has fallen on hard times. I have lost track of the number of times that I’ve heard Reformed ministers speak disparagingly of the distinction between law and gospel. I think I understand why it happens. Imagine if someone were to say, “Oh, covenant theology makes people into legalists. It’s good that we’ve broken free from the doctrine of the covenant. That doctrine has caused nothing but trouble – it just makes people self-righteous.” It’s true that the doctrine of the covenant has been abused by some and badly taught/misunderstood by others to such an extent that it became a legalistic undermining of the gospel. So do we throw out the doctrine of the covenant? We recognize that there’s a difference between the abuse/bad teaching of a doctrine and an orthodox biblical formulation of a doctrine. We don’t throw out a doctrine simply because it has been mishandled. Similarly, the distinction between law and gospel has sometimes been mishandled or misunderstood. Does that automatically mean we toss it aside? What if there were grave consequences in doing so?

At the outset the context in which this distinction functions has to be laid out. We distinguish between law and gospel in the realm of justification. Justification, if you recall, is God’s one-time declaration that we are right with him solely on account of the merits of Jesus Christ. How law and gospel relate to this doctrine is what we’re concerned with here. When it comes to sanctification (the process of growth in holiness), there is overlap and interplay between law and gospel, but when it comes to justification, they must be distinguished.

Let me illustrate how the law/gospel distinction appears in the Heidelberg Catechism. I could mention the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort as well, but in the interests of brevity, we’ll just stick with the Catechism. In Lord’s Day 2, we confess that the law of God reveals our sin and misery. The law evidently has the character of demand: God orders you to do this or else. Through its demands, the law drives us to Christ. From where do we learn about the Saviour? Lord’s Day 6 tells us the biblical answer: from the gospel. Everything promised us in the gospel is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, says Lord’s Day 7. There we discover the character of the gospel: it promises us glad tidings and rich blessings. So between Lord’s Day 2 and Lord’s Days 6 and 7, we learn the different characteristics of law and gospel. The law is God’s demand and the gospel is God’s promise for our salvation. Should there be any doubt that this is the intention and meaning of the Catechism, I would refer readers to Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (page 2), and Olevianus’ A Firm Foundation (pages 9-10).

As mentioned at the beginning, this distinction functions within the context of justification. Sinners are facing the judge. They are accused of failing to meet God’s demands – breaking his law. In the context of justification, the law points out not merely empty hands, but treasonous hands. In the words of the Catechism in Lord’s Day 23, the sinner has “grievously sinned against all of God’s commandments, has never kept any of them, and is still inclined to all evil.” That’s what the law announces in the context of justification: you are guilty and you have nothing with which to save yourself from the Judge.

The gospel throws endangered sinners a lifeline. There is a way to leave the courtroom without the Judge as your enemy – in fact, you can leave the courtroom with the Judge as your Father. That way is through what the gospel promises in Jesus Christ. The gospel holds out to you reconciliation with the Holy Judge, if only you will take hold of Jesus Christ by faith and trust that he has lived a perfect life for you and has offered the perfect sacrifice in your place. The gospel promises peace and fellowship with God. You don’t need to work for it, all you need to do is turn from your sins, look to Christ, and accept the promise. That’s what the gospel announces in the context of justification: in Christ you have everything you need to be declared right with God.

By now perhaps you can sense the danger in fudging with this distinction. The law/gospel distinction in justification insists that in ourselves we bring nothing to our salvation except the sin which makes it necessary. On the flip side, it insists that in Christ we have everything we need for our salvation. How could any Bible-believing Christian deny this? Isn’t this exactly the point Paul was making in Galatians 3:11, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Faith in the gospel promises is God’s instrument for justification. The law, on the other hand, says, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them” (Gal. 3:10). If you rely on the law and your obedience to it for your justification, then you are self-deceived and damned. Paul works with a distinction between law and gospel – so our Catechism didn’t invent this distinction, it was drawn from Scripture.

Allow me to add two important clarifications.

First, no one should understand the law/gospel distinction as pitting the Old Testament against the New Testament. The law is found in both in Old and New Testament, and so is the gospel. Law demands and gospel promises are together found throughout the 66 books of the Bible.

Second, the law/gospel distinction, properly understood, does not lead Reformed believers to antinomianism – having a negative attitude towards the law of God. Remember, the law has three uses. The first use pertains to justification – pointing out our sin and misery. The second use is for civil society. The third use of the law is as our rule of thankfulness. Maintaining a law/gospel distinction in justification does not mean that we throw out the law for our sanctification. No! Quite the opposite. As thankful believers united to Christ, we embrace the law as our friend and we sing with the Psalmist in Psalm 119 of how we love God’s law and strive to follow it.

The law/gospel distinction is crucially important because it appears at the roots of our salvation. If the roots are not healthy, then the tree is not going to be healthy either, and any possibility of real fruit may also come into question. We have to strive for precision, especially in foundational doctrines like justification. No, we are not saved by doctrinal precision. Someone could be confused on this, unable to express it properly, and still be saved. Nevertheless, the danger of trusting in yourself and what you do instead of Christ is far greater if you do not understand this distinction. We must always have it clear in minds the very last words Martin Luther supposedly uttered: “We are beggars. This is true.” The law/gospel distinction reinforces this biblical truth.