Job’s question, “How should man be just with God?” (Job 9:2) is still the most urgent question that can confront anyone. It takes into account the fact that we are sinners before a holy God who will “by no means clear the guilty” (Ex 34:7). Bildad might tell his friend, “If thou wert pure and upright; surely now He would awake for thee, and make the habitation of thy righteousness prosperous” (Job 8:6). But that cannot satisfy Job; it is beyond his power to make himself pure or upright. Nor can it satisfy anyone else who has a sense of the holiness of God and of his own unholiness.
Time was when both the human beings who then existed were accepted by God as perfectly righteous – when they had not yet fallen from the perfect holiness in which they were created. But one sin was enough to put the blessings of the covenant of works beyond human reach. No longer could Adam or Eve or any of their descendants earn salvation by their own law-keeping; they were under the curse of a broken law; they were condemned; and they were completely without power to rescue themselves from this awful condition.
How then should man be just with God? The common response to human sinfulness and guilt is to act as if it was possible to gain acceptance by one’s own efforts. Even those who should know better make the attempt. Saul of Tarsus followed that road for many a day. So earnestly did he go about to establish his own righteousness that he could claim that he was blameless “as touching the righteousness which is in the law” (Phil 3:6).
But after he had begun to learn from the Teacher who is above all merely human teachers, he was absolutely convinced that salvation is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to [God’s] mercy” (Titus 3:5). No more works-righteousness for Paul now; he had discovered something better: there was all the difference in the world between his own righteousness and the righteousness of Christ. The one was totally ineffective; it could no more cover the nakedness of his soul from the all-seeing eye of God than filthy rags could cover his body. The other was totally effective; and on the strength of that righteousness, imputed to him and received by faith alone, he was accepted by God, so that he could not be kept out of heaven itself when his time came to die. No wonder his desire ever afterwards was to “be found in [Christ], 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” (Phil 3:9).
James Buchanan goes to the heart of the matter: “All error on the subject of Justification springs from the defective views which prevail almost universally among men of the spiritual requirements of God’s Law, for these are invariably connected with a slight sense of sin and a false or exaggerated estimate of the virtues of their personal character. Many speak of ‘good works’ without considering what is required to make any ‘work’ really ‘good’, according to the rule of God’s law. A ‘work’, to be really ‘good’, must be itself in conformity to the precept of His law; it must be done in obedience to His will; it must spring from a right motive; it must be an expression of love, supreme towards God, disinterested towards man; it must be directed to God’s glory as its end. If any work be a violation of the precept of His law, it cannot be a ‘good work’, whatever may be the motive from which it springs, for the motive cannot consecrate a sin, nor can the end justify the means; if it be not done in obedience to His will, it may be in conformity with the letter of His law, but is utterly destitute of its spirit; for a godless morality, which places conscience on the throne of God, and creates an autonomy within, independent of Him who is the supreme Lawgiver, Governor, and Judge, may indicate some sense of duty, or at least of prudence, while those who practise it have ‘no fear of God before their eyes’ . . . . If men could only be brought to understand and believe that these are really the requirements of God’s law, and if they would then apply them seriously as tests of their conduct and springs of action, their own conscience would ‘bear witness’ against them, and no other argument would be needed to prove that, as sinners, they cannot be justified by works.” (1)
If then we absorb anything from the testimony of the Bible, we will be clear that we cannot be accepted by God on the basis of anything that we have done or can ever hope to do. But, says Paul, “what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom 8:3f). The greatness of God’s mercy is displayed in giving His own Son to do what we could not possibly do in our fallen state. The work which Christ accomplished is perfect, so God is just when He justifies the ungodly who believes in Jesus. As The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it: “Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, inasmuch as He was given by the Father for them; and His obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners” (11:3).
“How should man be just with God?” is a question which is of much more than theoretical importance. We need to make it personal. We need to ask, “How can I be just with God? How can I be accepted as righteous by the all-holy God who cannot look with complacency on iniquity?” This was the question which so completely occupied Martin Luther’s attention for so long. So earnest was he to work out his own salvation that he could spend as long as six hours at a time in confessing his sin in its every detail. But this was no more than an attempt to deal with the symptoms; it could do nothing to cure the disease. Luther came to learn that his very nature was corrupt.
Luther had understood the expression the righteousness of God to mean God’s justice in punishing the unjust sinner. “At last,” he tells us, “as I meditated day and night, God showed mercy, and I turned my attention to the connection of the words: namely – ‘the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written: the just shall live by faith’ – and there I began to understand that the righteousness of God is the righteousness in which a just man lives by the gift of God – in other words, by faith – and that what Paul means is this: the righteousness of God, revealed in the gospel is . . . that by which the merciful God justifies us through faith, as it is written: the righteous shall live by faith.”
Luther was called effectually by means of those truths revealed in the gospel. His experience is a practical illustration of the teaching of The Confession of Faith: “Those whom God effectually calleth He also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous, not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God” (11.1).
In God’s providence, Luther’s conversion experience focussed his attention on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Accordingly, this doctrine was to be at the forefront of Reformation preaching. It is vital that it should be at the forefront of twenty-first-century preaching also. Otherwise, precious souls will be deceived for eternity, for they will then look to something “done by them” as the basis for their salvation, rather than pleading for mercy “for Christ’s sake alone”. This is the goodly heritage which has come down to us, in the Lord’s kindness. Let us value it, not only as a matter of pure doctrine, but as that teaching which shows us how we can be accepted by God in spite of our sin. “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1).
1. Doctrine of Justification, p 366.