On what basis does God justify the sinner? Rome and others say that God justifies a person insofar as he is sanctified; in other words, God justifies someone because the person has some grace-infused obedience inside himself. Rome and others (like the NPP) thus say that the Reformation position – that God justifies the ungodly by faith alone only on the grounds of an external righteousness (Christ’s) – is a legal fiction. They call this historic Protestant position legal fiction because God justifies someone who is not actually good inside. Bavinck turns this argument on its head: actually, the position of Rome (et. al.) is the one that distorts the justice of God in justification. Here he is:
Besides the fact that Holy Scriptures very plainly speak of justification as a legal or forensic act, this further fact must be pointed out to the opponents of the doctrine of justification: they have a mistaken notion of what justification is. They say that such an acquittal of man on the basis of a righteousness outside of himself is unworthy of man and that leaves him quite unchanged. But this charge comes back upon the heads of those who make it, for if they justify a person on the basis of a righteousness which is in him, they must themselves certainly admit that this righteousness in man here on earth is very frail and imperfect, and must therefore conclude that God justifies a person on the basis of a very inadequate righteousness and thus makes himself guilty of a false judgment. On the other hand, an acquittal based on the righteousness which is in Christ is a perfectly just one for it was presented perfectly by God himself in the Son of his love.
This is penetrating. If God does justify a person insofar as he is sanctified, this justification is unjust, because a person’s sanctification is imperfect and mixed with sin, and God would be accounting someone righteous who is imperfectly righteous. The historic Protestant position says that God justifies the ungodly based on the perfect obedience (righteousness) of Jesus Christ, which is credited to their account by a God-given faith alone. Bavinck goes on to explain.
Justification and sanctification are not the same, and ought to be sharply differentiated from each other. For whoever neglects or erases this distinction again sets up a self-righteousness in man, does injustice to the completeness and adequacy of the righteousness of God which has been manifested in Christ, changes the gospel into a new law, robs the soul of man of its only comfort, and makes salvation dependent upon human merits. In justification, faith has only the role of a receiving agency, like that of the hand which accepts something; by it the soul places its dependency solely in Christ and his righteousness. …[Faith] justifies not by its own intrinsic moral worth but by its content, namely, the righteousness of Christ.
This entire section on the topic of justification in Our Reasonable Faith is worth a thousand dollars (p 439-468). If you read one ST this year, please, make it this one! This book is a Reformation antidote to Rome, NPP, and FV and a catalyst for confessional piety.