“Of Pure Grace and Most Unmerited Favor” (Witsius)

  The Apostle Paul is very clear that a sinner is justified by faith alone apart from works (Rom 3.28, Gal 2:16). He also says that we are justified by grace (Titus 3:7).  When it comes to being justified by God, being declared righteous by him, it is not at all based on anything we’ve ever done.  Instead, our justification is based on the works of Christ, which we receive by faith alone. His righteousness is imputed to us.  We’re justified by his works!  I like how Herman Witsius discussed this in light of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace:

The Scripture confirms this truth, when it sets the grace of Christ in diametrical opposition to our works, maintaining, that there can be no mixture of the one with the other. “If righteousness comes by the law,” saith the apostle, that is, if, by our works, we can acquire a right to life eternal, “then Christ is dead in vain,” Gal. 2:21. And more clearly, Rom. 11:6. “And if by grace, then it is no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace; otherwise work is no more work.”

In order clearly to discern the force of the apostle’s inference, it is to be observed, that there are but two ways by which we can come to the possession of salvation, according to the two covenants entered into between God and man: 1) either one has a right to life because he has fully satisfied the demand of the law, according to the covenant of works, and to him that thus “worketh is the reward reckoned of debt,” Rom. 4:4; 2) or he hath a right to life, because the surety of a better testament has made satisfaction for him, which of pure grace and most unmerited favor is imputed to him, who worketh not, in order to acquire that right, ver. 5, according to the covenant of grace.

As these covenants do in the whole essence of them differ, and in this respect are contradistinguished from, and set in opposition to each other, it is evident they conjoin inconsistencies, who would join together our works with the grace of God, our righteousness with the righteousness of Christ, in the matter of justification.

Witsius, H. (1837). The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity. (W. Crookshank, Trans.) (Vol. 1, p. 369). London: T. Tegg & Son.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Are Our Good Works Accepted by God? (Boston)

 The Bible teaches that a sinner is justified by faith alone apart from works (e.g. Rom 3-4).  One question the Christian might ask in light of “faith alone” is this:  “How can any of our works be accepted by a holy God since there is so much sinfulness in even best of them?”  Thomas Boston (d. 1732) asked that question, and answered it this way:

Answer 1. In point of justification they are not, nor cannot be accepted; that is, our persons cannot be accepted as righteous for our works, since they are not legally perfect, perfect in every point. In the way of the covenant of works, the work was first to be accepted for its own sake, as absolutely perfect; and then the person for the works’ sake. So that whosoever seek by their works to be accepted of God, they go back to the covenant of works; and must either bring works every way perfect, or be rejected; and because they cannot do such works, “therefore by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified,” Gal. 2:16.

Answer 2. In point of sanctification the good works of the justified may be accepted; that is, one’s person being accepted, his works may be accepted, being evangelically perfect, though not legally; being perfect in parts, though not in degrees. For in the way of the covenant of grace, the person is first accepted in Christ, and then his work though imperfect. Hence it appears,

(1.) That to a person’s being accepted of God in Christ, there is no working, but believing required; Mark 5:36. For till the person be accepted of God in Christ, he can do no acceptable work. He can yield no savory fruit till he be ingrafted by faith in Christ.

(2.) That the way to bring sinners to good works, is to bring them to Christ in the first place by faith, that they may be justified and accepted in him. Men may be made proud legalists otherwise, but not evangelical Christians; whited sepulchers, but still full of rottenness.

(3.) That there is very good reason why the good works of unbelievers are rejected, because they are imperfect; and yet the good works of believers are accepted, though they be imperfect….

The Westminster Confession (16.6) says it in a similar way:

“The persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight, but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.”

The above quote is from Thomas Boston, (1852). The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Discourses on Prayer. (S. M‘Millan, Ed.) (Vol. 11, pp. 131–132). Aberdeen: George and Robert King.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Principal Foundation of our Salvation (Turretin)

 I’ve always appreciated Francis Turretin’s discussion of justification by faith alone.  Here are some of his quotes on this topic that I’ve found quite comforting:

For the righteousness of Christ alone imputed to us is the foundation and meritorious cause upon which our absolutary (absolving) sentence rests, so that for no other reason does God bestow the pardon of sin and the right to life than on account of the most perfect righteousness of Christ imputed to us and apprehended by faith.  Hence it is readily gathered that we have not here a mere dispute about words (as some falsely imagine), but a controversy most real and indeed of the highest moment.  In it we treat of the principal foundation of our salvation, which being overthrown or weakened, all our confidence and consolation both in life and in death must necessarily perish.

…The gospel teaches that what could not be found in us was to be sought in another, could be found nowhere else than in Christ, the God-man; who taking upon himself the office of surety most fully satisfied the justice of God by his perfect obedience and thus brought to us an everlasting righteousness by which alone we can be justified before God; in order that covered and clothed with that garment as though it were of our first-born (like Jacob), we may obtain under in the eternal blessing of our heavenly Father.

…The obedience of Christ rendered in our name to God the Father is so given to us by God that it is reckoned to be truly ours and that it is the sole and only righteousness on account of and by the merit of which we are absolved from the guilt of our sins and obtain a right to life….”

Francis Turretin, Institutes, vol 2, p. 639, 647, 648.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Righteous in Christ, Not Ourselves (Calvin)

Tracts and Treatises of John Calvin (8 vols.) In volume 3 of Tracts and Treatises you can find Calvin’s 1547 critical commentary on the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent.  It’s an excellent resource that not only sheds theological light on the central aspects of the Reformation, it’s also a wonderful and edifying defense of the solas and the doctrines of grace.  Here are some of Calvin’s helpful comments on the distinction between justification and sanctification:

It is not to be denied, however, that the two things, Justification and Sanctification, are constantly conjoined and cohere; but from this it is erroneously inferred that they are one and the same. For example: The light of the sun, though never unaccompanied with heat, is not to be considered heat. Where is the man so undiscerning as not to distinguish the one from the other? We acknowledge, then, that as soon as any one is justified, renewal also necessarily follows: and there is no dispute as to whether or not Christ sanctifies all whom he justifies. It were to rend the gospel, and divide Christ himself, to attempt to separate the righteousness which we obtain by faith from repentance.

The whole dispute is as to The Cause of Justification. The Fathers of Trent pretend that it is twofold, as if we were justified partly by forgiveness of sins and partly by spiritual regeneration; or, to express their view in other words, as if our righteousness were composed partly of imputation, partly of quality.

I maintain that it is one, and simple, and is wholly included in the gratuitous acceptance of God. I besides hold that it is without us [outside of us], because we are righteous in Christ only. Let them produce evidence from Scripture, if they have any, to convince us of their doctrine. I, while I have the whole Scripture supporting me, will now be satisfied with this one reason, viz., that when mention is made of the righteousness of works, the law and the gospel place it [righteousness of works] in the perfect obedience of the law; and as that nowhere appears, they leave us no alternative but to flee to Christ alone, that we may be regarded as righteous in him, not being so in ourselves. Will they produce to us one passage which declares that begun newness of life is approved by God as righteousness either in whole or in part? But if they are devoid of authority, why may we not be permitted to repudiate the figment of partial justification which they here obtrude [impose]?

…I, on the contrary, while I admit that we are never received into the favour of God without being at the same time regenerated to holiness of life, contend that it is false to say that any part of righteousness (justification) consists in quality, or in the habit which resides in us, and that we are righteous (justified) only by gratuitous acceptance. For when the Apostle teaches that “by the obedience of one many were made righteous,” (Rom. 6:19,) he sufficiently shews, if I mistake not, that the righteousness wanting in ourselves is borrowed elsewhere. …For however small the portion attributed to our work, to that extent faith will waver, and our whole salvation be endangered.

 John Calvin and Hendry Beveridge, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851), 115–116.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Nothing Done By Us… (Hodge)

Hodge ST Charles Hodge wrote that justification is…

…[A] declarative act in which God pronounces the sinner just or righteous, that is, declares that the claims of justice, so far as he is concerned, are satisfied, so that he cannot be justly condemned, but is in justice entitled to the reward promised or due to perfect righteousness.

The meritorious ground of justification is not faith; we are not justified on account of our faith, considered as a virtuous or holy act or state of mind. Nor are our works of any kind the ground of justification. Nothing done by us or wrought in us satisfies the demands of justice, or can be the ground or reason of the declaration that justice as far as it concerns us is satisfied. The ground of justification is the righteousness of Christ, active and passive, i.e., including his perfect obedience to the law as a covenant, and his enduring the penalty of the law in our stead and on our behalf.

The righteousness of Christ is in justification imputed to the believer. That is, is set to his account, so that he is entitled to plead it at the bar of God, as though it were personally and inherently his own.

What’s missing from these statements?  Scripture!  However, Hodge later gives all sorts of biblical references and implications as the source of these statements, including Romans 4:6-8; 5:18; 8:1, 33-34; John 3:17-18; Gal. 2:19; 1 Pet. 2:24; Col. 2:14, and so forth.  The entire section is for sure reading when considering the great topic of justification by faith alone.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 118.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Justification Can Never Be Lost (Watson)

This is very good, very biblical, and very comforting:

Justification is ‘inamissibilis;’ it is a fixed permanent thing, it can never be lost.  The Arminians hold an apostasy from justification; today justified, tomorrow unjustified; today a Peter, tomorrow a Judas; today a member of Christ, tomorrow a limb of Satan.  This [Arminian doctrine] is a most uncomfortable doctrine.

Justified persons may fall from degrees of grace, they may leave their first love, they may lose God’s favor for a time, but not lose their justification.  If they are justified they are elected; and they can no more fall from their justification than from their election.  If they are justified they have union with Christ; and can a member of Christ be broken off?  If one justified person may fall away from Christ, all may; and so Christ would be a head without a body.

See from hence [this], that there is nothing within us that could justify but something without [outside] us; not any righteous inherent, but imputed.  We may as well look for a star in the earth as for justification in our own righteousness. The Papists say we are justified by works; but the Apostle confutes it, for he says, ‘not of works, lest any man should boast.’ (Eph 2.9).

Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity, p. 229.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Faith and Submission (Hodge)

In chapter six of The Way of Life, Charles Hodge summarized some different ways the Bible speaks about justifying faith.  One of those examples is faith as submission (cf. Rom 10:3).

Another term by which faith is expressed is submitting. This is not to be understood as meaning a submission to the will of God as a sovereign ruler, a giving up all our controversy with him and resigning ourselves into his hands. All this is duty, but it is not saving faith. The submission required is submission to the revealed plan of salvation; it is the giving up all excuses for our sins, all dependence upon our own righteousness, and submitting to the righteousness which God has provided for our justification. This is what the Jews refused to do, and perished in unbelief.  This is what we must do, in order to be saved.

Men, when sensible of their guilt and danger, are perplexed and anxious about many things. But there is only one thing for them to do. They must submit to be saved as ungodly, as sinners, as entirely undeserving, solely for Christ’s sake. They must consent to allow the robe of his righteousness to be cast over all their nakedness and blood, that they may be found in him, not having their own righteousness, but the righteousness which is by faith in Jesus Christ. Then will they be prepared to join that great multitude which stand before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes and palms in their hands, crying with a loud voice, ‘Salvation to our God who sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb, for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us unto God by thy blood, out of every kindred, and people, and tongue, and nation, and hast made us unto our God kings and priests.’

It is thus that the Bible answers the question, What must we do to be saved? We are told to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ; and to set forth the nature, the object and office of this faith, the Scriptures employ the most significant terms and illustrations, in order that we may learn to renounce ourselves and our works, and to be found in Christ depending solely upon what He has done and suffered as the ground of our acceptance with God. Those who thus believe, have passed from death unto life; they are no longer under condemnation; they have peace with God and rejoice in hope of his glory. As this faith unites them with Christ, it makes them not only partakers of his death, but of his life. The Holy Spirit, given without measure to him, is through him given unto them, and works in them the fruits of holiness, which are unto the praise and glory of God.

Charles Hodge, The Way of Life (Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, 1841), 216–218.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI