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New Horizons

Cleared and Approved by the Supreme Court!

J. G. Vos

In the United States, what the Supreme Court says is legal is legal. No matter what lower courts or individuals may say, when the Supreme Court has issued a decision, the case is closed. No one can be treated as guilty when the Supreme Court has pronounced him not guilty. No one can be regarded as having failed to discharge his obligations when the Supreme Court says that his obligations have been fully discharged.

The Supreme Court of the universe is the Judgment Throne of God, the supreme Judge of all. When the supreme Judge of the universe issues a decision, the case is closed for all eternity. When the supreme Judge declares a person righteous, that person is regarded and treated as righteous by the highest authority of the universe. "Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth?" (Rom. 8:33-34).

Someone has aptly said that justified means "just-as-if-I'd." This is not the derivation of the word, but it is good theology all the same. When I am justified, it is just as if I had never sinned, it is just as if I had always lived a perfect life, it is just as if I had done all possible good works. All this is received as a free gift—credited to my account—by God's act of justification. The supreme Judge of the universe declares that it is just as if I'd always been perfect and just as if I'd never sinned.

It is basic to an understanding of justification as set forth in Scripture, that we recognize that justify and justification are legal terms; they concern the Christian's relation to God as Judge. Justification concerns the Christian's standing in relation to God's act of judging.

In the Bible, the term justify means "to declare righteous" or "to pronounce righteous." It does not mean "to make righteous." This important distinction is obscured by some modern translations of the Bible. To understand justification as "making a person righteous" is to confuse justification with sanctification. Sanctification is an inward change in character. Justification is a change in relationship to the law of God. "Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone" (Shorter Catechism, Q. 33).

Justification includes pardon, but it is more than pardon. It includes:

  1. the pardon or forgiveness of all our sins, plus
  2. the pronouncement that we are positively righteous.

Mere pardon would only cancel guilt without crediting positive righ-teousness to the person's account. This would be like paying a man's debts for him, but leaving him "flat broke" without a penny to his name. He would not owe any money, but he would also not have any money. This would be a sort of neutral condition, neither guilty not righteous. But no one can enter heaven who is not positively righteous. It is not enough to be "not guilty." You have to be righteous too. When God justifies a person, he credits ("imputes") the good deeds and perfect life of Jesus Christ to that person. When I am justified, every good deed that Christ did is counted as if I had done it myself. God regards me as perfect, so far as the requirements of his law are concerned.

Many people are confused about the ground of justification. Some say faith is the ground of justification, but this is wrong. The only ground of justification is the finished work of Christ—his blood and righteousness. This is the basis on which God can pronounce us righteous: "To declare ... his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26). Because Christ lived a perfect life and shed his blood on the cross, God can impute or credit this to you and me, and on this basis declare that we are righteous.

Faith is the means of justification, not its ground. We are justified by faith or through faith, but on account of the blood and righteousness of Christ. Faith is the channel of connection, the connecting link, by means of which we receive justification—it is not the reason why God can justify us.

Modern liberal theology, which abounds today on almost every hand and often goes unrecognized and unchallenged for what it really is, has given up the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ and also the biblical doctrine of justification. Liberalism teaches a do-it-yourself idea of salvation, on the idea that "God helps those who help themselves." Real Christianity, of course, proclaims that God helps those who can't help themselves—it proclaims a truly gracious salvation, a salvation which is a free gift of God's love and mercy to sinners.

Have you been cleared and approved by the Supreme Judge of the universe?

The author, an RPCNA minister and professor at Geneva College, edited the magazine Blue Banner Faith and Life, from which this article is reprinted. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2004.

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