In responding to his friend Bildad, Job asked the most important question with which a person can ever wrestle: “How can a man be in the right before God?” (Job 9:1–2). While this is a question that many wish to ignore, and many others never really give it any thought, it is in truth the most important question a person can ever ask. Thankfully, the answer is provided in Jesus Christ, as Confession 5.4 makes clear.
All who are united to Christ through saving faith are justified (declared righteous) by God (Romans 3:22, 24; 4:5). This justification is an objective, legal declaration by which Christ’s active obedience to God’s law (i.e. his obedience to all of God’s commands) and his passive obedience in death (i.e. his submission to the penalty of death) are imputed to the believer (Isaiah 53:4–6; Romans 4:5–6; 5:18–19; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Justification is thus founded only upon the righteous life and sacrificial death of Christ, having no dependence on the personal righteousness of the believer (Luke 18:9–14; Romans 4:4–6; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Ephesians 2:8–9; 1 John 5:12). Faith is the instrument of justification because it (from the human side) unites the believer to Christ; it is in no way the basis of God’s acceptance of the believer (Romans 6:3–10; Galatians 2:20–21). In Christ, believers are also adopted as God’s children (Ephesians 1:5). (Sola 5 Confession 5.4)
In answer to Job’s question, the temptation is to look for things that we must do to earn a right standing before God. The Confession reminds us that this is not necessary: “All who are united to Christ through saving faith are justified (declared righteous) by God.”
The Confession maintains that a righteous standing before God is something that is declared by God through the merit of Christ rather than earned by the individual by his or her own merit. For example, Romans 3:22, 24 leave no room for earned merit, but speak simply of “the righteousness of God” being given “through faith” and of believers being “justified by his grace as a gift.” The merit is earned by Jesus Christ alone, and God simply gives (imputes) that merit to his people through faith. Romans 4:5 concurs. Here, Paul rejects the notion of works entirely and speaks of “faith” being “counted as righteousness.” The word translated “counted” is an accounting term, which means to pass to one’s account. The CSB captures well the thrust of this justification when it speaks of God “who declares the ungodly to be righteous.”
Lest we think that this declaration of righteousness somehow overlooks God’s standard, the Confession goes on to detail the basis by which this declaration takes place: “This justification is an objective, legal declaration by which Christ’s active obedience to God’s law (i.e. his obedience to all of God’s commands) and his passive obedience in death (i.e. his submission to the penalty of death) are imputed to the believer.”
Some wonder whether it is just for God to count another’s righteousness to one who is unrighteousness. In answer, we note that God is perfectly just and determines what standards must be met for his wrath to be abated. If God has determined to impute Christ’s righteousness to sinners, it is within the realm of his sovereignty to do so. Imputation of righteousness does not suggest that Christ’s righteousness is some sort of material substance that is physically passed from one person to another. Instead, it teaches that God accepts Christ’s righteousness as a substitute for the unrighteous sinner. There is nothing inherently unjust about this transaction.
The confession offers several texts in support of this affirmation.
Isaiah highlights the truth that Christ carried the penalty for our sins upon himself. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4–6). If he accepted the punishment we deserve, there is no problem understanding that God will grant us the righteousness that he warranted by his perfect obedience.
Moving to the New Testament, Paul teaches that it is not necessary for us to work for our own justification, but that faith in the completed work of Christ is counted as righteousness for the one who exercises that faith. “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works” (Romans 4:5–6). These verses show that Christ is the one who, through his completed work, actually justifies.
Romans 5:18–19 to the federal headship of Christ: that, as Adam acted on behalf of those he represented, so Christ acted on behalf of those he represented. “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:18–19). Paul here draws attention not primarily to Christ’s death, but to his life—his “act of righteousness”—which is credited to those who believe in him.
In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul summarises the transaction that takes place at justification: that our sin is imputed to Christ while his righteousness is imputed to us. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is perhaps the clearest Scripture that points to the dual nature of imputation.
The conclusion of the texts already considered is plain: “Justification is thus founded only upon the righteous life and sacrificial death of Christ, having no dependence on the personal righteousness of the believer.”
The Pharisee felt that he was righteous because he was not an extortioner, unjust, or an adulterer. He believed that his fasting and tithing earned him favour before God (Luke 18:9–14). The Pharisees were avid Bible readers (John 5:39). They were fervent pray-ers (Matthew 6:5). They were passionate missionaries (Matthew 23:15). As the Pharisee in Jesus parable shows, they were faithful tithers (Luke 18:12). They felt that these things earned, or added to, their merit before God.
In short, the Pharisees seem to have been pretty orthodox “Christians.” We value Bible reading, prayer, missionary zeal, and faithful stewardship, and we can easily fall into the trap of believing that these, and similar, things make us righteous before God. When tempted to believe that, we need a good dose of Christ-exalting humility. Jesus considered the Pharisees hypocrites, despite these things.
According to Romans 4:4–6, those who work for righteousness will earn what they are due. According to Romans 6:23, our sin earns death. If we insist on getting what we have worked for, we will forsake eternal life and instead earn eternal destruction in the lake of fire.
Paul shows in 1 Corinthians 1:30 that it is not only “righteousness” (i.e. justification) that we receive from Christ, but also “sanctification” and “redemption.” Though these things are related, they are also distinct. “Righteousness” refers to our redemption—to the moment that God declares us to be righteousness in his sight through Christ. “Sanctification” is the process by which we are practically made like Christ. Though the two are distinct they are related. All those who have been justified will be made increasingly like Christ. This is also by Christ’s merit, though it requires effort on our part. “Redemption” refers to the ultimate end of our salvation—the moment when, at resurrection (or at the second coming) we are eternally transformed into the perfect image of Jesus Christ. We speak of this as our “glorification.” This, too, is secured by the merit of Christ.
According to Ephesians 2:8–9, salvation comes by God’s grace, apart from any works of our own, to stop us from boasting. God alone must receive all the glory for the work of salvation, and if we look to our own efforts, we will be tempted to take away from God’s glory and exalt ourselves in salvation.
The Confession continues: “Faith is the instrument of justification because it (from the human side) unites the believer to Christ; it is in no way the basis of God’s acceptance of the believer.” If faith was the basis of justification, it would mean that our faith merited our salvation; if it is the instrument, it means that God grants us Christ’s merit as the basis of our justification by means of faith.
The Confession concludes: “In Christ, believers are also adopted as God’s children.” The language and the biblical truth of adoption highlights that we are not God’s children by natural birth but by his gracious intervention in our lives, choosing us to be a part of his family.