Confession 4.5 brings us to the doctrine of justification proper, which is the central question of religion: How can I be right with (or, just before) God? We will only appreciate the magnitude of justification when we ask the right questions: Is God majestic in holiness and justice? Is he one who will by no means clear the guilty? Is his blazing holiness, which makes him a consuming fire, a reality? Are we as guilty as the Bible claims we are? Do we fully deserve the wages of sin? If we honestly assess these questions, we will begin to understand the problems involved in the question, how can I be right with God? Since God is a God of absolute justice, how can he judge rightly while we escape eternal destruction? The answer lies in the perfect life, the sacrificial death, and the victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ.
By his perfect obedience and the once-for-all sacrifice of himself, the Lord Jesus Christ has brought about reconciliation and purchased an everlasting inheritance for all those given to him by his Father (John 17:2–5; 2 Corinthians 5:18–19; 1 Peter 1:3–4). His death and resurrection are thus the guarantee of their eternal salvation (Romans 5:9–10; 8:32; Revelation 5:9–10). By his present work of intercession, effectual calling, sanctification and sovereign rule, he certainly and effectually applies and communicates eternal redemption to all those for whom he obtained it (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25; John 6:37, 39; 10:4, 16, 27; 17:19; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Hebrews 10:10, 14). (Sola 5 Confession 4.6)
The Confession gets to the heart of the gospel by pointing to Christ’s work in life and death: “By his perfect obedience and the once-for-all sacrifice of himself, the Lord Jesus Christ has brought about reconciliation and purchased an everlasting inheritance for all those given to him by his Father.” It highlights two elements of Christ’s saving work: “his perfect obedience” and “the once-for-all sacrifice of himself.” It is important to recognise and understand the roles that each of these things plays in the purchase of our “reconciliation” and our “eternal inheritance.”
Sin is transgression of God’s law. It is necessary for those who will stand before God to stand as law-keepers, not as law-breakers. Christ’s “perfect obedience,” therefore, is credited to those he saves so that they can stand before God at final judgement as those who, through Christ, have kept (rather than broken) God’s law. In the end, those saved by Christ will stand, not only forgiven, but actually righteous before the Father in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21).
One part of salvation is the crediting of Christ’s righteousness to us, but this can only happen as our sins are credited to him. Since the penalty for sin is death, it was necessary that the substitute suffer what we would otherwise have suffered, and so Christ sacrificed himself on our behalf. His perfect life and “once-for all sacrifice” were both integral in the purchase of our salvation.
The Confession also draws attention to the resurrection: “His death and resurrection are thus the guarantee of their eternal salvation.” It is through his “perfect obedience” and “once-for-all sacrifice” that Christ brought about reconciliation and purchased an everlasting inheritance for all those given to him by his Father, but we never want to minimise the significance of his “resurrection,” which was necessary in order to “guarantee … eternal salvation.” Peter tells us that God “caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3–4). Not only did the resurrection necessarily fulfil prophecy (Psalms 2:7 16:10; etc.), and not only did it prove that Jesus was who he claimed to be (Romans 1:4), but the resurrection proved that his cross-work was indeed finished and accepted and guarantees our future resurrection from the dead. It is only because we have an everlastingly living Saviour that we have an everlasting inheritance.
We want to be biblically careful as we think about the scriptural doctrine of justification. The Catholic Church holds that justification is the process by which God effectively makes someone a good person, giving them a holy nature. Catholicism teaches that, in justification, God imparts righteousness to us so that our own good works play a part in our salvation. Evangelical theology holds that justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, so that we stand before the Father righteous, not in ourselves, but in Christ alone.
Without this distinction, we fall into the trap of thinking that we can do something to merit salvation, which means that we are due some of the glory. But God deliberately worked out salvation in a way that would leave us no room for boasting (Ephesians 2:8–10). We want to be deliberate in giving God all the glory for salvation.
This doctrine of justification is the core difference between the gospel taught in the New Testament and the gospel officially taught by the Roman Catholic Church. Officially, the Catholic Church teaches another gospel, which is to be rejected (Galatians 1:6–9). The Catholic gospel is far enough removed from biblical truth that the Reformers considered the pope to be the Antichrist and the Catholic Church to be an apostate church. Today, many evangelicals (even those holding to infant baptism) reject the validity of Catholic baptism and expect those once baptised in Catholic churches to be baptised as Protestants.
We must be careful, however, to note that what is true of the Catholic Church may not necessarily be true of our Catholic friends. God is able to, and often does, save people despite what they are taught, not because of what they are taught. Since faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ, we can be confident that, wherever the word is read, the Spirit is able to move in people’s heart to bring them to faith. While it may be difficult to imagine that someone who fully understands and embraces official Catholic teaching is a true Christian, there are no doubt multitudes of true converts in Catholic churches whom God has saved despite the errors of the church, and who simply do not presently understand that what they are hearing is not true.
These differences in Catholic and Protestant understandings of the gospel have far-reaching effects when it comes to partnership. Protestants and Catholics cannot in any meaningful way partner together in gospel initiatives. Where there is agreement on biblical truth—for example, the need to care for the poor; the responsibility to guard and protect human life; etc.—partnerships can be a good thing, but Protestants should be careful of allowing the gospel to be blurred in any partnerships with any organisation that does not teach the gospel as revealed by the apostles in the New Testament.
The Confession recognises that it is not only the historic work of Christ that has gospel import, but his present work too: “By his present work of intercession, effectual calling, sanctification and sovereign rule, he certainly and effectually applies and communicates eternal redemption to all those for whom he obtained it.”
If the application and communication of “eternal redemption” happens by Christ’s “present work,” it is important that we understand what he is presently doing for us. The Confession mentions four things: “intercession,” “effectual calling,” “sanctification,” and “sovereign rule.” Let’s consider each of these in turn.
When it comes to Christ’s work of intercession, we recognise that, while the work necessary to save was completed on the cross (John 19:30), Christ “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God, since he ever lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). Since we cannot approach God on our own merit, it is necessary that Christ will actually intercede on our behalf so that we can be accepted in him. Thankfully, his intercession is not a one-time event at which point we are justified, but an ongoing reality by which we will be brought to full and final salvation (Romans 8:34–39).
Christ’s “effectual calling” is necessary because, while his cross work is sufficient to save all who call upon him, we know that no one will call upon him unless he or she is drawn by grace to do so (John 6:37). Happily, Christ is committed to calling his sheep to follow him (John 6:39, 44; 10:4, 16, 27). Apart from this gracious calling, we would and could never come to him for salvation. It is necessary for him to actually call those to himself whom he has been given so that they will come to him (John 17:19).
Christ is committed not only to justifying his people but also to glorifying them, and the process by which that happens is “sanctification” (1 Corinthians 1:30; Hebrews 10:10, 14). Apart from Christ’s active work in making us holy, we would stagnate in the faith. Eternal redemption necessitates perfect holiness, and it is by Christ’s present work that we are made holy.
The entire project of salvation takes place under Christ’s “sovereign rule.” He presently sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, ruling over every aspect of the world, working all things together for the ultimate, glorifying good of his people.