March 26, 2013
i.Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not or anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.
The Westminster Confession's treatment of justification brilliantly sets forth the teaching of Scripture on this most pivotal doctrine. Moreover, this definition is clearly rooted in the Calvinistic divines' conflict with both Roman Catholicism and Arminianism. As such, paragraph one not only sets forth clearly the nature of justification but it also combats prominent errors associated with this doctrinal heading. Justification is placed after effectual calingl in the ordo salutis: the call is logically prior because it is the source of faith, and faith is the instrument of the Christian's justification. Justification is the free gift of God's grace, through faith in Jesus Christ.
It is notable that this paragraph emphasizes the dual nature of what justification accomplishes. Negatively, it removes the guilt of the believers' sin: "pardoning their sins". Positively, justification bestows a righteous standing with God: "accounting and accepting their persons as righteous." This two-part construction is essential to the Reformed doctrine of justification. Like Joshua the high priest in the vision of Zechariah 3:1-5, Esther in her approach to the Persian king in Esther 5:1, and the guest without a garment in Jesus' parable of the wedding feast (Mt. 22:12), we must not only be forgiven but positively clothed in righteousness in order to be justified before God.
This construction has raised a question about the necessity of teaching Christ's "active obedience." The distinction is made between Christ's obedience to the Father in in dying for our sins (passive obedience) and Christ's obedience to the Father in fulfilling all righteousness by his perfect law-keeping life (active obedience). While this language is not found in the Confession, the ideas are clearly important to the divines' teaching. In justifying sinners, Jesus both died for our forgiveness and fulfilled in his life the law-keeping righteousness that God's justice requires.
How, then, does Christ's righteousness become ours, so that we as sinners are justified? Paragraph one answers by clearly distinguishing between the infusing of righteousness and the imputation of righteousness. The Roman Catholic doctrine teaches that sinners are made righteousness as God's grace changes them. Only when God's grace has perfectly made us righteous by infusion - a change of our nature - can we be justified. The Westminster Divines insisted instead that sinners are declared righteous by the imputation of Christ's righteousness. This is a change of status apart from a change in our nature. As Paul put it, God "justifies the ungodly" (Rom. 4:5): while our nature is still sinful, our status before God is changed by the imputation of Christ's perfect righteousness.
Imputation is an accounting term, involving the granting of credit. Just as our sins were transferred to Jesus by imputation - Jesus did not become a sinner by infusion, but he bore our sins that were reckoned to him - his righteousness is imputed to sinners through faith. This doctrine has been newly brought into controversy by N. T. Wright and the so-called "New Perspective on Paul." Wright has argued that righteousness is not a substance that can be passed across a court room. He errs badly in this, however, since status is often conveyed by declaration. Children are adopted when the status of son is passed to them or declared of them. In Christian justification, sinners are declared righteous by the reckoning of Christ's perfect righteousness to their record. This was Paul's meaning in Romans 4:5: "And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness." The verb for counted is logizomai, which means a legal reckoning.
Thank God for the imputation of Christ's righteousness! As J. Gresham Machen said on his deathbed about Christ's active obedience, there truly would be "no hope without it."