Chapter 11.3

Rick Phillips
iii. Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father's justice in their behalf.  Yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them; and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace might be glorified in the justification of sinners.

The doctrine expressed in the Westminster Confession's third paragraph on justification is one of the most excellent and beautiful theological statements ever penned. The burden of this paragraph is to insist that justification is by grace alone. Yet, in making this point, the divines gather up all that they have previously said about justification in order to show how fully this doctrine glorifies God. There are three things for us to emphasize: the work of Christ in obedience and satisfaction; the substitutionary nature of Christ's work; and the free grace of God that is glorified in the justification together with his justice.

First, a right understanding of Christ's saving work is so essential to the Westminster divines that they cannot miss another opportunity of stating it. Christ accomplished two great saving works in his first coming. First, he made a "proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father's justice" for those who believe. This refers to Christ's sacrificial offering of his life to pay the just penalty of sin. The divines were convinced that penal substitutionary atonement is at the heart of Christian salvation. This is a truth that needs to be emphasized today, as postmodern-leaning evangelicals find themselves embarrassed by the cleansing blood of Christ. The effect of Christ's satisfaction was to "fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified." Thus to be justified means, first, to have your sins forgiven and your penalty forever paid by Jesus.  

Moreover, Jesus positively fulfilled the demands of God's law so as to secure the verdict of "righteous" for his people. Not only was his "satisfaction," but also "his obedience... accepted" by God so as to justify his people. With this in mind, we see that the aphorism is partly true which says justification means "just as if I'd never sinned." Yet justification is actually more than this.  It goes further actually to say that in Christ I am "just as if I'd always obeyed." 

Second, this third paragraph emphasizes the substitutionary nature of Christ's work as being key to the operation of justification. How can I be forgiven when I have sinned and how can I be justified when I have not been righteous? The answer is found in the vital words, "in their stead."  I am forgiven because Jesus stood in my stead to pay the penalty my sins deserved. I am justified because Jesus fulfilled the law in my stead so as to attain all righteousness. Thus was John the Baptist's query answered, when he marveled that Jesus would submit to the baptism of repentance. "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" John asked. Jesus answered, "Let it be so now, of thus it is fitting for to fulfill all righteousness" (Mt. 3:14-15). By this act, Jesus was standing under God's law for his people, "in their stead," in order to achieve a perfect righteousness on behalf of those who sins disqualified them from eternal life. One theologian who understood this key matter, despite his other failings, was Karl Barth. When once asked what is the most important word in the Bible, Barth answered with the Greek preposition huper, which means "on behalf of." At the heart of the gospel is the substitutionary work of Jesus on behalf of sinners. "Christ died for us," Paul insisted (Rom. 5:8).

Third, the divines emphasized that justification is by God's free grace alone. Paul wrote, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:23-24). With this teaching in mind, the divines state that Christ justified sinners "freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace." The Christian thus declares that he or she is justified apart from any merit or virtue in himself but only for the grace of God in Christ.  It is the free gift of God's grace so that all the glory belongs to him. 

This glory pertains not only to God's grace, however, but also to his justice. We must not believe that mercy sets aside justice in our justification, as if one attribute of God could be set against another. Rather, God's mercy fulfills God's justice perfectly through the satisfaction and obedience of Christ. The believer in Jesus may therefore point not only to God's grace in his justification, but may also look to the justice of God that once we so dreaded and say, "God's justice demands my justification!"  How is this? How may a sinner be admitted by the sword of God's perfect, holy justice - not only admitted but demanded admittance? The answer is the grace of God in Christ, which fully and forever satisfies the justice of God. Thus "both the exact justice and rich grace" of God are "glorified in the justification of sinners." 

How shall we reply to the glorious drama of the doctrine of justification? James Boice put it this way: "All merit, boasting set aside, by faith alone I'm justified / Before the throne I take my place and rest in God's amazing grace."

Dr. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina and chairs the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.