.....it will be well for us to have a definite idea of the meaning of the word justification. This is a forensic term, and it means the pronouncing a person free from any liability to the penalty of law. It is just the opposite of condemnation, and is thus used in many places in the Word of God. It is not pardon. Pardon is the remission of a penalty which has been justly incurred, and is an exercise of mercy toward a proved and acknowledged offender. It implies guilt, or liability to the penalty of a law broken. Justification, on the other hand, implies no such liability, and pronounces the person free from any rightful exposure to punishment. If a man is charged with a crime, and the evidence does not substantiate the charge, the verdict of acquittal justifies the man, and declares him free from any liability to penal suffering. If, on the contrary, he is proved guilty of the crime charged, and sentenced, and afterwards pardoned, the act of pardon does not justify him—does not say that he did not deserve punishment; but simply, in the exercise of mercy, remits the penalty which was confessedly deserved. Now the necessity of a man's justification, who is charged with a crime before a tribunal, either of law or of public opinion, lies in the fact that he is under law, and is charged with being a violator of law. And in order to his justification, he must show, either that the law alleged to have been violated by him, did not apply to him, or that he did not violate it in any particular. A man might plead, if arraigned for a violation of laws intended to apply only to aliens, that he was a citizen, and that the law in question had no claims upon him, and therefore, while he acknowledged having committed the act charged, justified himself by the plea that the law had no jurisdiction over him, which would be a valid plea. But if he were charged with a breach of law which did apply to him, then his only method of justification would be, to prove his entire innocence of the act charged upon him. If successful in this, his justification is complete. But unless he can establish his innocence perfectly, he cannot be justified. All law demands perfect obedience. It is in its nature immutable and inexorable. It admits of no compromise. It simply and sternly issues its mandates, and says: Obey and thou shalt be justified. Disobey, but once, and thou shalt be condemned.
.....There is clearly, then, no ground whatever in man's case for legal justification before God. The only methods by which such justification can be secured by law, are impossible in his case. He cannot plead exemption from the law, nor innocence of its violation. His penitential tears cannot wash out the record of sin and condemnation, neither can obedience to come, atone for past rebellion. He is condemned to suffer the dreadful penalty, justly condemned; and, so far as he is concerned, hopelessly condemned. But is there no way by which man may be rescued from this fearful position? If he cannot justify himself; if he cannot meet his liabilities to the law of God, and satisfy the claims of justice, cannot some one be found, in the wide universe of God, possessing the ability and the willingness to ransom him from the grasp of the law, by doing that for him which he cannot do for himself, so that the law may be satisfied, and the eternal barrier which it interposes to the exercise of mercy, be forever removed? Ah! this is the great question, which never could have been answered, but by the Gospel of the Son of God. Go ask of nature, how can man be just with God, and listen for a reply. The moaning wind may pour its sad dirges around his dwelling, but there is no hope—no cheering in its melancholy music. The earthquake's shock—the ocean storm—the tornado's blast—the lightning's fiery flood—the crashing avalanche—the black forest—the dreary desert, of what do all these speak, but of wrath, and malediction, and blighting, and death? Go ask the angels, How can man be just with God, and they will point you to those vacant thrones, and voiceless harps, which were once tilled and tuned by their fallen companions; and what say these, but, "The soul that sinneth it shall die." Roam through all the universe of God; tell of the pitiable state of man—his guilt—his danger, and with a trumpet blast, whose voice shall sweep around the outskirts of interminable space, ask, "Is there no hope for man?" and the slow and sullen echo shall come back and strike in dismal accents on your ear, "No hope for man."
Turn we then to that fuller and sublime revelation which is made in the Gospel, and the momentous inquiry, "How shall man be just with God?" finds at once an answer. Christ Jesus is made of God, unto us righteousness. This is what man needs—a justifying righteousness, and this is afforded him only by Christ.
To understand fully this important subject, theologians are accustomed to use illustrations drawn from human law. When law has demands against an individual, the principle of justice is violated, if those demands are not complied with by him, or for him. And if the satisfaction be rendered by another, it must be the same in kind and in degree which it was incumbent on the man himself to render. No man can be a surety for another, who has not the ability to meet the demands which the law has against his principal. I owe ten thousand dollars. I am not able to pay. The law lays its strong arm upon me, threatens to tear me from my home and family, and shut me up forever in a dreary prison. That money must be paid by me, or it must be paid for me, or I must go to prison. There is no hardship here. The law is not in fault. It is necessary for the protection and well-being of society, that the law of debt should be stringent, and rigidly enforced. I cannot pay the debt. My sorrow will not pay it. My abstaining from contracting debt in future will not pay it. Ten thousand dollars must be paid by me, or for me, or I am ruined. I try to find a friend who will pay this sum for me. I go to my father, and implore him to save me from a dungeon. With tears of parental fondness in his eyes, he exclaims, alas! my son, I have not a tenth of that sum. Take all I have, but it will not avail. Here is willingness, but not ability. I go to my neighbor with my sad tale. He tells me, "I owe the same amount and I cannot pay my own debts, and if I had the means I would not pay yours." Here is neither willingness or ability. I make one more effort. I go to a wealthy individual and ask his aid. He has the money, but he harshly rebukes me for my imprudence or extravagance, and tells me that I deserve to suffer. Here is ability without inclination, and I have as yet found no deliverer. At last I find a generous friend, who owes nothing himself, is fully able to advance the requisite amount, and entirely willing to make the sacrifice. Now I can be free from the grasp of the law; not that I am able to satisfy its demands, but I have found a surety whom my creditor accepts, and who places himself in my stead, assumes my obligation, discharges the claim, and sets me free. But though free, I amn ot independent of the law in future. It is still to be my rule of life; and gratitude to my benefactor, who honored the law in my stead, will give it fresh claims upon my future regard.
With this familiar illustration, let us turn to our relations to the law of God. What are the things the law requires at our hands? They are two: suffering for disobedience, for we have already incurred the penalty, and perfect obedience, in order to secure the promised reward. But we cannot answer this double demand of the law. We might endure the penalty, but this could not take the place of obedience, and secure for us a title to the reward which is promised to those who have never sinned. Penal suffering can never be meritorious suffering. Transgression not only exposes us to suffering, but forever vitiates all claim to reward. Therefore, in order that we may be justified, we must find one who can save us from the penalty, by enduring it in our stead, and can purchase for us the reward, by a perfect obedience, which may be placed to our account. And not only so, but we must find one who will be willing as well as able, in the sense of adequate merit, and who will have the right to become our surety to the law of God. Now search the universe, and where but in Christ, will such a being be found. Man cannot be the surety for his fellow, for he owes more than he can pay, and being in the same condemnation, is utterly powerless as a surety. Angels might have the inclination, but they owe as much to God's law as they can pay, and their perfect obedience has no merit in it that can be set over to the account of another. Gabriel has not a grain of holiness above that which God requires of him, so that he could not intercede for a solitary mortal, on the ground of any merit of his own. Devils have neither ability or inclination. No one is left but God, and God in Christ alone is the righteousness, or justification of the sinner. He has perfect ability and entire liberty, and complete willingness to satisfy the demand of the law.....
Christ, then, by his perfect obedience, and his endurance of the penalty of the law, satisfies the justice of God, and furnishes a ground of justification for man, and thus becomes his righteousness. God can now be just, and yet justify the sinner who believes in Christ, and chooses him as his surety. The perfect righteousness of Christ is imputed to him, just as his sin was imputed to Christ; and on account of this righteousness, thus passed to his credit, to use a commercial term, he is regarded as free from his liability to punishment; and while he is not exonerated from obligation to obey the law, is forever released from its terrible condemnation.
This imputation of the righteousness of Christ, does not imply the transfer of his personal acts to us, so that they become ours, or of his moral character to us, which is impossible in the nature of things. It is simply a change in our relations to the law. Our liability to punishment is taken away, by the obedience and suffering of our surety in our stead; and though we were sinners, justly exposed to condemnation, yet for the sake of what Christ has done, we are considered and treated as if we were righteous, just as Christ, though sinless himself was, for our sake, considered and treated as if he were a sinner. The whole doctrine is contained in this passage: "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." 2 Cor. 5:21.
There is yet one more element in the plan of justification through the merits of Christ, which is essential to the completeness of the scheme. It is the mode by which this righteousness of Christ becomes available for each individual who is saved. This mode is by faith. "Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Romans 5:1). "The just shall live by faith." (Romans 1:17). What then is the relation of faith to justification? It is not the ground, that is the obedience and sufferings of Christ. It is not the condition, in the sense of a meritorious consideration, on which salvation is suspended. But it is the instrument of our justification. A man is starving for want of food. A supply is furnished and offered. He reaches out his hand, takes the food, eats and lives. What is faith here? It is not the providing the food. That is the fruit of benevolence on the part of him who provides. It is not the food itself. It is not the relief consequent upon the repast. It is the hand which is extended to take the food graciously provided, freely offered; and when taken, the means of life and comfort. In vain the love which provided the food; in vain the price it cost; in vain its offer, unless the hand of the starving man is extended to receive it. Faith is the instrument of justification, the hand which seizes the bread of life, the manna in the wilderness of sin, provided by a benevolent God, and purchased by the tears, the agonies, and the blood of his own dear Son. Without such a faith, salvation is impossible. Christ's death is unavailing for your justification, dear reader, except you believe. He never died for you, if you have no faith in him. And call not your mere intellectual assent to his history, evangelical faith. You may go down to hell with such a faith in lively exercise. Yours must be the desperate grasp of the starving man at the food which can save his life—the death gripe of the drowning wretch, at the rope which can save him from destruction.
E. P. Rogers, D. D.