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Lectures on Justification
Geoffrey J. Paxton

LECTURE 2: The Ground of Justification

Editorial Note: This article is not intended to provide an easy devotional exercise before you fall asleep. There are times when we need to do some careful, analytical thinking. What Professor Paxton says is not only important to a correct understanding of justification; it is also vital as a base for Christian ethics. This article will reward those who are prepared to think!

The subject of our first lecture was the meaning of "to justify." Does it mean "to declare just" or "to make just"? We contended for the former meaning: "to justify" means God's declaring a person just, not God's making him just.

In this lecture we must go a step further. It is not sufficient to speak of justification as God's declaring the sinner just. In fact, to stop there would be to fall into very serious error. We need to ask: On what ground does God make this declaration? What is the basis of God's pronouncement? That is the question to which we shall address ourselves in this lecture. We will approach our subject in the following way:

1. We shall draw attention to those who have denied the necessity for any such ground of justification and their reasons for doing so.

2. We shall look at those who, having conceded the necessity for such a ground, nevertheless propound an unsatisfactory ground, or basis, of the sinner's justification.

3. We shall set forth the true ground of our justification and the reasons for its necessity.

1. Those Who Deny the Necessity of the Ground of Justification

Here is cause for great lamentation among all godly people. Those who have not been able to bring about their reconciliation with God have spurned the way of God Himself! Here is the arrogance of the human heart! Here is the foolishness of sin!

a. Some assert, "God is Almighty, and therefore He does not need any 'meritorious ground' on the basis of which to forgive sin. In fact, to insist upon such a ground is to dishonor God. Such an insistence casts reflections upon God's omnipotence. God is quite capable of forgiving sin and restoring the sinner without having recourse to any ground!"

In this particular emphasis forgiveness is seen as that which comes from the Sovereign. Forgiveness, or pardon, is mere forgiveness, mere pardon. In other words, pardon, in this view of things, is not at all related to justice; it is merely the act of sovereign power. Of course, the Biblical evidence for the omnipotence of God is well-nigh endless. It is the relating of pardon to the omnipotence of God and seeing it as the expression of such (solely) that comes into question.

b. Others say, "God is all-loving, and therefore to insist upon any such ground on the basis of which God must forgive sin is to deny that love. The only ground, so to speak, is the love of God's heart. All expressions such as 'redemption by ransom,' 'substitution,' 'satisfaction,' etc., are unworthy of God."

In this view the cross is not seen as the propitiation of God but rather merely the unsurpassable demonstration of the love of God. God suffers with and in the sins of His people but not for (i.e., the penalty) man's sins. This view has been advocated by ancient teachers in the church (Origen and Abelard) and more modern ones (Bushnell and Maxwell in America; Robertson, Maurice, Campbell and Young in Great Britain; Schleiermacher and Ritschl in Germany).

It is said that the unsurpassable demonstration of God's love at the cross affects not God but man. This love acts upon man and brings forth love from the heart. Rather than the death of Christ removing any obstacle in the path of the sinner's reconciliation with God, that death, it is said, demonstrates to the sinner that there is no obstacle at all between himself and God.

This view of the atonement has been aptly called the "magnet" view or the "moral influence" view. The crucifixion acts merely as a great magnet to bring men and women to repentance, and God is said to accept them on that basis (i.e., their repentance) alone. And because man's heart has been now won to love God, this view posits that man is now "safe to save" and "safe to take to heaven" because of this moral change in man.

c. The third attribute within God that is called upon to deny the necessity for any such ground of justification is, interestingly enough, the justice of God. "For God to require a 'satisfaction,' " it is said, "would involve Him in blatant injustice. Christ is innocent, and for God to punish an innocent Christ in the stead of guilty sinners is less than just. In fact, it is downright injustice! Such a concept is cruel and vindictive and smacks of a God who cares more about His precious law than about human beings. This is an immoral picture of God."

So it is that, to deny the necessity of any ground outside of God upon which He must forgive the sinner, men appeal to something within God Himself: (a) His omnipotence, (b) His great love and (c) His infinite sense of fairness. It needs to be reiterated that each of these views (whether appearing separately or with the others) can marshal a great deal of Biblical evidence which appears to endorse it. The Bible is full of the almighty, sovereign power of God, the love of God (cf. the parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost son in Luke) and the justice of God! Whether or not this is a correct use of Scripture remains to be seen.

2. Those Who Concede the Necessity of a Ground Outside of God but Give Unsatisfactory Views of It

In his great epistle to the Romans, St. Paul declares that "the righteousness of God" is the ground whereupon a sinner is declared righteous in the sight of God.

In addition to the appeal to God to deny the necessity of the ground of justification, there is also an appeal to man. "The righteousness of God" is sometimes understood as an inward righteousness of man. It must not be thought that those who have propounded this view have always been of a legalistic bent. This is not the case. There have been those who have held this view (i.e., that the righteousness of God refers to man's inward righteousness) who have insisted upon the grace-nature of this righteousness. It is, we are reminded, the righteousness of God. It is not of works but of grace. Faith as that which opposes works has been strongly stressed by such people.

However, notwithstanding the emphasis upon grace, the referring of the righteousness of God to something within man is as mistaken as the reference to something within God. 2 Corinthians 5:21 is decisively against this view. Paul means us to understand that the believer is made the righteousness of God in the same way as Christ is made sin. It is out of the question to say that Christ was made sin by an impartation of sin into His being, and so it is out of the question to speak of the believer being made the righteousness of God by infusion, or impartation of righteousness. Though sin was on Christ, it was not in Christ. Likewise, though the righteousness of God is on the believer, it is not in the believer. As sin was outside of Christ, so the righteousness of God is outside the believer in the matter of justification and forgiveness.

Then there have been those who see faith itself as what is meant by "the righteousness of God." Though there are different modifications of this view, none of them see the righteousness of God as something which is outside of man. The mind is not thrown onto Christ for its foundation but rather back onto itself. Much modern preaching on faith reflects this particular view. Faith is elevated to a position not sanctioned by the Biblical witness.

When faith is seen as the ground and basis upon which God forgives the sinner, faith is made into a new law. When this new law is fulfilled (i.e., when a person believes), God is pleased, made happy. Such a view of faith (as a "work" — albeit, an "evangelical work") is in flat contradiction to the clear teaching of the Scriptures that we are justified neither by a work done by us nor a work in us but solely because of the work of Another—namely, Christ. This work was done outside of us and for us.

Those who elevate faith to the grand status of the meritorious ground of justification, represent God as accepting an imperfect title instead of a perfect one. In this view God accommodates His standards to the capability of the sinner. If this were the case, what would stop God from waiving His requirements altogether? It is obvious that God would require very little of men if faith were the ground of His acceptance. It is not so obvious why he could not waive His requirements altogether. The weakest faith, if it is real faith, still justifies a man, just as the feeblest drinking still saves a man who is dying of thirst. This is because the act of drinking appropriates the life-maintaining water. So also, faith, even though it is weak, appropriates the lifegiving substance of the Son of God. However, if the act itself is the thing that matters, then there is only a very short step from feeble drinking to not drinking at all. If God accepts so little, why need He insist upon even that?

3. The True Ground of Justification — Its Nature and Necessity

We must now turn to an examination of that righteousness of God which is the ground of justification. "The righteousness of God" is that which is both outside of God and outside the believer. In its essential nature this cardinal expression denotes nothing in God Himself or in the believer. It is external to both. Obviously, the expression itself would seem to contradict this view. Is it not, after all, "the righteousness of God"? If what we have said is correct, what is meant by "the righteousness of God"?

a. First, it is called "the righteousness of God" because God, in His great love and mercy, has initiated and authored it. The Lutherans used to be fond of saying that it is called the righteousness of God because it is a righteousness which is valid before God. This is, of course, derivative of the first point. If God's great love and mercy planned it and made it possible, this righteousness must be valid in His sight!

b. Second, "the righteousness of God" is the work of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. The Mediator between God and man cannot be God only or man only (Gal. 3:20). The Mediator supposes two parties between whom He intervenes. Hence, the Mediator must be related to both and the equal of either (cf. 1 Sam. 2:25; Job 9:33; Heb. 10:5). The Mediator must be both God and Man. Because the righteousness of God is the work of the God-Man, such righteousness is infinitely valuable and eternally valid. It is also a completely voluntary righteousness and therefore capable of being given away!

c. Third, the righteousness of God has, as its standard, the divine attribute of righteousness mirrored in the law of God. The divine character is seen chiefly in two respects. (1) It is seen in the demand for satisfaction. Jesus Christ in the flesh, fulfilling the law of God, is the declaration of the just God, who is true to Himself. (2) The divine character is also seen in the provision of the satisfaction. Jesus Christ in the flesh, fulfilling the law of God, is the declaration of the infinite love of the just God seeking the salvation of men. Jesus Christ is the declaration of the infinite justice and mercy of God.

The law is the transcript of God's character. As such, it makes a twofold claim upon all creatures. (1) It urges its inflexible claims to sinless obedience as the only way to life (Gal. 3:12). (2) It comes armed with a curse incurred by its violation (Gal. 3:10-13). The God-Man, Jesus Christ, was made under the law—voluntarily made under the law—that He might meet the demands of the law in both respects on our behalf. The doing and dying of the Son of God was a doing and dying not for Himself but for all who believe. Through the instrument of faith, God reckons that doing and dying to the account of the sinner. This doing and dying is what is known as the righteousness (sponsored by God) of which the apostle Paul speaks, and it is the only sufficient ground of the sinner's justification.

So much for the nature of the ground of our acceptance at God's tribunal. We may now ask: Why was this ground necessary? Why could not God have behaved in a sovereign way and pardoned the sinner without the mediatorial work of the Man for others?

a. In the first place, the character of God would not permit this. Each of the false arguments set forth at the beginning of this lecture are based upon a subjective and arbitrary selection of the attributes of God. The full (Biblical) picture of the character of God is bypassed for those aspects which suit our sinful dissertation! God is all-powerful. But He is also all-holy. To declare that God abrogates the law (for such is what mere pardon does) because He is all-powerful, is to neglect the important teaching of Scripture that God has an all-holy aversion to sin (Hab. 1:13) and that He determines to punish it. The true picture is that the God and Father of Jesus Christ exercises His all-powerfulness, not to waive sin and its consequences, but to deal adequately with sin for those who believe. P. T. Forsyth spoke the truth when he said, "There is only one thing that can satisfy the Holiness of God and that is Holiness  —  adequate Holiness.'

Once again, the great love of God, that indescribable love of which the Bible is full, exercises itself, not in the arbitrary abolition of the law, but in the minute fulfillment in precept and penalty of that law by the Son of His love. Hence, to see the cross as only the demonstration of the love of God is to fail to see it as the clearest proclamation of how seriously God takes sin and its consequences.

The false accusation of injustice is safe only on Unitarian grounds. In other words, if we view Jesus Christ as One who is foreign to God, then the accusation of injustice is well-nigh inescapable. However, if we hold to the Biblical (and Trinitarian) position that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself," then what is said to be unworthy of God is the greatest tribute to God's character. He provides the very satisfaction which His all-holy person demands. Rejection of such love is inexcusable! No less despite is done to the holiness of God by those who concede the necessity for the ground of justification but posit that ground either in an inward righteousness of the believer or his faith. Such things as these do not make up that adequate holiness of which Forsyth speaks. The character of God not only demands a ground of justification, but also an adequate ground. The only adequate ground recognized by Scripture is the perfect concurrence in the divinely-given law in both its precepts and penalty. We might even say it is to concur in word, thought and deed to the extent that God Himself concurs! Away then with imperfect substitutes such as the holiness of sinful men and their faith!

In conclusion, then, God is all-powerful, but He is also all-holy. God is all-loving, but He also hates sin. God does punish Christ, the Innocent, in the stead of the guilty; but that Christ is, in a very real sense, God with us, bearing the brunt of His own law in our place! The righteousness which God approves is the righteousness which reflects His character — perfect mirroring of the law, perfect honoring of the law in precept and penalty.

b. Second, not only does the character of God demand an adequate ground for justification, but so does the nature of sin. All who deny the necessity of the ground of justification or who propose insufficient grounds, have a flimsy evaluation of moral evil. The unrelieved heinousness of sin demands adequate atonement. The cross is, as Denney has said, "homage paid by Christ to the moral order of the world established and upheld by God." The incessant proclamation by the early church of the death of Christ, stamped a shaming sense of sin upon the pagan conscience. This is why Paul is agasp at the thought of continuing in sin that grace may abound. Embracing the cross is embracing God's estimate of sin. It is repudiation of sin.

c. Third, adequate satisfaction is demanded by the character of God, the nature of sin and the demand of the conscience. This is an aspect of reality not recognized as much as it should be. The mediatorial satisfaction of the God-Man honors God (and of course the law in and through which God is mirrored) and man as made in the image of God. Those proposing makeshift satisfactions do not realize that they deny the very integrity of man as made in God's image. Just as there is only one thing that will satisfy the holiness of God, so there is only one thing that will satisfy the conscience of the sinner — that which satisfies the holiness of God! Nothing less than what satisfies God's justice satisfies the conscience!

Mere pardon does not produce peace. The conscience is left unsatisfied. Inadequate grounds like infused righteousness or the faith of the sinner do not produce peace! Only that which satisfies God satisfies the conscience of the sinner—namely, the perfect atonement of the God-Man, Jesus Christ.

Mere pardon does not produce reconciliation. Reconciliation means that God and the sinner delight in the same things. The sinner being reconciled to God means that the sinner and God have one mind on matters. Reconciliation means that our "at-one-ment" has taken place. Only in Christ do God and the believing sinner concur. God rejoices in His own perfection, and so must the sinner if reconciliation has taken place. Mere pardon would mean only the (negative) cessation of penalty. It would not mean the (positive) fellowship of God and the sinner. Heaven is promised as a reward only to the righteous. The merely pardoned have no title to such.

What is true of mere pardon (see section 1 of this lecture) is also true of inadequate grounds of justification. Those proposing infusion of righteousness or faith as the righteousness valid before God, take no real note of guilt. The conscience craves complete assurance. And what if that righteousness which is infused be perfect in degree? What of the past (pre-infusion) acts of transgression, written indelibly into the conscience of the transgressor, which cry out for satisfaction? Infusion of righteousness is adequate only when and where there is no guilt — i.e., where there has been no transgression (Adam before the Fall).

So, in conclusion, we contend that the perfect satisfaction of Christ is demanded by the character of God, the Heinousness of sin and the craving of the conscience. All who deny the necessity of such a satisfaction and all who propound inadequate views of it, pay little or no attention to these demands.