The Justification of the Guilty, Not the Righteous

Michael S. Horton
Sunday, November 2nd 1997
Nov/Dec 1997

In an article published in America, January 29, 1994, English professor Brian Abel Ragen, a lay Roman Catholic, observes that a good number of Protestant hymns have made their way into the Mass. He laments not only that the "reforms" since the 1960s have produced a rash of tacky imitation pop music, but that the older Protestant hymns themselves have been revised. These hymns haven't been changed by Catholics because of their Protestant theology, but because of a force that appears greater than either tradition: modernity.

"Amazing Grace," Ragen points out, now reads, "Amazing grace! How sweet the sound! That saved and strengthened me!" Readers will recall the original line as, "That saved a wretch like me!" Ragen observes of the classic hymn's author,

While Newton believed that human beings were wretches, in desperate need of a savior, these 20th-century adapters clearly believe that they and the congregations who sing their words are perfectly nice people-almost nice enough to be Unitarians. They are not bad-certainly not wretches; they have simply lost their way. They are not wicked; they merely have a handicap-a dysfunction-from which they hope to recover.

However, this misses the whole point, Ragen insists. "Grace is amazing because it saves wretches, not because it puts a final polish on nice people." After all, "You cannot be saved if you are not lost. You cannot be redeemed if you are not in hock. You cannot be freed unless you are enslaved." While rejecting human sinfulness, the churches want to retain some sentimental notion of redemption, Ragen says. "Probably the worst example," in his opinion, is "And They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love." Our contemporary praise music, sung in both evangelical and Roman Catholic churches, has left out sin and grace as categories, instead praising ourselves for our love and devotion.

Ragen's conclusion is undeniable:

Those who actually believe in the doctrines of Christianity will view with alarm a movement through which the church itself undermines its basic doctrines. They will be saddened to sing bad poetry, when they could sing good poetry. Even more, they will be appalled to see their own hymns weakening the one Christian doctrine that can be verified from the television news, from the behavior of their colleagues-and themselves-at work and from the quarrels over their dinner-tables: human depravity. What sets Christianity apart from the rest of the world's religions is that Christians both recognize a Fall and proclaim a Savior. They will know we are Christians, not by our love, but by our recognition that we are worms and wretches.

One of the marvelous things about a public confession of sin in the liturgy is that you have to say it even when you don't want to. I can't recall the last time I went into the service longing to agree with God that I am "a miserable offender" who is "not worthy to gather up the crumbs under the table" of God's grace. But it is a testimony to the power of the Law and the Gospel that when I do say this, and receive God's forgiveness, I know why I am a Christian again.

Sentimentalism has created an alternative to Christianity, even when it goes by the latter's name. Writing just after the war, Harry Blamires (a close friend of C. S. Lewis') wrote,

A curse of contemporary Christendom has been the replacement of traditional theology by a new system which we may call Twentieth-century Sentimental Theology. Sentimental theology has invented a God: it insists that he is a God of love, and implies that it is therefore his eternal concern that a thumping good time should be had by all. Are we in the dumps? Pray to this God, and, at a word, he restores us to self-confident buoyancy… Five minutes of prayer to this many-sided God, and we shall be able to rejoice indiscriminately with sinner and saint; we shall be able to spread the family spirit of Christian charity like a blanket over every disloyalty and infidelity conceived in Hell and planted in men's hearts. So runs the Sentimental Creed. (1)

Why is it so hard for us to believe that God cannot acquit the guilty, that he cannot love even if it means that perfect justice is not done? To understand that, we need to contrast the Sentimental Creed (Love Is God) with the Christian creed (God Is Love).

Love Is God: The American Religion

As early as the turn of the century, philosopher William James was providing Americans with a philosophical theory that had already been taken for granted in the democratic experience. As the father of "pragmatism," James argued that there is no such thing as truth in terms of an absolute fact "out there." Rather, truth was to be made and remade, judged in terms of its results-or, as he put it, in terms of "its cash-value in experiential terms." Today, philosopher Richard Rorty has carried this view forward, arguing for the notion of "truth" as "therapy." Ironists such as Rorty believe that what we call "truths" are simply coping mechanisms. If they serve some therapeutic benefit, so much the better. What is interesting, though, is that this reign of therapeutic well-being is nearly universal in our culture. About a year ago, I read a newspaper article on the "Toronto Blessing" in which a well-known secular psychologist gave the movement his own blessing by acknowledging likely therapeutic benefits. Similarly, Pat Robertson has argued repeatedly that Christianity must be true because medical statistics show that people who pray and belong to a "faith community" are healthier.

Whether it's Richard Gere singing the praises of Buddhist spirituality or evangelicals offering their testimonies, therapeutic results fetch a high price. Thus, we are told that making people feel guilty is the very thing we should avoid. A steady parade of TV talk shows, small groups, popular books, tapes, and radio broadcasts-both secular and religious-insist on it.

From the outset, we should acknowledge that there is such a thing as bad guilt. (See Rachel Stahle's article on Cotton Mather.) But even though we have suppressed guilt, denied guilt in specific instances, rationalized and exploited it, rarely if ever has an entire culture banished it altogether. When guilt goes, it is no longer possible to treat people as responsible agents. They become victims instead.

We see this, of course, in our treatment of criminals in the justice system. (In actuality, much of it could be called the therapeutic system.) While we should avoid careless generalizations that fail to appreciate the positive effect of reformatory justice, what is both obvious and ominous is the triumph of the principle that the criminal is not, prima facie, responsible for his or her actions. Victims of dysfunctional backgrounds, they are broken selves that need mending. Their condition is medical, not innate, and their anti-social behavior is not really a sign of wickedness but of illness. They are not "whole." Thus, the primary purpose of criminal justice is to reform these fractured selves and restore them to wholeness. Lacking standards of good and evil, the only counter-weights are "victims' rights" coalitions. Even there, it is not justice, but the offended party's rights, that obtains center-stage. In that scenario, revenge easily supplants justice.

What does all of this have to do with our understanding of guilt in the Christian faith? Plenty. While it is true that the Bible describes us both in terms of sinners and those who are sinned against, victimizers and victims, neither "wholeness" nor "revenge" can substitute for justice. Guilt is to justice what "wholeness" is to criminal reform and revenge is to victim's rights. While the cross is always foolishness to those who are perishing, its "foolishness" is particularly acute in a therapeutic age. Note, for instance, the rationale one contemporary theologian offers for rejecting the classic Christian statement of the problem and its solution:

Is it not a slightly odd view of a morally perfect God that the divine nature can be so slighted and offended by what human beings do? … Anselm's idea is that the penalty must be paid in full; but is this really compatible with belief in the mercy of God? Secondly, even if one can accept that the sinner must pay such a tremendous penalty, how can it be just for someone else to pay it for me? … God shows love by healing, forgiving, suffering for us. God gives us love by placing his Spirit in our hearts. God places before us the ideal of the Christ life, and forms it within us as we contemplate it. But there is here no substitutionary death, no vicarious justice, no literal death of one person in place of another. (2)

Charles Finney and a host of other American revivalists have shared this perspective. Today many evangelicals implicitly share the view offered by Oxford theologian Keith Ward: salvation equals "healing, forgiving, [and] suffering" love. Such love comes to us as a result of God "placing his Spirit in our hearts" and placing "before us the ideal of the Christ life," forming it "within us as we contemplate it." (3) Guilt does not even have to be denied, so long as it is soft-peddled or ignored.

Hardly anyone can object to this kind of "salvation," because it is the solution to an utterly inoffensive problem. What sense does a substitutionary, vicarious, propitiatory sacrifice of a God-Man make if the problem is something other than guilt? People can even go on believing in the existence of hell, as 85 percent of American adults do, while barely 11 percent fear the possibility of going there. We are good people who could be better. And even when we are bad, it's something we do, not something we are. Either we're too nice or God's too nice, or maybe both. But guilt is not on the top of our agenda.

In 1996 the Church of England made news by announcing that there is no such thing as eternal damnation, calling the doctrine "a distortion of the revelation of God's love." Yet this is the direction of much of popular evangelical reflection these days as well. The bottom line is that we want God to love unjustly. Or let me rephrase that: we want God to love us and other nice people like us unjustly. But God cannot love in this manner. He cannot love at the expense of everything else. He cannot deny his total character in order to express any single attribute. God loves justly and shows mercy righteously. He is both "just and the justifier of the ungodly."

God Is Love: The Biblical Religion

An essential mark of God's nature is what theologians call "simplicity." As seventeenth-century theologian Francis Turretin describes it, "The simplicity of God … is his incommunicable attribute by which the divine nature is conceived by us not only as free from all composition and division, but also as incapable of composition and divisibility." The Westminster divines put it in these terms: God is "without parts or passions." In other words, he is not made up of components: "I Am Who I Am." For God, essence and existence are one and the same. This means that he cannot love unjustly any more than he can condemn unjustly. He cannot lie in pursuit of the truth or violate his holiness in order to express his goodness. He is what he is simultaneously, each attribute participating in a unity-not a unity that "makes up" God, but that is God.

After Israel's idolatry at Mount Sinai, Moses intercedes and God agrees to maintain his presence among his people. Moses cut new tablets of stone and, according to God's command, met God on top of the mountain. There God proclaimed his name again: "The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children to the third and the fourth generation" (Ex. 34:6-7). Note that God is only God as he is all of this together: merciful and gracious, just and "by no means clearing the guilty." In fact, God's justice descends upon the children and the children's children. God's nature hardly satisfies the contemporary appeal of therapeutic well-being: "God is jealous, and the LORD avenges; the LORD avenges and is furious. The LORD … will not at all acquit the wicked." (Nah. 1:2-3). "I cannot endure iniquity…" (Is. 1:13). The issue is who God is and what he requires. That establishes who we are and what we need. We cannot start with ourselves in this matter, for our great problem is not that we are victims of dysfunction, but that we stand before an affronted God.

In the worse moments of our history, there has been a tendency to make it sound as if God had simply gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. A sort of cranky old man who is always worried about the neighborhood kids running through his flower-bed: this is the sort of picture that some forms of preaching offered in past generations. But throughout the story of God's people, nothing is more apparent than their treachery and God's patience. Hardly "trigger-happy," God restrains his wrath. But he will not, for he cannot, let injustice reign. While that has always been bad news for oppressors, it has given hope to the oppressed. The problem is, none of us thinks he or she belongs to the former number.

How God Loves the Guilty

If God cannot acquit the guilty or endure sin, how can he also love us? If we do not finally arrive at that dilemma, we know nothing of the story that we find in the Bible. Throughout history, the question, "How does God love the guilty?" has been answered in various ways. Some say that he loves the guilty by simply "letting bygones be bygones." God writes up the ticket, but never turns it in. Others say that this sacrifices too much. Rather, God loves the guilty by making them less guilty. By reforming their character and redeeming their past, he heals them and makes them lovable. Neither of these options matches the biblical response, however. The Apostle Paul explains how God loves the guilty:

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify (Rom. 3:19-21).

First, says the Apostle, there are two kinds of righteousness. Both are of the same quality: perfect conformity to God's holy character and moral will. But "the righteousness that is by the Law" is the righteousness of God (v. 21). It is synonymous with God's personal character: "Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong" (Hab. 1:13). "The arrogant cannot stand in your presence. You hate all who do wrong" (Ps. 5:5). The Law is not external to God, but is the revelation of his very person. He is not by nature angry, but he is by nature just, righteous, holy, and true. Thus, he is capable of anger when his character is violated. Furthermore, God is not only righteous in himself, but because this is his universe, he requires righteousness: "For I say unto you, That except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 5:20). "Who shall ascend to the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart" (Ps. 24:3). That God "looks on the heart" does not come as good news to those with guilty hearts (Jer. 17:9). (4)

When Jesus appears, he heightens the perfection required in the Law. Whereas the Pharisees had thought that they had kept God's commands if they had not externally violated it, Jesus reminded them that the Law required an internal perfection of which they fell far short. God's righteous nature and righteous requirement leads, when it is violated, to a righteous verdict, as Paul explains in the first two chapters of Romans. As people reject all knowledge of God and truth, they descend into the deepest debauchery and incur an ever-increasing judgment. But lest the Jews-or, for that matter, today's Christians-boast in their possession of the Law, Paul reminds us that we are all equally condemned (Rom. 2:1-6, 17-24). Those who proudly tout "Judeo-Christian values" are in no better position before God than the advocates of secularism and per-version. Jesus makes the same point in his parable of the Pharisee and the publican.

The Law condemns, Paul concludes (Rom. 3:5-18). It offers no way out, no possibility of time off for good behavior. God's justice is incapable of flexibility or accommodation because he would be less than God if he were to "bend the rules." As nineteenth-century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge reminds us:

This is the office of the Law. It was not designed to give life, but so to convince of sin that men may be led to renounce their own righteousness and trust in the righteousness of Christ as the only and all-sufficient ground of their acceptance with God…. The office of the Law is neither to justify nor to sanctify. It convinces and condemns. All efforts to secure the favour of God, therefore, by obedience must be vain. (5)

The Law is everything, from Genesis to Revelation, that reveals both God's righteous character and his will for our lives-whether the Ten Commandments, the Fruit of the Spirit, the Sermon on the Mount, or any other command or exhortation in Scripture. Our nature is to believe in ourselves, and our culture accentuates this heresy, so when we hear a command or an exhortation, our immediate response is, "I can do that." We are like the plumber who took a look at Niagara Falls and shouted, "Just give me a minute. I can fix it." We call the Bible, "God's road map for life," or "The Owner"s Manual," but this is to say that the Bible is all Law. When churches are impatient with theology and demand "more application," they are often simply caving in to our natural gravitation toward self-help and away from the cross.

Paul, however, says that the purpose of the Law in this matter of finding peace with God is not to encourage us, but to discourage us, so that we will find ourselves condemned and flee to Christ for safety: "Because no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin." Thus, the explanation that God loves the guilty by merely reforming them is ruled out entirely.

"Law" can appear as rationalism: If I just know all the right facts. It can appear as moralism: If I just do the right things. It can appear as emotionalism: If I just have the right feelings. It can appear as sentimentalism: If I just love. This last one was John Wesley's suggestion. "Perfectionism" had to do not with actions ("mistakes," as he called them), but with the entire sanctification of the heart so that one loved perfectly. But Jesus tells us that love is the summary of the Law! One cannot be perfect in heart or in love if one continues to sin against God or one's neighbor.

There is hope, though-the hope that freed a guilt-ridden Martin Luther. Let us look back to the second of the two kinds of righteousness Paul contrasts: "But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify" (v. 21). If the righteousness that is by law announces that which God is, the righteousness that is by faith announces that which God gives. The Law and the Gospel, on the point of justification, are completely contradictory. The Law commands, with no offers of mercy; the Gospel gives, with no threats of judgment. Both alternatives to this way of God loving the guilty find this answer perfectly scandalous. Neither the sentimentalist nor the moralist can abide the thought that God actually saves and loves the guilty as guilty. But this is exactly what Paul is saying: The Law rewards those who are perfectly righteous with eternal life; the Gospel freely gives those who are wicked eternal life, even though they are still wicked. Paul announces: "But to him who does not work but believes on him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works…" (Rom. 4:5-6).

This message has been the scandal of Christianity from the beginning. The Pharisees were offended, the Judaizers were put off by it, Rome anathematized it, and liberal Protestantism scorns it. How can God legally accept a person as already perfectly righteous even though that person continues to sin? Here in Romans 4:1-5, Paul leaves no question. First, this acceptance is granted to a particular sort of person: "To the person who does not work." Every religious impulse of our fallen heart insists that those who do the right thing will be paid for their labors. But, Paul counters, the Gospel is nothing like that. In fact, "Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as a gift but as a debt" (Rom. 4:4). God will not give anything as a debt, but only as an undeserved gift (Rom. 11:35). All works are hereby excluded, whether of our hands or our heart. Nothing that is produced in us or by us is the Gospel, and this even includes that which God does within us. Not the new birth, not conversion, not deciding to follow Jesus or surrendering all. For in this life, none of us perfectly follows Jesus or surrenders a great deal, much less all. Even our marvelous growth in sanctification is insufficient as an anchor, as it is never a perfect righteousness in this life. Our imperfect sanctification could condemn us as surely as unbelief and rebellion. "Our righteousness is as filthy rags" (Is. 64:6). We need a perfect righteousness, so it cannot be the product of our own head, hands, or heart. It must be an "alien righteousness," something put on us. In the words of the hymn "Rock of Ages": "Not the labor of my hands can fulfill thy law's demands. Though my zeal no respite know, though my tears forever flow, these for sin cannot atone. Thou must save, and thou alone."

The person whom God "declares righteous" does not work for it; instead, he "trusts God who justifies the wicked." It is not just any kind of trusting, nor even trusting in God, that saves. We are justified only by trusting in God's promise to justify us as wicked sinners. Not even our faith justifies, but is the empty hand that receives God's gift and this faith is as much a gift as justification itself. Trusting God "who justifies the wicked" is far more difficult than trusting God who justifies those who are good. It is like someone taking a demolition ball and knocking down the stilts that prop up our religious psyche. It takes everything away from us in order to give us so much more than we could ever have expected (Phil. 3:3-10).

Paul's word in Romans 4 for "justify" (dikaio) does not mean, "to make righteous," but "to declare righteous." Nor does it mean merely "to pardon." A criminal who is pardoned by the governor is nevertheless not said to be justified. If you are a criminal, it is easy to trust a judge who acquits criminals. That simply means that he is lenient. But God does not (for he cannot) acquit criminals. Instead, he justifies them. He does not let them go even though he still considers them guilty; he declares them righteous, so that as far as justice is concerned, they have perfectly satisfied all requirements of the law. But God only justifies the wicked. He does not justify the righteous.

At the end of it all, God's saving work in Christ serves "to demonstrate at the present time [God's] righteousness, that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26). As the hymn writer Augustus Toplady put it, "Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling." (6)

Thus, God does not acquit the wicked. Nor does he love us "just as we are," nor even in view of what he will make of us one day, but only as we are "in Christ." He does not-cannot-simply "let bygones be bygones." Instead, he does something much greater: He justifies the wicked. He actually declares them to be something that they are not within their own hearts and lives. God loves his Son unconditionally and in the Son so too are we loved. Draped in the blood-bought righteousness of the Lamb of God, we are far more than "let off" by divine carelessness; we are joint-heirs with Christ in all that he possesses. From this fountain of every blessing we are given not only the freedom from the guilt of our sins, but from the terrible bondage of our sins, so that we may be moved by divine mercy from guilt to grace to gratitude. In the comforting words of C. S. Lewis, "Though our feelings come and go, His love for us does not. It is not wearied by our sins, or our indifference; and, therefore, it is quite relentless in its determination that we shall be cured of those sins, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him."

1 [ Back ] Harry Blamires, A God Who Acts (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1979), 47.
2 [ Back ] Keith Ward, A Vision to Pursue: Beyond the Crisis in Christianity (SCM, 1991).
3 [ Back ] Ibid.
4 [ Back ] Jer. 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure."
5 [ Back ] Charles Hodge, Commentary on Romans.
6 [ Back ] We never leave justification in order to move on to the "higher ground" of sanctification. The cross and resurrection of Christ are never a grammar school from which we graduate, but form the only possible well-spring of both declarative and progressive holiness.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Sunday, November 2nd 1997

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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