Today is Christmas morning. Of course, since most of the family other than me works today, this means I am spending the morning in my usual way. I’m sitting here alone enjoying coffee and reading. My reading lately has been in Grudem’s Systematic Theology because of a graduate theology class I am taking.
In Grudem’s chapter on Justification, I was struck by the construction of a statement. I was struck by (1) the oddness of the construction and (2) by the power of that same construction. However, there is one more thing that struck me: though it contains a powerful statement, I believe (3) it leaves us with possible conclusions about justification that are far weaker than the subject demands.
On page 723, Grudem defines Justification as, “an instantaneous act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight” (emphasis in the original). This is a great definition, but actually pretty standard. It was not this that so struck me this morning. What struck me was earlier in the chapter, when introducing the concept of justification. As the gospel is effectively proclaimed to those who are regenerated and they respond in faith, they are converted and “…God must respond to our faith and do what he promised, that is, actually declare our sins to be forgiven. This must be a legal declaration concerning our relationship to God’s laws, stating that we are completely forgiven and no longer liable to punishment.”
- The Oddness of the Construction: I find it odd to hear the words “God must…” Can you imagine anything binding an obligation upon the all-powerful creator of the universe? Is there anything that can bind God, or limit him? The very idea of the subject “God” as understood in the Christian sense tied to the predicate “must…” seems to stretch the imagination and call for ridicule. God cannot be bound, can he? God cannot be obligated, can he? It seems laughable to imagine any creature thinking the God of heaven and earth can be bound to any course of action. This is what makes Grudem’s statement so odd. However, there is truth to the statement and the truth is far more powerful than we often imagine. We discover this truth when we understand what binds God in this instance—what makes it obligatory upon God to take this action?
- The Power of the Construction: Grudem actually gives us the reason for declaring God to be obligated to act—promise. God promised to respond to our faith by justifying us. But how does that obligate God? You and I make promises all the time. Some of them we keep. Many of them we do not keep. For humans breaking a promise is as easy as breathing. Some people actually make promises with the intention of never keeping them. The promise is simply a rhetorical tool to manipulate another: “I promise I’ll do this, if you do that.” Then when we have what we want we walk away breaking the promise. So, why is it that the great all-powerful God cannot do this? Is there some more powerful force or deity making sure he keeps his word? Of course this is not the reason. There is nothing outside of God controlling or binding God. If God chooses his course of action with unfettered freedom (not bound by any other ethic but his own declarations), how can we be sure he will keep his promises? Could he not arbitrarily decide to break his promise and by declaration make that action good? How can we say he must do what he promised? One answer is found by considering the nature of God and of divine foreknowledge. However, simply saying God will keep his promise because it is in his nature to do so seems a bit…simplistic. I would argue a different tack. I would argue it from the inerrancy of God:
- God, by his nature, cannot err. If he declares something to be true, then it is true. If he declares something will happen then it will happen. If his declaration does not come true, then he was wrong—he would be in error, and thus not inerrant.
- Let’s apply this truth about God to the idea of a divine promise. If God promises at a point in time (our time, since God is not limited to time) to respond to those who come to him in saving faith a certain way, he is actually making a declaration of what will happen—a prior declaration of an event. He is promising that if at some time you do A, he will respond with B (Don’t mistake this for the idea of works salvation. We are simply discussing things that are later down what many, like Grudem, call the Order of Salvation—election, regeneration and proclamation have already happened causing the person to respond in believing faith, confess and be converted). God is declaring in effect, if this happens that will result. The ‘this’ is my response to his actions in saving me and the ‘that’ is his response to my faith. He declared, “If we came to him in believing faith he would accept us and justify us.” If he does not do so, then he was wrong. Therefore, God would not be inerrant. He would not have perfect knowledge. So, because God promised he would respond to our faith with justification, we can say that he must respond to our faith with justification. In this way God is obligated to act on our behalf and declare us justified—not guilty of our sins.
- The weakness of the construction: as I said there is however one way in which this construction is still weak. However, the weakness is not in the statement itself, but in the way many might interpret it. If justification means God declaring us ‘not guilty’ of the sins we have committed, we need to understand what this means. Many will be tempted to think this means God has simply created a legal fiction—in which he says ‘not guilty’ of those who are actually ‘guilty.’ This is problematic though. If God is declaring you not guilty when you are in fact guilty then we, once again, bounce up against the inerrancy of God. This is not what is happening though. God is not just deciding to now consider you guiltless. This would be little more than divine self-deception. But don’t forget that what God declares cannot be wrong. If God is going to declare you sinless, and not guilty, then at that moment you are sinless and not-guilty. But how can this be? Yesterday, I committed sins X, Y and Z. Today, I stand guilty as charged. But today, I respond to the gospel message in saving faith, confess my sins and am converted. At that moment God declares me not guilty of X, Y and Z. How? I am guilty. I committed the sins! They are mine and so is the guilt. How can God do this? The secret to this is in the sacrifice of Christ. You see, God is not simply declaring some legal fiction. He is actually making you not-guilty because he puts those sins you have committed upon Christ. The sins and the guilt of them become Christs—no different than if Christ had committed them instead of you. Of course, there is one difference. If Christ had committed them he would have died for his own sins, with no benefit for you. By dying sinless, our sins are placed upon him (which lifts them off of us) and the guilt of those sins is poured out upon him (removing it from us). When God justifies us he not only speaks the words “not guilty” he has also made us actually “not guilty.” At that moment, I have committed no sins—they all belong to Christ. God can declare me legally sinless and righteous by imparting Christ’s righteousness to me (Romans 3:21-22).
When you came to Christ, you were justified. This means God has declared you not guilty because you are no longer guilty. You are not guilty because all the guilt was placed upon Christ. If it was all placed upon Christ, then there is none left upon you and you are now, through divine intervention, truly guiltless. If any guilt remains upon you—if any stain of sin remains upon you—then it was not all placed upon Christ.