God Imputes Righteousness, Not Faith
Q. 73. How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?
A. Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification (Romans 4:5; 10:10); but only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness.
Believing is not a good work. It earns nothing. If there were such a thing as a righteous person other than Jesus Christ, there would be no need to impute his righteousness to him. For this hypothetical person who earns righteousness by his own good works, having Christ’s righteousness imputed or credited to him would be superfluous, redundant, and unnecessary.
Christ did not come to call those who think their righteousness is good enough. God did not send his Son to die for those who never come to admit that they deserve to die because of their sin. In Romans 4:5, Paul describes God as “him who justifies the ungodly.” The ungodly one who despairs of his inability to earn righteousness by his good works is the kind of person whom God justifies, or declares righteous in his sight.
In this same passage, Paul explains that “his [the ungodly person’s] faith is counted as righteousness.” This is the biblical doctrine of imputation, and Paul elaborates on it in the rest of his sentence which concludes in verses 6 -8: “… just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts [imputes] righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count [impute, KJV] his sin.’” As you see, the Bible teaches that while a man’s faith may in one sense be “imputed,” or “counted” as righteousness, in a greater sense, what is really going on is that Christ’s righteousness is being imputed to the ungodly believer–the righteousness of Christ is counted as the righteousness of the ungodly believer. It is a careless misreading to interpret the Bible as teaching that God imputes faith to the ungodly; rather, God imputes the righteousness of Christ to him.
What, then, is the source of this faith by which we are justified by the imputed righteousness of Christ? “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:10). In the song, “Rock of Ages,” Christians sing, “Nothing in my hand I bring/Simply to the cross I cling.” It is not the work of our hands by which we are justified, but the gracious gift of faith which emerges from a regenerate, spiritually living heart which has been newly freed from sin and empowered to rest on the finished work of his righteous Savior who has been crucified and risen for him. We may be justified by a righteousness that is not our own, but that righteousness is received by a faith that is very much our own, graciously enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Answer #73 of the Westminster Larger Catechism, then, further denies that the faith by which he is justified was not imputed to him—it was not the faith of another, but his own faith which arises by God’s grace from his own regenerate heart. His faith is the fruit grown on the good tree of his own regenerate heart.
How Faith Does NOT Justify
Q. 73. How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?
A. Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it (Gal. 3:11; Rom. 3:28), nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness.
Faith is the means which God has ordained for the elect in order that he may declare them righteous in his sight. Man, unfortunately, assumes he must perform, to achieve a perfect score when it comes to keeping God’s moral law. In this assumption, he is sadly mistaken. Paul writes in Galatians 3:11, “no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Later in his great exposition of the gospel in his epistle to the Romans, Paul echoes this truth when he writes, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).
In keeping with this Pauline distinction between faith and the law, the framers of the Westminster Standards of 1649 write in their Larger Catechism, “Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it…” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A #73). Here they write that good works are the fruit of faith, not the condition the elect must meet so God will declare them righteous in his sight (justify them). The catechism answer also denies that the other graces that accompany faith are the way we receive God’s justifying declaration of righteousness. For example, graces such as hope, love, joy, or any others are excluded, along with good works, as the basis on which faith justifies the sinner.
In short, faith does not justify because of good works; rather, good works are the result of justification by faith alone.
The Biblical Basis of the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms
As a member of a local confessional Presbyterian church and coming from my background as an Independent Baptist, I can’t help but notice how easy it is to confirm the common accusation that “Presbyterians often seem to cite the Confession more readily than they do the Bible.” As I listen to teaching (that of no one in particular, and this is not restricted to my own congregation), I often find myself listening to it as if I were a Baptist who was hearing this presentation for the first time. It doesn’t take long before all the biblicist defenses go up. A Reformed teacher will teach a vital biblical truth and then they will cite the Westminster Standards or something from the Three Forms of Unity (click on the “Creeds, Etc.” link at the top of this webpage for more information on these Reformed doctrinal standards). The response a self-respecting biblicist is trained to make to a presentation like this is, “That’s nice, now what does the Bible say about it?” or, more boldly, they might declare, “I don’t care what your confession or catechism says, what does the Bible say?”
It occurs to me that if Presbyterians and those of other confessional Reformed denominations want to persuade those from outside their tradition, like Baptists, to believe that what Reformed confessions and catechisms teach is based on the Bible, then perhaps it would be time well spent to express their biblically based confessional statements by first disclosing what the Bible says and working from this to showing how what the confession or catechism says is solidly based on what the Bible says.
After all, a “Confession” is not intended to be a rival for the Bible, but an expression of what Reformed churches believe the Bible teaches. To use the word “Confession” alone does not necessarily communicate this ultimate point to those from outside the tradition. That’s why when I personally explain things related to the Confession of Faith, I will put the word “Confession” in a sentence that attempts to fully express what a Confession of Faith is. For example, “This biblical truth (whatever it may be) is worded this way, or that way, in the Confession of what Reformed churches believe best summarizes the teaching of the Bible.”
Now I realize there are many good Reformed teachers who are careful to base their arguments on Scripture, but the stereotype that the Reformed in general have a bad habit of quoting the confession more than they do the Bible is grounded in verifiable reality. I love hearing an explanation of what the Confession teaches, but then, I have already gotten over the hurdle of being persuaded that what the Confession teaches is what the Bible teaches, although not infallibly, of course.
For this reason, I have decided to engage in a little exercise for a while, which I will share with my readers. In the spirit of how I would like to hear the teaching of the Reformed confessions and catechisms expressed, I’m simply going to take the Scripture Proofs cited for almost any given phrase in the Westminster Larger Catechism (which my church currently happens to being going through), summarize the point being highlighted in the verses, cite the verses themselves, then explain that this is the reason the Catechism reads the way it reads.
Sound like fun? I hope you’ll join me! In the following post, I will give this treatment to the first clause in Question and Answer #73 of the Westminster Larger Catechism.
The Instrument of Faith
Who will become a child of God? The one who is “in Christ.” Who will get “into Christ”? The one who receives Christ by faith, or, according to the original Greek, believing “into” him. John writes, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in (literally, “into”) his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
Faith which places the sinner “in Christ” is not merely an acknowledgment that there was a historical figure named Jesus of Nazareth who embarked on an itinerant ministry which lead many first century Jews to conclude that he was the Anointed One (“Christ”) proclaimed by the Old Testament prophets. Faith in Christ does begin with such knowledge, even assenting to the truthfulness of such a proposition, but it must also result in a willingness to rest on the righteousness which Christ is proclaimed in the gospel message to have earned by his flawless observance of the law of Moses which has at its heart the moral law of God, confessing that by one’s own observance of God’s law he will not be able to earn for himself the same kind of inherent righteousness. As Paul writes in Galatians 2:16:
So being found in Christ depends on having the righteousness of Christ which comes from God, and having the righteousness which comes from God depends on faith. In Philippians 3:9 it is written, “and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” So we see that when faith is imputed as righteousness, faith is not the thing that makes a person inherently righteous, but rather it is simply what the Westminster Divines call in Q&A #73 of the Larger Catechism, “an instrument by which he receiveth and applieth Christ and his righteousness.”