Machen Expounding And Defending Justification By Faith

It is not, therefore, at all derogatory to the doctrine of justification that it uses the language of a court of law; for a court of law represents—in obscure fashion, it is true—a fact in the being of God. Men say indeed that they prefer to conceive of God as a Father rather than as a Judge; but why must the choice be made? The true way to conceive of Him is to conceive of Him both as a Father and as a Judge. Fatherhood, as we know it upon this earth, represents one aspect of God; but to isolate that aspect is to degrade it and deprive it of its ethical quality. Important indeed is the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God; but it would not be important if it were not supplemented by the doctrine of God as the final Judge.

The other objection to the Christian doctrine of justification can be dealt with just as briefly; since the objection, upon examination, soon disappears. Justification, we are told, involves a mere legal trick which is derogatory to the character of God; according to this doctrine, it is said, God is represented as waiting until Christ has paid the price of sin as a substitute for the sinner before He will forgive; He is represented as being bought off by the death of Christ so that He pronounces as righteous in His sight those who are not really righteous at all. “How degrading all that is,” the modern man exclaims; “how much better it would be simply to say that God is more willing to forgive than man is willing to be forgiven!” Thus the doctrine of justification is represented as doing despite to the love of God.

This objection ignores a fundamental feature of the doctrine which is being criticized; it ignores the fact that according to the Christan view it is God Himself and not someone else who in the atoning death of Christ pays the price of sin—God Himself in the person of the Son who loved us and gave Himself for us, and God Himself in the person of the Father who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. For us, the Christian holds, salvation is as free as the air we breathe; God’s alone the cost, and ours the wondrous gain. Such a view exalts the love of God far more than is ever done by modern theories as to the forgiveness of sin: for those theories are alike in denying, in the last analysis, the dreadful reality and irrevocableness of guilt; they seek to save the love of God by denying the moral constitution of His universe, and in doing so they finally destroy even that which they started out to conserve; the divine love which they seek to save at the expense of His justice turns out to be but an easy complacency which is no love at all. It is misleading to apply the term “love” to a sentiment that costs nothing. Very different is the love of which the Bible speaks; for that love brought the Lord Jesus to the cross. The Bible does not hold out hopes to the sinner by palliating the fact of sin; on the contrary it proclaims that fact with a terrible earnestness which otherwise has not been known. But then, on the basis of this ruthless illumination of the moral facts of life, it provides a full and complete and absolutely free way of escape through the sacrifice of Christ.

No doubt that way is not of our own choosing; and no doubt it may seem strange. It may seem to be a strange thing that One should bear the guilt of others’ sins. And indeed for anyone save Christ that would have been far beyond even the power of love. It is perfectly true that one man cannot bear the guilt of another man’s sins; the instances of “vicarious” suffering in human life, which have been brought to our attention as being in the same category with the sufferings of Christ, serve only to show how far the men who adduce them are from comprehending what is meant by the Cross. But because a weak and sinful man cannot bear the guilt of others’ sins, it does not follow that Christ cannot do so. And as a matter of fact, thank God, He has done so; at the Cross the burden of men’s sins has rolled away, and there has come a peace with God that the world can never know. We are certainly not intending to exalt emotion at the expense of objective proof; we are opposed with all our might to the substitution of “experience” as the seat of authority in religion for the Word of God: but the Holy Spirit in the individual soul does bear witness, we think, to the truthfulness of the Word, and does bear witness to the saving efficacy of the Cross, when He cries “Abba, Father” in our hearts. That cry, we think, is a true echo of the blessed sentence of acquittal, the blessed “justification,” which a sinner receives when Christ is his advocate at the judgment seat of God.

We have been speaking of “justification.” It depends, we have seen, altogether upon the redeeming work of Christ. But another very important question remains. If justification depends upon the redeeming work of Christ, how is the benefit of that redeeming work applied to the individual soul?

The most natural answer might seem to be that the soul applies the benefit of Christ’s work to itself by its own appropriation of that work; it might seem natural to regard the merits of Christ as a sort of fund or store which can be drawn upon at will by individual men. But if one thing is clear, it is that such is not the teaching of the Word of God; if one thing is plain, it is that the New Testament presents salvation, or the entrance into God’s Kingdom, as the work not of man, but of God and only of God. The redeeming work of Christ is applied to the individual soul, according to the New Testament, by the Holy Spirit and by Him alone.

What then do we mean when we speak of “justification by faith”? Faith, after all, is something in man; and therefore if justification depends upon our faith it depends apparently upon us as well as upon God.
The apparent contradiction is welcome; since it leads on to a true conception of faith. The faith of man, rightly conceived, can never stand in opposition to the completeness with which salvation depends upon God; it can never mean that man does part, while God merely does the rest; for the simple reason that faith consists not in doing something but in receiving something. To say that we are justified by faith is just another way of saying that we are justified not in slightest measure by ourselves, but simply and solely by the One in whom our faith is reposed.

At this point appears the profound reason for what at first sight might seem to be a surprising fact. Why is it that with regard to the attainment of salvation the New Testament assigns such an absolutely exclusive place to faith; why does it not also speak, for example, of our being justified by love? If it did so, it would certainly be more in accord with modern tendencies; indeed, one popular preacher actually asserts that Paul’s fundamental doctrine was salvation by love rather than justification by faith. But of course that only means making the wish the father to the thought; as a matter of fact, whether we like it or not, it is perfectly clear that Paul did not speak of salvation by love, but that he spoke instead of justification by faith. Surely the thing requires an explanation; and certainly it does not mean that the apostle was inclined to depreciate love. On the contrary, in one passage he expressly places love ahead of faith. “And now abideth faith, hope, love,” he says, “these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Why then, if he places love higher, does he attribute, so far as the attainment of salvation is concerned, such an absolutely exclusive place to faith? And why did not Jesus say: “Thy love hath saved thee, go in peace,” but rather: “Thy faith hath saved thee”? Why did He say only that to the men and women who came to Him in the days of His flesh; and why does He say only that, in accordance with the whole New Testament, to burdened souls today?

The answer to this question is really abundantly plain. The true reason why faith is given such an exclusive place by the New Testament, so far as the attainment of salvation is concerned, over against love and over against everything else in man except things that can be regarded as mere aspects of faith, is that faith means receiving something, not doing something or even being something. To say, therefore, that our faith saves us means that we do not save ourselves even in slightest measure, but that God saves us. Very different would be the case if our salvation were said to be through love; for then salvation would depend upon a high quality of our own. And that is what the New Testament, above all else, is concerned to deny. The very centre and core of the whole Bible is the doctrine of the grace of God—the grace of God which depends not one whit upon anything that is in man, but is absolutely undeserved, resistless and sovereign. The theologians of the Church can be placed in an ascending scale according as they have grasped with less or greater clearness that one great central doctrine, that doctrine that gives consistency to all the rest; and Christian experience also depends for its depth and for its power upon the way in which that blessed doctrine is cherished in the depths of the heart. The centre of the Bible, and the centre of Christianity, is found in the grace of God; and the necessary corollary of the grace of God is salvation through faith alone.*

*Machen, J. G. (1925). What Is Faith? (168–171, 171-174). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.


About lalvin1517

I'm married with two children and pastor McCall Baptist Church in McCall, Idaho.
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