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 The Principles of Theology - Article 11

by W.H.Griffith Thomas


<< The Meaning of Justification

Part 2. The Foundation of Justification

1. The Article teaches that we are accounted righteous before God “only for the merit of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This, of course, refers to His atoning work by which He removed the alienation between God and the sinner, and brought about our reconciliation. As we have already seen, the New Testament doctrine of reconciliation implies a change of relationship and not a mere alteration of feeling on man’s part. [1] This doctrine of Justification for the merit of our Lord is in harmony with St. Paul’s words, “In Him all that believe are justified” (Acts 13:39). The ambiguity of the word “for” is entirely removed by a comparison of the Latin propter, “on account of.” [2]

As already stated, the Article in its present form was due to Archbishop Parker’s revision after the Confession of Wurtemberg, but there is one point of singular importance that should not be overlooked. In the Wurtemberg Confession Jesus Christ is only spoken of as “Our Lord,” while our Article adds “and Saviour.” The significance of this is that in opposition to the essentially legal view of Rome it was necessary to institute the clearest possible contrast between the law and the Gospel by declaring our Lord to be our Saviour. This was an aspect frequently and emphatically brought forward by the Reformers, especially in view of the teaching of the Council of Trent that Jesus Christ was a Law-giver and that the Gospel was the new “law.” It is therefore clear that the introduction of these words, “and Saviour,” were intended to emphasise still further the difference between the Roman and Anglican views of salvation. Our Lord’s perfect obedience even unto death, His payment of the penalty due to our transgression, His spotless righteousness, the whole merit of His Divine Person and atoning work, form the ground of our justification. The merit is reckoned to us, put to our account. God looks at us in Him, not only as pardoned, but as righteous. “He who knew no sin was made sin for us that we might become God’s righteousness in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). [3] This is the great and satisfying doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ which is clearly taught by the Article as meritorious on our behalf. It is sometimes argued that this theory is not mentioned in the Article because of its association with what is sometimes called “legal fiction.” [4] But in the light of the teaching of the Article on our Lord’s merit by which we are accounted righteous before God, the doctrine of imputation is clear, and, indeed, has been taught plainly, as we have just seen, by so representative a man as Hooker. [5]

2. This reference to the merit of our Lord brings into greater contrast the negative aspect emphasised in the Article, “and not for our own works or deservings.” Here, again, the ambiguity of “for” is made perfectly clear by propter, “on account of.” At this point another significant change from the Wurtemberg Confession must be noted. In the German formulary the words are “on account of the merit of the works of the law” (meritum operum legis), but in our Article this is widened into “our own works and deservings” (opera et merita nostra). It seems clear that the intention was to make our Article more definitely anti-Roman in view of the teaching of the Council of Trent. Then, too, the word “deservings” is much wider than “works,” and this would tend to exclude everything human from the ground of our Justification. It is also significant that in the Council of Trent we find these very words, “good works and deservings” (bonis ipsorum operibus et meritis). It is absolutely impossible for human works or merits to form the basis of Justification, for our obedience to law could not bring this about. God requires perfect obedience (Gal. 3:10), and this man cannot render. Human nature has ever been attempting to establish its own righteousness, but failure has always been the result. The Jews of old (Rom. 10:3) and mankind today alike fail because of a twofold inability; inability to blot out the past, and inability to guarantee the present and future. [6] Justifying righteousness must be by a perfect obedience, and only One ever rendered this. Nothing could be clearer than the Article in regard to the absolute impossibility of human merit in connection with Justification.


>> Part 3. The Means Of Justification




[1] “In Scripture, to reconcile one party to another means, to bring back the first party to the other’s clemency, not to persuade the first party to lay aside prejudice against the other. ‘Get reconciled to thy brother’ (Matt. 5:24), means, ‘Go to thy offended brother, and get his forgiveness.’ ‘Get reconciled to God’ (2 Cor. 5:20), likewise means, ‘Go to thy offended God and, in His own offered way, get His acceptance.’ Reconciliation, studied in its Scriptural usage, is a word not in favour of a view which sees in the Atoning Sacrifice primarily an appeal to the heart of man to lay aside hard thoughts of God” (Moule, Justification by Faith, p. 29).
[2] “Christ took on Him the consequences of our sins – that is, He made our responsibilities, as sin had fixed them, His own. He did so when He went to the Cross – i.e. in His death. … All the responsibilities in which sin has involved us – responsibilities which are summed up in that death which is the wages of sin – have been taken by Christ upon Himself. The Apostle does not raise the question whether it is impossible for one to assume the responsibilities of others in this way; he assumes (and the assumption, as we shall see, is common to all the New Testament writers) that the responsibilities of sinful men have been taken on Himself by the sinless Lamb of God. This is not a theorem he is prepared to defend; it is the gospel he has to preach. … Whoever says, ‘He bare our sins’ says substitution” (Denney, The Death of Christ, pp. 98, 99). “There is no doubt about the word (ἱλασμός). It means an offering that makes the face of God propitious” (Simpson, ut supra, p. 97).
[3] “Christ hath merited righteousness for as many as are found in Him. In Him God findeth us if we be faithful, for by faith we are incorporated into Him … the man which in himself is impious, full of iniquity, full of sin, him being found in Christ through faith, and having his sin in hatred through repentance, him God beholdeth with a gracious eye, putteth away his sin by not imputing it; taketh quite away the punishment due thereunto by pardoning it, and accepteth him in Jesus Christ, as perfectly righteous as if he had fulfilled all that is commanded him in the law – shall I say more perfectly righteous than if himself had fulfilled the whole law? I must take heed what I say; but the Apostle saith (2 Cor. 5:21) ‘God made Him which knew no sin, to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.’ Such we are in the sight of God the Father as the very Son of God Himself … we care for no knowledge in the world but this, that man hath sinned and God hath suffered; that God hath made Himself the sin of men, and that men are made the righteousness of God” (Hooker, Sermon 2, 6).
[4] Gibson, The Thirty-nine Articles, p. 406.
[5] It is also curious that this very idea of the imputation of Christ’s merit is vindicated on another page by Bishop Gibson, who argues strongly in favour of the reality involved in what is called “a sort of legal fiction” (p. 396).
[6] “There is no man’s case so dangerous as his whom Satan hath persuaded that his own righteousness shall present him pure and blameless in the sight of God” (Hooker, Sermon 2, 7).







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Article 11

>> Introduction

>> The meaning of Justification

>> The foundation of Justification

>> The Means of Justification


Content of The Principles

>> Index

>> Preface by J I Packer

>> Introduction

>> 1 - Trinity

>> 2 - Christ

>> 3 - Descent into Hell

>> 4 - Resurrection

>> 5 - Holy Spirit

>> 6 - Holy Scripture

>> 7 - The Old Testament

>> 8 - The Three Creeds

>> 9 - Of Original or Birth Sin

>> 10 - Of Free Will

>> 11 - Of the Justifcation of Man




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