Because all people are sinners and offenders against God, and breakers of his law and commandments, therefore no one can, by their own acts, works, and deeds (however good they seem) be justified, and made righteous before God. Everyone of necessity is constrained to seek for another righteousness or justification, to be received from God’s own hands — that is to say, the cancellation, pardon, and forgiveness of their sins and trespasses, in such things as they have offended. And this justification or righteousness, which we receive by God’s mercy and Christ’s merits embraced by faith, is taken, accepted, and counted by God as our perfect and full justification.
The justice and mercy of God
In order to understand this more fully, it is our part and duty always to remember the great mercy of God. When all the world was wrapped in sin by breaking of the Law, God sent his only son, our Saviour Christ, into this world to fulfil the Law for us. By shedding his most precious blood, he made a sacrifice and satisfaction, or (as we might say) he made amends to his Father for our sins, to satisfy the wrath and indignation he had against us for them.
Infants, being baptised and dying in their infancy, are by this sacrifice washed from their sins, brought to God’s favour, and made his children, and inheritors of his kingdom of heaven. And those who sin after their baptism, in act or deed, when they convert and sincerely turn again to God, they are likewise washed by this sacrifice from their sins, in such a way that there remains no spot of sin that shall be imputed to their damnation. This is that justification or righteousness which St. Paul speaks of when he says “No man is justified by the works of the Law, but freely by faith in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:20-24). And again he says, “We believe in Jesus Christ, so that we may be justified freely by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law, because that no one shall be justified by the works of the Law” (Galatians 2:16).
Although this justification is free for us, it does not come so freely to us that there is therefore no ransom paid at all. But here, our reasoning may be confused, if we reason in this fashion: If a ransom is paid for our redemption, then it is not given to us freely. For a prisoner who paid his ransom is not let go freely; for if he goes freely, then he goes without ransom — for what else is it to go freely, than to be set at liberty without paying a ransom? This argument is answered by the great wisdom of God in this mystery of our redemption. He has so tempered his justice and mercy together that he would neither, by his justice, condemn us to the everlasting captivity of the devil, and his prison of Hell, remediless for ever without mercy — nor, by his mercy, deliver us without justice or payment of a just ransom. Rather, to his endless mercy he joined his most upright and equal justice.
He has shown us his great mercy in delivering us from our former captivity, without requiring any ransom to be paid, or amends to be made upon our part, which it would have been impossible for us to do. And since we did not have it in us to do so, he provided a ransom for us — the most precious body and blood of his own most dear and best beloved son Jesus Christ who, besides his ransom, fulfilled the Law for us perfectly. And so the justice of God, and his mercy embraced each other, and fulfilled the mystery of our redemption.
St Paul speaks of this justice and mercy of God knit together in Romans 3. “All have offended, and have need of the glory of God, but are justified freely by his grace, by the redemption which is in Jesus Christ, whom God has presented to us as a reconciler and peacemaker, through faith in his blood, to show his righteousness” (Romans 3:23-25). And in Romans 10, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness, to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). And in Romans 8, “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4 NIV).
Not by our good works
In these places, the Apostle especially touches three things, which must concur and go together in our justification: on God’s part, his great mercy and grace; on Christ’s part, justice, that is, the satisfaction of God’s justice, or the price of our redemption by the offering of his body and shedding of his blood, with fulfilling of the law perfectly and thoroughly; and on our part true and lively faith in the merits of Jesus Christ, which yet is not ours, but by God’s working in us. So in our justification, we find not only God’s mercy and grace, but also his justice, which the Apostle calls “the justice of God” (Romans 3:21-22, 25-26), and which consists in paying our ransom, and fulfilling the Law. So the grace of God does not exclude the justice of God in our justification, but only excludes human justice, that is to say, the righteousness of our works, as if they could be meritorious and earn our justification.
Therefore, St. Paul declares here nothing on our part, concerning our justification, but only a true and lively faith, which nevertheless is the gift of God, and not our work alone, without God. And yet that faith does not exclude repentance, hope, love, dread, and the fear of God, to be joined with faith in everyone who is justified. But it does exclude them from the role of justifying. So that although they are all present together in the one who is justified, yet they do not themselves justify us.
Nor does faith exclude the righteousness of our good works, which are necessarily to be done afterwards out of duty towards God. For we are very much bound to serve God, in doing good deeds, commanded by him in his holy Scripture, all the days of our life. But it excludes them in the sense that we may not do them with this intent: to be made good by doing them. For all the good works that we can do are imperfect, and therefore not able to deserve our justification. But our justification comes freely by the mere mercy of God, and of such great and free mercy that whereas no-one in the world was able of themselves to pay any part towards their ransom, it pleased our heavenly Father of his infinite mercy, without us deserving any of it, to prepare for us the most precious jewels of Christ’s body and blood, whereby our ransom might be fully paid, the Law fulfilled, and his justice fully satisfied. So that Christ is now the righteousness of all those who truly believe in him. He, for them, paid their ransom by his death. He, for them, fulfilled the Law in his life. So that now in him, and by him, every true Christian may be called a fulfiller of the Law, because that which their infirmity lacked, Christ’s justice has supplied.