A few remarks on a tract by John Venn, M.A.
We duly received your letter, and tract on Justification. We should hesitate to notice it, were it not for the importance of the subject. The object of the writer may be very sincere, but the tendency of the tract, is to confuse the mind: and only lead to uncertainty and unbelief.
We find no such teaching in the scriptures as that, "if a man should pay an absolutely perfect obedience to the law of God throughout his whole course, he would obtain eternal life" and that, "even if it were possible for a man thus to fulfil the law, and any one were to do so, the gift of eternal life would be wholly of grace; inasmuch as even an absolutely perfect obedience can never give the slightest right to a reward."
The teaching of scripture is the opposite of this: "Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." (Rom. 4:4, 5.) If man could have worked out a perfect righteousness of his own, he would have received his just reward. (Rom. 2:6-11). But all are proved guilty: both Jews who were under law, and Gentiles who were not under law. (Rom. 3:9-19). The Jews had many advantages, but being proved guilty, the law could not help, or justify the guilty. Then if the Gentiles were also guilty, it was no use putting them under law: as all were guilty. No flesh living could be justified, on the principle of law. This must be first proved, and is so proved in Rom. 3: before the Apostle explains the true ground of justification. It is no use reasoning further about the law, for man is found guilty: and the law curses him if under it, "For as many as are of the works of the law, are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them." ― Gal. 3:10.
Now it is evident, that a guilty sinner cannot be accounted righteous and cursed, on the same principle of law. Thus to seek righteousness by law, is to pursue an impossibility.
In order then to the justification of a sinner, another righteousness is revealed in the Gospel, even the righteousness of God; but this without the law, apart from the law. (Rom. 1:17; 3:21.) That by which God is righteous, just, in justifying the sinner: that is "through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus," witnessed by the law, the psalms, and the prophets. Every sacrifice before, or under law, the psalms, and the prophets, set forth the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. He is the glorious theme of scripture. The Paschal Lamb: the day of atonement: the cry of the forsaken one, in Psalm 22. The sin bearer of Isaiah 53. All bear witness to that atoning death, by which God is just, and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus.
The writer of the tract is too little occupied with the righteousness of God: and like thousands more, too much occupied about his faith: making it really a kind of work, for which, if the right sort, and strong enough, God will justify him. This is a very common snare of the enemy: if he can only get us thinking about ourselves, the eye is then off Christ. Let us take the well known illustration given by the Lord: the brazen serpent. If the eye had been taken off the serpent lifted up, and the poor bitten Israelite had begun to reason about the strength of his eyesight, and said I must feel cured, before I simply look, and believe, what God hath spoken about that serpent on the pole. Would that have been faith? It came to pass that whosoever believed what God had spoken about that brazen serpent was healed. Jesus says, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted: that whosoever believeth in Him, should not perish, but have eternal life." If therefore we look at ourselves, fruits, feelings, or the kind of weak or strong faith: what is this more or less than unbelief? It may seem strange, but it is only a clear way of stating the unbelief of the human heart, that justification depends on faith, and faith on ourselves. The writer says, "And hence the believer's faith depends upon his grieving or not grieving the Spirit: and its strength will vary with his works. ― How then, it may be asked, can we know whether our faith is strong enough to justify us? the only answer I can give is this: we may know it by conscious experience of the results of justification. As soon as we are justified, the Spirit regenerates us," etc. Could anything be better calculated to bewilder an anxious soul? Justification depends on the strength of faith, and the strength of faith on works. And all this before the Spirit regenerates us, and implants a new nature! Again the writer says, "Justification we may now observe is perfect while faith lasts." "Faith is exclusively a work or an exercise of the understanding." "It is true that faith must be obtained (though it is a gift from God) by the use of certain moral means, such as repentance and works meet for repentance." "It is faith therefore, a pure intellectual act, which is counted righteousness to us: " and much more of the same kind so mixed up with truth, as to greatly deceive and perplex.
We would not have transcribed so much confusion, were it not that it expresses the thoughts of the natural man, so exactly. How many suppose they have to repent, and to bring forth fruit meet for repentance, before they believe? This entirely overlooks man's ruined and lost condition in sin. Did the Ninevites repent before they believed? How could they? Did good moral acts, and fruits, lead them to a purely intellectual act? They believed God and then repented.
Again, how many think they can only know their justification, by "conscious experience." They thus spend their lives in gloomy uncertainty. The eye is entirely off Christ, and ever looking within, at experience. The more we do so, the more wretched we are. Is it not so? There is the hidden doctrine of Rome here: or rather, as we said, of every unbelieving heart. If faith then is not knowing my justification by looking within at conscious experience,
What then is faith? On what does it rest?
Faith that justifies: is the believing God, believing what He says He has done to justify me as a lost sinner. Faith knows what God says is true. Solely because He says it. To believe the church, or to believe in my own conscious experience, is simply not to believe God, because God speaks. See how the Thessalonians believed. ― 1 Thess. 2:13. Let us put it thus, to return to scripture. All are proved guilty and under judgment. Rom. 3:9. Now take ten men proved guilty, and under sentence of death. Her Majesty sends them a free pardon. Five of them hear the written pardon read, and believe it as the word of her Majesty the Queen: and are immediately set free. The others reason about conscious experience and find themselves still in prison. That is their experience. They cannot therefore for want of experience believe the Queen. That is they reject her word as false, and perish on the scaffold. Oh how many thus reject the word of God and look to conscious experience. If the sinner then can repent, bring forth fruits of repentance, believe as an intellectual act, he is certainly far from lost: and all this before he is born again or regenerated.
It is quite true scriptures may be quoted where many believed and were not justified. Such as John 2:23; 8:30, etc. But what did these believe? They evidently believed in Jesus as a prophet or as the Messiah. For as yet the disciples "knew not the scriptures, that He must rise again from the dead." It was not until after His resurrection that He opened their understandings. Luke 24:26, 27, 44, 47. If we only believe on Christ as a mere man, a prophet, or Messiah, this will come far short, of that which will enable us to say "Being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
What is justification then according to scripture? It is thus described. It is to be reckoned or accounted righteous without works. "Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth (or reckoneth) righteousness without works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin." It is thus a man is accounted righteous before God. Not only sins forgiven, but the Lord will not impute sin.
How is God righteous, in giving guilty sinners such as we are, such blessedness? He is the justifier of Him that believeth in Jesus. But how can He be just in doing this? He has given His Son to be the propitiation for sins: and in this His righteousness is revealed, and set forth. Abraham believed God before His righteousness was thus revealed. God may have given him in some measure to understand the figure, in the resurrection of Isaac, how God would provide Himself a lamb. Faith was reckoned to him for righteousness. "And being fully persuaded that what He had promised He was able to perform." Yes, he believed the bare word of God, "and therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness." There this difference with us, the righteousness of God is fully set forth by the propitiation of the death of the Lord Jesus. The promise is fulfilled. The work accomplished. "It is finished."
How then are we justified? How are we accounted righteous before God? "If we believe (or believing) on Him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification." Thus the scripture declares that not only was righteousness reckoned to Abraham, but to us, believing what God has now done in order to be righteous, in justifying us. And mark the resurrection of Christ from the dead proves that God is glorified by His death, and therefore He has straightway glorified Him. There can be no mistake here, it is the word of God, not my changing conscious experience. There is not a word here about our feelings or doings. Believing, we are accounted righteous, or justified.
Believing whom? God, who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead. Reader, can you say I believe God who raised up my Jesus from the dead?
Believe what? "Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification." Reader, can you say I believe Jesus was delivered for my offences? Was Jesus delivered up to bear your sins on the cross? To be your sin-bearer: your substitute, bearing the full judgment due to your sins? Do you believe that God delivered up His beloved Son for this? Oh what untold love to you a guilty sinner. Do you believe God? Nay, still more; that He was raised again for your justification. Do you believe God raised Him from the dead for your very justification? That as He had been made sin for you, you might become the righteousness of God in Him. It is not possible thus to believe God, and not be justified. For the word of God says, "Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." It is by the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, that God is righteous in justifying the ungodly.
Now we would especially point out, that in the epistle to the Romans, the very epistle written on this subject, that it is the exact opposite to the tract sent us. In it, experience, as is commonly the case, comes first. In this inspired epistle there is not a word about experience, until after the believer is justified and has peace with God.
It is a righteousness wholly of God. It is the righteousness of God, apart from the law, and man, and experience altogether. But righteousness, or God revealed to be righteous, in justifying the sinner: whether those who were justified before, or now, by the death and resurrection of Christ. Not that (as is said by many) by which we are made righteous personally in ourselves, but that by which God is righteous in reckoning us so: and treating us as righteous before Him. So that the blood of Jesus having put away our sins from the sight of God: we are so justified from them by His blood, that God cannot in righteousness remember them against us any more.
There is thus nothing betwixt our souls and God. In the full blaze of the light and glory of God, we have peace with God. For He who is in the presence of God as man, is our peace. He has made peace by the blood of the cross. It is as perfect and as stable as the throne of God. For He who is our peace is seated on the Father's throne. Oh, reader, if you believe God, let no man rob you of this perfect peace with God: being justified by faith.
This tract we have read would lead us from Christ, to faith; or rather to intellectual self. The author may not intend it, for in some sort he admits the believer's security. Yet he makes faith an intellectual act of man, before regeneration, and he is only is so long as be believes. Faith s thus turned into works, and thus it leads to salvation by works. It is the common mistake of, what I am and what I do; not what God is, and what He has done for me. It is also the faith of the old unregenerate man!!
No person can be sure of justification, and have peace with God, whilst he is on the principle of law; that is what he is to God. Whether feelings, love to God, fruits, a holy life, experience, etc. All this, or any part of it, as going before justification, plainly sets aside the divine principle of grace: of free unmerited favour. If God deals with us according to what we are: it is all over with us for either justification, or peace. Oh precious infinite grace, He has dealt in righteousness according to all we deserve, in the Person of our Substitute. And He who once really bare our sins, is now in the glory. Surely the sins are gone, they are not on Him now. If He is our accomplished righteousness there, then it is evident, our justification lasts as long as He is our righteousness, and that is for ever.
It is really pitiful to come down from this: and to make faith our Saviour, to say our justification lasts only as long as faith last. This though true in a sense yet it takes as from what Christ is, and throws us on ourselves. We know that faith which is of God is like gold, it will not be consumed though tried by fire. That faith then which is spoken of, "Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ," is believing God because of what He has done: and because He tells us what He has done for our justification.
How is this faith obtained?
The scripture answer is very simple. "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God."
How am I to know that I am justified?
God having up Jesus from the dead, now says, "Be it known unto you . . . that through this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins. And by Him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses." Is not this plain enough? What an announcement to ungodly lost sinners: forgiveness of: and through nothing that they had done or could do: but through this Man. The risen Jesus. And the declaration that all who believe are justified from all things. It impossible to believe what God says, and not know, for He says all that believe are justified. Mark this is not believing that Jesus was a prophet, or even the Messiah in the flesh, but believing the forgiveness of sins that God proclaims to me. And further God declares that all who believe are justified from all things. What further evidence can I require than the word of God. On that word my soul rests, not on my faith. If God says so, do we need either the testimony of the church, or conscious experience to prove what God says is true? The condemned prisoners might just as consistently say, "We must have the conscious experience that we are out of prison, before we can believe Her Majesty's free pardon." No doubt they will have that happy experience, when having believed the pardon, they are out. Believing God we are justified; and being justified we have peace with God: and having peace with God as to our sins, we also have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand. We stand in the free unmerited favour of God. As to the future, we do not reason about ourselves or our faith but, "Rejoice in hope of the glory of God." The question is this: is the believer's security in himself, or in God? If in himself he may cease to believe, and so as the writer says cease to be justified. But his security is, "Much more then, being justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him; for if when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life." It is wonderful, but the believer's future is "much more" than the past. Thus faith is simply believing God. It is not believing in continuing to believe.
Without one atom of confidence in self. Do we believe our salvation is eternal, because God says so? Heb. 5:9. That if we have redemption through the blood of Jesus: that that redemption is eternal? Heb. 9:12. Do we know with absolute certainty resting on the very words of Christ that hearing His words and believing God, that sent Him: that we have eternal life? If we are saved at all: if we are Christians, then it follows that all is eternal. Eternal salvation, redemption, and life. What a portion, and all of God. And perfectly accomplished by Christ.
Where then is the sense of perplexing ourselves by reasoning about our continuing in faith? It is like a man who has had a large estate left him, and instead of enjoying it, going constantly to an oculist to have his eyes examined. Let him look over the estate and if he sees it and enjoys it, he will not be examining or thinking about his eyes.
It may be said, but what about the title deeds of that eternal inheritance? Should we not lose an earthly inheritance, if we lost the title deeds? Indeed we might: yes, even if the purchase money had been paid every penny. Would it not then be so, if we lost the title deed of the eternal inheritance? No doubt of it. Or, in other words, if we could lose the title of our everlasting justification, should we not lose both our justification and eternal inheritance, notwithstanding that the atonement for our sins has been made, to the utmost claims, of a holy and a righteous God? Assuredly so: we have not a doubt of it.
What then is the everlasting title of our justification? Go back to that wondrous scripture. God raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead. Mark, this was after the atoning work was done. "He was delivered for our offences. And raised again for our justification." As surely as He was nailed to that cross to bear our sins, for our offences, so surely God raised Him from the dead for our justification. (It is not correct to say on account of our justification. This would imply that we were justified before we believed God, and would contradict that word, "All that believe are justified.") But when a sinner is brought to believe these two things, Christ was delivered for his offences and raised again for his justification, he can read Isaiah 53, and use the personal pronoun. He can say Jesus was bruised for my iniquities, etc. He believes the atoning death of Jesus for his sins. But where is, and what is, the title of his justification: that he is accounted righteous? The title deed of his justification is this, that God raised up his Substitute from the dead, for the purpose of being his righteousness, for being his justification.
As to his sins, he looks back to the cross: as to his justification, he looks up, and sees Jesus the title of his justification, seated in the glory. What a title deed of the eternal inheritance! And if Jesus be not risen from the dead he has no title. 1 Cor. 15:17. "And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins." Faith is not the title then, but Christ raised from the dead for our justification. Can the Christian then lose that title deed: Christ raised from the dead seated in glory? Never, never, never. Death hath no more dominion over Him. Whether it be as dying for our sins: or as the sacrifice for sin: He can die no more. Therefore it is not only when the believer first believes God that he has his title deed, so to speak: Christ raised from the dead for his justification. But he cannot lose his title to justification Christ is ever on the Father's throne. is He not ever the same? The righteousness of God is thus exalted, above the highest heavens in justifying the ungodly.
Thus though all is lost in Adam, and so far from looking for any renewal, or restoration of human innocence, or of Adam life: we can now reckon ourselves dead, with Christ. Yes how much more has grace abounded. We have much more than Adam life, even eternal life: the life of the Eternal One, who has gone through death for us. Thus, if through Adam's sin there is condemnation and death, through that one act of righteousness toward all men there is justification of life. This short paper will not allow us to dwell fully on the "Justification of life." But we would in conclusion ask the reader, do you believe God? "It is God that justifieth. Who is He that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who maketh intercession for us." We do not reason about the faith of Abraham. He believed the bare word of God: the unconditional promise of God. And faith was reckoned to him for righteousness. The law or conditional covenant which came in 430 years after could not make the promise of none effect. Gal. 3. Promise was confirmed in Christ. Therefore faith in the promise looked on to Christ. But now Christ has come; it is no longer promise but fact. God has sent His Son: He has been delivered for our offences. God has raised Him from the dead for our justification. And is it not equally true to the believer that righteousness is reckoned to him ― that he is accounted righteous before God? And being justified by faith he has peace with God. Thus believing God, all this is true, and for ever true. Yes, believing God who raised up Jesus from the dead your title deeds are ever at the right hand of the Majesty on high. Peace with God is as perfect now, as it will be when we are in the glory. For He who is perfect has made peace. And He is our peace. There is no more betwixt our souls and God, than there is betwixt Him and God. We shall know this better, enjoy it more, when we see Him as He is, and are like Him. But our justification is everlastingly the same. "There is therefore, now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus." The believer's justification never can be more complete than this.
Oh the riches of the grace of God! And grace reigning through righteousness unto eternal life, by Jesus Christ. God is both just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Away then with doubts and fears, away with mere reasonings about kinds of faith: or continuing to believe. Away with all thoughts of self. "Salvation is of God."
"Moreover, whom He did predestinate them He also called, and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified, them He also glorified." Oh, my soul, rest thou not in thy faith, but in the unchanging word of the living God. God saw us in our lost and guilty state. He tells us by the deeds of law we could not be justified. His righteousness is now manifested in justifying us by the eternal redemption that is in Christ Jesus. In His righteousness He has proclaimed forgiveness of sins to us. Through grace we believe Him. And He declares us justified from all things. All praise and glory be to Him. It is not even do we accept the sacrifice of Christ. God has accepted it on our behalf: for our justification. We believe God who raised Jesus from the dead. "Therefore being justified by faith have peace with God." C. Stanley.