To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he has made us accepted in the beloved.
The doctrine of justification by faith, the central doctrine of Protestantism as it is sometimes called, is, as it is often presented, a hard, dry, formal statement of a most precious and inspiring truth. The truth is in its very nature so full of tenderness, of affection, of the most sacred and intimate experience, that it is quite impossible to put it into a formula. Let us imagine some doctor of the law going to the home of the prodigal after the feast was over, taking the father and the son aside, and questioning them, notebook in hand: "A very remarkable and beautiful reconciliation has taken place here," he says: "the rebel against parental authority is pardoned: the wanderer has returned to his home; favour and plenty and peace have been restored to one who has long been deprived of them; will you not have the goodness now to condense into a statement not more than five or six lines in length the real nature of this transaction?" The crude and stupid absurdity of such a proposition would be evident enough to all who have read the touching story. As if all the regret, the gratitude, the hopes, the fears, the doubts, the confidences, the anguish, the dread, the thankfulness, the peace of that deep human experience could be reduced to a logical definition! And yet men undertake to put into concise theological propositions the whole truth concerning the return of the sinner to the favour of God. "What is justification?" asks the Shorter Catechism. "Justification," answers the Shorter Catechism, "is an act of God's free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone." That is the scientific definition of justification by faith, perhaps as good a definition as ever was framed. And it may help us a little toward a right understanding of what justification is, just as Weisbach's great books on hydraulics might help us a little toward understanding the ministry of water; just as Bishop's two big volumes on marriage and divorce may throw some light on the nature of the family relation; but he who depends on such a formulary as this for his knowledge of the way in which the sinner is restored by faith in Christ to the favour of God, must remain in profound ignorance of the whole matter. In some way, it is clear, the New Testament represents God as accepting men through Christ. In some way Christ is regarded by the believer as his substitute. He is the Mediator between God and men. By faith in Him we are justified. These words meant something to the men who used them, and they ought to mean something to us. What is their meaning? They cannot, of course, describe any legal transfer of moral qualities. Moral qualities cannot be legally transferred from one person to another. My demerits cannot be lawfully transferred to another, nor can the merits of another be lawfully transferred to me. My guilt is my own, and can by no possibility be imputed to another being. Can anyone else in the universe be blamed for a sin of mine in which he had no part? On the other hand it is equally impossible that I should be regarded as entitled to praise for a good act performed by another person, of which I had no knowledge, and in which I had no part. "Every one of you shall give an account for himself unto God." The entire and absolute personality of moral qualities, of guilt or innocence, of praise or blame, is the fundamental truth of morality. Any legal interference with this fundamental principle would be subversive of all righteousness. But it is said that though moral quality cannot be transferred, legal liability can be; that though Christ cannot be morally guilty on account of our sins, God regards Him as legally responsible for them; that though His merits cannot be legally transferred to us, God does consider us as blameless before the law on His account. We are justified because we claim Him as our substitute. Now there is under all these phrases a great truth. Take the following story as an illustration of it. John Goodman is a citizen of noble character and of large philanthropy. He has a son, whom he loved as the apple of his eye, and who is justifying his father's affection by growing up into blameless manliness One night a young desperado, the offspring of criminals, whose life has been spent among the worst classes of our cities, breaks into John Goodman's house, with the intent of robbery, and nearly kills his son. The father comes to the rescue, captures the young burglar, binds him fast, and waits for the morning to deliver him up to justice. In the meantime the son revives, and, seeing the youth of the criminal, is touched with pity for him, a sentiment that has already begun to kindle the father's heart. Before morning father and son have resolved to make a great venture to save this wretched boy from his life of crime and shame. They tell him that if he will turn from his evil ways, he may have a home with them, sharing their comfort and their plenty; that they will protect him, so far as they can, from the consequences of his past misdeeds; that they will guard him from bad influences, and open to him paths of integrity and honour; that he shall be recognized as an equal in the family, and shall be joint heir to the estate. All this is offered him by the father, and urged upon him, even with tears, by the son whose life he had attempted. Of course it is very difficult for the wretch to believe that these assurances are sincere. He thinks at first that they are mocking and taunting him, and his lips curl with scorn and resentment as he listens. But by and by he perceives that they are in earnest, and he is overwhelmed by their marvellous goodness. He casts himself down before them; he kisses their feet; he tells them in broken words the story of his gratitude. And he does honestly try to live the better life toward which they seek to lead him. It is the deepest purpose of his life to be upright and faithful and pure. But, as anyone might easily foretell, this is a purpose hard for such a boy to shape in act. He is indolent, and profane, and reckless by habit; his mind is full of gross and foul thoughts: his temper is untamed; his whole nature has been warped and corrupted by his early training. This ingrained evil finds expression in many ways. After a time the good man begins to despair of ever making anything of this unfortunate youth; he begins to regret that, instead of trying to reclaim him, he had not handed him over to the police. But while he is thus wavering in his purpose, he chances to enter the room of his protege, and there he finds upon the table a picture of his own son, soiled with much handling, evidently left in sight by accident — and on the back of it, in the rude handwriting and doubtful orthography of the waif, these words written: "I want to be like him. I pray God to help me to be nearer like him. I'm far enough from it now, God knows; but I watch him all the while, and try to live as good a life as he lives. God bless him for all his goodness to me!" The father's eyes fill with tears as he reads these simple words. He discerns in them the deep purpose of the poor boy whose faulty performance has so tried him. His heart cannot but be touched by the lad's choice of a hero. He knows that the choice is a worthy one, and he knows that the lad's love for his own son will have in it a regenerating power. He has no more misgivings concerning the wisdom of his attempt to save this lost one; and always after this he couples the lad in his thoughts with his own son; and feels toward him something of the tenderness with which he regards his own son. Since the poor lad cherishes for the other this passionate friendship, since he takes the father's pride as his own ideal and pattern, how else can the father regard him? He is accepted in the belayed.
(Washington Gladden, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.