In the previous lessons we studied the Apostles’ Creed. Now that we have finished this, the catechism takes a step back and reminds us why this was important. In LD 7 we said that only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ, and that this faith means that we believe all that is promised us in the gospel as summarised in the Apostles’ Creed. We learned about the Triune God because we must believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We learned about the person and work of Jesus Christ because we must have true faith in Jesus Christ as our Saviour.
Faith is important because it is the only way for sinners to be right with God. In the words of q&a 59, the reason I must believe the Christian gospel is that only in Christ I am righteous before God and heir to life everlasting. The rest of Lord’s Day 23 explores this further: what does it mean to be right with God, how does it happen, and what does faith have to do with it?
Being right with God
1. My misery
2. God’s mercy
3. The way of faith
There are many people today, even in Christians churches, who think that God should be happy with them because they are pretty good people. If that were true, we wouldn’t have to talk about being right with God. We are concerned about being right with God, precisely because it does not happen automatically.
The catechism doesn’t want us to forget this. The lesson of LD 2-4 must be remembered: by nature we are inclined to do evil and incapable of doing good. On autopilot, we offend God in many ways, because we fail to love him and love others in the way for which he created us. We are not pretty good people, certainly not from the perspective of God’s perfect standard.
We know that this is true, not only because God tells us so, but also because of our conscience. What is your conscience? It is the part of us that judges us, that evaluates our motives and actions, and tells us whether it is right or wrong. Our consciences aren’t perfect, but they work quite well; even without God’s spelling out his law, our conscience is keenly aware of right and wrong.
Our conscience often speaks up when we don’t like it, that little voice that won’t be silenced: “You know that you weren’t nice to that person. You shouldn’t watch the tv series. That creative bookkeeping was really stealing. You really gave that gift for selfish reasons.” And so on. Only hardened sinners can sometimes silence their conscience.
As we learn more about the Lord, our conscience also grows. It becomes more aware of what God wants of us. It becomes more attuned to the holiness of God. It becomes better at detecting sin, subtle sins, attempts to fool ourselves. That is why older Christians often feel more sinful than younger Christians, even though they sin less. Along with their holiness grows their awareness of sin.
So ask your conscience: are you really right with God? Are you such a good person that you meet the standards of the holy Maker of the universe, that he won’t find any fault with you? If you have any inkling of God’s absolute holiness and perfection, there is only one answer your conscience can give you. My conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned. I am not the good person I like to think I am. And the bad things I did are not trivial things; if I am honest, they were really bad. Not sin to shrug your shoulders at, but grievous, serious sin.
Grievously sinned against all God’s commandments. All of them? If you learned anything in the school of Jesus, you know that hating someone is akin to murder, lusting after someone is akin to adultery, ignoring someone is akin to disrespect, and so on. A mature Christian conscience knows, that there is deep inside you an idolater, blasphemer, rebel, murderer, adulterer, thief, and liar. The catechism even says: I have never kept any of them—not that I always sin against all the commandments at the same time, but there is not a commandment that I haven’t broken at some point.
Am I a good person? Well, to be honest, I haven’t always behaved like a good person. I have often sinned. Not only that, my conscience also tells me that this is no fluke, but it is deeply ingrained in me. I am a flawed person, stuck in unhealthy patterns of life. Even if I am a believer, I cannot escape the knowledge that am still inclined to all evil.
And if my conscience, that quiet judge inside of me, knows this, then God who is the great Judge certainly knows it. He cannot overlook sin, simply pretend it didn’t happen. So if I listen to my conscience and consider who the Lord is, there is only one conclusion: I am not right with God, not if he judges me on the basis of my thought, words, and actions.
So it is very relevant question: How are you righteous before God? How can someone who sins in small ways and big ways, from day to day, escape the deserved condemnation by the Holy Judge?
The answer is: yet God… God himself makes it possible for us to be right with God, and he does that out of pure, heavenly goodness and love. Yet God, without merit of my own, out of mere grace, makes me right with him. How? The catechism uses the word “impute”; we could also use words like “reckon”, “assign”, “attribute”. “Impute” means that God officially declares that I am perfect in every way, even though that perfection doesn’t come from me but from someone else.
I have said before, but let’s say it again: there is absolutely no reason why God had to do this. It would have made perfect sense if he had pronounced and executed the death penalty over every man or woman who ever lived, because of their sin. But God didn’t do that. For reasons of his own, he took pity on the sinful beings who had messed up his creation, and imputes to every positive quality that matters.
To be precise, he imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ. In whatever way Jesus is perfect, God treats me as perfect.
The catechism uses three big words: satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness. The satisfaction of Christ is the way in which he sacrificed his own perfect self, so that it would make up for all sins God’s people had committed and would commit; when God imputes to me the satisfaction of Christ, it is as if I made up for all the sin I had committed.
The righteousness of Christ is the perfectly good, God-honouring life he led, always doing what was right, never doing any wrong; he is the only person who can really say: Father, I lived a full human life, and I did all you required of me. When God imputes to me the righteousness of Christ, it is as if I am perfect in that way.
The holiness of Christ is his unique greatness and majestic beauty, which sets him apart from all other people and things in the world, in a way that reflects the holiness of God the Father; his perfect dedication to the worship of God. When God imputes to me the holiness of Christ, he treats me as his uniquely loved child, who may enter the inner chambers of the palace of heaven.
All these things, satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness, are found in our Lord Jesus, and he imputes them to you and to me. This is so wonderful—because now when God looks at us, he sees perfection. The voice of my conscience must now be quiet, because it doesn’t matter any more. It is true that I am a sinner, but what matters is that the Judge views me as the equal of Jesus Christ. Just so we understand this well, the catechism spells it out: He grants all this to me as if I had never had or committed any sin, and as if I myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me.
But it should be very clear: I do not contribute anything to that. It is not Jesus’ satisfaction plus a little bit of mine; it is all his. It is the same with his righteousness and holiness. God’s mercy doesn’t magically erase my past sins and vanquish my sinful nature. I am still not a very good person. But Jesus is a perfect person. And that is what counts; that is what is imputed to me.
The way of faith
Now that we know what is means to be right with God, we focus on how it happens. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ, says answer 60 at the beginning, and it returns to this idea at the end: if only I accept this gift with a believing heart. The Lord gives salvation, because he imputes it to me without any payment or contribution from me. But it is not an automatic transaction, not a mindless thing. Salvation is a gift that must be received or accepted by the person; and the way to do that is by faith. Not just faith in terms of agreeing with the teachings of the Bible or the catechism; not just faith in the sense of participating in activities of the church; but faith from the heart, a deep personal knowledge of God and a childlike trust in him.
In other words: we get these saving gifts from God only if we really want them. If we really look to Jesus for our righteousness and holiness. If we are willing to let him take the driver’s seat, as it were, and shape our lives. Not, as some bumper stickers say, “Jesus is my co-pilot”; but Jesus is my Lord, my Master, my King, and I submit myself to him and rely on him for everything.
The catechism makes sure that we don’t misunderstand, in answer 61. I am not acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith. You cannot say: God, look at me, I did the good work of faith, and that makes up for all my sins, so now I am quite a good person, aren’t I? True faith doesn’t boast of itself, because all it does is receive: it is standing with open, empty hands, to have someone else fill them. Our sinful self is proud, and we like to think that our salvation is Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ plus my faith as the last, essential ingredient for the Judge to consider. No, it can only be Christ’s perfections; only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God. Apart from that, we stand with empty hands. And even that empty-handed faith, Paul points out in Eph. 2:8, is “not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” It would be downright silly to be proud of your faith, because real faith is precisely expecting everything from Christ because you have nothing to offer.
How can we be right with God? It is an important question, and for us sinners there is no good answer except that God is gracious. He is perfectly willing to give us an “alien righteousness”, as theologians like to call it, that is, the righteousness of someone else—Jesus Christ, our Saviour. Because our perfect Lord is perfectly right with God, he can and does apply it to us, so that we stand before God our Judge as if we were perfect. But I must receive this righteousness and make it my own— and that I do by faith only.
And when you have that faith, and you receive the righteousness and holiness of Jesus Christ, your conscience will also change its tune. Yes, I have sinned grievously against God, but I am still right with God. Satan loves to play that game with believers and their consciences, reminding us of our past sins and sinful weakness. But then we can stand up to him and say, as Luther did: “Tell me something new, Devil! I already know that perfectly well; I have committed many a solid and real sin. Indeed there must be good and honest sins for God to forgive for his beloved Son’s sake, who took all my sins upon him so that now the sins I have committed are no longer mine but belong to Christ.”
- What is your conscience? What does it tell you?
- What is (a) the satisfaction of Christ, (b) the righteousness of Christ, (c) the holiness of Christ?
- Under what condition do all these things become ours?
- Is faith a good work by which we can earn God’s love?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Genesis 15:1-6. Why did God consider Abram to be a righteous man?|
|Tuesday||Deuteronomy 7:6-11. What was the reason that the Lord chose to save the Israelite nation?|
|Wednesday||Romans 2:12-16. What does Paul say here about our conscience?|
|Thursday||Romans 3:9-31. What is the basis for our righteousness before God?|
|Friday||Ephesians 2:1-10. What do verses 8 and 9 emphasize?|
|Saturday||1 Corinthians 1:18-31. What is the one things we should be proud of / boast about?|