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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie




The benefits which those who are effectually called obtain through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, are now to be considered with some care, as they are fully set forth in the Standards. It is clear that a very important stage in the exposition of the Standards is now reached. At this point, too, there is considerable difference between the Confession and each of the Catechisms, in regard to the order in which the various topics are arranged. Before taking up the proper subject of this chapter some explanations must be made in regard to this diversity of order.

In the Confession, justification, adoption, and sanctification are exhibited in successive chapters, immediately after effectual calling is explained. Then follows a chapter on saving faith, one on repentance unto life, and another on good works. After this come two chapters, one on the perseverance of the saints, and one on the assurance of grace and salvation. Then comes, last of all in this connection, an important chapter on the law of God.

In the Larger Catechism, after effectual calling and the communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ are considered, justification is expounded; and, in connection with it, saving faith is fully explained. Then comes adoption, and after it sanctification is set forth. Then, in connection with sanctification, repentance unto life, together with the security, perseverance, and assurance of believers, is considered. Following this, there is something further said regarding the communion of saints, and then their death, resurrection, and final judgment are described. At this point this Catechism concludes what it has to say in regard to what man is to believe concerning God. Then, in its second part, it takes up the law of God, and sets forth a full discussion of the contents of the decalogue, and thereby unfolds a splendid scheme of Christian ethics.

In the Shorter Catechism, the topics are treated in still a different order, resembling in part that of the Confession, and in part that of the Larger Catechism. After effectual calling is stated, the benefits which those who are effectually called obtain through Christ are exhibited. Thus, in clear-cut and well-defined order, come justification, adoption, and sanctification, as in the Confession. Then some further benefits which believers receive from Christ in this life, at death, and at the resurrection, are mentioned, but at this stage there is no reference to faith or repentance at all. The law of God is next taken up; and, after some preface, the ten commandments are carefully recited and expounded, both in their positive and negative aspects. At the close of this exposition the question of man's ability to keep this law of God perfectly is raised, and the degree of the ill-desert of various sins is stated. Then the conditions of escape from the wrath of God which every sin deserves are laid down, and it is at this point that faith and repentance are explained, in connection with the means of grace. In the Shorter Catechism there is nothing about the church, visible or invisible, nor is there anything said concerning the resurrection of the wicked, or the final judgment of all men.

It is no easy matter to decide between the merits of these three orders of treatment. That of the Confession, and that of the Shorter Catechism, though they are different, both have the merit of logical consistency. Perhaps the Confession, in handling faith and repentance before it takes up the law of God, has the better order, for that law then becomes the rule for the Christian man in his walk and conversation. On the other hand, it is to be observed that the order in the Larger Catechism, which connects faith with justification, and repentance and good works with sanctification, has the merit of presenting the factors in harmony with the order of their development in religious experience. On the experimental side, therefore, a good case could be made out for this order of treatment.

It only remains to add that the Larger Catechism at this point makes a comparison between justification and sanctification which is of much value, and that both Catechisms are in advance of the Confession in the exposition which they give of the law of God, and especially of the ten commandments. Having made these comparisons in regard to the order in which the topics are treated in the several parts of the Standards, the way is clear to take up justification, which is the first of the benefits of Christ's redemption which those who are effectually called receive. The exposition of this great doctrine may be presented in an orderly way under several heads.

I. The nature of justification is to be the first topic. The Standards have a good deal to say about this subject, although they do not formally separate the discussion into distinct sections, as is done in the explanations now to be made.

1. The meaning of the term itself needs some explanation. It is a distinctly legal or judicial term. It does not mean to make just, holy, or pure. The word sanctify properly denotes this. To justify does not mean merely to pardon, which is the act of a sovereign alone. But the word only and always means to declare just. Its experience implies that all the demands of law and justice have been fully met, and that the justified person is entitled to all the reward which that perfect conformity with law secures, and then he is regarded and treated accordingly. That this is the proper meaning of the term is evident, not only from its general use in the Scriptures, but also from its analogy with the term condemn, which is its opposite. To condemn does not mean to make wicked and guilty, but simply to declare guilty in relation to the law which has been disobeyed. So it may be rightly argued, that to justify simply means to declare just in relation to law and its penalty, and not to make just, righteous or holy. This gives a clear hint as to the nature of justification.

2. Then justification is an act of God the Father, acting for the Godhead. The Standards, following the Scriptures closely, always connect justification with the first person of the Trinity. The Father justifies, the Son redeems, and the Spirit sanctifies, and yet at the same time all three persons concur in each of these acts.

3. Next, justification is a judicial act of God. God in justifying the believing sinner acts neither as a sovereign nor as a father, but as a judge. If justification were a sovereign act it would be nothing more than mere mercy or executive clemency, and would result only in pardon or the remission of the penalty. If, on the other hand, it were the act of a father, it would be mere paternal dealing, without any necessary relation to justice or the demands of law. But being the act of God, proceeding as a judge to administer in a judicial way his moral government in accordance with the provisions of the gospel, justification, resting on the basis of Christ's redemption as fully satisfying all legal demands, declares the person just in relation to law and justice, and hence entitled to the reward of conformity with the law.

4. Further, justification is God's gracious act. The Standards make this very plain. The Shorter Catechism says that it is an act of God's free grace, and the Larger that it is an act of God's free grace unto sinners. In the Confession the statement is to the effect that those who are effectually called are freely justified, and that justification is only of free grace,that both the exact justice and the rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners. The Larger Catechism also goes on to show how justification is so entirely a matter of grace in three particulars. First, Because God graciously agreed to accept in the sinner's stead a mediator and surety. God was under no obligation to do this, yet he did so arrange it in the provisions of the covenant of grace. Secondly, Because he provided in the gift of his own Son the suitable surety, and agreed to accept his obedience and death as a satisfaction in their stead. All this was a matter of grace entirely. Thirdly, Because the condition of justification, which is faith alone, is itself gracious, being the gift of God, so that even the ability to accept Christ, and so obtain the benefit of his mediation, is also a matter of grace. Thus it is all of grace to the sinner, and at the same time all of debt to Christ the mediator.

5. Then, negatively, justification is in its nature very carefully described in the Standards, especially against the errors of the Romish and the Arminian theologies. The Shorter Catechism does not formally state this negative aspect, but it so presents the positive side as to imply the negative aspect also. The Larger Catechism says that we are not justified because of anything wrought in us, or done by us. The Confession, however, is much clearer in its statement on the negative side. Justification, it says, does not consist in infusing righteousness into us; nor does it consist in anything wrought in us or done by us, for this would destroy its gratuitous nature altogether; nor does it consist in imputing faith itself, the act of believing, for this is merely the instrument of justification; nor does it consist in reckoning any of the Christian graces which do always accompany faith, and flow from justification, for these graces only follow justification ; nor, finally, as the Larger Catechism says, is it good works, the fruits of faith, nor the grace of faith, nor any act of faith itself which constitutes justification. In this statement every possible error seems to be met and warded off.

6. The last point here has reference to what may be called the contents of justification, or the actual blessings which it brings. Both Catechisms agree in the brief statement that justification grants the remission of our sins, and secures the acceptance of our persons as righteous in the sight of God. The Confession, however, expands these statements, and three points are to be noted in order.

First, Justification administers the pardon of our sins. This consists essentially in the remission of the penalty, and secures deliverance on adequate grounds from the punishment of sin. This is an important part of justification, but it is not, as the Arminian says, all that it implies.

Secondly, Justification secures the acceptance or accounting of our persons as righteous or just in relation to the law of God. The righteousness of Christ thus becomes ours, and in this we are accepted in him. Hence, no charge lies against us, and we are treated as if we had rendered a perfect obedience, and had met all legal demands.

Thirdly, Those who are justified are thereby given a title to the reward which the perfect obedience of Christ merits. Christ as their surety, having by his perfect obedience and sacrificial death earned the reward which this deserves, provides that this reward shall be made over to them, and this is effected when God justifies the believing sinner. We thus come into possession of a sure title to the reward, as really as if we had rendered the obedience ourselves. Hence, on the positive side, justification brings three important things: the pardon of all our sins, the acceptance of our persons as righteous, and a title to the reward of the work of Christ the mediator.

II. The ground of justification is the next important question to be considered. Its consideration leads back to what was explained in a previous chapter on the offices of Christ the mediator. Especially what is secured by the priestly office of Christ comes again into view at this stage, for it is by means of what Christ does in that office that he provides the ground for the justification of his people. But as this matter is set forth at this point in a slightly different way, it calls for a little further explanation. This is, perhaps, all the more necessary, since it has been previously indicated that, in the chapter already alluded to, no very complete treatment of the atoning work of Christ was given. In general, according to the Shorter Catechism, the ground of justification is the righteousness of Christ alone. The Larger Catechism in slightly different language says that it is the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ which forms the ground. This latter statement gives a very good explanation of what the righteousness of Christ is. In nearly the same terms the Confession says that the ground of justification is the obedience and satisfaction of Christ, and this obedience and satisfaction is, later on in the chapter, called the righteousness of Christ, in accordance with its two branches of active and passive obedience, spoken of in a former chapter.

But, following the Confession, the ground of justification must be more fully expounded. The Confession says that Christ by his obedience and death did fully discharge the debt of those who are justified. Nothing stands charged against them by justice, and nothing which the law demands is wanting to them. In discharging this debt Christ did make a real and full satisfaction to his Father's justice on their behalf. This is one of the clearest statements of vicarious atonement to be found anywhere. The satisfaction which Christ made was a proper one, not a satisfaction in itself inadequate, though accepted instead thereof by God. It was also a real satisfaction, and not a fictitious one, to serve merely as a shining example of patient suffering, or to make a profound impression upon moral intelligences everywhere, or to sustain the authority of the moral government of God. And it was a full satisfaction, and consequently an entire moral equivalent. This, however, does not imply what has been called the commercial theory of the atonement of Christ, but it simply teaches that Christ, by the dignity of his person and the perfection of his obedience, as well as the merit of his death, did fully meet and answer all the demands of law and justice, of penalty and reward. This was rendered to the justice of God, and so it was made strictly under law, and served to meet all its requirements. And, finally, to make the vicarious factor plain, the statement is added that this satisfaction was rendered to the justice of the Father on behalf of all those who are justified. This real and complete obedience and satisfaction of Christ is alone the ground of the justification of believers, and this is the sure basis upon which the divine procedure securely rests.

Positively and negatively this ground is further expounded in the Standards, in analogy with what was said a little while ago in regard to the nature of justification. Negatively, the ground of justification is not good works of any kind, ceremonial, moral, or gracious; nor is it faith, nor any of the Christian graces, either foreseen, or otherwise regarded. It is not found on the sinner's side, either in anything he is, has done, or may become. In this respect justification is radically different from sanctification, though Romanists entirely confound them. And, positively, it is Christ and his righteousness, as above explained, which constitutes the ground of justification. This and this alone is the basis of the sinner's pardon and acceptance. On this basis he is pardoned, accepted, and rewarded. This is a very important point, exhibiting alike the justice of God in the full satisfaction made, and the rich grace of God in the great boon granted.

III. The mode of justification is now to be explained. This follows properly after the discussion of its nature and ground. How is justification effected ? What is the divineprocedure in the case, and what is man's part therein ? The answer which the Standards give is, in general, twofold in its nature. The Shorter Catechism says that it is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith, and the Larger Catechism uses almost the same language. The Confession says that not faith, but the obedience and satisfaction of Christ, is imputed to those who are justified, and that faith receives and rests upon Christ and his righteousness. These statements plainly exhibit both imputation and faith. Imputation is the act of God, and faith is the act of man in the case. Each needs some explanation.

1. Imputation is taken up first. When dealing with the effects of the sin and fall of Adam upon his posterity, the meaning of the term imputation was explained. It signifies to count, to reckon, or lay to the charge of another. The same meaning is now to be retained. Now, so far as the divine procedure is concerned, imputation is the very essence of justification. Moreover, this imputation is twofold in its nature. On the one hand, the guilt of the sinner is imputed to Christ, who assumed the penalty and rendered the required obedience; and, on the other hand, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the sinner, who believes in him. Thereby the sinner is pardoned, accepted as righteous, and given a title to the reward of the satisfaction of Christ. All the parts of the Standards agree in teaching the doctrine of imputation, for which in turn vicarious atonement lays the adequate foundation. These two facts go together.

2. Faith in Jesus Christ is the other branch of the mode of justification. In it the human instrument or condition of justification appears. By faith Christ is received and rested on, and his righteousness is embraced and trusted in unto justification. Christ crucified and Christ risen is received and trusted alone for salvation. Faith, therefore, is the instrument or occasion of justification, and it is the second branch of its mode. As the nature of faith will be fully explained later on, its function at this point is merely mentioned, although, as has already been pointed out, the Larger Catechism treats faith fully at this stage, in connection with justification. For the sake of more systematic discussion, the order of topics in the Confession is now followed, and faith will be expounded more fully later on.

IV. The results of justification remain for exposition. This raises a large subject, which is not easily treated in a compact way, for at several places and in various ways these results are stated in the Standards. Of course, pardon, acceptance and reward come, as a matter of fact, along with justification. As already explained, these three factors are the main contents of justification. The Shorter Catechism also connects many precious things with justification, adoption, and sanctification, but the statement of these is also deferred till a future stage in the discussion.

At this point, however, it may be well to notice how the Standards deal with the question of the time when justification actually takes place, and indirectly with the distinction between what is known as virtual and actual justification. By virtual justification is meant the formal pardon and acceptance of all the elect when Christ ascended to the Father's right hand. Then actual justification is what takes place when each sinner personally believes on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Upon this difficult question the Confession speaks with the utmost caution when it says that God did from all eternity decree to justify the elect, and that Christ did in the fulness of time die for their sins, and rise again for their justification, yet they are not actually justified till the Holy Ghost does in due time actually apply Christ to them. Prospectively, according to the purpose of grace, the elect are looked upon as justified, but they are not really justified till they are effectually called, and led to believe on Christ. Having made these preliminary remarks, the way is open to set forth the results of justification in an orderly manner.

1. Peace with God comes first. This includes reconciliation and acceptance. This peace is primarily outward in its nature, and has reference to the legal relations between God and the believer. By the satisfaction of Christ, God is rendered propitious, and the guilt of the believing sinner is expiated. This lays the ground for outward peace between God and man, and it also carries with it a sure sense of inward peace, which rests upon the assurance of our acceptance with God, and which in turn is due to the work and witness of the Holy Spirit in the soul of the believer.

2. The sure production of the Christian graces also flows from justification. Although these graces are not really produced by, nor do they constitute the ground of, justification, yet justification is always followed by them. And even though the grace of faith is the instrument of justification, and though no other Christian grace sustains this relation, yet this faith is not alone in the experience of the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all the other graces of the Christian life. Faith alone justifies, but that faith is not alone, for it is a living faith which works by love, and overcomes the world. Thus, as justification is entirely of grace, it is followed by the entire circle of those graces which adorn the heart and life of the believer. Good works are the assured fruits of justifying faith, and growth in grace certainly appears in this state of grace. This result arises from the fact that, prior to the origin of that faith in the soul which secures justification, the soul itself has been regenerated and united to Christ in effectual calling. From this renewal and union with Christ, the life of Christ by the Spirit causes growth in grace, and produces good works.

3. Then, an abiding relation of security is constituted between God and his people by the fact of justification. When God, on occasion of the sinner's faith in Christ, and on the ground of the righteousness of Christ, grants the believer pardon, acceptance and reward, the relation thereby constituted is a permanent one. God's unchanging love, his eternal purpose, their covenant relation, their union with Christ, his continual intercession for them, and the indwelling of the Spirit, all conspire to secure the result that the state of grace into which justification introduces the believer is an abiding one, and that the relation it implies shall never be broken. If believers do fall into sin, God, for the sake of Christ, continues to forgive the sins of his believing justified people; and at the same time he secures, by his grace, that they will repent of their sins so as to be forgiven. In this way provision is made in the redemption which is in Christ for the removal of all the sins of believers. Still, it may be, that, like a wayward child, which remains a child still in spite of its waywardness, and is often forgiven by its earthly father, so when the believer fails, and, perhaps, falls into sin, his heavenly Father does not cast him out of his justified estate, but he forgives and restores him when he repents and returns. Justification thus provides for all the sins of believers.

Further, the Standards teach, that while the believer shall never so fall from his justified state as to be finally cast away, yet he may, on account of his sins, fall under God's fatherly displeasure, and experience a sense of guilt and shame from which he will not be recovered till he humbles himself, seeks pardon, and renews his faith and repentance. This statement paves the way for the treatment of the perseverance of believers in due time. Believers who are once renewed and united to Christ, though they may backslide, are never finally lost. Their justification stands secure. Even if they fall into sin they will repent and be restored. They are all held secure by the provisions of the covenant of grace.

The Confession adds that the justification of believers under the Old Testament was in all these respects one and the same with the justification of believers under the New Testament. There is the same mediator, the same spiritual gifts, and the same condition of faith in both dispensations,and the church of God is one, in its deepest sense, in all ages and dispensations. This concludes the exposition of justification, and paves the way for that of adoption and sanctification. The Standards have been closely followed in their teaching upon this cardinal doctrine of the gospel and evangelical religion.

At the present day the teaching of the Standards upon effectual calling and justification merits most careful attention. If the old theology sometimes exalted the legal at the expense of the ethical side of the gospel, the new is in danger of making the ethical side the main thing, alike in the work of Christ and in the experience of the Christian. There is a tendency nowadays, both in preaching and in writing, to lay stress upon the ethical element in religion, apart from the cross of Christ on the one hand and the work of the Holy Spirit on the other. Both the legal and the ethical must be given their proper place and proportions, both in the system of doctrine and in the scheme of Christian life which is maintained. To divorce the ethics of the Christian life from the cross of Christ is to make a fatal mistake. The teaching of the Standards binds them together, and thus gives a sound doctrine and a true view of spiritual life.

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