The Grace of Christ, or,
Sinners Saved by Unmerited Kindness

William S. Plumer, 1853

"We believe it is through the grace of our
 Lord Jesus that we are saved." Acts 15:11


No doctrine is more important than that of justification before God. This has long been the judgment of the Christian world. Luther says: "The article of justification being lost, all Christian doctrine perishes with it." He elsewhere calls justification "the article of a standing or falling church." Melancthon says: "We are brought into danger for the only reason—that we deny the Romish doctrine of justification." Calvin says: "If this one head were yielded safe and entire, it would not pay the cost to make any great quarrel about other matters in controversy with Rome." Hooker says: "The grand question, that hangs in controversy between us and Rome is about the matter of justifying righteousness." John Newman says: "A sinner's justification before God is a doctrine of great importance in the Christian religion." Usher says: "The strong bastion of our Reformed Church is justification by faith; erected upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone. That gone, the temple is taken, the ark is in captivity; from the daughter of Zion all her beauty is departed." Hall says: "That point of justification, of all others, is exceeding important." John Newton says: "The great privilege of the elect, comprehensive of every blessing, is, that they are justified, finally and authoritatively justified.' Dr. Thomas Scott says: "'How should man be just with God?' All our eternal interests depend on the answer, which, in our creed and experience, we return to this question: for if God has, for the glory of his own name, law, and government, appointed a method of justifying sinners, and revealed it in the gospel; and they in the pride of their hearts, refuse to seek the blessing in this way, but will come for it according to their own devices; he may justly, and will certainly, leave them under merited condemnation."

The elder Edwards presents the following considerations in proof of the importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone:

1. "The Scripture treats of this doctrine as a doctrine of very great importance."

2. "The adverse scheme lays another foundation of man's salvation, than which God has laid."

3. "It is in this doctrine that the most essential difference lies between the covenant of grace and the first covenant."

4. "This is the main thing for which fallen men stood in need of a divine revelation, to teach us how we who have sinned may come to be again accepted of God."

5. "The contrary scheme of justification derogates much from the honor of God and the Mediator."

6. "The opposite scheme does most directly tend to lead men to trust in their own righteousness for justification, which is a thing fatal to the soul."

One tells us that the Popish fathers and divines of the Council of Trent admitted that all the alleged errors of Luther could be traced to his views on justification, and that the only way to maintain the other dogmas of Rome was "to overthrow the heresy of justification by faith only." Socinus calls this doctrine base and pernicious, and says it is to be execrated and detested. Swedenborg and his followers direct their strongest efforts against this doctrine. The same is true of nearly all modern heretics. So that by the confession of the friends and the enemies of the true doctrine, the views men entertain on this subject are vastly important and control their belief on other points. Indeed Paul's epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians, written chiefly to teach and establish the truth on this subject, stand imperishable monuments of the judgment of that great and inspired man as to the weighty matter of justification before God. It could not be otherwise.

We rise or fall, we live or die, we are saved or lost, according as we are justified, or not. On such a subject we should conduct our inquiries with great sincerity and fair-mindedness, and adopt conclusions after much prayer, and in the fear of God. He, who heartily loves and adopts the truth here, may indeed be left to some other errors, which will mar the symmetry of his Christian character, impair his usefulness, and diminish his final reward—yet he shall not be cast off at last. But he, who at heart rejects the true ground of justification must finally, utterly, inevitably perish. So teaches Paul: "For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames." 1 Corinthians 3:11-15.

This settles the question. Justification is the opposite of condemnation. Whatever one is, the other is not. In Scripture they are often set over against each other. "By your words you shall be justified, and by your words, you shall be condemned." Matt. 12:37. "He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just—both are abomination to the Lord." Proverbs 17:15. "If there is a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked." Deut. 25:1. "If I justify myself, my own mouth shall condemn me." Job 9:20. "As by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men to justification of life." Romans 5:18.

These texts not only show that condemnation and justification are opposite to each other, but that these two words are borrowed from judicial proceedings, and so are properly said to be forensic. Justifying is declaring or pronouncing one righteous; as condemning is pronouncing or declaring one guilty. Often in Scripture these terms are said to belong to judicature, as in Psalm 37:33, "The Lord will not condemn him when he is judged;" Matt. 12:42, "The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation and shall condemn it;" Psalm 119:7, "When he shall be judged, let him be condemned." "That you might be justified, when you speak, and be clear, when you judge." Yet, while the term is borrowed from the forum, it is not used precisely in the same sense in theology as when we apply it to judicial proceedings among men. At a human tribunal a man is said to be justified, when no crime has been proven against him, but his conduct has met with the approval of those by whom he was judged.

But when a man is said to be justified before God, the meaning is that a sinner has been pardoned and accepted in the Beloved. Had man never sinned, he would have been justified as one who had broken no law, and would have needed no pardon. But being a law-breaker, any trial in the sight of God will show him culpable, and in himself undone. If a sinner is justified, it must be by an act of grace. The Westminster Assembly thus taught: "Justification is an act of God's free grace unto sinners, in which he pardons all their sin, accepts and accounts their persons righteous, in his sight; not for anything wrought in them or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone." You will hardly find a better definition than this in uninspired writings. It is true, complete, guarded, comprehensive. Let us consider it somewhat in detail.

First, justification is an ACT.

It is not a work, or series of acts. It is not progressive. The weakest believer and the strongest saint are alike and equally justified. Justification admits of no degrees. A man is either wholly justified or wholly condemned in the sight of God. "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." "Who shall lay ANYTHING to the charge of God's elect?" Romans 8:1, 33. And when a soul is condemned it is wholly condemned. "Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is GUILTY OF ALL." James 2:10. "The soul that sins, IT SHALL DIE." Ezek. 18:4. When it is said in Luke 18:14, that the publican went down to his house justified rather than the pharisee, it does not mean that the pharisee was somewhat justified and the publican more justified. The sense is that the former was justified in preference to the other, to the exclusion of the other. The publican was perfectly justified, the pharisee was not at all justified. There is a moment, when a man is under the curse, and a moment when he comes to be under grace.

Secondly, justification is an act of GOD.

He alone is its author. He is called "the Justifier." "It is God who justifies." "It is one God who shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith." Romans 3:26, 30, and 8:33. We should not forget this great truth. We may justify ourselves, our neighbors may call us the excellent of the earth, pretended priests of God may blasphemously pronounce us absolved from all sin, but all this will avail us nothing; "for the Lord sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." 1 Sam. 16:17. Christ said to some, "You are those who justify yourselves before men; but God knows your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God." Luke 16:15.

Moreover it is one of the highest prerogatives of sovereignty to condemn and to justify. As it is God's government which we live under, as it is his law which we have broken, as it is his Son who died, as it is his tribunal, before which we must all appear; so it is right that he and not another should pass sentence upon us. The governor of one state, or the king of one country cannot punish or pardon an offence committed in the territorial limits of another. It is beyond his jurisdiction. In the moral government of the universe, God's authority is sole, supreme, exclusive. He alone is the Lawgiver, he alone is the Judge. No one has jurisdiction but himself, None can really or effectually justify or condemn but he.

Thirdly, justification is more than is of right due to any man.

Every man is a sinner, and whatever good thing comes to him must be of God's mere bounty. It is a gratuity, not a debt. So justification is "an act of God's FREE GRACE UNTO SINNERS." Considered in regard to holy angels, justification would have another signification. They have no sins to pardon. Their innocence is their shield. In the eye of the divine law they stand on the ground of perfect, personal, perpetual obedience. But the question is not, How are holy angels justified? but, How shall man be just with God? Had man never sinned he would have stood justified in the same way as his elder brethren in glory. Indeed the natural method of justification for all accountable creatures is by personal righteousness, but since man became a sinner, this door is shut up, and cherubim and a flaming sword forbid his entrance into life by that method. The Scripture does not deny that angels stand before God by their works. But it does say: "By the deeds of the law there shall no FLESH be justified in his sight;" "a MAN is not justified by the works of the law;" "by the works of the law shall no FLESH be justified." Romans 3:20, and Gal. 2:16. Paul expressly teaches that God "justifies the ungodly." Romans 4:5.

To say that the power of sight in the blind, whose eyes Christ opened, was the cause of the miracle by which they obtained vision, is absurd. Their ability to see came only from the love and power of the Son of God. To say that a sound condition of the body was the cause of the expulsion of the fever from the veins of Peter's wife's mother, is to speak foolishness. That disease was removed by Christ alone. Health did not precede; it followed the act of Christ. So God looks on sinners as ungodly, and in their ruin he pities them, and graciously pardons and accepts them. This doctrine must be insisted on at all times and at all hazards for three reasons.

First, it is the only doctrine which can properly be called Gospel, good news to sinners.

Secondly, God's honor is more completely staked on the maintenance, propagation and reception of this than of any other doctrine of revealed religion.

Thirdly, this is the only doctrine which produces genuine holiness of heart and life.

Three points of the definition of justification quoted have been considered. Four others, namely—the pardon of sin, the acceptance of the sinner in Christ, the imputation of Christ's righteousness, and the office of faith in justification, remain to be considered. Each of these is vastly important, and shall be distinctly treated. In the mean time let everyone exalt the loving-kindness of him, who allows us to hope for full justification by the blood and righteousness of the great Redeemer. If ever glad tidings of great joy reached the ears of mortals, here it is: "Being justified by faith, we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ."