Belgic Confession, Article 22: Faith: Not the Basis of Justification
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Art.22: We believe that, to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Ghost kindleth in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, appropriates him, and seeks nothing more besides him. For it must needs follow, either that all things, which are requisite to our salvation, are not in Jesus Christ, or if all things are in him, that then those who possess Jesus Christ through faith, have complete salvation in him. Therefore, for any to assert, that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides him, would be too gross a blasphemy: for hence it would follow, that Christ was but half a Savior. Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith without works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean, that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our Righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all his merits and so many holy works which he has done for us, and in our stead, is our Righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with him in all his benefits, which, when become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.
Romans 4:5: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness...”
Justification is the legal declaration of God that a person is in harmony with His Law. The basis for this legal declaration is the righteousness of another, namely Jesus Christ. We receive this righteousness by faith alone without works.
In every age there have been those who have twisted or perverted the doctrine of justification. The Arminians are guilty of this perversion when they teach that faith itself is our justification before God or faith itself is our righteousness. This error the Belgic Confession rejects: “However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our Righteousness.” Notice the careful distinction: faith is not the basis or ground of justification, but the instrument or means of justification. This careful distinction comes from a careful study of God’s Word: the Bible teaches repeatedly that we are justified by faith (“through,” “by” or “out of” faith), but it never teaches that we are justified on account of, or on the basis of, faith.
This is true for a number of reasons. First, our faith cannot be the ground of our justification because our faith is imperfect. The faith of the strongest Christian is very weak. Mixed in with our faith are much unbelief and sin. Every Christian can identify with the man who cried out to Jesus with tears, “Lord, I believe. Help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Our faith is, therefore, not a righteous basis for our justification. Second, our faith cannot be the ground of our justification because our faith does not fulfil the demands of God’s Law. Even if our faith were perfect—not weak, imperfect, unstable, changing and faltering—it would not answer the charges of God’s Law against us (we have sinned and deserve death) or the demands of God’s Law concerning us (we owe God lifelong, perfect obedience in love with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength). Only Christ has done that, and therefore only His obedience can be our righteousness or the basis of our justification. The Arminians’ error is to deny God’s justice. They imagine that God will accept something less than perfect obedience—our faith. But then God would deny Himself and would not be just. Such is impossible.
To this the Arminian objects by quoting Romans 4:5, “his faith is counted for righteousness.” In v. 3, Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” It would appear, then, that the basis for Abraham’s justification was Abraham’s faith, that faith itself was Abraham’s righteousness. But that is emphatically not what Paul is teaching here. First, as with us, Abraham’s faith was weak and faltering. Just read Genesis to observe how God had to test and purify Abraham’s faith through trials. Second, faith in v. 5 refers to the object of Abraham’s faith, which is Christ. Abraham, even in the days of types and shadows, saw Christ, and believed in Him (John 8:56). God reckoned to Abraham not his faith—as if that were something meritorious—but that which Abraham embraced by faith, Jesus Christ and His righteousness.
The same is true for us. Our righteousness is Christ’s righteousness received by faith alone.
Rev. Martyn McGeown (Larisa)
Pastorates: Missionary-pastor in Limerick, Ireland for the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Northern Ireland - 2010; Providence PRC (Hudsonville, MI), Sept. 2021Website: www.prca.org/current/news/churches/usa-canada/providence-prc-hudsonville-mi
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