“And he believed in the Lord: and he
counted it to him for righteousness.”
—Gen. xv. 6.
The right touches a man’s status. So long as the law has not proven him guilty, has not convicted and sentenced him, his legal status is that of a free and law-abiding citizen. But as soon as his guilt is proven in court and the jury has convicted him, he passes from that into the status of the bound and law-breaking citizen.
The same applies to our relation to God. Our status before God is that either of the just or of the unjust. In the former, we are not condemned or we are released from condemnation. He that is still under condemnation occupies the status of the unjust.
Hence, and this is noteworthy, a man’s status depends not upon what he is, but upon the decision of the proper authorities regarding him; not upon what he is actually, but upon what he is counted to be.
A clerk in an office is innocently suspected of embezzlement, and accused before a court of law. He pleads not guilty; but the suspicions against him carry conviction, and the judge condemns him. Now, tho he did not embezzle, is actually innocent, he is counted guilty. And since a man does not determine his own status, but his sovereign or judge determines it for him, the status of this clerk, altho innocent, is, from the moment of his conviction, that of a law-breaker. And the contrary may occur just as well. In the absence of convicting evidence the judge may acquit a dishonest clerk, who, altho guilty and a law-breaker, still retains his status of a law-abiding and honest citizen. In this case he is dishonorable, but he is counted honorable. Hence a man’s status depends not upon what he actually is, but what he is counted to be.
The reason is, that man’s status has no reference to his inward being, but only to the manner in which he is to be treated. It would be useless to determine this himself, for his fellow citizens would
This explains why, in our own good land, a man’s legal status as a citizen is determined not by himself, but solely by the king, either, as sovereign or as judge. The king is judge, for all judgment is pronounced in his name; and, altho the judiciary can not be denied a certain authority independent of the executive, yet in every sentence it is the king’s judicature which pronounces judgment. Hence a man’s status depends solely upon the king’s decision. Now the king has decided, once for all, that every citizen never convicted of crime is counted honorable. Not because all are honorable, but that they shall be counted as such. Hence so long as a man was never sentenced, he passes for honorable, even tho he is not. And as soon as he is sentenced, he is considered dishonorable, tho he is perfectly honorable. And thus his status is determined by his king; and in it he is accounted not according to what he is, but what his king counts him to be. Even without the judiciary, it is the king who determines a man’s state in society, not according to what he is, but what the king counts him to be.
A person’s sex is determined not by his condition, but by what the registrar of vital statistics in his register has declared him to be. If by some mistake a girl were registered as a boy, and therefore counted as a boy, then at the proper time she would be summoned to serve in the militia, unless the mistake were corrected, and she be counted to be what she is. It may be a pretended, and not the real, child of the rich nobleman in whose name it is registered. And yet it makes no difference whose child it really is, for the state will support it in all its rights of inheritance, because it passes for the child of that nobleman, and is counted to be his legitimate child.
Hence it is the rule in society that a man’s status is determined not by his actual condition, nor by his own declaration, but by the sovereign under whom he stands. And this sovereign has the power, by his decision, to assign to a man the status to which, according to his condition, he belongs, or to put him in a status where he does not belong, but to which he is accounted to belong.
This is the case even in matters where mistakes are out of the question. At the time of the king’s death and of the pregnancy of his widow, a prince or princess is counted to exist, even before he or she is born. And, accordingly, while the child is still a nursing babe, it is counted to be the owner of large possessions, even tho these possessions may be entirely lost, before the child can hear of them. And so there are a number of cases where standing and condition, without anybody’s fault or mistake, are entirely different; simply because it is possible that a man be in a state into which he has not yet grown.
The king alone can determine his own status; if it pleases him to register to-morrow incognito, as a count or a baron, he will be relieved from the usual royal honors.
We have elaborated this point more largely, because the Ethicals and the Mystics have got our poor people so bitterly out of the habit of reckoning with this counting of God. The word of Scripture, “Abraham believed, and it was counted to him for righteousness,”
The Holy Spirit often speaks of this counting of God: “I am counted with them that go down into the pit”
It is this very counting that appears to the children of this present age so incomprehensible and problematic. They will not hear of it. And, as Rome at one time severed the tendon of the Gospel, by merging justification in sanctification, mixing and identifying the two, so do people now refuse to listen to anything but an Ethical justification, which is actually only a species of sanctification. Hence God’s counting counts for nothing. It is not heeded. It has no worth nor significance attached to it. The only question is
And this we oppose most emphatically. It is a denial of justification in toto; and such denial is essentially mutiny and rebellion against God, a withdrawing of oneself from the authority of one’s legal sovereign.
All those who consider themselves saved because they have holy emotions, or because they think themselves less sinful, and profess to make progress in sanctification—all these, however dissimilar they may be in all other things, have this in common, that they insist on being counted according to their own declaration, and not according to what God counts them to be. Instead of leaving, as dependent creatures, the honor of determining their status to their sovereign King, whose they are, they sit as judges to determine it themselves, by their own progress in good works.
And not only this, but they also detract from the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, and from the reality of the guilt for which He satisfied. He who maintains that God must count a man according to what he is, and not according to what God wills to count him, can never understand how the Lord Jesus could bear our sins, and be a “curse” and “sin” for us. He must interpret this sin-bearing in the sense of a physical or Ethical fellowship, and seek for reconciliation not in the cross of Jesus, but in His manger, as many actually do in these days.
And as they thus make the actual bearing of our guilt by the Mediator unthinkable, so they make inherited guilt impossible.
Assuredly, they say, there is inherited stain, taken in a Manichean sense, but no original guilt. For how could the guilt of a dead man be counted unto us? It is evident, therefore, that by this thoughtless and bold denial of the right of God, not only is justification disjointed, but the whole structure of salvation is robbed of its foundation.
And why is this? Is it because the human consciousness can not conceive the idea of being counted according to what we are not? Our illustrations from the social life show that men readily understand and daily accept such a relation in common affairs. The deep cause of this unbelief lies in the fact that man will not rest in God’s judgment concerning him, but that he seeks for rest in his own estimate of himself; that this estimate is considered a safer shield than God’s judgment concerning him; and that, instead
And from this men must return. This leads us back to Rome; this is to forsake justification by faith; this is to sever the artery of grace. Much more than in the political realm must the sacred principle be applied to the Kingdom of heaven, that to our Sovereign King and judge alone belongs the prerogative, by His decision, absolutely to determine our state of righteousness or of unrighteousness.
The sovereignty which reposes in an earthly king is only borrowed, derived, and laid upon him; but the sovereignty of the Lord our God is the source and fountainhead of all authority and of all binding force.
If it belongs to the very essence of sovereignty, that by the ruler’s decision alone the status of his subjects is determined, then it must be clear, and it can not be otherwise than that this very authority belongs originally, absolutely, and supremely to our God. Whom He judges guilty is guilty, and must be treated as guilty; and whom He declares just is just, and must be treated as just. Before He entered Gethsemane, Jesus our King declared to His disciples: “Now are ye clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.” (
When He declares us just, when He thinks us just, when He counts us just, then we are by this very thing His children who shall not lie, and ours is the inheritance of the just, altho we lie in the midst of sin. And in like manner, when He pronounces us guilty in Adam, when in Adam He counts us subject to condemnation, then we are guilty, fallen, and condemned, even tho we discover in our hearts nothing but sweet and childlike innocence.
In this way alone it must be understood and interpreted that the Lord Jesus was numbered with the transgressors, altho He was holy; that He was made sin, altho He was the living Righteousness; and that He was declared a curse in our place, altho He was Immanuel. In the days of His flesh He was numbered with transgressors and sinners, He was put in their state, and He was treated accordingly;
Oh, this matter goes so deep! When to the Lord God is again ascribed His sovereign prerogative to determine a man’s status, then every mystery of Scripture assumes its rightful place; but when it is not, then the entire way of salvation must be falsified.
Finally, if one should say: “An earthly sovereign may be mistaken, but God can not be; hence God must assign to every man a status which accords with his work”; then we answer: “This would be so, if the omnipotent grace of God were not irresistible.” But since it is, you are not esteemed by God according to what you are, but you are what God esteems you to be.
There should never be the least doubt regarding this matter. Every effort to reverse this established order of Scripture must earnestly be resisted. This glorious confession, declared with so much power to the souls of men in the days of the Reformation, must continue the precious jewel, to be transmitted intact by us to our posterity as a sacred inheritance. So long as we ourselves have not yet entered the New Jerusalem, our comfort should never be founded upon our sanctification, but exclusively upon our justification. Tho our sanctification were ever so far advanced, so long as we are not justified we remain in our sin and are lost. And if a justified sinner die immediately after his justification is sealed to his soul, he may shout with joy, for, in spite of hell and of Satan, he is sure of his salvation.
The deep significance of this confession is faintly discernible in our earthly relations. In order to do business on the floor of the exchange, a trader must be an honorable citizen. If convicted of crime, justly or unjustly, he will be expelled from exchange, tho he be ten times more honest than others whose fraudulent transactions have never been discovered. And how will this dishonored man be restored to his former position? On the ground of future honest business transactions? That is out of the question; for as long as he is counted dishonorable, he is not allowed to do business on the floor. Hence he can not prove his honesty by any dealings on exchange or in the market. So in order to start again, he must first be declared an honorable man. Then, and not before, can he set up in business once more.
Call this doing of business sanctification, and this declaration of being a man of honor justification, and the matter will be illustrated. For as this merchant, being declared dishonorable, can not do business so long as he continues in that state, and must be declared honorable before he can begin anew, so a sinner can not do any good work so long as he is counted lost. And so he must first
To prove that this is effected absolutely without our own merit, doing or not doing, and entirely without our actual condition, we refer to the royal prerogative for granting pardon and reinstatement. Altho, among us, decisions of the judiciary are rendered in the name of the king, and yet not by the king himself, a certain opposition between the king and the judiciary is thinkable. It might occur that the judiciary declared a man guilty and dishonorable, whom the king wished not to be so declared. To keep the majesty of the crown inviolate in such cases, the prerogative of granting pardon and reinstatement is retained by almost every crowned head; a prerogative which in the present day is narrowly circumscribed, but which nevertheless represents still the exalted idea that the decision of the king, and not our actual condition, determines our lot. Hence a king can either grant pardon, i.e., remit the penalty and release the guilty person from all the consequences of his crime, or, stronger still, he can grant reinstatement, i.e., he can restore the accused and condemned to the condition of one who had never been declared guilty.
And this exalted royal prerogative, of which on account of sin there remains in earthly kings but a faint shadow, is the inviolable right in which God rejoices, Himself being the Source and all-comprehending Idea of all majesty. Not you, but He determines what His creature shall be; hence He sovereignly disposes, by the word of His mouth, the status wherein you will be set, whether it be of righteousness or of unrighteousness.
It is also evident that the sinner’s justification need not wait until he is converted, nor until he has become conscious, nor even until he is born. This could not be so if justification depended upon something within him. Then he could not be justified before he existed and had done something. But if justification is not bound to anything in him, then this whole limitation must disappear, and the Lord our God be sovereignly free to render this justification at any moment that He pleases. Hence the Sacred Scripture reveals justification as an eternal act of God, i.e., an act which is not limited by any moment in the human existence. It is for this reason that the child of God, seeking to penetrate into that glorious and delightful reality of his justification, does not feel
It should therefore openly be confessed, and without any abbreviation, that justification does not occur when we become conscious of it, but that, on the contrary, our justification was decided from eternity in the holy judgment-seat of our God.
There is undoubtedly a moment in our life when for the first time justification is published to our consciousness; but let us be careful to distinguish justification itself from its publication. Our Christian name was selected for and applied to us long before we, with clear consciousness, knew it as our name; and altho there was a moment in which it became a living reality to us and was called out for the first time in the ear of our consciousness, yet no man will be so foolish as to imagine that it was then that he actually received that name.
And so it is here. There is a certain moment wherein that justification becomes to our consciousness a living fact; but in order to become a living fact, it must have existed before. It does not spring from our consciousness, but it is mirrored in it, and hence must have being and stature in itself. Even an elect infant which dies in the cradle is declared just, tho the knowledge or consciousness of its justification never penetrated its soul. And elect persons, converted, like the thief on the cross, with their last breath, can scarcely be sensible of their justification, and yet enter eternal life exclusively on the ground of their justification. Taking an analogy from daily life, a man condemned during his absence in foreign lands was granted pardon through the intercession of his friends, wholly without his knowledge. Does this pardon take effect when long afterward the good news reaches him, or when the king signs his pardon? Of course the latter. Even so does the justification of God’s children take effect, not on the day when for the first time it is published to their consciousness, but at the moment that God in His holy judgment-seat declares them just.
But—and this should not be overlooked—this publishing in the consciousness of the person himself must necessarily follow; and this brings us back again to the special work of the Holy Spirit. For if in God’s judiciary it is more particularly the Father who justifies the ungodly, and in the preparing of salvation more particularly
For this reason Scripture reveals these two positive, but apparently contradictory truths, with equally positive emphasis: (1) that, on the one hand, He has justified us in His own judgment seat from eternity; and (a) that, on the other, only in conversion are we justified by faith.
And for this reason faith itself is fruit and effect of our justification; while it is also true that, for us, justification begins to exist only as a result of our faith.
Calvin College. Last modified on 08/11/06. Contact the CCEL.