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Christ, the Meaning of All Scripture, Life and History

Chapter 11
The Legal Framework of the Gospel

To many, "legal framework" and "gospel" may sound like a contradiction of terms. In the name of grace, some have tried to strip all legal categories of thought from the message of the New Testament. Because they have equated legal things with legalism, they have divested the gospel of its true biblical framework.

Legalism, however, is the perversion of the law. Legalism is not really legal but illegal. The man who thinks he can satisfy the claims of the law of God by his imperfect obedience is not doing that which is legal but that which is illegal. The law condemns him, not because he has kept it, but because he has not kept it. The failure to discern the difference between what is truly legal—lawful, just, right—and legalism has done much harm in the Christian community. It has created much disrespect for law in general.

General revelation makes it self-evident that we live in a structured universe governed by law. All must live within the parameters of law or perish. Special revelation confronts us with a God who had so much respect for the rule of moral law that He shed His own blood in the person of Christ so that sinners could be justly forgiven.

In the Bible the relationship between God and His people is constantly presented in a juridical context. That relationship is grounded in a covenant, and covenant is a legal conception. God carries out the terms of the covenant with undeviating fidelity. Surely Calvary is proof of that.

The New Testament does not discard the legal categories of thought. Paul explains the meaning of the atonement by using numerous legal metaphors. His thought moves within the framework of Old Testament law. John's Gospel is presented in the setting of a Hebrew law court. Juridical terminology permeates his message. Even the Holy Spirit's work is set in a juridical context. (He is called the Paraclete, one who acts as a Counselor for the defense in a court.) While legal metaphors are not the only ones used in the New Testament, they overwhelmingly predominate. Instead of joining the stampede away from the forensic categories of New Testament speech, we should come to terms with them. Just as Luther found that God hides His mercy in wrath, His power in weakness and His kindness in severity, we too may find that God hides the wonders of His grace in deeds which meet the strictest demands of divine jurisprudence.

We would like to suggest several ways in which God's grace is highlighted by the legal framework of the gospel.

1. The Bible makes effective use of law and judgment to emphasize the human predicament. The sinner everywhere confronts the God who calls him to judgment and holds him accountable for his actions. That God will judge the world and that the sinner cannot escape the judgment of God are fundamental axioms. "Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment" (Heb. 9:27). The certainties of death and the final judgment are so overwhelmingly great that their shadow falls across life's entire landscape. Man is obsessed with the thought of death. (How else can one explain man's love for drama which features death so prominently?) The fear of death unconsciously pervades his whole life and influences all his actions (Heb. 2:15). The human conscience is the evidence of man's indestructible conviction that he is responsible to God and shall be judged. Although they may be suppressed or repressed by various psychological mechanisms, the fear of death and dread of the judgment smolder away to dehumanize the whole personality.

Whereas the sinner tries to suppress his sickness, the Word of God painfully exposes it to the light. Until then the fear of judgment may have lain buried like some dark, smoldering conviction which the sinner could not even explain to himself. But when the Word speaks to him, the judgment of God confronts him like a great thunderclap, arousing him to a true sense of his guilt before the moral law. Every human need pales beside the need to be justified before the bar of God. To say justification is man's greatest need is not to belittle his need for sanctification or inner healing. But surely it is clear that unless the sinner is justified, he must remain crippled by the dread of nonacceptance (before God and his own conscience) at the very center of his existence.

2. Justification in Paul is a judgment of pardon, the acquitting verdict of the Judge on the hopelessly doomed sinner. Its meaning is thoroughly juridical. Paul's doctrine of justification is defined in the setting of law and judgment (Rom. 2). If that setting is removed, it is impossible to understand what Paul means by justification. The setting determines the meaning.1 We may reasonably suspect that many efforts to strip away the forensic setting and rework the doctrine of justification along more congenial lines are motivated by a deep-seated hostility to the inescapable law and judgment of God. Only he who preaches judgment can preach justification by faith (cf. Rev. 14:6, 7).

Many feel that the Reformers exaggerated the importance of justification by faith. But we suggest that they grasped more clearly than we that in justification Paul deals with the fundamental realities of the universe. Martin Chemnitz, who learned the gospel at the feet of Melanchthon, said:

But it must be diligently considered why the Holy Spirit wanted to set forth the doctrine of justification by means of judicial terms. Worldly, secure, and Epicurean men think that the justification of the sinner is something easy and perfunctory, therefore they are not much concerned about sin and do not sincerely seek reconciliation with God, nor do they strive with any diligence to retain it. However, the peculiar nature of the word "justify" shows how weighty and serious an action before the judgment seat of God the justification of a sinner is. Likewise, the human mind, inflated with a Pharisaical persuasion when it indulges in its own private thoughts concerning righteousness, can easily conceive a high degree of confidence and trust in its own righteousness. But when the doctrine of justification is set forth under the picture of an examination and of the tribunal of divine judgment, by a court trial, so to say, those Pharisaical persuasions collapse, vanish, and are cast down. Thus the true peculiar nature of the word "justify" preserves and defends the purity of the doctrine of justification from Pharisaical leaven, and from Epicurean opinions. And the entire doctrine of justification cannot be understood more simply, correctly, and appropriately, and applied to serious use in the exercises of penitence and faith, than through a true consideration of the judicial meaning of the word "justify," as the examples of many fathers show.2

3. The Scriptures sometimes use justification and forgiveness more or less synonymously (cf. Acts 13:38, 39). Then why not discard legal categories and simply say that God forgives sin out of the goodness of His heart? Everyone knows what forgiveness is. Why resort to a concept of justification which, it is said, makes no sense to modern man? Doesn't cold legal language remove the personal warmth of divine forgiveness? Many are prone to reason thus.

However, we will see that the Holy Spirit had good reason to use the forensic concept of justification in describing our acceptance before God. Divine forgiveness is not mere amnesty. God does not propose to forgive the sinner by waiving the claims of the law but by satisfying them—at infinite cost to Himself. Grace is free but also costly. "Sin is not tolerated or winked at, the law is not abolished, and the righteousness of God not violated."3 This is what justification means.

4. A salvation not based on the satisfaction of divine justice cannot satisfy the human conscience either. The doctrine of justification by faith teaches us that when God saves, He does so justly. It thereby provides a stable basis for the believer's security. Justification means that God has satisfied the law by His act of grace in Christ .

This is not legalism. It is the only thing that can destroy legalism. If God has not satisfied the law, man must try to satisfy it. Many are attempting to gain the assurance of salvation through charismatic demonstrations because they have not been taught that justification through Christ's work is the basis of their covenantal relationship with God.

5. Forensic justification means that our salvation rests on an objective basis. As Berkouwer says:

Forensic justification has to do with what is extra nos [outside us], with the imputation of what Christ has done on our behalf. This was, indeed, the original disposition of the Reformation....

Thus, in the forensic idea of justification the sola fide-sola gratia finds its purest incarnation.4

The forensic justification of the Formula of Concord is not a slip into the net of a scholastic, intellectual order of salvation; it is the end result of a desire to keep the sola fide and keep it pure.5

Is Forensic Justification As Cold As Ice?

Osiander, who broke away from the doctrine of the Reformers, lampooned the message of justification by an imputed righteousness as being "cold as ice." Many today also caricature the Reformation doctrine as a cold, external scheme of salvation.

The irony is that those who dispense with legal categories of thought, for want of something more warm and personal, destroy the real springs of gladness. The moment the subjective element of the believer's transformation is allowed to intrude into the process of justification, he is robbed of the objective ground of acceptance because he confuses spiritual acceptance with spiritual attainments. It may then be said of him as it was said of Pusey, "The absence of joy in his religious life was only the inevitable effect of his conception of God's method of saving man; in parting with the Lutheran truth concerning justification, he parted with the springs of gladness."6

Why should it be thought that legal pardon is inimical to personal joy and even an exalted experience? See a man in court awaiting the verdict of the judge. If he is declared innocent, he is delivered from the prospect of prison and set free. More than that, he is declared the rightful owner of a great inheritance. Children, wife and friends are with him and breathlessly await the verdict. The judge speaks: "This court returns a verdict wholly in this man's favor." Those who think legal things are cold as ice should look at this courtroom scene. There are weeping, laughter and tears of exultant joy. What is more, this man can begin to live, act and sleep in the security of that juridical verdict. The legal transaction is not inimical to a good experience. It is the basis of it.

John Bunyan was bowed down with discouragement as he tried to grapple with the ups and downs of his religious experience. As long as he tied his standing with God to his good experiences and his bad experiences, he had no rest day or night. While he was meditating on the truth of imputed righteousness, a voice seemed to say to him, "Your righteousness is in heaven." This was a blessed, freeing truth, not a "cold-as-ice" doctrine. It made Bunyan so exceedingly glad that he leaped for the sheer joy and liberating power of it. He saw that if his righteousness was safely in heaven, his good frame of mind could not make his righteousness any better nor could his bad frame of mind make his righteousness any worse. It was like a rich man's gold and precious jewels safely deposited in his chest at home. No longer did Bunyan confuse his spiritual acceptance with his spiritual attainment. Forensic justification gave him an objective ground of hope and became his great spring of gladness.7

Imputed Righteousness As Divine Love in Action

Far from being cold as ice, the concept of imputed righteousness is as warm as divine love. It is divine love in action. C. Stephen Evans refers to the story of Don Quixote to illustrate this.

A simple country gentleman, getting on in years and down on his luck financially, imagines himself to be Don Quixote (not his real name of course), a glorious knight-errant such as supposedly roamed Europe several centuries earlier. The poor man has read so many tales of chivalry, full of knights of the round table and beauteous maidens and other such stuff, that he finally takes leave of his senses and imagines himself to be one of the characters he has read about.

Taking with him a somewhat dim-witted local farmer as his "squire," Don Quixote sallies forth to fulfill his knightly calling, which is of course to be a righter of wrongs and injustices, an enemy of evil-doers and a defender of beauteous maidens, honor and the code of chivalry in general. After an unfortunate joust with some windmills which the knight takes to be giants, Don Quixote spies a castle, which is in reality a tavern, where he thinks he might obtain a night's repose. At the tavern, among other things, Don Quixote takes a barber's shaving basin to be "the golden helmet of Mambrino," which as a glorious knight he simply must have. Such conduct as this soon convinces everyone that Don Quixote is quite mad.

Living at the "castle" is an ordinary tavern slut, Aldonza, who even refers to herself as a whore. In Don Quixote's eyes she is Dulcinea, his lady, the fairest of the fair and the purest of the pure. Aldonza is frankly puzzled by the treatment she gets from Don Quixote. The knight is respectful, kind, even worshipful. She seems disturbed yet touched by the knight's gentility.

Meanwhile, back on the home front things are none too good. Don Quixote's friends and relatives are concerned about his condition. Dr. Carrasco, Don Quixote's prospective son-in-law, is worried that the old man's pranks will give the family a bad name. Carrasco epitomized the shrewd, "this worldly" person who has come to terms with reality. Not really evil, though perhaps not above cutting a few moral corners, he has nothing but contempt for starry-eyed, impractical idealists, and he feels an obligation to cure Don Quixote of his delusions.

For his therapy he confronts Don Quixote in the guise of another knight, the "Knight of Mirrors." He challenges Don Quixote to combat, to which he comes armed with mirrors. The mirror does not lie. When the old man sees himself as he really is, the truth will force him to come to terms with reality. And it does. The Knight of Mirrors (Carrasco of course) wins the joust, and Don Quixote returns home, an old, sick man.

But reality does not have the final word. Aldonza has been touched by Don Quixote's "madness." That someone else could actually see her as pure and noble, as someone who possesses value, changes her whole way of looking at herself. She feels she really is Dulcinea, and she must see her Don Quixote again. She goes to see him, gains entrance to the house and rejuvenates his spirits. Together, she and Don Quixote, even as he faces death, dare to "dream the impossible dream." Don Quixote dies, the unvanquished idealist, seeing the world as he wishes to see it, accepting it only on his own terms.8

This story illustrates the nature of imputed righteousness and its transforming power. The punch line is this: "That someone else could actually see her as pure and noble, as someone who possesses value, changes her whole way of looking at herself."

We do not use this illustration to suggest that God is a heavenly Don Quixote. We use the story much as Jesus used the parable of the unjust judge. If an unjust judge would avenge the cause of a poor widow because she kept whining at him for justice, how much more will God avenge his elect who cry unto Him! And if the imputation of purity and goodness by a mad old man could have such a transforming effect on an unfortunate woman, what happens when the imputation of righteousness is by God Himself?

Let us contrast the way Don Quixote and the Lord impute righteousness to the unfortunate subject. Don Quixote imputed virtue to Aldonza because he was deceived about her actual condition. If he had not been deceived by his own imagination, he would have been morally indifferent. This is why acceptance before a human party has limited psychological benefit. A person can think, "He imputes virtue to me and accepts me because he doesn't really know how bad I am. If he really knew the wretchedness of my heart, he couldn't possibly think so well of me." Or, "He accepts me because he is morally indifferent to both good and bad. So I can't respect him or his judgment of me." Thus, acceptance either through deception or moral indifference cannot appease the sinner's conscience.

The sinner must find Someone (or be found of Someone) who is not deceived about his real condition—Someone who fully knows the whole story. And at the same time He must be Someone who is not morally indifferent to wrong.

This brings us to the crucial question: How can the One who fully knows the sinner and who is so thoroughly outraged by wrongdoing see nothing in the sinner but perfect righteousness? If God imputed righteousness without proper ground, He would be a heavenly Don Quixote and worse—either deceived or morally indifferent. But He imputes righteousness on the ground of the work of Christ to everyone who believes. By the atonement God shows He is not morally indifferent toward sin even though He loves the sinner. By requiring faith He also shows His love in that He will not impute righteousness to the sinner against his own volition. God's love respects the moral order of the universe and the inviolable rights of personhood.

The gospel is the proclamation that God wills to think evil of no one and wills to think the best of everyone. It is the nature of love to think no evil, to keep no score of wrongs and to think well of everyone (1 Cor. 13:5). Imputed righteousness is divine love in action. Although it is a just love—a love which is perfectly lawful—it is at the same time the most personal and heart-gripping truth in the universe. It is the good news that poor, wretched sinners may stand before the Almighty fully known and fully forgiven. Nothing inspires the believer to live a holy life so much as the thought that God sees him as holy. He will bend every nerve and fiber of his being to become what he is in the loving verdict of God.

In summary, the restoration of the gospel demands the restoration of its legal framework. The gospel can be truly proclaimed only in the setting of law and judgment.



1 It is the tendency of the analytic Greek (Western) mind to try to understand a thing in itself. But the writers of the Bible move on another plane. Nothing has meaning in itself—whether man, faith or any other creature. A thing is always defined and understood by its relationships.
2 M. Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part 1, tr. F. Kramer (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971), pp.476-77.
3 G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Faith and Justification (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1954), p.93.
4 Ibid., p.91.
5 Ibid., p.55.
6 W. H. G. Thomas, The Principles of Theology: An Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Church Book Room Press, 1956) , p.193.
7 J. Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, in The Works of John Bunyan, ed. J. N. Brown (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1852).
8 C. S. Evans, Despair: A Moment or a Way of Life? (Downers Grove, IL.: Inter-varsity Press, 1971), pp.82.4.