Justification by Faith Alone
Not Faith, But Christ
by Horatius Bonar (1808-1889)
Our justification is the direct result of our believing the gospel. Our knowledge of our own justification comes from believing God’s promise of justification to every one who believes these glad tidings. For there is not only the divine testimony, but there is the promise annexed1 to it, assuring eternal life to every one who receives that testimony. There is first, then, a believed gospel, and then there is a believed promise. The latter is the “appropriation,” as it is called; which, after all, is nothing but the acceptance of the promise which is every where coupled with the gospel message. The believed gospel saves; but it is the believed promise that assures us of this salvation.
Yet, after all, faith is not our righteousness. It is accounted to us in order to righteousness (Rom 4:5), but not as righteousness. For in that case it would be a work like any other doing of man and as such would be incompatible with the righteousness of the Son of God—the “righteousness which is by faith.” Faith connects us with the righteousness and is therefore totally distinct from it. To confound the one with the other is to subvert the whole gospel of the grace of God. Our act of faith must ever be a separate thing from that which we believe.
God reckons the believing man as having done all righteousness, though he has not done any, and though his faith is not righteousness. In this sense, it is that faith is counted to us for, or in order to, righteousness and that we are “justified by faith.” Faith does not justify as a work, or as a moral act, or a piece of goodness, nor as a gift of the Spirit, but simply because it is the bond between us and the Substitute—a very slender bond in one sense, but strong as iron in another. The work of Christ for us is the object of faith. The Spirit’s work in us is that which produces this faith: it is out of the former, not of the latter, that our peace and justification come. Without the touch of the rod the water would not have gushed forth; yet it was the rock and not the rod that contained the water.
The bringer of the sacrifice into the tabernacle was to lay his hand upon the head of the sheep or the bullock; otherwise the offering would not have been accepted for him. But the laying on of his hand was not the same as the victim on which it was laid. The serpent-bitten Israelite was to look at the uplifted serpent of brass in order to be healed. But his looking was not the brazen serpent. We may say it was his looking that healed him, just as the Lord said, “Thy faith hath saved thee.” But this is figurative language. It was not his act of looking that healed him, but the object to which he looked. So faith is not our righteousness: it merely knits us to the righteous One and makes us partakers of His righteousness. By a natural figure of speech, faith is often magnified into something great; whereas it is really nothing but our consenting to be saved by another. Its supposed magnitude is derived from the greatness of the object which it grasps, the excellence of the righteousness which it accepts. Its preciousness is not its own, but the preciousness of Him to whom it links us.
Faith is not our physician. It only brings us to the Physician. It is not even our medicine; it only administers the medicine, divinely prepared by Him who “healeth all our diseases.” In all our believing, let us remember God’s word to Israel: “I am Jehovah, that healeth thee” (Exo 14:26). Our faith is but our touching Jesus; and what is even this, in reality, but His touching us?
Faith is not our savior. It was not faith that was born at Bethlehem and died on Golgotha for us. It was not faith that loved us and gave itself for us; that bore our sins in its own body on the tree; that died and rose again for our sins. Faith is one thing, the Savior is another. Faith is one thing, and the cross is another. Let us not confound them, nor ascribe to a poor, imperfect act of man, that which belongs exclusively to the Son of the Living God.
Faith is not perfection. Yet only by perfection can we be saved, either our own or another’s. That which is imperfect cannot justify, and an imperfect faith could not in any sense be a righteousness. If it is to justify, it must be perfect. It must be like “the Lamb without blemish and without spot.” An imperfect faith may connect us with the perfection of another; but it cannot of itself do aught for us, either in protecting us from wrath or securing the divine acquittal. All faith here is imperfect; and our security is this, that it matters not how poor or weak our faith may be: if it touches the perfect One, all is well. The touch draws out the virtue that is in Him, and we are saved. The slightest imperfection in our faith, if faith were our righteousness, would be fatal to every hope. But the imperfection of our faith, however great, if faith be but the approximation or contact between us and the fullness of the Substitute, is no hindrance to our participation of His righteousness. God has asked and provided a perfect righteousness: He nowhere asks nor expects a perfect faith. An earthenware pitcher can convey water to a traveler’s thirsty lips as well as one of gold; nay, a broken vessel, even if there be but “a sherd to take water from the pit” (Isa 30:14), will suffice. So a feeble, very feeble faith, will connect us with the righteousness of the Son of God; the faith, perhaps, that can only cry, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mar 9:24).
Faith is not satisfaction to God. In no sense and in no aspect can faith be said to satisfy God or to satisfy the law. Yet if it is to be our righteousness, it must satisfy. Being imperfect, it cannot satisfy; being human, it cannot satisfy, even though it were perfect. That which satisfies must be capable of bearing our guilt; and that which bears our guilt must be not only perfect, but divine. It is a sin-bearer that we need, and our faith cannot be a sin-bearer. Faith can expiate no guilt, can accomplish no propitiation, can pay no penalty, can wash away no stain, can provide no righteousness. It brings us to the cross, where there is expiation and propitiation and payment and cleansing and righteousness. But in itself it has no merit and no virtue.
Faith is not Christ nor the cross of Christ. Faith is not the blood, nor the sacrifice. It is not the altar, nor the laver, nor the mercy-seat, nor the incense. It does not work, but accepts a work done ages ago. It does not wash, but leads us to the fountain opened for sin and uncleanness. It does not create; it merely links us to that new thing which was created when the “everlasting righteousness” was brought in (Dan 9:24).
And as faith goes on, so it continues; always the beggar’s out-stretched hand, never the rich man’s gold; always the cable, never the anchor; the knocker, not the door or the palace or the table; the handmaid, not the mistress; the lattice which lets in the light, not the sun.
Without worthiness in itself, it knits us to the infinite worthiness of Him in whom the Father delights; and so knitting us, presents us perfect in the perfection of another. Though it is not the foundation laid in Zion, it brings us to that foundation and keeps us there “grounded and settled” (Col 1:23), that we may not be moved away from the hope of the gospel. Though it is not “the gospel,” the “glad tidings,” it receives this good news as God’s eternal verities and bids the soul rejoice in them. Though it is not the burnt-offering, it stands still and gazes on the ascending flame, which assures us that the wrath which should have consumed the sinner has fallen upon the Substitute.
Though faith is not “the righteousness,” it is the tie between it and us. It realizes our present standing before God in the excellency of His own Son. And it tells us that our eternal standing in the ages to come is in the same excellency and depends on the perpetuity of that righteousness which can never change. For never shall we put off that Christ whom we put on when we believed (Rom 12:14; Gal 3:27). This divine raiment is “to everlasting.” It waxes not old, it cannot be rent, and its beauty fadeth not away.
Nor does faith lead us away from that cross to which at first it led us. Some in our day speak as if we soon got beyond the cross and might leave it behind; that the cross having done all it could do for us when first we came under its shadow, we may quit it and go forward; that to remain always at the cross is to be babes, not men.
But what is the cross? It is not the mere wooden pole or some imitation of it, such as Romanists use. These we may safely leave behind us. We need not pitch our tent upon the literal Golgotha or in Joseph’s garden. But the great truth which the cross embodies we can no more part with than we can part with life eternal. In this sense, to turn our back upon the cross is to turn our back upon Christ crucified—to give up our connection with the Lamb that was slain. The truth is, that all that Christ did and suffered, from the manger to the tomb, forms one glorious whole, no part of which shall ever become needless or obsolete; no part of which can ever leave without forsaking the whole. I am always at the manger, and yet I know that mere incarnation cannot save; always at Gethsemane, and yet I believe that its agony was not the finished work; always at the cross, with my face toward it and my eye on the crucified One, and yet I am persuaded that the sacrifice there was completed once for all; always looking into the grave, though I rejoice that it is empty and that “He is not here, but is risen”; always resting (with the angel) on the stone that was rolled away, and handling the grave-clothes, and realizing a risen Christ, nay, an ascended and interceding Lord; yet on no pretext whatever leaving any part of my Lord’s life or death behind me, but unceasingly keeping up my connection with Him, as born, living, dying, buried, and rising again, and drawing out from each part some new blessing every day and hour.
Man, in his natural spirit of self-justifying legalism, has tried to get away from the cross of Christ and its perfection, or to erect another cross instead, or to set up a screen of ornaments between himself and it, or to alter its true meaning into something more congenial6 to his tastes, or to transfer the virtue of it to some act or performance or feeling of its own. Thus the simplicity of the cross is nullified, and its saving power is denied. For the cross saves completely or not at all. Our faith does not divide the work of salvation between itself and the cross. It is the acknowledgment that the cross alone saves, and that it saves alone. Faith adds nothing to the cross or to its healing virtue. It owns the fullness and sufficiency and suitableness of the work done there and bids the toiling spirit cease from its labors and enter into rest. Faith does not come to Calvary to do anything. It comes to see the glorious spectacle of all things done and to accept this completion without a misgiving as to its efficacy. It listens to the “It is finished!” of the Sin-bearer and says, “Amen.” Where faith begins, there labor ends—labor, I mean, “for” life and pardon.
Faith is rest, not toil. It is the giving up all the former weary efforts to do or feel something good in order to induce God to love and pardon; and the calm reception of the truth so long rejected, that God is not waiting for any such inducements, but loves and pardons of His own goodwill and is showing that good-will to any sinner who will come to Him on such a footing, casting away his own performances or goodnesses, and relying implicitly upon the free love of Him who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.
Faith is the acknowledgment of the entire absence of all goodness in us and the recognition of the cross as the substitute for all the want on our part. Faith saves because it owns the complete salvation of another, and not because it contributes anything to that salvation. There is no dividing or sharing the work between our own belief and Him in whom we believe. The whole work is His, not ours, from the first to last. Faith does not believe in itself, but in the Son of God. Like the beggar, it receives everything, but gives nothing. It consents to be a debtor for ever to the free love of God. Its resting-place is the foundation laid in Zion. It rejoices in another, not in itself. Its song is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us” (Tit 3:5).
Christ crucified is to be the burden of our preaching and the substance of our belief from first to last. At no time in the saint’s life does he cease to need the cross; though at times he may feel that his special need, in spiritual perplexity or the exigency of conflict with evil, may be the Incarnation, or the agony in the Garden, or the resurrection, or the hope of the promised advent, to be glorified in His saints and admired in all them that believe.
But the question is not, “What truths are we to believe?” but, “What truths are we to believe for justification?”
That Christ is to come again in glory and in majesty as Judge and King is an article of the Christian faith, the disbelief of which would almost lead us to doubt the Christianity of him who disbelieves it. Yet we are not in any sense justified by the second advent of our Lord, but solely by His first. We believe in His ascension, yet our justification is not connected with it. So we believe His resurrection, yet we are not justified by faith in it, but by faith in His death—that death which made Him at once our propitiation and our righteousness.
“Who…was raised again for our justification” (Rom 4:25) is the clear statement of the word. The resurrection was the visible pledge of a justification already accomplished.
“The power of His resurrection” (Phi 3:10) does not refer to atonement or pardon or reconciliation, but to our being renewed in the spirit of our minds, to our being “begotten again unto a living hope, by the resurrection from the dead” (1Pe 1:3). That which is internal, such as our quickening, our strengthening, our renewing, may be connected with resurrection and resurrection power; but that which is external, such as God’s pardoning and justifying and accepting must be connected with the cross alone.
It is the blood that justifies (Rom 5:9). It is the blood that pacifies the conscience, purging it from dead works to serve the living God (Heb 9:14). It is the blood that emboldens us to enter through the veil into the holiest and go up to the sprinkled mercy-seat. It is the blood that we are to drink for the quenching of our thirst (Joh 6:55). It is the blood by which we have peace with God (Col 1:20). It is the blood through which we have redemption (Eph 1:7) and by which we are brought nigh (Eph 2:13), by which we are sanctified (Heb 13:12). It is the blood which is the seal of the everlasting covenant (Heb 13:20). It is the blood which cleanses (1Jo 1:7), which gives us victory (Rev 12:11) and with which we have communion in the Supper of the Lord (1Co 10:16). It is the blood which is the purchase-money or ransom of the church of God (Act 20:28).
The blood and the resurrection are very different things; for the blood is death and the resurrection is life.
“Christ in us, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27), is a well-known and blessed truth. But Christ in us, [as] our justification, is a ruinous error leading man away from a crucified Christ—a Christ crucified for us. Christ for us is one truth; Christ in us is quite another. The mingling of these two together or the transposition of them is the nullifying of the one finished work of the Substitute. Let it be granted that Christ in us is the source of holiness and fruitfulness (Joh 15:4); but let it never be overlooked that first of all there be Christ for us, as our propitiation, our justification, our righteousness. It is not incarnation on the one hand, nor is it resurrection on the other, on which we are thus to feed and out of which this life comes forth: it is that which lies between these two—death—the sacrificial death of the Son of God.
It is not the personality or the life-history of the Christ of God which is the special quickener and nourishment of our souls, but the blood-shedding. Not that we are to separate the former from the latter; but still it is on the latter that we are specially to feed and this all the days of our lives.
1 annexed – attached.
2 aught – anything.
3 sherd – a fragment of pottery.
4 laver – a large basin used in the ancient Jewish Temple by a priest for washings before making a sacrificial offering.
5 verities – statements, principles, or beliefs that are true, especially enduring truth.
6 congenial – agreeable.
7 nullify – to counteract the force or effectiveness of.
8 induce – motivate; influence; persuade.
9 exigency – urgent requirements; pressing needs.
10 quickener – one who revives or communicates life.