The Shorter Catechism, that the Westminster Divines penned, is filled with instruction on what the Bible teaches. One question that is particularly important to Christians, as well as those that are "seeking" what the Bible says is, "What does it mean to be saved?" Here is how the Shorter Catechism answers that:
What is justification?
ANSWER: Justification is an act of God's free grace; wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ, imputed to us, and received by faith alone.
James Fisher, a Seceeder Minister wrote a commentary on the Shorter Catechism that is useful for those that desire a greater understanding of what the Bible teaches, as well as some very practical insights on those teachings. Here is what Fisher says about this question on justification:
Q. 1. From whence is the word justification borrowed?
A. Being a law-word, it is borrowed from courts of justice among men, when a person arraigned is pronounced righteous, and, in court, openly absolved?
Q. 2. How does it appear, that justification denotes an act of jurisdiction, and not an inward change upon the soul?
A. From its being opposed to condemnation, which all own to consist, not in the infusing of wickedness into a person, but in passing sentence upon him, according to the demerit of his crime, Psalm 109:7.
Q. 3. What is it, then, to justify a person?
A. It is not to make him righteous, but to declare him to be so, upon a legal ground, and trial of a judge, Isa. 43:9, 26.
Q. 4. Who is the author or efficient cause, of our justification?
A. It is God himself; for, it is God that justifieth, Rom. 8:33.
Q. 5. Is it God essentially, or personally considered?
A. God essentially considered, in the person of the Father, is the justifier, in respect of judiciary power and authority, Rom. 3:26; and our Lord Jesus Christ, in respect of the dispensation, or exercise of that power, Acts 5:31.
Q. 6. In what respect is the Spirit said to justify? 1 Cor. 6:11.
A. As the applier of the blood or righteousness of Christ, by which we are justified, Tit. 3:5.
Q. 7. In what state is a sinner before justification?
A. In a state of sin and guilt, Rom. 3:9, and, consequently, in a state of wrath and condemnation, Gal. 3:10.
Q. 8. How can God justify the ungodly?
A. Every elect sinner, however ungodly in himself, yet, upon union with Christ, has communion with him in his righteousness, and on this account he is justified, Isa. 45:25 -- "In the Lord shall all the seed of Israel be justified."
Q. 9. Why have elect sinners communion with Christ in his righteousness, upon their union with him?
A. Because their sins having been imputed to him from eternity, he became legally one with them, transferring their debt to himself, and undertaking to pay the same, Isa. 53:6; wherefore, upon union with him by faith, his perfect satisfaction is imputed to them, as if they had made it themselves, 2 Cor. 5:21.
Q. 10. Why is justification called an act?
A. Because, like the sentence of a judge, it is completed at once, and not carried on gradually like a work of time, Deut. 25:1.
Q. 11. What is the moving cause of justification, or what kind of an act is it? A. It is an act of God's free grace, Rom. 3:24 -- "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."
Q. 12. How can free grace be the moving cause of our justification, when it is "through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus?"
A. Because the redemption that is in Christ, is the channel through which justifying grace runs freely to us, Eph. 1:7.
Q. 13. What are the constituent parts of justification?
A. They are two; that in which he pardons all our sins, Rom. 6:7; and that in which he accepts us as righteous in his sight, Eph. 1:6.
Q. 14. What is the pardon of sin?
A. It is God's absolving the sinner from the condemnation of the law, on account of Christ's satisfaction for sin, Rom. 8:1.
Q. 15. Why is the pardon of sin set before the accepting us as righteous, in the answer?
A. Because, till the sentence of the broken law be dissolved by pardon, it is impossible that our persons can be accepted, or any blessing of the covenant conferred upon us, Heb. 8:10-13; where, after a great many other promised blessings, it is added, ver. 12 -- "For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness," &c., intimating that the pardon of sin led the way to other covenant blessings.
Q. 16. What is it in sin that pardon removes?
A. The guilt of it, which is a person's actual obligation or liability to eternal wrath, on account thereof, Eph. 2:3.
Q. 17. Can the guilt of sin ever recur upon a pardoned person?
A. No; the obligation to punishment, being once taken off, can never recur again; because "there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus," Rom. 8:1.
Q. 18. Will future sins revoke a former pardon?
A. No; future sins may provoke the Lord to withdraw the sense of former pardon, but can never revoke the pardon itself; because "The gifts and calling of God are without repentance," Rom. 11:29.
Q. 19. What sins are pardoned in justification?
A. All our sins whatsoever, Psalm 103:3 -- "Who forgiveth ALL thine iniquities."
Q. 20. How are sins past and present pardoned?
A. By a formal remission of them, Psalm 32:5 -- "Thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin."
Q. 21. How are sins to come, pardoned?
A. By securing the non-imputation of them, as to the guilt of eternal wrath, Rom. 4:8 -- "Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin."
Q. 22. If the non-imputation of eternal wrath, as to future sins, be secured, why do the saints pray for the pardon of them when committed?
A. Because the guilt or liability to fatherly anger is contracted by the commission of them; and, therefore, they pray for the removal of that guilt, Psalm 51:12 -- "Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation."
Q. 23. Is repentance a condition of pardon?
A. No; because this would bring in works into the matter of our justification before God, quite contrary to scripture, which tells us, that "a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ," Gal. 2:16.
Q. 24. How do you prove, that repentance has not the same interest as faith, in our justification?
A. From this, that in scripture we are frequently said to be justified by faith, but never said to be justified by repentance.
Q. 25. Is it not affirmed in our Confession, "that repentance is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it?"
A. The meaning is, that repentance is such an inseparable concomitant of pardon, that no pardoned person continues to be impenitent, 2 Sam. 12:13; Matt. 26:75.
Q. 26. If none can expect pardon, without expecting repentance along with it; will it not therefore follow, that repentance is a condition of pardon?
A. Not at all; for if repentance cannot so much as have the least instrumentality in pardon, it can never be the condition of it, nor have the smallest influence in causing it.
Q. 27. How does it appear that repentance has not the least instrumentality in pardon?
A. It appears evidently from this, that faith is the sole instrument of receiving Christ and his righteousness; without receiving of which there can be no pardon, John 8:24 -- "If ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins."
Q. 28. Does God do any more in justification than freely pardon all our sins?
A. Yes; he likewise accepts us as righteous in his sight, Eph. 1:6.
Q. 29. Why is the accepting us as righteous joined with pardon, in justification?
A. Because, though among men a criminal may be pardoned, and neither declared righteous nor received into favour, yet it is not so with God; for whom he forgives, he both accounts their persons righteous in his sight, and receives them into perpetual favour, Rom. 5:8-10.
Q. 30. How can a holy and righteous God, whose judgement is according to truth, accept sinners as righteous without a perfect righteousness?
A. He accepts them as righteous only for the righteousness of Christ, which is perfect, and becomes truly theirs through faith, Jer. 23:6; Isa. 45:24.
Q. 31. By what right does the surety-righteousness become theirs?
A. By the right of a free gift received, and the right of communion with Christ.
Q. 32. How does it become theirs by the right of a gift received?
A. In as much as Christ's righteousness being made over in the gospel, as God's gift to sinners, it is by faith actually claimed and received; hence called the GIFT of righteousness, Rom. 5:17.
Q. 33. How does Christ's surety-righteousness become theirs by right of communion with him?
A. In as much as sinners being united to him by faith, have thus communion or a common interest with him in his righteousness, Phil. 3:9.
Q. 34. When is it, then, that, according to truth, God accepts us as righteous in his sight?
A. When Christ's surety-righteousness is actually reckoned ours, and we made the righteousness of God in HIM, 2 Cor. 5:21:upon this account precisely, and no other, are we accepted of God as righteous; the righteousness of GOD being UPON all them that believe, Rom. 3:22.
Q. 35 What is the matter of our justification, or that for which we are justified?
A. The RIGHTEOUSNESS of Christ only; hence he is called, "The Lord our Righteousness," Jer. 23:6.
Q. 36. In what does the righteousness of Christ consist?
A. In the holiness of his human nature, his righteous life, and satisfactory death.
Q. 37. Can law or justice reach the person who is under the covering of the surety righteousness?
A. By no means; for "Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? -- It is Christ that died, yea, rather, that is risen again," Rom. 8:33, 34.
Q. 38. Is the righteousness of Christ meritorious of our justification?
A. Yes; because of the infinite dignity of his person; for, though he "took upon him the form of a servant, yet, being in the form of God, he thought it no robbery to be equal with God," Phil 2:6, 7.
Q. 39. How is the righteousness of Christ commonly divided?
A. Into his active and passive obedience.
Q. 40. What is his active obedience?
A. The holiness of his nature and righteousness of his life, in full and perfect conformity to the whole law, without the least failure, either of parts, or degrees of obedience to the end, Matt. 5:17, 18.
Q. 41. What is his passive obedience?
A. His satisfaction for sin, by enduring the infinite execution of the curse, upon him in his death, Gal. 3:13, to the full compensation of all the injuries done to the honour of an infinite God, by all the sins of an elect world, Eph. 5:2.
Q. 42. Why does his satisfactory death, as well as his righteous life, get the name of obedience? Phil. 2:8.
A. Because his sufferings and death were entirely voluntary, and in most profound submission to the commandment which he had received of his Father, John 10:18.
Q. 43. What is the formal cause of our justification, or that by which Christ's righteousness is made ours?
A. It is its being imputed to us, Rom. 4:6.
Q. 44. What is it to impute Christ's righteousness to us?
A. It is God's accounting or reckoning it to us, as if we had obeyed the law, and satisfied justice in our own persons, and dealing with us accordingly, Rom. 4:4; 8:4; 2 Cor. 5:21.
Q. 45. Upon what ground or foundation is Christ's righteousness imputed to us?
A. Upon the ground of his representing us from eternity, and our union with him in time, Isa. 53:5.
Q. 46. What necessity is there for the imputation of Christ's passive obedience?
A. Because without the imputation of it, we could have no legal security from eternal death, Rom. 5:9.
Q. 47. What necessity is there for the imputation of Christ's active obedience?
A. Because without the imputation of it, we could have no legal title to eternal life, Rom. 6:23.
Q. 48. If Christ, as man, gave obedience to the law for himself, how can his active obedience be imputed to us?
A. Though the human nature, abstractly considered, be a creature, yet never subsisting by itself, but in the person of the Son of God, the acts of obedience performed in it were never the acts of a mere man, but of him who is God-man, Mediator; and, consequently, acts of obedience, not for himself, but for us, Gal. 4:4, 5.
Q. 49. If Christ's active obedience be imputed to us, are we not released from any obligation to yield obedience to the law in our own persons?
A. We are only released from an obligation to yield obedience to the law as a covenant of works, not released from obedience to it as a rule of life, Gal. 2:19.
Q. 50. Is the righteousness of Christ, itself, imputed to us, or only its effects?
A. As the guilt itself of Adam's first sin is imputed to all his posterity, by which judgement comes upon all men to condemnation, so, the righteousness of Christ itself is imputed to all his spiritual seed, by which the free gift comes upon them all unto justification of life, Rom. 5:18.
Q. 51. What is the difference between the imputation of our sins to Christ, and the imputation of his righteousness to us?
A. Our sins were imputed to Christ as our Surety, only for a time, that he might take them away; but his righteousness is imputed to us to abide with us for ever; hence called an everlasting righteousness, Dan. 9:24.
Q. 52. Why are we said to be pardoned and accepted only for the righteousness of Christ?
A. Because a sinner can have no other plea before God, for pardon and acceptance, but Christ's fulfilling all righteousness, as the only condition of the covenant, Isa. 45:24.
Q. 53. What is the instrumental cause of our justification?
A. It is twofold; namely, external and internal.
Q. 54. What is the external instrumental cause?
A. The G OSPEL; because the righteousness of God is revealed in it, and brought near to us as a free gift, Rom. 1:17, 5:17, and 10:8.
Q. 55. What is the internal instrumental cause of our Justification?
A. It is faith, Rom. 10:10.
Q. 56 Why is faith the instrument of our justification?
A. To show that our justification is wholly of grace; it being the nature of faith to take the gift of righteousness freely, without money, and without price; "therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace," Rom. 4:16.
Q. 57. What, then, is the instrumentality of faith in our justification?
A. It is merely the hand that receives and applies the righteousness of Christ, by which we are justified.
Q. 58. Is the grace of faith or any act of it, imputed to a sinner for justification?
A. No; for, "To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness," Rom. 4:5.
Q. 59. What is the difference between saving faith, and justifying faith?
A. Saving, faith receives and rests upon Christ in all his offices, as "of God made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption;" but justifying faith, receives and rests upon him, more particularly, in his priestly office, for pardon and acceptance, on account of his meritorious righteousness, Phil. 3:9 -- "And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith."
Q. 60. Why is the righteousness of Christ said to be received by faith alone?
A. That works may be wholly excluded from having any share in our justification, less or more, Rom. 3:28 -- "Therefore we conclude, that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the law."
Q. 61. If good works have no influence upon our justification, of what use are they to the justified?
A. Though they cannot justify us before God, yet they are good "evidences" of our justification, being the fruits of a true and lively faith, James 2:18:they "adorn the profession of the gospel, Tit. 2:11, 12; stop the mouths of adversaries, 1 Pet. 2:15; and glorify God, John 15:8."
Q. 62. If faith's receiving of Christ's righteousness justify us, does not faith justify as a work?
A. It is not properly the receiving, or any other act of faith, that justifies us, but the righteousness of Christ RECEIVED, Rom. 3:22; even as it is not the hand that nourishes us, but the food which we take by it.
Q. 63. If we are justified by faith alone, why is it said, James 2:24, "That by works a man is justified, and not by faith only?"
A. This is to be understood of justifying, or evidencing the reality of our faith before men, and not of justifying our persons before God.
Q. 64. When is it that God justifies the ungodly?
A. "Though from eternity God decreed to justify all the elect," yet "they are not" actually "justified, until the Holy Spirit does, in due time, apply Christ," and his righteousness "unto them, Tit. 3:5-7."
Q. 65. How were believers, under the Old Testament, justified?
A. "Their justification was, in all respects, the same with the justification of believers, under the New Testament," Gal. 3:9; Heb. 13:8.
Q. 66. What may we learn from this important doctrine of justification?
A. That all ground of pride and boasting is taken away from the creature, Rom. 3:27:that faith itself, by laying hold upon the surety righteousness without us, is nothing else than a solemn declaration of our poverty and nakedness; and that, therefore, it is our duty to glory only in Christ Jesus, saying, "Surely -- in the Lord have we righteousness and strength," Isa. 45:24.
-Which point of Fisher's impressed your soul and mind?
-What use does this have for evangelizing the unconverted?
-What are the implications of question and answer 66?