In the last question and answer of Lord’s Day 24 the Heidelberg Catechism intercepts a practical objection that may be, and often is, raised against the truth of justification by faith without works.
The objection runs as follows.
You insist that you are righteous before God without any works on your part at all, that your works have no merit in any sense, that your good works can never add to your righteousness in Christ, and that your sins cannot possibly in anywise detract from it. But this is a positively immoral doctrine; for if this is true, it matters not what man does: he is free to sin as much as he likes, for he is righteous before God anyway. Whether he walks in sin, or performs works of righteousness, he is certain of eternal life. No matter how much iniquity he commits, he is certainly headed for everlasting glory. He is in a position to enjoy freely all the pleasures of the world. He can afford to be perfectly careless. In fact, it would seem to be better for the Christian not even to make the attempt to walk in all good works, for the old man is corrupt anyway and will perish in death. To walk in sin has at any rate the advantage to show forth the greater glory of the grace of God. Let us, therefore, sin that grace may abound. The doctrine of free justification makes men careless and profane.
Thus the opponent of this truth argues to show the utter absurdity of it and the immoral consequences of salvation by free grace without the works of the law.
Now, let us in the first place carefully note the nature of this argument.
The one that raises this objection does not base it on Scripture, but draws a conclusion from his own sinful human reason. He wants to maintain by all means the false doctrine of justification by works. He insists that the whole or part of our works can be our righteousness before God and that our good works are surely meritorious. Hence, he must have nothing of the truth of free justification. He really hates it with all his heart. He does not hesitate to call him accursed that teaches it. Yet, he cannot deny that the Bible plainly teaches the truth that the sinner is justified by faith in Jesus Christ only, without the works of the law. And being well aware that he can do nothing with Scripture to gainsay this truth, he resorts to human reason and argues from his own sinful human mind. He concludes that the truth of justification by faith only, without the works of the law, is absurd, for it leads to the conclusion that sin is a virtue and that to sin is to glorify the grace of God. It is an immoral doctrine that makes men careless and profane.
It is well for us to note the unbiblical character of this argument. Similar arguments are often used by carnal men against other parts of the truth of Scripture.
Take, for example, the truth of divine predestination, the truth that God from all eternity ordained His people in Christ Jesus unto eternal life and salvation, while in sovereign righteousness He destined others to eternal desolation. This truth is clearly taught in Scripture, and men cannot possibly deny it. Yet carnal men contradict and oppose this truth. They usually do so by appealing to Scripture first of all. They adduce certain texts that apparently teach that God loves all men, that Christ shed His life-blood for everyone without distinction, and that now salvation or damnation is up to the choice of the free will of man. But when you have explained to them that the passages of Scripture to which they appeal do not have the meaning they ascribe to them, that they do not teach the universal love of God, general atonement , and the free will of man in regard to salvation, and when you have proved very clearly that the matter of salvation is not up to the will of man but determined by God’s sovereign grace alone,-in short, when every Biblical argument is exhausted by them and they still do not admit the truth of sovereign predestination, -they usually have recourse to arguments derived from the carnal mind of man. They reveal that they after all do not want the truth, that they hate it and rave against it. They claim that by the doctrine of sovereign election and reprobation you make God a cruel tyrant instead of a loving God and Father. They accuse you of making God the author of sin and of denying man’s responsibility. And thus they show they do not want the truth of Scripture that God is sovereign and that the matter of salvation is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.
In a similar way those argue against the doctrine of justification by faith without the works of the law that raise the objection that it makes men careless and profane.
What shall we say about this?
It certainly cannot be denied that if the argument of our opponents against justification by faith were correct and their conclusion true, if it were the tendency of this truth to render secure in their sin, to make them careless and profane, the truth of free justification could no longer be a cause of glorying. In that case it would indeed be a dangerous doctrine. But they thus oppose the truth only speak in their ignorance.
They have not experienced, neither do they understand the marvelous mystery of justification by faith.
For rather than causing men to rest secure in their sin so that they become careless and profane in their walk and conversation, the power of justification has the effect that it causes men deeply to abhor sin, to repent in dust and ashes, and to walk as children of light in the midst of this world.
A careless and profane Christian is an impossibility.
This is also the answer to the Heidelberg Catechism. In answer to the question, “But doth not this doctrine make men careless and profane? It instructs us, “By no means, for it is impossible that those, who are implanted into Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.”
To speak of a careless and profane Christian is to be guilty of a contradiction in terms. He that is truly and freely justified before God cannot possibly walk in sin, cannot have a delight in iniquity; and on the other hand he that delights in sin or walks careless has never tasted the grace of justification.
This is the language of the Christian’s experience. Even though he may not be able to explain why he that is justified cannot abide in sin, he knows that he is justified, and he knows, too, that he is not careless and profane but has a delight in the precepts of his God. To verify this, ask, not the enemies of the cross of Christ, but those that have experienced the power of the blood of Jesus unto their free justification and that know what it means to be justified by faith. Ask them if they have any confidence in their own works as a ground of their righteousness before God, and they will assure you that all their boasting is in the cross of Christ and in the atoning power of His blood. To them all other ground is sinking sand. They utterly repudiate it. They know that their best works are defiled with sin and that they cannot be the whole or part of their righteousness before God. But ask them again whether this exclusive confidence in the cross as the ground of their righteousness has the effect upon them that now they become careless and profane, induces them to draw the conclusion that it is profitable to continue in sin that grace may abound; and they will reply with holy indignation and abhorrence, “God forbid!” They will assure you that the power of the cross as they experienced it bore the very opposite fruit, that the grace of their justification caused them to abhor sin, to eschew it, to flee from it, to fight it with all their might. Enemies of all sin they have become, and for nothing they long more fervently than to be delivered from the defilement of sin finally and completely. Whether or not they are able to explain the mystery of justification by faith through grace, the voice of their spiritual experience tells them that it certainly cannot make men careless and profane. But the Christian who is instructed in the mystery of justification is able, too, to explain the reason why it is impossible that he should ever abide and walk in sin.
That reason is principally Christ!
He is justified subjectively only by a true and living faith, and that means that he is implanted into Christ. Apart from Christ he has nothing; in Christ he has all. To Christ he belongs with body and soul, for time and eternity. He is one with his Lord both judicially and organically.
That means, first of all, that in Christ he has the right to be delivered from the dominion of sin. In fact, this right to be delivered is included in his justification: for in Christ the right of sin to have dominion over us and to reign in our flesh has been destroyed. “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.” Rom. 8:3. We are, therefore, judicially and principally dead to sin. As the same apostle teaches in Romans 6:2ff.: “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.” The grace of justification does not mean an indulgence for life to sin, but liberty: the right to perfect freedom from the slavery of sin, the right to serve God in Christ.
But there is more.
By a true and living faith the Christian is not forensically but also organically in Christ. He lives out of Christ. This organic union with his Lord is inseparable from the faith whereby he is justified. And that means that in Christ he does not only have the right to be delivered from sin but also that he is in principle liberated from the dominion of sin through the Spirit of Christ that dwelleth in him. Thus the apostle teaches us in Rom. 8:2: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.”
The justified Christian is dead to sin.
The apostle teaches in Rom. 6:1, 2: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?”
We should observe carefully here that the Bible does not say that sin is dead in the believer but, on the contrary, that he is dead to sin. The difference is evident: it would be indeed a grievous error to change or to understand it as meaning the same as the statement that as long as the believer is in the world sin is dead in him. For this error would certainly create confusion in the mind and heart of the sincere Christian. Fact is, that when we are ingrafted into Christ and the power of the cross is realised in us and we are justified by faith, sin is not dead but remains very much alive. In this life we never have more than a small beginning of the new obedience. Even the very holiest of the saints, he that is farthest advanced on the way of grace and sanctification, still has only a principle of the new life in Christ. Our old nature, earthly and carnal, remains with us till the grave. Not until we breath our last are we delivered from sin. And in that old nature are the motions of sin, and they are very active. In fact, it often seems that, according as we grow in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, the motions of sin in our members also increase their activity, always attempting to bring us again into bondage. We must, therefore, till the day of our death heed the exhortation of the Word of God to put off the old man and put on the new.
No, the apostle does not teach us in this passage that sin is dead in the Christian but, on the contrary, that he is dead to sin.
The difference is plain.
The natural man, the sinner apart from Christ, is alive unto sin. Sin is his lord. The power of sin is enthroned in his heart. It is his rightful lord. It has the right to exercise dominion over him, and he is its legal slave. God’s sentence is that the sinner shall die. To this death belongs the spiritual darkness of mind, the perversion of will, the pollution of the desires and inclinations that make the sinner a slave of sin. From this slavery he does not even have the right to be delivered unless atonement be made for his sin. Sin therefore has dominion over him. This dominion of sin, however, is not contrary to the will and desire of the sinner so that he ever longs to be delivered from its bondage. On the contrary, he agrees with it. He is well pleased with the reign of sin. He delights in the service of his evil lord. He is a willing servant; he loves the darkness rather than the light; he yields his members to the service of unrighteousness; he is in bondage. Yet because the service of sin is sweet unto his corrupt taste, he does not feel the oppression of his slavery. He takes sin to his bosom. Quite willingly he follows her. To the service of sin he willingly devotes his body and his soul, his mind and will, all his desires and inclinations. For sin he lives; with sin he agrees; the paths of sin are his delight. He is alive unto sin.
To be dead unto sin is the direct opposite of this.
It is the state in which we are no longer under the legal dominion of sin. Sin is no longer our lord. It has no longer the right to reign over us. Just as a slave for whom the price is paid or that has been declared free by law, he is no longer legally bound to serve his former master, so that he is dead to sin, is liberated from the legal dominion of sin by God’s own verdict of liberation. Sin shall not have dominion over him because he is not under the law but under grace. Moreover, this sentence of liberation is also realised in him. He is actually, spiritually liberated from the bondage of sin. His fetters are broken. Grace instead of sin, the law of the Spirit of life rather than the law of sin and death is enthroned, his will is turned about, his heart is renewed, and from that renewed heart all the issues of his life move in the direction opposite to that of sin. The result is that he beholds and judges sin in a new light, the light of the love of God. Formerly he agreed with the dominion of sin; now he radically disagrees with it. Formerly he always said, “Yes,” when sin said “Yes”, and “No,” now he opposes sin’s “No” with his own “Yes, and sin’s “Yes” with his own “No”. When he was alive unto sin, he loved the works of darkness; now he is dead unto sin, he hates them with all his heart. While in his bondage to sin he yielded his members to the service of unrighteousness, he now strenuously opposes that service. He is dead unto sin.
O, sin is still present with him, and it operates in his members. Ever it attempts to gain its former lordship over him, but all that is within him according to his inner man hates and abhors the service of iniquity. Sin is not dead, but he is dead to sin. His entire attitude overagainst his former lord has radically changed. He is converted. And for the sin that still operates in his members and ever attempts to divert the vehicle of his life and walk into the old ruts of unrighteousness he humbles himself before God daily, repents in dust and ashes, and confessing his sins before God he has no rest till he has found forgiveness anew in the blood of the Lamb.
This, then, is our answer to those who would allege that the doctrine of justification by faith without works makes men careless and profane.
This is utterly impossible.
For we are justified by a true and living faith in Christ, and in Christ we have both our justification and our sanctification in inseparable connection with each other.
And therefore a careless and profane Christian is an utter impossibility. It is a contradiction in terms.
The Triple Knowledge.
An Exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism vol. 2; Pp. 378-386
by Herman Hoeksema