Justification in the Court of Conscience
Justification in the Court of Conscience: Biblical Truth or Dangerous Error?1
What Exactly do we Celebrate on Reformation Day?
Wednesday, October 31, 2007 marked the 490th anniversary of the Reformation and no doubt this event was observed by many churches which trace their origins to this great movement of the Spirit. Sermons will have been preached and/or lectures delivered on the key doctrine rediscovered by Luther, namely justification by faith alone.
Although this doctrine has not been getting the attention it deserves in modern times, in more recent years there has been somewhat of a revival of interest in what Luther called the article whereby the church stands or falls. This interest has been sparked largely by the so-called New Perspective on Paul and its Reformed adaptation known as the Federal Vision. Many Presbyterian and Reformed congregations are being roiled by controversies over the question as to what constitutes the ground of the believer’s justification; whether it is by faith alone or whether somehow ‘covenantal obedience’ is included. While the Federal Vision proponents do not all speak with one voice, it is clear that most of them hold to a view of justification that bears little resemblance to the doctrine as set forth and championed by Luther.
We are thankful that this controversy has not made any inroads among us, but it would be wrong to conclude from this that our understanding and experience of justification is in all respects in line with what Scripture and our Reformed confessions teach on this subject. Do we really believe that we are justified by faith alone? How seriously do we take the reminder of our Heidelberg Catechism that we can neither receive nor apply the blessing of justification to ourselves ‘any other way than by faith only’?2
Years of pastoral experience have taught me that many of our confessing members, despite years of instruction from the pulpit, still have confused notions as to how believers are righteous before God.3 True, some seem to have no problem answering this question. They say that they believe in Christ but they never seem to be troubled with a guilty conscience that keeps accusing them that they ‘have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God and kept none of them.’ They may be victims of ‘easy-believism.’ Others gravitate towards the opposite pole. Their conscience does bother them. A deep awareness of sin and guilt causes them to conclude that there is no hope for them. Their problem is that they ignore the ‘notwithstanding’ clause in Answer 60:
Notwithstanding [or nevertheless], God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ, etc.
Still others will acknowledge the free grace character of justification, but they can’t quite grasp the meaning of ‘by faith alone.’ Something additional is required, they feel, but what exactly that ‘extra’ ingredient is, they don’t know. They think of it as some kind of special blessing reserved for the spiritually elite who receive it after a long and intense spiritual struggle.
Justification in the Court of Conscience
Where do these ideas come from? I suspect that they can be traced in part to the doctrine of justification in the court of conscience, a doctrine that arose during the latter part of the Dutch Second Reformation in the 18th century and which is still being taught in some of the ultra-conservative Reformed denominations in the Netherlands and their counterparts in North America.
While this concept is not taught from our pulpits, certain elements of it may still linger on among some of our older members who were exposed to it in their youth in hyper-Calvinistic circles in the Netherlands or North America.
The Meaning of this Concept
What is meant by justification in the court of conscience? According to those who hold to this view, you have not really reached the pinnacle of spiritual life unless you can speak of having experienced a special type of justification that goes beyond justification by faith. For these people justification in the court of conscience (hereafter referred to as JCC) is not just a concept or even a doctrine but a real experience involving a judge, the accused, a prosecutor, a defence attorney and a verdict.
In this experience, which often takes the form of a vision, the sinner sees God as his Judge seated on His throne and he hears the accusations of Satan, the Law and his own conscience. He sees Christ, his Advocate, approaching the Judge, hears Him plead on his behalf and is informed of his verdict of acquittal by an inward communication of the Holy Spirit. The JCC experience is not the same thing as faith in Christ. It is possible to believe in Christ and even embrace Him in faith, and yet not be justified in the court of conscience.
The Motivation behind this Concept
JCC is a term used by some theologians of the Second Reformation. They employed this term to emphasize that when God pronounces a sinner righteous in His sight, this involves the sinner’s conscience. The sinner who believes in Christ is not only justified in the court of heaven but also in the court of his conscience. The acquittal in the court of heaven is conveyed to the sinner in the court of his conscience by the Holy Spirit, who assures him that God has forgiven all his sins for Christ’s sake and has accepted him as His child and heir. The real motive for teaching this doctrine is to show that justification does not only take place outside the sinner, objectively, but that God’s sentence of acquittal also registers in the conscience of the sinner subjectively.
The Truth Element in this Doctrine
It is biblical to teach that the conversion process of conviction, fear, remorse over sin, faith in the Gospel, fleeing to Christ, comfort and peace of the Holy Spirit, takes place in the sinner’s experience involving the conscience. In conversion God sets up His court of justice in the conscience, convicts of sin, lets the Law speak and curse the sinner, and pronounce a guilty verdict. This results in fear and trembling before God as Judge. The sinner is brought to repentance. He feels sorry for his sins and confesses them, acknowledging God’s justice in condemning him. He is then shown the way of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ; he begins to hunger and thirst after Christ and His righteousness, casts himself on Christ, asking Him to save him from the wrath he deserves. The Holy Spirit persuades him that he has a saving interest in Christ. A sense of peace floods the soul as God’s acquittal is announced in the court of conscience. He is assured by the testimony of the Spirit that he is a partaker of God’s forgiveness, that he has been adopted as His child and heir.
Where this Concept Goes Wrong
So far, one can hardly find fault with this explanation as to what happens in justification. A good case can be made also for distinguishing between God’s declaration of acquittal and its announcement to the believer’s conscience by the Spirit’s testimony.
Problems arise, however, when this testimony or witness of the Holy Spirit is viewed not only as distinguishable from God’s verdict of acquittal but also as a separate and special experience. This becomes especially problematic when it is pressed upon believers that they need to experience this acquittal in the court of their conscience and that they must be able to give an account of it.
Recent Developments of this Concept
As mentioned already, the concept of JCC is still very much alive in certain Reformed circles in the Netherlands. The problem is, however, that some are attaching much more importance to this concept than Second Reformation theologians have generally given to it. Not only that; the concept has also undergone significant changes over time. The blame for much of this must be laid at the door of the conventicles that sprang up during the late 18th century and continued on through the period leading up to and even following the Secession and beyond.
At these conventicles or ‘gezelschappen’ believers talked about the leadings of the Lord in their lives. A favourite topic of discussion was the matter of JCC. They would speak of the wonderful things they had experienced in this court. Such experiences, complete with visual and audible effects, were not only believed to be most desirable but also most necessary, if not to salvation itself, then certainly in order to be assured of one’s justification or salvation.
Is there any Biblical Warrant for this Doctrine?
The answer is no, certainly not in its extreme form. Scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit makes sinners partakers of the benefits of Christ by working in them a true faith by which they are united to Christ. The Confession of Faith states in Article 22: ‘We believe that to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery (of salvation), the Holy Ghost kindles in our hearts an upright faith which embraces Jesus Christ with all his merits, appropriates him, and seeks nothing more besides him.’
The Bible always links justification directly to faith in Jesus Christ. For example, in Romans 3:21-22 the apostle says that the righteousness of God, which is by faith, has been revealed to all who believe. So it is only by faith in Christ that a sinner is righteous before God.4
What is Saving Faith?
John Owen defines saving faith as ‘the fleeing of a repentant sinner to the mercy of God in Christ.’ In Scripture, faith is more than an intellectual assent to the truth about Christ. Faith is described in terms of looking unto Jesus, just as the dying Israelites in the desert were instructed to look to the serpent of brass, or as the coming of weary and heavy laden sinners to Christ to find rest for their souls. It is called a seeking of refuge and clinging to the hope set before us, a building on Christ as on a living stone, or a hungering and thirsting for Christ, the bread of life, and the living water, etc.
What all these illustrations have in common is that they point to a felt need. Faith in Christ implies conviction of sin, a sense of danger as well as a hope in God’s mercy in providing a Saviour. Driven by the law and drawn by the Gospel sinners come to Christ, the only Saviour.
Although the degree of conviction varies from one sinner to another, what all have in common is that they learn to ask with the Philippian jailer, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ [Acts 16:32]. Those who are truly convicted will gladly accept the condition offered by Christ and His servants, namely to ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved’ (v.33).
Faith is not Difficult or Mysterious
For many seeking souls, however, to believe in Christ is a difficult matter. In William Guthrie’s words,
Some conceive faith to be a difficult, mysterious thing, hardly attainable … But shall that be judged a mysterious and difficult thing which consists much in desire? If men but have an appetite, they have it; for they are blessed ‘that hunger and thirst after righteousness’ [Matt. 5:6] … Is it a matter of such intricacy and insuperable difficulty, earnestly to look to that exalted Saviour? ‘Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth’ [Isa. 45:22]. And to receive a thing that is offered, held forth, and declared to be mine, if I will but accept and take it, … such a thing is faith … We often drive people from their just rest and quiet, by making them apprehend faith to be some deep, mysterious thing, and by exciting unnecessary doubts about it, whereby it is needlessly darkened.5
Justification is the Possession of All Believers
Justification before God through faith in Christ is a blessing that belongs not just to a select few, but to every true believer. God pronounces any sinner who believes in Jesus absolved from sin and punishment and receives him as his child and heir. This blessing is not given only to those who have great or strong faith or exercised faith but to all who look to Christ for salvation. Weak faith unites to Christ just as much as strong faith does. The hand with which the woman with the issue of blood touched Jesus was only a trembling hand, but it was the instrument whereby she was healed. The decisive factor in justification is the Christ to which faith clings, not the strength and degree of our faith.
How wrong therefore are those who teach that it is possible to embrace Christ without being justified! As John Owen writes:
Some have said that ‘men may believe and place their firm trust in Christ for life and salvation, and yet not be justified.’ This is a position so destructive unto the gospel, and so full of scandal unto all pious souls, and contains such an express denial of the record that God hath given concerning his Son Jesus Christ, as I wonder that any person of sobriety and learning should be surprised into it.6
The Believer’s Struggle to Embrace his Justification
Assurance of one’s justification and salvation is often obtained in the way of many struggles. This does not mean, however, that a weak believer never experiences any comfort of his justification in this life. How can a person believe in Christ and not know anything about this in his experience? True faith always brings a measure of comfort, assurance and peace with it. The apostle says, ‘being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ [Rom. 5:1].
There can be many reasons why this assurance is lacking. Perhaps conduct unbecoming a Christian could be a problem. An inconsistent walk, lack of regular prayer and Bible reading are further reasons. The problem may also be self-righteousness and relying on works of the law. Assurance of our justification comes only by dying to the law and trusting fully in Christ and His finished work.
Assurance is not the Same as Justification
Although it is true that the comfort and assurance of justification is not experienced to the same degree by all believers, our assurance in whatever measure it is experienced, is not our justification. Justification takes place at the first act of faith, when the convinced sinner lays hold of Christ as his Saviour. Assurance follows when the Holy Spirit testifies in our heart or conscience that we are justified by faith in Christ and His finished work. This is what Scripture teaches. Therefore, this is what Luther, Calvin and all the Reformers and Puritans taught and all faithful ministers today preach: Justification by grace alone through faith alone. Plus nothing.
- I am indebted to a lecture by Rev. C. Harinck on ‘De Rechtvaardigmaking in de Vierschaar der Conscientie,’ delivered at the 1999 Haamstede Conferentie in The Netherlands.
- The Heidelberg Catechism (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2014), p. 42 (Lord’s Day XXIII, Answer 61).
- ibid., p. 41 (Question 60).
- ibid., pp. 41-42 (Lord’s Day XXIII).
- William Guthrie, The Christian’s Great Interest (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1969), pp. 60, 63.
- John Owen, Works, Volume 5 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), p. 104.
Cornelis Pronk is Editor of The Messenger, the monthly magazine of the Free Reformed Churches of North America, from the October 2007 issue of which the above article is reprinted with permission.
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