God’s Law Demands Perfect Obedience: The Doctrine of Justification (Part 2) — Charles Hodge
It is one of the primary doctrines of the Bible, everywhere either asserted or assumed, that we are under the law of God. This is true of all classes of men, whether they enjoy a divine revelation or not. Every thing which God has revealed as a rule of duty enters into the constitution of the law which binds those to whom that revelation is given, and by which they are to be ultimately judged. Those who have not received any external revelation of the divine will, are a law unto themselves. The knowledge of right and wrong, written upon their hearts, is of the nature of a divine law, having its authority and sanction, and by it the heathen are to be judged in the last day.
God has seen fit to annex the promise of life to obedience to his law. The man that doeth these things shall live by them, (Romans 10:5) is the language of Scripture on this subject. To the lawyer who admitted that the law required love to God and man, our Saviour said, Thou hast answered right. This do, and thou shalt live (Luke 10:28). And to one who asked him, What good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life he said, If thou wouldst enter into life, keep the commandments (Matthew 19:17). On the other hand, the law denounces death as the penalty of transgression. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Such is the uniform declaration of Scripture on this subject.
The obedience which the law demands, is called righteousness; and those who render that obedience are called righteous. To ascribe righteousness to any one, or to pronounce him righteous, is the scriptural meaning of the word to justify. The word never means to make good in a moral sense, but always to pronounce just or righteous. Thus God says, I will not justify the wicked (Exodus 23:7). Judges are commanded to justify the righteous and to condemn the wicked (Deut. 25:1). Woe is pronounced on those who justify the wicked for a reward (Isaiah 5:23). In the New Testament it is said, By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight (Romans 3:20). It is God who justifieth, who is he that condemneth (Romans 8:33,34). There is scarcely a word in the Bible the meaning of which is less open to doubt. There is no passage in the New Testament in which it is used out of its ordinary and obvious sense, (Rev. 22:11, is probably no exception to this remark, as the text in that passage is uncertain). When God justifies a man, he declares him to be righteous. To justify never means to render one holy. It is said to be sinful to justify the wicked; but it could never be sinful to render the wicked holy. And as the law demands righteousness, to impute or ascribe righteousness to any one, is in scriptural language to justify. To make (or constitute) righteous, is another equivalent form of expression. Hence to be righteous before God, and to be justified, mean the same thing; as in the following passage, Not the hearers of the law are righteous before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified (Romans 2:13). The attentive, and especially the anxious reader of the Bible cannot fail to observe that these various expressions, to be righteous in the sight of God, to impute righteousness, to constitute righteous, to justify, and others of similar import, are so interchanged as to explain each other, and to make it clear that to justify a man is to ascribe or impute to him righteousness.
The great question then is, How is this righteousness to be obtained? We have reason to be thankful that the answer which the Bible gives to this question is so perfectly plain.
In the first place, that the righteousness by which we are to be justified before God is not of works, is not only asserted but proved. The apostle’s first argument on this point is derived from the consideration that the law demands a perfect righteousness. If the law was satisfied by an imperfect obedience, or by a routine of external duties, or by any service which men are competent to render, then indeed justification would be by works. But since it demands perfect obedience, justification by works is, for sinners, absolutely impossible. It is thus the apostle reasons (Gal. 3:10). As many as are of the works of the law, are under the curse. For it is written, cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them (Gal. 3:10). As the law pronounces its curse upon every man who continues not to do all that it commands, and as no man can pretend to this perfect obedience, it follows that all who look to the law for justification must be condemned.
To the same effect in the following verse, he says, The law is not of faith, but the man that doeth them shall live by them. That is, the law is not satisfied by any single grace or imperfect obedience. It knows and can know no other ground of justification than complete compliance with its demands. Hence in the same chapter, Paul says, If there had been a law which could have given life, verily righteousness would have been by the law (Gal. 3:21). Could the law pronounce righteous, and thus give a title to the promised life to those who had broken its commands, there would have been no necessity of any other provision for the salvation of men; but as the law cannot thus lower its demands, justification by the law is impossible. The same truth is taught in a different form, when it is said, If righteousness come by the law, Christ is dead in vain (Gal. 2:21). There would have been no necessity for the death of Christ, if it had been possible to satisfy the law by the imperfect obedience which we can render. Paul therefore warns all those who look to works for justification that they are debtors to do the whole law (Gal. 5:3). It knows no compromise; it cannot demand less than what is right, and perfect obedience is right, and therefore its only language is as before, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them (Gal. 3:10); and, The man that doeth those things shall live by them (Gal. 3:12). Every man, therefore, who expects justification by works, must see to it, not that he is better than other men, or that he is very exact and does many things, or that he fasts twice in the week, and gives tithes of all he possesses, but that he is sinless. . .[Read part 3 here]
— taken from: The Way of Life, Charles Hodge, 1841
Charles Hodge (1797-1878) was a Presbyterian minister, theologian, and a seminary professor at Princeton Theological Seminary where he taught for most of his life. A man of God and staunchly orthodox, Hodge taught in the areas of Oriental and Biblical literature, exegetical, didactic and polemic theology. He was also Princeton’s principal from 1851–1878.