What will be the sinner’s plight when he is brought before the tribunal of Heaven to argue and debate his case with God? Can he, by acting the part of his own attorney, frame conclusive arguments to vindicate himself of his crimes against God's holy law? Consider the following fictitious transcript of "the Grand Assize." The sinner is the accused; Satan, "the accuser of the brethren," is the prosecuting attorney (Rev. 12:10; Zech. 3:1); the charge is "an indictment in ten counts for offending the Judge of all the earth and His holy law." Listen, now, as the high court of heaven is called to order:
"The highest court in heaven and earth is now in session. The honorable and righteous ‘Judge of all the earth’ presiding."
PROSECUTION: Your Honor, the prosecution intends to establish with irrevocable proofs that this man is guilty of manifold transgressions against Thy holy law. In ten general counts he has offended, and under each of these several categories, he is guilty of numerous specific sins. I intend to prove that he is a hypocrite, claiming to be one of Thy people though his life is marked by various inconsistencies. In fact, by virtue of his sins, I will insist that he deserves the maximum sentence that can be imposed by the law - the ultimate death of eternal punishment. I call five witnesses to establish this case and present the evidence that will condemn this man. First, I appeal to "the Law" itself, which cannot but "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," for it is "spiritual, and the commandment holy, just, and good." Tell me, thou holy Law, do you know this man?
LAW: Yes; he has often professed to serve me and keep my statutes (Jno. 5:45). But I must tell the truth, for he has frequently violated my precepts. He has, in fact, broken every commandment from the first to the last, not necessarily in terms of external behavior, but in terms of desire and passion of heart. He has transgressed, that is "gone over" my commandments (I Jno. 3:4); he has trespassed, that is "gone beyond" my commandments, and at all times and in all circumstances, he has "come short" of measuring up to the perfect standard of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). The first commandment alone is enough to bring him under the penal sanction of Divine justice: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." The accused is guilty of idolatry!
ACCUSED: Objection, Your Honor, but I have never bowed to an idol.
LAW: Ah, but you have, for every covetous desire is idolatrous, a deification of self in terms of an inordinate preoccupation with personal pleasure and happiness (Col. 3:5). Further, you once thirsted for personal honor, driven by ambition for the praise of men, seeking for thyself the kind of glory that is due only to God. This too is idolatry.
DIVINE JUSTICE: Objection over-ruled.
LAW: I further confess that he is guilty of perjury, for he has "taken the name of the Lord God in vain," by virtue of the many broken promises and unfulfilled covenants he made with others. Also, he has breached that most sacred commandment on the second table against his fellow man: "Thou shalt not kill."
ACCUSED: Objection, Your Honor. I cannot be silent before such an outrageous charge. This accusation is unfounded. When did I, like evil Cain, take the life of my brother? I am no murderer!
LAW: Is not the Scripture true, "Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment" (Mt. 5:22)? And "whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer" (I Jno. 5:15)? Isn’t hatred the moral equivalent of murder, that is, murder by feeling?
DIVINE JUSTICE: Objection over-ruled.
LAW: I have yet another charge to which the accused must plead guilty: "Thou shalt not commit adultery." The accused, again, is guilty of violating this express command.
ACCUSED: Objection, Your Honor. Surely it cannot be proved that I have broken the solemn ties of matrimony and coveted my neighbor’s wife. I am no adulterer!
LAW: What does the Scripture say? "Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Mt. 5:28). Again, a corrupt deed proceeds from a corrupt heart; the very thought, therefore, is of the same nature as the deed, equally reprehensible before the gaze of a Holy God.
DIVINE JUSTICE: Objection over-ruled. You may step down, "Mr. Law."
PROSECUTION: Your Honor, I call as my second witness one who knows the accused better than any mortal, "The Flesh." Mr. Flesh, how well acquainted are you with the accused?
FLESH: I have been his companion throughout his life. Like a putrid carcass strapped to his back, I have accompanied him on every journey. We have been together every hour of every day. When he sat down to eat, I peered over his shoulder. When he reclined to sleep, I was with him. Whatever he did, where ever he went, I was there, and I must confess, he was very kind to me. He sometimes pampered me and allowed me to gratify my appetites. He often "made provision for me" (Rom. 13:14), even at times going out of his way to make me comfortable. I tell this court in all candor that he is a wonderful person. No one could ever be a better friend to me than he. Sometimes he catered to pride and self-conceit, entertaining the arrogance of a haughty spirit. Oh, he made me so happy! He generously indulged my desire for sloth and lethargy. Frequently on the Lord’s Day, he would allow me to enjoy the spirit of slumber and, in much gratitude, I would supply him with a thousand excuses to justify his absence at public worship. He allowed me to take regular vacations from the hard and unpleasant task of daily prayer and family worship. He knew how I detested Bible reading, so he allowed me to watch the television instead. When he was tempted to obey God, I would persuade him with arguments of unbelief and he, I’m happy to say, was amazingly eager to comply with my counsel. When he would rejoice over another’s success, I would remind him that he deserved it more than they and this would produce my favorite disposition of mind, jealousy and envy. (The prosecuting attorney laughs.)
PROSECUTOR: What you describe as virtues are, in reality, great vices. The accused is clearly guilty.
DIVINE JUSTICE: You may step down, Mr. Flesh.
PROSECUTOR: Your Honor, I call as my third witness, the "Conscience" of the accused. Mr. Conscience, please tell this court of your experience with the accused.
CONSCIENCE: I tell you now, even weeping, that I am battle-worn and weary. For a long time, I have been engaged in the fiercest of conflict with the previous witness, Mr. Flesh. Although I was victorious on occasion, yet I suffered many painful wounds at his hands. If the accused had but heeded my counsel, I would have never suffered defeat, but he frequently allied himself with Mr. Flesh against me. Even on those occasions when I condemned his soul and brought him under heavy burdens of guilt, he still rebelled against me. I would bring Scripture before his mind, but he would thrust them out and refuse to admit his failures or repent of his ways. When he attended public worship, I would take the opportunity to afflict and chasten him with the preacher’s words, but he would harden his heart, stiffen his neck, and brace himself in rejection against my reproof. How he has tortured and vexed me! I cannot begin to explain how he has grieved me. His reluctance to follow my counsel is only one of his crimes against me. He has also neglected my education by the word of God and the practice of the spiritual disciplines. Seldom has he permitted me any respite from the assaults of Mr. Flesh. How sorely I’ve been treated all of my days.
DIVINE JUSTICE: You may step down, Mr. Conscience. Have you any further witnesses?
PROSECUTOR: I have yet two more, Your Honor. May I suggest that the evidence presented thus far argues incontrovertibly against the accused, but I will now proceed to establish his guilt with two final proofs. For my fourth witness, therefore, I call "the World." Tell me, Mr. World, how well do you know the accused?
WORLD: Very well. As a matter of fact, he is "a friend of the world" (Jas. 4:4). From his birth, he has "walked according to the course of this world" (Eph. 2:2), governed by the "rudiments of this world" (Col. 2:2). I have observed his daily conduct and can readily say that he possesses an insatiable hunger for reputation. He is a thorough worldling. Someone once said that he claimed to believe in God, but he has never said anything to me about it. I’ve never heard one word fall from his lips about the Lord. He hoards filthy lucre like a miser. Once when a store clerk gave him too much change, he concealed the error, justifying himself by saying, "She should have been more careful." He thinks that he has me fooled, but I have observed him for so long that I must conclude that he is no different than everyone else around him. When needy people approached him for assistance, he turned them empty away. I heard him say, "In this world, a person must look out for himself. After all, if I shared with others what I have accumulated by my own hard work, how could I afford to maintain my own high standard of living?" He has even spoken unkindly to those who desired his aid. He is a thoroughgoing materialist. Conventional wisdom and popular opinion are the criteria by which he makes his decisions. He desperately wants to be popular among men. Yes, this man is synthetic in the strictest sense of the word.
DIVINE JUSTICE: You may step down, Mr. World. You may call your final witness, Prosecution.
PROSECUTOR: The prosecution calls as its final witness, the defendant himself. You have heard the accusations against you. Have you an acceptable answer to these serious charges? …Well, speak man.
ACCUSED: Well, I…I…I did my best to do right.
PROSECUTION: Your best? Ha! You’ve never done your best in any endeavor, whether in family, business, social, or religious employments. Your life has been wasted - squandered! You are the chief of sinners. Your sins of omission and sins of commission; your presumptuous sins against the light of knowledge and your secret sins have now been tallied and the unescapable dilemma of your soul is now plain. Your Honor, since the evidence is overwhelmingly conclusive of his guilt, and since he has offended even Thee, I demand, in the name of righteousness, justice, and equity that he receive at the hands of this court the maximum sentence according to the law; that is, that he be forever banished into conscious oblivion, suffering the torment of everlasting fire in the lowest hell.
The sinner’s case, as you can see, is quite dismal. Oh, if he just had a lawyer! "Oh, that one might plead for a man with God, as a man pleadeth with his neighbor" (Job 16:21). But who would take his case? In the face of such incontrovertible evidence, what attorney would be willing to represent him, much less able to procure his justification? Who could one find who has the necessary legal qualifications to take upon himself the sinner’s defense? Such a desperate plight is depicted by the Psalmist when he queries, "Oh Lord, if thou shouldest mark iniquities, who shall stand?" (Ps. 130:3), and by Job when he asserts, "If God should contend with man, man cannot answer him one of a thousand" (Job 9:2). Would any reader dare to attempt to plead his own merit before such a court? Weighed in the balance of human failure and Divine holiness, man’s works are lighter than air. Surely, the rebel sinner has met his doom. But, wait a moment. Court has not yet been adjourned. I think I hear Job intimating that there is hope for sinners: "I know that it is so of a truth, but how should man be just with God?" (Job 9:1). The Psalmist also offers a ray of hope, saying, "But there is forgiveness with thee that thou mayest be feared" (Ps. 130:4). Suddenly, the noise of a hundred voices of condemnation are silenced as One rises to his feet to plead with the judge on behalf of the accused. He is the Judge’s own Son, and the believing sinner’s "advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (I Jno. 2:2). Hear him as he addresses the court:
JESUS: Righteous Father, I have voluntarily assumed the office of mediator for this man. Though he is vile and sinful, guilty of each of the foregoing charges, yet I confess to this highest court that I have already paid the penalty for his crimes. The curse of the law fell upon me in his stead. The wrath due to his iniquity has been laid upon me. In his place, I fulfilled, by a perfect and entire obedience, the precept of the law, from my first mortal breath to my final dying pang, and by that obedience, he has been made righteous (Rom. 5:19); therefore, in the name of justice and equity, I declare that to remember his sins against him and to punish him again for those sins which have already been punished in me would be an act of double jeopardy, and "far be it from God, the righteous Judge, to commit unrighteousness" (Job 34:24).
DIVINE JUSTICE: Very well, then, without further delay, I will now issue the verdict. This court finds the defendant not guilty of breaking the law. He is not guilty of hypocrisy, of ingratitude, or any other sin. No blot can be found on his record. In fact, his account shows a never failing supply of righteousness, righteousness that makes him fit to stand in my august and holy presence forever. There is not the slightest evidence before this court that he ever committed a crime; therefore, let the record show that he is justified. I declare that he is free from guilt and blame; I proclaim that he is all that the law requires him to be. Let the Wicked One cease from troubling; let this weary one be at rest, for "who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect; it is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us" (Rom. 8:33-34). Cast the "accuser of the brethren down", for his case cannot be sustained. This court is adjourned - forever!
This, my friend, is the gospel of grace. Jesus stood in the place of His elect as their substitute. Their judgment fell upon Him, and His righteousness was imputed to them. By His unmerited favor, the entire elect family has been made, legally and positionally, righteous before God. When one believes this glorious and objective fact as it is reported in the gospel, peace and assurance and joy flood the soul, as Toplady describes:
"From whence this fear and unbelief? Hath not the Father put to grief His spotless Son for me? And will the righteous Judge of men Condemn me for that debt of sin Which Lord was charged on Thee? If Thou my discharge hast procured And freely in my room endured the whole of wrath divine; Payment God cannot twice demand, First at my bleeding Surety’s hand, And then again at mine. Return, my soul, unto thy rest; The merits of thy Great High Priest have bought thy liberty. Trust in His efficacious blood, Nor fear thy banishment from God, Since Jesus died for thee."
Think of the doctrine of Justification, then, in terms of three courtrooms: (1) Supreme Court, before the bar of Divine Justice; (2) The Court of Conscience, in the believer’s heart; (3) The Court of Public Opinion, in the eye of society. How does a person appear before God? That is the most important question! What is one’s status before that court? Because of the merit of Jesus Christ, all of God’s elect are "Justified," declared righteous, by the grace of God. It is an objective fact. Legally and positionally, all for whom Jesus died were "justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." The gospel, furthermore, is a declaration of the fact of Christ’s finished redemptive work. It proclaims, clearly and triumphantly, the objective fact that God is satisfied with His people in His Son. It says, "Supreme Court has been adjourned forever for all the Father chose in the everlasting covenant." The "work" of reconciliation is done! When the trembling sinner hears and believes this "word of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18-20), claiming by faith an interest in the death of Christ (Rom. 6:11), he receives the subjective peace and assurance of sins forgiven in his conscience and, like the publican in Luke 18, returns to his house "justified," that is, with the peace and "blessedness" of heart that comes from knowing his sins are forgiven through Jesus Christ (Ps. 32:1; Rom. 4:9; Rom. 5:1). This is justification by faith, the subjective side of the objective fact of the cross. Though this blessing is incalculably precious, the judgment of conscience is not the last word. No, God is Supreme Court. Conscience is a lower court. "If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knoweth all things" (I Jno. 3:20). The judgment of conscience, however, is crucial to a vigorous and confident discipleship: "If our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God…" (v. 21ff). Finally, the believer demonstrates his faith before the court of public opinion by his works. When others see his "good works," they declare him righteous. This is justification by works, the evidence of a gracious status before God and a genuine faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Justification, then, a forensic term, has to do with the verdict. It is a declaration of righteousness based on the fact that one has been made righteous by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. For all the Father loved and gave to His Son, Jesus Christ has already borne the judgment.
"The Father lifted up His rod, O Christ, it fell on Thee! Thou stoodest in the sinner’s stead, now there’s no stroke for me. When purified, made white and tried, Thy glory then for me."
Do you know any better news?
(Adapted from Justification: Dialogues from Nathan and Theodore by Michael Gowens. The book is now out of print.)