The way we approach something determines, to some extent, what we find. We approach food differently when we are hungry. We approach people differently when we are lonely. We approach sleep differently when we are tired. Things are understood in a context, and our angle of approach is a part of that context.
From reading John Calvin on justification I’ve come to see that we approach the matter of justification differently when we have a sense of our sin in light of God’s holy character. God is the context in which justification feels needed and makes sense. And errors on justification are related to other more basic theological errors in our doctrine of God.
After his initial discussion of justification in the Institutes (3.11), Calvin has two further chapters which are extremely helpful at further teasing out what justification means and why it matters (3.12 and 3.13). In 3.12.1 he writes:
“In the shady cloisters of the schools anyone can easily and readily prattle about the value of works in justifying men. But when we come before the presence of God we must put away such amusements! For there we deal with a serious matter, and do not engage in frivolous word battles. To this question, I insist, we must apply our mind if we would profitably inquire concerning true righteousness: How shall we reply to the Heavenly Judge when he calls us to account?”
I wonder if part of the explanation for the prevalent confusion about justification today is that we don’t talk as much as previous generations did about God’s Law and God’s role as Judge. We are more comfortable quoting “God is love” than “thou shalt not,” and we like to think of God as a Father but not as a Judge. In Scripture, however, God is both Father and Judge, and there is both law and grace. We must remind ourselves of the legal aspects of our relationship with God – the law, the final judgment, our guilt – in order to see justification rightly. Only when we are in a place of despairing of our status before God are we able to approach the doctrine of justification properly, and receive it for what it is. Only when we despair of human righteousness can we understand and receive “righteousness from God” (Romans 1:17, 3:21, 3:22).