The following excerpt was taken from The God Who Justifies by Dr. James White, p. 119-123.
I doubt Martin Luther any longer cares that he is remembered as a beer-drinking, pretzel-eating theologian whose illustrations were often more earthly than the sensibilities of many modern readers can allow. Hiding behind his gruff exterior was a sharp intellect and a sensitive heart that could express itself in the most surprising ways.
One of Luther’s most famous illustrations comes from the rural farms of
This is what we are like in our sin. There is nothing that would recommend us to God, nothing that is acceptable, nothing that merits His blessing. We are foul and repulsive in our sin. As I said, Luther’s theological illustrations were earthy, brutally honest, and, in this case, perfectly true.
Justification, he went on, is like that first snowfall of the approaching winter, the one that covers everything in a blanket of pure white. Unlike later snowfalls, where man has shoveled and plowed and otherwise worked to clear a path for himself, that first snow is clean, beautiful. Everything is covered in the same uniform blanket – even, Luther points out, those piles of dung. What was once foul is no longer. The smell is gone. That repulsive sight is gone. All is white and clean and pure.
This is how justification differs from sanctification. In justification we receive the pure and spotless righteousness of Christ, a blanket that covers over our sin in the sight of the Father. The dunghill is still, intrinsically and internally, a dunghill – that hasn’t changed. What has changed is its relationship to an external standard – God’s standard.
That first snowfall, the righteousness of Christ, an alien righteousness, the righteousness of another, is imputed to us, covering us and removing our offensiveness before God the Father. We do remain sinners inwardly; it is the work of sanctification that changes us internally, conforming us ever closer to the image of Christ.
Martin Luther did not deny the renewing work of the Spirit in regeneration – the fact that we are given a new heart, for example. His purpose in this case was solely to show how and why justification differs from sanctification.
Luther has taken his lumps over the years for this illustration. It is common for many to bring up this story and say, “See, Luther and those who follow him in their understanding of justification don’t really believe that God changes us. We can just go on sinning and all will be well.” Do such objections have merit? Do they carry weight? Is the view of Luther and his followers a legal fairy tale?
I have found the best way to defend Luther on the issue, aside from biblically demonstrating the nature of justification via the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the non-imputation of sin, is to turn the illustration around. How do other religious movements believe that pile of dung can ever hope of be pleasing in God’s sight?
The primary teaching of the religions of man is that when a person is “saved,” he is made internally and intrinsically pleasing to God. To bring it into Luther’s context, when the pile of dung is “saved,” it is internally changed from a pile of dung into a pile of… gold! A fine, shiny pile of gold that would, of course, be desirable to anyone, including God. God would surely like to have this pile of gold in heaven with Him, so long as the gold remains what it is – intrinsically pleasing to God – it will enter into His presence.
But man’s religions cannot bear a perfect work of salvation that gives no place to man. The very nature of these religious systems requires that salvation be conditional upon continued works on the part of the followers. The idea of failure, falling away, has to be held over the heads of those you wish to control through religious power. So in our illustration, there must be some consequence to failure (sin) on the part of the pile of gold as it goes through life.
Since Roman Catholic apologists are those who most often raise objections to Luther’s view…, let’s put the pile of gold into that context. (This is also fair to Luther, who was reacting to the Roman Catholic doctrine to begin with.) In the Roman Catholic system our dunghill would become a pile of gold through the “laver of regeneration,” baptism. It would then be internally changed and made pleasing to God.
However, the pile of gold may commit sins during the course of its life on earth. Some sins, it is said, do not destroy the grace of justification that has turned the dunghill into the pile of gold. These are called venial sins. But there are punishments, temporal punishments, that come with such sins. We would liken those to flecks or globs of dung that appear on the surface of the gold. They are not enough to cause the gold to be rejected by God en toto, but some mechanism for cleansing the gold must be envisioned. This leads to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, the idea of a place of cleansing (or purgation) after death but before entrance into the presence of God.
But what about those serious sins that do, in fact, destroy the grace of justification? These “mortal” sins would instantaneously turn the pile of gold back into a pile of dung. The dunghill must then rely upon other remedies to regain the grace of justification (the sacrament of penance, in this particular case) and again become a pile of gold. Yet there can be temporal punishments for mortal sins as well, so even though the dunghill becomes a gold pile, it’s not a perfect gold pile – it still must be concerned about self-purification.
The worst thing with such a system is this: the pile never knows whether it’s gold or dung. Since there are requirements that must be fulfilled to obtain justification and maintain it, one can never know if everything that needs to be done has been done.
And so the real issue of this entire study comes to the fore. Is salvation the work of God? Does God save, perfectly, completely, in accordance with His own purpose and grace? Or is the gospel a “maybe,” a “do this and live.” Is it a matter of “done in Christ Jesus,” or is it “do with help and assistance from God”?
Perfect Savior, Perfect Salvation
Clothed in the righteousness of Christ that is ours by faith and faith alone – this is the hope of the believer. Why should God bring you into His presence if you were to die today? So many, when asked this question, respond with talk of works, deeds, or attitudes. Even those who call themselves Christians will speak of things they have done: giving to church, attending regularly, helping in the nursery.
In reality, there is only one answer to the question that is biblically correct: God will accept me because I am clothed in the perfect righteousness of His Son, a righteousness imputed to me by faith and faith alone. I make no other plea, for none is necessary. I am accepted in the Beloved One, the Son, whose death in my place removes all my sin, and whose perfect righteousness, imputed to me, allows me to hear the words of the Father: “Not guilty. Enter into My presence.”
What kind of righteousness is yours? What is the object of your faith? Do you trust in the God who justifies, or do you trust partly in this work, partly in that sacrament, partly in those religious ceremonies? Do you hope that grace will help you to do things that will allow you to merit eternal life? Or do you know, with the assurance of faith, that only Christ and His righteousness can avail for you? There can be no greater treasure in this life than to have the certainty of acceptance with God. Do you have this treasure? Only you can answer that question. None other on earth can truly know. But it is a vital inquiry you cannot afford to ignore.
God has been called many things by man down through the ages. The Bible uses numerous phrases and titles attempting to bring out the grandeur and majesty of Yahweh. But the most precious are those that describe Him as the God who is faithful to His promises, faithful to His covenant of salvation. His Word has given us the most precious title of all – precious, at least, to the one who knows intimately the sin that is his, the guilt, the righteous judgment that hangs over his head – and that title is, “the God who justifies.” He is the god who declares righteous by the redemption found only in His Son, Jesus Christ. He is the just and holy Justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. All glory and honor and thanks go to Him. Let the redeemed of the Lord boast in Him, and in Him alone.