In the settlement of the great question between the sinner and God, there was to be no bargaining, and no price of any kind. The basis of settlement was laid at the cross; and the mighty transaction on that cross did all that was needed as a price. “It is finished!” is God’s message to men in their inquiry, “What shall we do to be saved?”

This completed transaction supersedes all man’s efforts to justify himself, or to assist God in justifying him. We see Christ crucified, and reconciling sinners unto Himself, not imputing unto men their trespasses; and this non-imputation is the result solely of what was done upon the cross, where the transference of the sinner’s guilt to the Divine substitute was once and forever accomplished.

It is of that transaction, that the gospel brings us the “good news,” and whoever believes it becomes partaker of all the benefits which that transaction secured.

“But am I not to be indebted to the Holy Spirit’s work in my soul?”

“Undoubtedly; for what hope can there be for you without the Almighty Spirit, who quickens the dead sinner?”

“If so, then ought I not to wait for His impulses, and having got them, may I not present the feelings which He has wrought in me–as reasons why I should be justified?”

“No, in no way. You are not justified by the Spirit’s work–but by Christ’s alone; nor are the motions of the Spirit in you the grounds of your confidence, or the reasons for your expecting pardon from the Judge of all. The Spirit works in you, not to prepare you for being justified, or to make you fit for the favor of God–but to bring you to the cross, just as you are. For the cross is the only place where God deals in mercy with the transgressor.”

It is at the cross that we meet God in peace and receive His favor. There we find not only the blood that washes, but the righteousness which clothes and beautifies, so that henceforth we are treated by God as if the righteousness of His own Son were actually ours.

This is what the apostle calls “imputed” righteousness (Romans 4:6,8,11,22,24), or righteousness so reckoned to us by God, as that we are entitled to all the blessings which that righteousness can obtain for us. Righteousness got up by ourselves, or put into us by another, we call infused, or imparted, or inherent righteousness; but righteousness belonging to another reckoned to us by God as if it were our own, we call imputed righteousness. It is of this that the apostle speaks when he says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14; Galatians 3:27). Thus Christ represents us: and God deals with us as represented by Him. Righteousness within will follow necessarily and inseparably; but we are not to wait in order to get it before going to God for the righteousness of His only begotten Son.

Imputed righteousness must come first. You cannot have the righteousness within–until you have the righteousness without; and to make your own righteousness the price which you give to God for that of His Son–is to dishonor Christ, and to deny His cross. The Spirit’s work is not to make us holy, in order that we may be pardoned; but to show us the cross, where the pardon is to be found by the unholy; so that having found the pardon there, we may begin the life of holiness to which we are called.

That which God presents to the sinner, is an immediate pardon, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done,” but by the great work of righteousness finished for us by the Substitute. Our qualification for obtaining that righteousness, is that we are unrighteous; just as the sick man’s qualification for the physician, is that he is sick.

Of a previous goodness, preparatory to pardon, the gospel says nothing. Of a preliminary state of religious feeling, as a necessary introduction to the grace of God, the apostles never spoke. Fears, troubles, self-questionings, bitter cries for mercy, forebodings of judgment, and resolutions of amendment, may, in point of time, have preceded the sinner’s reception of the good news; but they did not constitute his fitness, nor make up his qualification. He would have been quite as welcome without them. They did not make the pardon more complete, more gracious, or more free. The sinner’s needs were all his arguments: “God be merciful to me–a sinner.” He needed salvation, and he went to God for it, and got it just because he needed it, and because God delights in saving the poor and needy. He needed pardon, and he went to God for it, and obtained it without merit or money. “When he had NOTHING TO PAY, God graciously forgave.” It was the having nothing to pay–which drew out God’s gracious forgiveness.

Ah, this is grace! “This is love, not that we loved God–but that He loved us!” He loved us, even when we were dead in sins. He loved us, not because we were rich in goodness–but because He was “rich in mercy”; not because we were worthy of His favor–but because He delighted in loving-kindness. His welcome to us comes from His own graciousness, not from our lovableness. “Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Christ invites the weary! It is this weariness which fits you for Him, and Him for you. Here is your weariness, there is the resting-place! They are side by side. Do you say, “That resting-place is not for me.” What! Is it not for the weary? Do you say, “But I cannot make use of it?” What! Do you mean to say, “I am so weary that I cannot sit down?” If you had said, “I am so weary that I cannot stand, nor walk, nor climb,” one could understand you. But to say, “I am so weary that I cannot sit down,” is simple folly, or something worse, for you are making a merit and a work of your sitting down; you seem to think that to sit down is to do some great thing which will require a long and prodigious effort.

Let us listen then to the gracious words of the Lord: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that says to you, ‘Give Me a drink;’ you would have asked of Him–and He would have given you living water” (John 4:10). You would have asked–and He would have given! That is all. How real, how true, how free; yet how simple!

Yes; pardon, peace, spiritual life–all of them are gifts, Divine gifts, brought down from heaven by the Son of God, presented personally to each needy sinner by God. They are not to be bought, but received; as men receive the sunshine, complete and sure and free. They are not to be earned or deserved by exertions or sufferings, or prayers or tears; but received at once as the purchase of the labors and sufferings of the great Substitute. They are not to be waited for–but taken on the spot without hesitation or distrust, as men take the loving gift of a generous friend. There are not to be claimed on the ground of personal fitness or goodness–but of need and unworthiness, of poverty and emptiness. (source)

Horatius Bonar

Further reading