How should we study the doctrine of justification?
With full recongition of the holiness and justice of God, of our own guilt and inability to be justified by our own works, and with the sure hope that in Christ God has provided a perfect righteousness and a full atonement for sin. We need the clear knowledge that by faith alone, resting and relying on Christ alone, God will freely pardon all our sins and accept us as righteous in his sight.
Any other approach to this great subject, any pathway that reflects an academic detachment, or that places the stress on our own ability, is spiritually disastrous.
How should we study justification?
On our knees. But with our eyes lifted away from ourselves and toward Christ.
Herman Bavinck puts it so well:
To correctly assess the benefit of justification, people must lift up their minds to the judgment seat of God and put themselves in his presence.
When they compare themselves with others or measure themselves by the standard that they apply to themselves or among each other, they have some reason perhaps to pride themselves in something and to put their trust in it.
But when they put themselves before the face of God and examine themselves in the mirror of his holy law, all their conceit collapses, all self-confidence melts, and there is room left only for the prayer: "Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you" (Job 4:17-29; 9:2; 15:14-16; Ps. 143:2; cf. 130:3), and their only comfort is that "there is forgiveness before you, so that you may be revered" (Ps. 130:4).
If for insignificant, guilty, and impure persons there is to be a possibility of true religion, that is, of genuine fellowship with God, of salvation and eternal life, then God on his part must reestablish the broken bond, again take them into fellowship with him and share his grace with them, regardless of their guilt and corruption.
He, then, must descend from the height of his majesty, seek us out and come to us, take away our guilt and again open the way to his fatherly heart. If God were to wait until we--by our faith, our virtues, and good works of congruity or condignity--had made ourselves worthy, in part or in whole, to receive his favour, the restoration of communion between him and ourselves would never happen, and salvation would forever be out of reach for us.
This is why so much depends on the benefit of justification, and it is rightly denominated the article on which the church either stands or falls. For the fundamental question that arises in this connection is this: What is the way that leads to communion with God, to true religion, to salvation and eternal life: God's grace or human merit, his forgiveness or our works, gospel or law, the covenant of grace or the covenant of works?
If it is the latter, if our work, our virtue, our sanctification is primary, then the believer's consolation ends, and they remain in doubt and uncertainty to their last breath. Then Christ is violated in his unique, all-encompassing, and all-sufficient mediatorial office, and he himself is put on a level with other humans, with ourselves. Then God is robbed of his honor, for, if humans are justified on the basis of their works, they have reason to boast of themselves and are, partly or totally, the craftsmen of their own salvation.
Herman Bavinck, RD Vol. 4, p. 204-5