The issue of justification has had a lasting influence on the Christian understanding of the topic of salvation and its relationship to eternal security. Biblical scholars have developed numerous stances on this theological understanding often resulting in a situation which has left many believers pondering the precise application of justification in their Christian walk. Perhaps the best known debate over this topic was that between Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic Church and encapsulated in Luther’s statement “this is the true meaning of Christianity, that we are justified by faith in Christ, not by the works of the Law.” It was this understanding of justification which launched the Protestant Reformation and a return to the New Testament understanding of the relationship of faith and works.
The exegetical foundation reinstituted by Martin Luther guides most theologians today in their search for a more comprehensive understanding of this immeasurable theological issue. A proper understanding of the meaning, roots, and application of justification by faith is obligatory in order to properly live out a vibrant and fruitful Christian life in equilibrium with the expectation of eternal security. Justification is the underpinning upon which the believer in Christ can have assurance in the forgiveness of sin and everlasting reception by a sovereign God.
Justification can be defined as “the judicial act of God by which, on account of Christ, to whom the sinner is united by faith, he declares that sinner to be no longer exposed to the penalty of the law, but to be restored.” Further exposition on the root meaning of this term can be determined through an understanding of the Greek word for justification used in the New Testament. The judicial and legal terminology that is appropriated to dikaiōma is evident from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Strong notes that dikaiōma “uniformly, or with only a single exception, signifies, not to make righteous, but to declare just, or free from guilt and exposure to punishment.” In a similar stratum of interpretation, theologian George Stevens denotes that “justification is certainly in Paul an actus forensis, a decree of exemption from penalty and of acceptance into God’s favor.”
A more thorough exposition of the idea of justification is provided by theologian Donald Barnhouse. He brings to light the proposition that justification should not be viewed as “making up the deficit that is owed by man.” Instead, a more appropriate definition should be that believers are “counted as one in Christ, and are given the position of sons with the Father…this does not mean that we are sinless, but it does mean that we have been declared righteous.” This pronouncement of righteousness must be understood to “signify a declarative and judicial act of God, external to the sinner, and not an efficient and sovereign act of God changing the sinner’s nature and making him subjectively righteous.”
The entirety of the concept and definition of justification can be summed up in the statement that it is a transformation in the relationship of God with man rather than a change “in the creature.” Mankind is transferred from the realm of doomed sinner to a fellow heir with Christ. Man is deficient in their own requisite ability to change their sinful nature into a state of righteousness. It is only through the act of justification and the absolute grace of God that He has unchained the believer from the bonds of sin and death.
The nucleus of justification lies in its application to the concept of the restoration of the rights and privileges provided through the sacrificial gift of Christ on the cross to the believer. An additional expression which provides elucidation on the concept of justification is that of the Greek term for miss the mark, hamartia. Theologian H.L. Wilmington conveys in his discussion of justification that hamartia pictures sin as “any attitude or act of man which does not hit the bulls-eye of God’s glory target.” This comparison of terminology is imperative in order to fully comprehend the effects of justification in relation to the correlation between the mending of the relationship between the believer and God.
Man’s inability to live righteously is pointedly discussed by theologian Donald Barnhouse. He elaborated that “all men have a consciousness that God must hate and just judge sin.” This consciousness is replete with sin and thus results in mankind in the end missing the mark of righteousness. Therefore, the legal definition of justification, as viewed consistently among theologians and in accordance with its Greek linguistic roots, provides a means of escape from the death throws of sin and death. It is this actus forensis or act of justification which God provided as a viaduct between Himself and man.
In order for justification to occur, an individual must recognize sinful nature and thus their deportment before an almighty and righteous God, their insufficient ability to live righteously and most importantly, they must acknowledge the pardon provided to them through Christ’s sacrifice. Strong comments that “justification, in its first element, is therefore that act by which God, for the sake of Christ, acquits the transgressor and suffers him to go free.” The route of restoration to favor with God is not accomplished through the aptitude of a personage to subsist in accordance with God’s law as scripture clearly declares in Romans 3:10 that “there is none righteous, no, not one.” Therefore, to obtain justification before God, it must be “solely in the obedience and righteousness of Christ, to whom the sinner is united by faith. Thus Christ’s work is the procuring cause of our justification.” Justification is achieved through salvation and is a gift unreservedly bestowed upon the believer as revealed by Paul in Titus 3:5: “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” This gift is further elucidated by Messianic Jewish scholar Marvin Wilson in his statement that “election and ultimately salvation are considered to be by God’s mercy rather than human achievement.”
The conception of the free gift of justification has its roots in Judaic thought as evidenced by Pinchas Lapide, a Jewish scholar of New Testament studies. He indicated that the “rabbinate has never considered the Torah as a way of salvation to God for [we Jews] regard salvation as God’s exclusive prerogative.” Pinchas also noted that “salvation could be attained only through God’s gracious love.” Paul relayed this underpinning in the Judaic concept of salvation and justification by using the two concepts synonymously. Stevens reminds us that for Paul the idea of justification is rooted in the idea that “God acts as a judge or sovereign and, upon certain conditions, pronounces men exempt from blame or penalty, proclaiming their acceptance into his favor.”
This is further outlined in Romans 5:1-2 where Paul stated that “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace by which we stand.” Ultimately, it is through Christ by which a sinner can acquire the legal autonomy provided by God from the burden of sin. Only by being “justified by His blood” can the sinner obtain salvation. There is not other avenue to justification than through the person of Jesus Christ.
God provides the sinner with a method of attaining a relationship with their creator through the act of justification available only through the graciousness of God and through the sacrifice provided by His Son Jesus Christ. It is through faith alone that one can obtain this freely bestowed gift. Paul demonstrated in Romans 3:21-24 the insufficiency of the law to make one righteous compared with the true means of obtaining justification before God. Paul states:
“But now righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the law and the prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe, there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
Additionally, Paul expounds on this topic in Galatians 3:11 by reminding the believer that “no one is justified in God’s sight through the law.” Sam Williams supported this view by commenting “because he who is righteous on the basis of faith shall live.” Paul formed his foundation for justification upon the overarching assertion that the “power of the law or its doing to alter the situation of the sinner is rejected. The works of the law are not a mechanism by which the sinner can become righteous.”
This premise espoused by Paul in Romans regarding the works of the law was an epiphany for most Jewish believers in the 1st century. The veracity of justification by faith alone in Christ presented a paradigm shift from the traditional works based message of the Mosaic Law. Paul clearly demonstrated the differentiation between the function of the law to reveal sin and the role of justification in liberating the believer from the throes of sin. This position is revealed further by Williams in his statement “the law was never given the power to make those who are dead to sin alive.”
The act of justification lies solely through the atonement that was provided by Christ through His death. Christ’s faithful act provides to the believer the singular impetus to reunite both Jew and Gentile in a state of righteousness before God. As Cosgrove postulated, “Jesus’ death forms the juridical basis of justification.” It is this judicial act of reclamation that is provided through Christ outside of the ability of the law or works. Paul once again revealed the method of justification by faith in Christ by stating in Romans 5:9 “since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!”
John Calvin outlined the process and means of justification with his following commentary on Romans 3:24:
“Perhaps no passage in the whole of Scripture illustrates more eminently the power of this righteousness. For it shows that the mercy of God is the efficient cause; that Christ with his blood is the material cause; that the formal or instrumental cause is faith begat from the Word; and that the final cause is the glory of both the Divine righteousness and goodness.”
It is the process outlined above in Calvin’s commentary through which justification takes place in the life of a penitent sinner. Christ is the doorway which man must enter in order to have access to a relationship with his creator. Any alternative route, such as attempting to adjudicate righteousness through works will result in missing the mark in the eyes of God. Faith in Christ is the conduit through which justification is received.
D.A. Carson explained this concept in more detail by commenting “this uprightness does not belong to human beings, and it is not something that they have produced or merited; it is an alien uprightness, one belonging rightly to another (to Christ) and attributed to them because of what that other has done for them.” It is through Christ alone that man can attain the obligatory merit by which to be declared righteous by God.
The Apostle Paul revealed in Romans 6 the active response of every believer to the gift of justification from the penalty of sin. He eloquently stated:
“Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.”
Barnhouse elaborated on this distinction between living a life that is dead to sin by commenting that the “only person who has freedom is one who has passed from death to life through faith in the redemption provided by God in the death of the Savior.” Paul, throughout the book of Romans, urged believers to live a life that is a “living and holy sacrifice.”
The believer who had been given such a congenial gift as salvation is directed not to sit on their laurels but rather to focus their unvarying attention to living a life in obedience to Christ’s statutes. This is the faith/works combination described in the book of James. Faith is the activator of justification; however sanctification is the process by which the believer strives to live in holiness while continually recognizing their inability to live a life of righteousness. It is this continuous recognition of frailty that provides an appreciation for the tremendous gift provided to mankind through Christ.
The outcome of being justified through faith in Christ is a life that is lived in acknowledgment that sin should no longer have mastery over the believer. Theologian Matthew Henry revealed two significant aspects of the nature of justification in the life of the believer. He stated “in general it (justification) has two things in it, mortification and vivification – dying to sin and living to righteousness, elsewhere expressed by putting off the old man and putting on the new, ceasing to do evil and learning to do well.” It is this distinction of the old man versus the new which Paul exposited upon in Romans 6 and later in Romans 12. Paul’s teaching on justification had at its foundation the notion that the “life of Christ is a power in the soul which will gradually, but infallibly, extirpate all remaining depravity, until the whole physical and moral nature is perfectly conformed to the divine holiness.”
It is without quarrel that man is ultimately incapable of living a life of righteousness on his own merit or ability. John Phillips describes three steps of Paul’s revelation of the results of justification. These steps include: 1) We must give into God’s will, 2) Get hold of God’s Word and 3) Go on in God’s way. In addition to the identification and observance of these steps is the cognizance of the new emancipation from sin that the believer now enjoys. Important to this concept of emancipation is the allegiance to Christ which Paul repeatedly instructed commands a life of obedient servitude to God. Phillips commented that the “gospel not only delivers us from the penalty and power of sin; it shapes our character as well….as Paul puts it, ‘Being then made free from sin, ye have become the servants of righteousness.” It is this servitude that is the lifelong outcome and fruit of an attitude of thanksgiving for the gratis gift of justification.
The topic of permanency in relation to the concept of justification exists in the understanding of the wages of sin being death versus the gift of God being eternal life. It is by God’s grace that the “enmity between God and the sinner is removed.” Paul clearly taught in Romans 5:12 that “through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin.” The permanency of the gift of justification and the resulting freedom from the wages of sin is pointedly discussed by Paul in Romans 12:21. He stated “that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Moo also discussed the permanence of the transformation from the wages of sin to the gift of eternal life. He relayed this comparison by reminding the believer that “when we come to Christ we are transferred into the new realm.” While this transformation to life is everlasting, the reality of the manipulative posturing of the old sin nature in the life of the believer is one that will linger until “Christ’s return in glory at the end of history.” Sin will forever wage a ferocious battle for the hearts and minds of even the most pious of believers. The believer can have security in the verity that their future is forever set and their name is transcribed in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
Perhaps the most noteworthy verse on the permanency of the believer’s eternal destiny in the eyes of God is given in Romans 8:38-39 where Paul powerfully stated:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The affection of God for the penitent sinner was revealed through the sacrifice of His only begotten son as the definitive atonement for sin.
The stunning representation of salvation is highlighted by Paul as a process of life belonging “not only at the beginning of life in Christ but also at its final consummation.” Justification by faith in scripture occurs instantaneously upon declaration of faith in Christ. Strong declared that justification is:
“instantaneous, complete and final: instantaneous, since otherwise there would be an interval during which the soul was neither approved nor condemned by God; complete, since the soul, united to Christ by faith, becomes partaker of his complete satisfaction to the demands of the Law; and final, since the union with Christ is indissoluble.”
A sinner must recognize their sinful state in order to obtain the gift of justification. Stevens outlined the import of the salvation experience in regards to the act of justification by stating that “upon certain conditions (God) pronounces men exempt from blame or penalty, proclaiming their acceptance into his favor.” The condition which Stevens discussed is the act of believing in Christ. The realization of the legal nature of justification is completed upon salvation along with the “completeness of God’s acceptance and forgiveness.”
The instantaneous character of justification upon salvation in Christ is also pointedly described by Stevens. He remarked that the “believer’s faith is reckoned to him as righteousness; righteousness is reckoned to him on condition of faith and his sins, when he accepts Christ, are no longer reckoned to him.” God immediately delivers the sinner from the control of sin upon acceptance of Christ. Paul elaborated on this concept of immediate reconciliation with God in Romans 5. He stated “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand.”
Santmire also discussed the idea of immediate restoration in his statement that “the believer is restored to fullness of life in righteousness.” John Calvin believed that “with faith, nothing is missing from man’s felicity.” The rift between God and the sinner is removed upon faith in Christ Jesus. Paul describes the payment of the penalty of death in Romans 8 versus 2 and 4 when he stated that “Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death…in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us.” It is this fulfillment of the Law and the penalties therein which Strong quipped that “that first repentance and faith which logically preceded justification.” Theologian Craig Hawkins revealed that “as soon as a contrite sinner believes the divine promises of grace which for Christ’s sake is offered to him in the Gospel, or as soon as he puts his trust in the vicarious satisfaction which Christ has made for the sins of the world by His perfect obedience, he is justified, or declared righteous before God.”
Author John MacArthur additionally commented on the time factors involved with justification. He annotated that “Scripture also teaches that justification is a declarative act of God, not a process.” Jesus promised immediate salvation to believers: “He who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John. 5:24). Paul relayed in Romans 8:15 the fact that those who have passed from sin and death into life have “received a spirit of adoption as sons.” This allocation of Sonship carries with it the guarantee by God that we will be “fellow heirs with Christ.” The nature of our rapport with God as heirs with Christ provides for no other stance than both an immediate and eternal bond.
As denoted by John Calvin, the doctrine of justification “is the story of the Creator’s restoration of the unrighteous and condemned creature to fullness of life in righteousness…He does this, he justifies the sinner, by one act which has several constituents.” Luther justly termed it articulus stantis vel [sic: et] cadentis ecclesiae: a church that lapses from it can scarcely be called Christian.” Thus, the importance of the doctrine of justification is clearly substantiated in both church tradition and more importantly in the context of Scripture. God set forth His plan of redemption in Genesis and will conclude the process of redemption upon the return of Christ. The provision of a sacrificial Lamb to make atonement once and for all for the depravity of mankind reveals the gracious nature of God towards man. While man is ultimately wrapped up in a spirit of rebellion against his Creator, God provided a legal escape clause from the bondage of sin. This escape clause is provided to mankind through the person of Jesus Christ; the sole conduit through which man can be declared righteous before God.
The total depravity of man inhibits even the most pious individual from living in a state of righteousness. The necessity of justification by faith is presented by Paul in Romans as the pardon provided to man to unlock the chains of sin and eternal death. Augustus Strong movingly described the process of this pardon. He commented that the “only condition of justification is the sinner’s faith in Jesus, which merges the life of the sinner in the life of Christ.” It is this amalgamation with Christ which forever alters the attitude in the life of the believer resulting in the alteration of loyalty from sin to a life of service to Christ.
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