Category Archives: Justification

What is Justification?


Discern Justification

Justification is rightly said to be “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.”  It’s a central facet of the biblical good news.  If you mess up on justification, you’re messing up on the gospel and that’s potentially fatal.

What do we mean by “justification”?  Historic Protestant theology teaches that justification is a judicial declaration by God that a sinner is righteous.  This declaration or verdict is made only on the basis of what Christ has done in his perfect life and his perfect sacrifice on the cross.  This blessing of being declared righteous by God is received only by faith — which is to say, by resting and trusting in Christ alone.

Now there are several ways in which Christians can get this vital doctrine wrong.  Today I’m going to focus on two common mistakes.

By Works or By Faith Alone?

The first mistake has to do with the role of good works.  You may notice that, in the description I gave above, there was absolutely no mention of good works.  This is because the Bible plainly says in Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  Good works don’t factor in to how we are justified.

Sadly, there’s a lot of confusion out there on this point.  In 2018, Ligonier Ministries did their “State of Theology” survey.  One of the statements respondents were asked to evaluate was this:  “God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works but only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ.”  Here are the results:

These results are for the general American population.  Things are better for respondents who identify as “evangelical,” with 83% either somewhat agreeing or strongly agreeing.

However, if you phrase the question differently, you can end up with quite different results.  At a pastors’ convention in 2006, Shane Rosenthal from the White Horse Inn radio program asked pastors in an open-ended way about the basis of justification, whether it was by faith, by faith and works, or by works alone.  About half responded that justification is by faith and works.  Those were ostensibly Protestant pastors!

Let me be absolutely clear:  good works do not factor in to how we are justified.  Any one who tells you otherwise is departing not only from historic Protestantism, but from the biblical doctrine.  (“But what about James?”  See here if you’re asking that question at this point).

Event or Process?

A second common mistake has to do with the nature of justification as a court-room declaration or verdict.  Specifically, is it a one-time event or a life-long process for the Christian?  This isn’t an academic question.  It has enormous practical, pastoral significance.  If it’s a one-time event, then I can wake up each morning with the confidence that I’m still righteous in Christ.  I’m still secure in God’s family.  But if it’s a life-long process, then each day time and again I have to start over in my relationship with God.  Each day I begin by facing him as my judge, and not my Father.

So what does the Bible say?  Romans 5:1, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  That speaks of justification as a completed action with a consequence:  peace with God.  While it doesn’t use the word “justify,” Romans 8:1 drives home the same truth:  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  So why is there no condemnation?  Because of justification once and for all.  If you have believed in Jesus Christ with a true faith, you are justified once and for all.  A verdict made by the heavenly Judge is an event, not a process.

Now if you go back to that pastors’ convention in 2006, Shane Rosenthal asked pastors in an open-ended way:  is justification an event or a life-long process?  Some weren’t sure.  Some had to think about it.  A few clearly identified it as an event.  But 51% said that it’s a life-long process.

One would think that confessionally Reformed theologians would know better.  However, sadly, I’ve encountered this error in Reformed literature as well.  For example, Prof. Benne Holwerda (1909-1952) was a highly respected theologian in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  He has a four-volume set of books with his catechism sermons in them (De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn).  Some of these sermons have been translated into English.  Some of them are really good and insightful.  But when it comes to Lord’s Day 23, Holwerda takes a drastic misstep in the doctrine of justification.  Towards the end of the sermon, he argues that God’s justification is not a one-time judicial declaration, but an ongoing process in the covenant.  At the very least, he’s ambiguous on this:

Does God speak one time, and then I believe one time, and then justification is completed?  Oh no!  We live in the covenant with God and that is a living inter-relation (verkeer); as I believe, then God comes again with his word of acquittal to the people, who now believe, and drives him so to works of thankfulness:  justification by faith.  And as he does this, then God appears again and declares him truly acquitted, he justifies him then also through works, says James.

There shouldn’t be ambiguity here.  There certainly isn’t any ambiguity in the Heidelberg Catechism or the Reformation from which it originated.  The Roman Catholic Church taught/still teaches that justification is a process.  Historic Protestant theology (as expressed in the Reformed confessional tradition) maintains that justification is a once-for-all judicial declaration.

The Apostle Paul teaches us how important it is to get justification right.  It’s not only in Romans, but also in Galatians.  In fact, I’d say the importance of rightly understanding justification is expressed even more powerfully in Galatians.  Paul says that those who preach it wrongly preach “a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6).  Getting justification wrong means you’re preaching “man’s gospel” (Gal. 1:11).   Finally, it has hellacious consequences:  “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:9).  It’s vital to discern truth from error in regards to this key doctrine.


Essential Latin for Reformed Christians: “Simul iustus et peccator”

Today’s bit of Latin lingo is often linked to Luther.  Martin Luther often gets the credit for noticing the biblical teaching that each Christian is “at the same time just and a sinner” (simul iustus et peccator).  Certainly he was not the last theologian to insist on this — countless others after him, both Lutheran and Reformed, have said the same.  It cannot be labelled one of Luther’s idiosyncrasies.

To understand the meaning of this seemingly contradictory statement, one has to grasp the doctrine of justification in general, and the meaning of imputation in particular.  Without those well in hand (or mind), human nature will invariably lead one to extreme views.  Typically, because we overestimate our own condition even as Christians, the view will almost always be imbalanced towards the iustus side of things.  So let’s review justification and imputation to avoid imbalances and extremes.

Justification is God’s declaration that a person is right with him on account of what Christ has done in his perfect life and death on the cross.  It is a judicial declaration — which means that the Judge issues it from his bench.  His declaration is more than acquittal and forgiveness, as wonderful as those are.  More, the declaration includes positive righteousness.  Because of Christ all our wrong-doing is pardoned, and also because of Christ, God’s requirement for perfect law-keeping in the present and future is fully met.  Justification is a one-time event, not a process to be repeated — once justified, always justified.  As a result of this one-time judicial declaration, the person justified is adopted into God’s family.  We go from the courtroom to the family room.  We no longer relate to God as a Judge, but as our heavenly Father.

So what is imputation and how does it fit into the doctrine of justification?  Imputation is often described as crediting or accounting.  Our English word “imputation” translates the Greek logizomai.  You find that word used in the original of Romans 4:3, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.”  While the word logizomai is not used, the idea of imputation is also found in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”   At the cross Jesus was made to be sin — though he was of himself innocent, he became the thing against which God has infinite wrath:  sin.  How did this happen?  Through imputation.  Our sin was imputed to him (credited) to such a degree that the Holy Spirit says he was “made to be sin.”  And remember:  all the while, in himself he was perfectly righteous.  Now notice that there is a double-imputation in 2 Corinthians 5:21.  All our sin was imputed to Christ, but his righteousness is imputed to us.  I like to call this “the sweet swap.”  God credited our sin to Jesus, and God credited Jesus’s righteousness to us.  The righteousness of the Redeemer is imputed to us (credited) to such a degree that the Holy Spirit says we become what God loves, “the righteousness of God.”  But just like the imputation of our sin didn’t change Jesus into a sinner in himself, so also the imputation of Christ’s righteousness doesn’t change us into perfectly righteous people in ourselves while we live on this earth.

Imputation is at the basis of our justification.  We are justified, declared righteous, because our sin was imputed to Christ and he bore it for us at the cross as our substitute.  We are declared righteous because all of his perfect obedience and righteousness is credited to us by God.  In his eyes, it is as if we had lived the perfect God-pleasing life ourselves.  The key words there are “as if.”  Just as it was as if Christ was a sinner (when he was not), so it is also as if we ourselves had fulfilled all the righteous requirements of God’s law (when we haven’t and don’t).

Consequently, each Christian is both righteous and a sinner.  Each Christian is righteous — this is our status before God.  We have been declared just in his eyes and are now his beloved children.  This status is precious and to be highly treasured.  Yet it is presently a status which comes to us via imputation.  As a result, the reality is that we continue to be sinners when it comes to our sanctification.  Even as that “new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17 — right before the “sweet swap”!), we sin against our Father, and if you sin, you are a sinner.  This is what righteous Paul acknowledges in 1 Timothy 1:15 when he says Christ “came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”  Notice the present tense there.  At that moment, Paul was a justified sinner, not a condemned sinner, but a sinner just the same.  So it is with all Christians.

Let me put it as simply as I can: Christians are both saints and sinners.  We’re saints by virtue of the status declared in our justification (on the basis of imputation).  We’re sinners because of the struggle that still exists in our sanctification. The former encourages us, the latter humbles us.  Biblical, Reformed theology has always acknowledged this truth.

Ours is not an age renowned for thinking deeply about theology, or anything else for that matter.  This is surely part of the reason some Christians object to simul iustus et peccator.  While insisting that Christians are not “sinners” in any sense, they are (usually) inadvertently undermining imputation and the very basis of their justification.  Not only that, they are also contradicting the clear testimony of Scripture regarding the real struggle with sin that Christians experience in this age (Romans 7:21-25 & Galatians 5:17).  Do some research and you will discover that the origins of the denial of simul iustus et peccator in Protestantism are not with those orthodox in their theology.  For example, it was the Pelagian and rabidly anti-Reformed revivalist Charles Finney who opined that this formula was an error which had “slain more souls, I fear, than all the universalism that ever cursed the world.”  Finney viciously repudiated biblical imputation and justification, and so had a reason to hold this opinion.

A few years ago, after encountering the denial of this teaching in our Reformed churches, I wrote a series of articles for Clarion entitled “Are Christians Sinners or Not?”  In that series, I looked at the biblical basis for simul iustus et peccator, how it’s expressed in our Reformed confessions, the importance of maintaining it, and the historical and theological background to denials of it.  You can find that series of articles here.


Four Essential Pictures

I’m currently reading Tim Challies’ book Visual Theology.  This book presents many theological basics not only with text, but also with infographics.  This kind of approach aims to help those who learn best with visual helps.  I’m appreciating the book in many respects and will probably write a review in the near future.

As good books do, this one got me to thinking, particularly about the place of pictures in Reformed theology.  While we don’t believe it’s lawful to make images of God, this doesn’t rule out diagrams or other visual helps.  In fact, embedded in our theology are several essential pictures.  Even apart from an actual picture, these doctrines come across to us via some particular image we’re to hold in our minds.  Let’s look at four important doctrines and the associated pictures.

Covenant

In Scripture, the covenant of grace is portrayed in terms of a relationship.  When you think “covenant of grace,” you should immediately picture a relationship.  In Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 1 (and elsewhere), God speaks in terms of a marriage relationship with his people.  In the New Testament, this is taken over into the relationship of Christ (the groom) and his church (the bride).  While there may be contractual elements in the covenant of grace, the essence of it is a relationship.

Regeneration

The Bible gives several pictures of regeneration and one of those is a heart transplant.   When you think “regeneration,” you can picture someone receiving a new heart.  The Holy Spirit uses this picture in Ezekiel 11:19, “…I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh…”  This one picture does not exhaust everything the Bible says about regeneration, but it is one helpful conceptual peg on which to hang the doctrine in your mind’s eye.

Justification

Whenever you think about justification, you need to think “courtroom.”  The courtroom image is essential to this doctrine.  One of the key ways that people often get justification wrong is by saying that it is God making us right with himself.  However, justification is, in its very nature, a judicial matter.  It involves a judge making a declaration, issuing a verdict.  This is why Romans 1-3 describes man’s condition before God as a judge.  For example, Romans 2:2, “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.”  Starting at the end of Romans 3, the Spirit explains how a negative judgment can be averted through Jesus Christ.  After all that, we get Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Condemnation is what we would receive from the Judge if we did not have Christ.  In its essence, therefore, justification involves the picture of a courtroom.

Adoption

Adoption is a beautiful word that pictures family.  Having been purchased by Christ, having been justified by him, we are now included in God’s family as his dearly loved children.  God is no longer our Judge, but our Father and we relate to him as such.  Nowhere is this stated more explicitly than Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'”  We’ve gone from the courtroom (justification) to the family room (adoption), and that’s a wonderful place to be!

To summarize:

Covenant —> Relationship

Regeneration —> Heart transplant

Justification —> Courtroom

Adoption —> Family

Reformed theology has more pictures, but those four are crucial to understand.  When you get those, you grasp several basics of the Christian faith.


Quotable Church History: “The doctrine by which the Church stands or falls”

This is the sixth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

“Justification is the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls.”  This saying is often attributed to Martin Luther.  There’s no question Luther accorded central importance to justification.  However, so did other Reformers.  For example, in his Institutes, Calvin famously insists that justification “is the main hinge on which religion turns” (Institutes 3.11.1).  However, the exact wording of today’s quote comes from neither Luther nor Calvin.  Instead, from what I can tell, these exact words come from a later Reformed theologian from Germany, Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588-1638).  In his Theologia Scholastica Didacta Alsted wrote, “The article of justification is said to be the article by which the Church stands and falls.”  From the fact that he wrote “said to be,” it would seem that he was not coining a new aphorism, but simply rehearsing and expounding an already well-known expression.

To understand why Alsted and others made such claims, it is essential to review the basics of this doctrine.  Simply put, justification is God’s declaration that a sinner is righteous.  This declaration is made solely on the basis of the imputed passive and active obedience of Christ.  In other words, it is only because Christ’s work on the cross (passive obedience) and his perfect life of law-keeping (active obedience) are credited to the sinner.  Faith, resting and trusting in Christ, is the sole instrument by which we receive this tremendous treasure.  What follows from this declaration of justification is a transformed relationship with God — no longer do we relate to him as a Judge with whom we have a relationship of hostility.  Now we relate to him as our Father with whom we have a relationship of deep filial affection.  That beautiful relationship is foundational to the Christian life.

Clarifying further, we do not confess that justification by itself is the gospel.  Nor do we believe that the doctrine of justification exhausts the goodness of the good news.  In the Heidelberg Catechism, Reformed churches maintain that the Apostles’ Creed summarizes “all that is promised us in the gospel” (QA 22).  That obviously goes far beyond justification.  The gospel promises us righteousness in Christ to deal with the curse of sin, but it also promises the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit to deal with the power of sin — and more.  Nevertheless, justification is the central facet of the gospel diamond.  It is of prime importance.  Without justification, nothing else in the gospel is of any value to us.  This, again, is because of its relational significance.  Apart from a relationship of fellowship with God, we are still under the deadly curse.

Is it biblical to say “justification is the article by which the Church stands or falls”?  To answer that, we need to turn to Galatians.  In the original Galatian context, the Judaizers were preaching a message which included the sinner’s great need for the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  The problem was that they added to that the sinner’s own need to perform deeds of righteousness, including following Jewish ceremonial requirements like circumcision.  Thus, it was not Christ alone as the basis for our standing with God.   This is what the Holy Spirit said through Paul in response to this:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so now I say again:  If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.  (Galatians 1:6-9)

Those are powerful words!  If a different gospel is preached, that preacher should go to hell.  If a different gospel is received, the recipient will go to hell.  Standing or falling is indeed what’s at stake.  A church that doesn’t get justification correct is in danger of falling into the pits of hell.  On the flip side, a church that receives the biblical gospel, including a correct understanding of our righteousness before God, will stand firmly.

In my pastoral experience, I have noticed that justification is often poorly understood amongst many Reformed believers.  I have encountered widespread ignorance about the vital role of the active obedience of Christ.  I have seen a preconfession textbook (from a Reformed publisher) teaching the erroneous notion that justification is a life-long process rather than an event — a notion which is traditionally found in Roman Catholicism rather than Reformed theology.  I have heard countless believers speak of justification as God making us righteous — stripping away the crucial vision of justification as a courtroom declaration.  There’s the common misconception that justification is merely a verdict of innocence rather than righteousness.  There are those who still believe that as Christians, we relate to God as our Judge and do not see him as our loving Father.  There are those in our churches who argue that Christians are not sinners but only saints, failing to come to terms with the biblical concept of imputation.  The list could go on.  If justification is truly the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, we see ample evidence that pastors and other church leaders have to do better at teaching it.  I certainly recommit to doing my part in ensuring that the church I serve will stand with this doctrine.