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Theology > Salvation > Work of Salvation > Justification


Those whom He called,
these He also justified.
Rom. 8:30

The Scriptures affirm that God justifies. But what does He do when He justifies? What is meant? What is involved? Is justification progressive or instantaneous? Does it involve a transformation or a declaration? Is it of God and man, or is it wholly of God? These are just some of the questions that press upon the believer.

It must be affirmed that justification is the act whereby God declares the unjust one to be just; He declares the unrighteous righteous. This judicial act is predicated on the meritorious work of Christ that is imputed to the account of the sinner, meaning that the believer is acquitted of all guilt and punishment because of the righteousness of Christ which is given to him.

Within the word itself is judicial declaration, but the word does not convey the basis or foundation for the declaration. In the word is not an explanation for the declaration, that is, an explanation as to why the declaration is valid.

For numerous students the central issue in justification is whether the event is declarative or creative, that is, is the act a forensic act, a declared righteousness, or does the act result in the sinner being made righteous, an infused righteousness.

In the Roman view forgiveness is granted, at least partially, on the basis of an infused righteousness; justification becomes a process and the addition of good works become the basis for acceptance before God. In the Roman view good works are not exclusively the result nor fruits of God’s act of justification, rather they are the necessary means for forgiveness that initial justification enables the individual to accomplish. The Roman view is that justification is a process that involves transformation which in turn leads to acceptance, and that it is not a judicial act that involves imputation which in turn leads to instant acceptance before God.

The primary issue in the Protestant Reformation was a dispute with the Roman Catholic Church over justification (Grudem, ST, 722).

For Rome there is an initial justification that occurs at baptism whereby the guilt for original sin is removed, but not the punishment; and into the new believer grace is infused with which the believer cooperates leading to an increase of grace and merit. Final or complete justification comes after the believer has accumulated sufficient merit to warrant full acceptance; extra merit is accumulated from the merits of Christ, the saints, the reservoir of the Church, and good works, including the works of the sacraments. So justification is dependent upon progressive sanctification; in fact, the individual is finally justified because the person has become sanctified. In Roman thought grace enables the individual to do works that merits the righteousness of Christ. From the Council of Trent:

If anyone shall say, that justice received is not preserved and also not increased in the sight of God through good works but that those same works are only the fruits and signs of justification received, but not a cause of its increase let him be anathema (Canon 24).

In Protestant thought God’s grace delivers salvation to the sinner, and one is not made righteousness in order to establish righteousness; rather, righteousness is given or imputed to the believer and indicates God’s favor toward the sinner. Sanctification, therefore, follows justification and is dependent on justification. Justification is not a process of sanctification that leads to final justification, but justification precedes sanctification and initiates sanctification.

Justification is the judicial act of God: “it is God who justifies” (Rom. 8:33; see: Gal. 3:8). The declaration is His as the Sovereign Judge of all the earth. Justification declares the sinner just. The Gr. word, dikaioō, means “to declare, to announce, to pronounce one just,” and “to be cleared in court”; to be declared just is to be free of the penalty. It is to be entitled to a new position and the privileges that come with that position; it is a judicial act, whereby the guilty is acquitted. Several points must be affirmed:

Justification is by the grace of God (Rom. 3:24; Tit. 3:5, 7);

Justification is based on the merit of Christ which is imputed or applied to the believer. The meritorious work of Christ is the righteousness of Christ, the only righteousness acceptable to God and a righteousness man cannot provide; at times the merit is spoken of in terms of the blood of Christ (see: Rom. 3:23-24; 5:9; II Cor. 5:21; Gal. 2:15-16; Heb. 9:22);

Justification is not by the deeds of the law (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16);

Justification is by faith (Rom. 3:28; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; 3:8, 24); we are not justified on account of faith but by faith, not because of human faith but through the faith that is from God (see: Faith);

Justification is a single and complete act, not a process; the believer is justified when he repents and exercises faith in Christ; but the repentance and faith are not the foundation for justification; rather, it is a declaration regarding the state of the believer;

Justification establishes peace with God (Rom. 5:1), saves the individual from His wrath (Rom. 5:9), and assures that the believer will be glorified (Rom. 8:23).

The anchor for justification is found in the Old Testament: “And he believed in the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; see Rom. 4:3, 9, 22; Gal. 3:6; Jas. 2:23). In this verse are found: one, God; two, the belief or faith of Abraham; three, righteousness; and four, imputation. Note that the doing is of God, and Abraham is credited with righteousness, not because of Abraham’s faith, but on the basis of his faith; in other words, his faith was not meritorious. Faith is the outreached hand receiving from God, the hand that receives, not the hand that accomplishes; it is drinking the living water; it is eating the bread of life; faith is the channel, the means, by which we receive, but not the foundation; faith is instrumental not causative.

To affirm that we are saved by faith, through faith, or on the basis of faith is to affirm the same point; these are not different points. They are the same points because the Scriptures makes the same point using these various terminologies. Consider the following verses:

by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses (Acts 13:39);

the doers of the law will be justified (Rom. 2:13; see: Lu. 10:29);

being justified freely by His grace through (dia) the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24);

that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26);

a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28);

there is one God who will justify the circumcised by (ek) faith and the uncircumcision through (dia) faith (Rom. 3:30);

Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as (eis) righteousness (Rom. 4:3);

to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for (eis) righteousness (Rom. 4:5);

Jesus our Lord . . . who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification (Rom. 4:24-25);

since we have been justified by faith (Rom. 5:1);

having now been justified by (en) His blood (Rom. 5:9);

the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification (Rom. 5:16; ESV: the free gift following many trespasses brought justification”);

through (dia) one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life (Rom. 5:18, ESV: “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men”);

those whom He called, these He also justified (Rom. 8:30);

you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God (I Cor. 6:11);

and the Scriptures, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by (ek) faith (Gal. 3:8;

that we might be justified by (ek) faith (Gal. 3:24);

a man is justified by works, and not by faith only (Jas. 2:23).

To affirm the above is not to make the faith of the believer meritorious, simply because the Scriptures do not understand the exercise of personal faith to be meritorious. In fact, where righteousness is attributed because of faith, through faith, or by the faith of the individual, it is held up as the very opposite of works. So for someone to claim that faith is meritorious is to erect a straw man that the Scriptures do not recognize.

According to Rom. 4:5 faith is not a work: “to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for (eis) righteousness”; note that the contrast is between “work” and “believes”—if one believes one is not working, meaning that faith is not meritorious. When the Text is so clear, it is incomprehensible how some writers can accuse one of being wrong who simply affirms what the Text is affirming. It is obvious that the Text affirms that “faith is accounted for righteousness” and that the one who exhibits faith is not working. According to the Scriptures faith in Christ is not meritorious. It is not considered a work; in fact, it is set in contrast to works.

The reason that personal faith is not meritorious is because faith does not arise from within the believer but is a gift of God from outside of the believer (Eph. 2:8-9); when God credits righteousness it is crediting His own gift to the believer (see: Faith).

There are different ways of speaking of justification: to be “justified by (en) His blood” (Rom. 5:9) and to have faith “accounted for (eis) righteousness” (Rom. 4:5) are the same; they are not in opposition to each other. They are two ways of speaking of the same result: man is accepted before God because of the work of God for him, a work that gives faith to the believer, and a work that provides Christ for the believer. Both Christ and the faith in Christ are of God. Neither is a work of man, both are the doing of God, provided by His grace.

Faith is not a work because faith is a gift. In ascribing righteousness because of faith God is honoring His own work in the sinner.

Justification is a judicial act of God,
in which He declares,
on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ,
that all the claims of the law are satisfied with respect to the sinner.
L. Berkhof, ST

Note: Questionable Quotes regarding the new perspective on Paul

The doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by “the gospel”. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But “the gospel” is not an account of how people get saved. It is, as we saw in an earlier chapter, the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ . . . Let us be quite clear. “The gospel” is the announcement of Jesus' lordship, which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham, now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterized solely by faith in him. “Justification” is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family, on this basis and no other (N. T. Wright).

In theology, therefore, justification is not the means whereby it becomes possible to declare someone in the right. It is simply that declaration itself. It is not how someone becomes a Christian, but simply the declaration that someone is a Christian. It is not the exercise of mercy, but the just declaration concerning one who has already received mercy. This is a crucial distinction, without which it is impossible to understand the biblical material (N. T. Wright).

Note: Three prominent passages in Scripture: Rom. 1:16-5:5; Gal. 2:16-3:4; Jas. 2:21-25.

Note: Luther considered justification the article of the Church by which the Church stands or falls.

Question: Is justification better understood as a forensic act or as a sovereign act?

Question: In justification is the believer merely declared just or is he also made just; is the individual pronounced righteous or is the person actually made righteous? Does an affirmative answer to the question confuse justification and sanctification? The idea suggested here of being made righteous is different from the Roman concept because this righteousness is total and complete, not ongoing nor meritorious.

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