Perspectives Pertaining to Justification

Dr. Brian Allison

In order to understand the Biblical notion and doctrine of justification, we must first understand the Biblical notion of righteousness, for the notion of righteousness is essential to the very meaning of justification. In Scripture, righteousness contrasts with lawlessness – "Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness [dikaiosune] and lawlessness [anomia], or what fellowship has light with darkness?" (2 Cor 6:14). Accordingly, righteousness is identified with, and results from, conformity to a law. In so far as a person conforms to, or keeps, the moral law of God, he may be deemed 'righteous'. Thus, in referring to Zachariah and Elizabeth, Luke writes, "And they were both righteous [dikaios] in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements [dikaioma] of the Lord" (Lk 1:6). This statement of Luke does not refer to saving righteousness, but rather to external or legal righteousness (which we shall consider below).

Similarly, righteousness contrasts with sin, for sin is defined as lawlessness – "Every one who practices sin [hamartia] also practices lawlessness [anomia]; and sin is lawlessness" (1 Jn 3:4). The unrighteous person is the sinful person. In this regard, righteousness also contrasts with disobedience, for sin is simply disobedience to God's law. Hence, with the prophecy concerning John the Baptist, we read, "And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous [dikaios]" (Lk 1:17a). The law of God defines what constitutes righteousness, and thus, inversely, it defines what constitutes sin – "for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin" (Rom 3:20b). We may define the law specifically as the ten commandments, and generally as the Mosaic economy.

Justification from guilt and condemnation

Everyone, by nature and in practice, is a sinner, guilty of violating the moral law of God. Thus the apostle Paul affirms, "What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, 'THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE'" (Rom 3:9,10). The whole of humanity, having sinned in its federal and representative head, Adam (Rom 5:12-14), therefore stands condemned before God and is worthy of punishment and death – "For the wages of sin [i.e., unrighteousness] is death" (Rom 6:23a; see also Rom 1:18). God requires perfect obedience to His law in order for one to be judicially accepted with Him; that is, to be justified before Him – free from the guilt and condemnation of a violated law – "For not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified [dikaioo]" (Rom 2:13). God's righteous and holy nature demands perfect obedience from His creatures. Yet, no one has kept, nor can keep, the moral law of God perfectly, except Christ.

Justification means that God no longer judges a sinner guilty and worthy of condemnation and punishment because of his failure to conform perfectly to His law. Justification is a divine declaration of righteousness. It is a judicial act by which God graciously changes the legal status and standing of a sinner, and thus accepts his or her person as righteous. God is pleased to pronounce pardon and to mercifully forgive the transgressor or covenant breaker, not on the basis of, nor because of, his or her own obedience and righteousness, but on the basis of another's obedience and righteousness, even Christ's – "So then as through [the] one transgression [of Adam] there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through [the] one act of [the] righteousness [dikaioma] [of Christ] there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be righteous" (Rom 5:18,19). Christ is the righteous One (Acts 7:52; 22:14; 1 Jn 2:1). He perfectly kept the law of God and performed the divine will. Christ offered up Himself to God as a propitiatory sacrifice in order to satisfy the consequences of, or punishment due for, a broken law, and to appease the wrath of God directed against sinners because of a broken law – "Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him" (Rom 5:9). The sacrifice of Christ has the religious status of being a substitutionary atonement – Christ dying in the place of sinners, and receiving their condemnation for a broken law. Accordingly, God is pleased to impute (i.e., freely put to one's account) the righteousness of Christ (which is God's own provision of righteousness) to sinners, on the grounds of Christ's atoning work and death, in order that they may be justified before Him – "God displayed publicly [Christ] as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom 3:25,26).

God upholds and honours His law (which His very nature demands), and yet He is able to pardon and judicially (and personally) accept the sinner, because of the active and passive obedience of Christ. In receiving the imputed righteousness of Christ, the sinner is judged justified. This divine transaction is called forensic justification, for the demands of God's law have been fully satisfied by Christ, and Christ's redemptive merits and accomplishment are credited to the account of the transgressor. The sinner is no longer viewed as a lawbreaker, but rather is forgiven and accepted by God in Christ. The sinner is most certainly and irrevocably declared judicially righteous (not made morally righteous) on the basis of the righteousness of Christ. The sinner does not receive an infusion of righteousness; he cannot contribute in any way to his salvation. Thus, there is no place for any personal claim or boasting. Forensic justification is monergistic, not synergistic. It is a unique, unrepeatable, and definitive act.

Justification is conditioned by faith

Justification is being judged free from sin (Rom 6:7). It is a gift from God, for all are born in sin and have sinned. God justifies the sinner by grace – "being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Rom 3:24; see also Titus 3:7). Accordingly, this "gift of righteousness" (Rom 5:17b) may only be received by faith. Faith occasions and conditions, rather than causes or provides the grounds for, justification. Faith answers to grace, and is necessarily instrumental for experiencing all aspects of the accomplished redemption by Christ. This justifying righteousness must be given, and is not merited, for everyone (because of his depraved nature and evil behaviour) is, ipso facto, incapable of producing it. Again, no one can perfectly keep God's law in order to produce an acceptable righteousness, and so God's righteousness in Christ must be received by faith (Rom 9:30). We read, "Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith [dia pisteos; never dia pistin] in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith [ek pisteos] in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified" (Gal 2:16; see also Rom 3:30; 5:1; Gal 3:24). Justification is through an act of sheer grace, and all personal religious and moral works are excluded. No one can secure acceptable righteousness (and thus salvation) through personal moral acts and religious deeds which are performed in conformity to the law of God – "because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight" (Rom 3:20a; see also Rom 3:28; 4:2; Gal 3:11).

There are two ways by which someone may be justified before God: 1) perfectly obeying the Law of God and thus producing his or her own righteousness; or 2) believing in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, and having Christ's own righteousness credited to his or her account. Thus, we may talk of two kinds of righteousness: 1) legal (works) righteousness (Phil 3:6); and 2) fiduciary (faith) righteousness (Phil 3:9). Legal righteousness tends to damnation; fiduciary righteousness tends to eternal life. The Jews in apostolic times, generally speaking, pursued a legal righteousness in failing to recognize the provision of acceptable righteousness through the death of Christ. We read, "For not knowing about God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end [telos] of the law for righteousness [eis dikaiosune] to everyone who believes" (Rom 10:3,4). Conformity to the law of God is not required in order to be deemed righteous and to gain acceptance with Him. Legal (or external or Pharisaical) righteousness cannot save. The person who endeavours to be saved through his own righteousness, thereby excludes and disqualifies himself from receiving Christ's imputed righteousness (Rom 10:5). Legal righteousness is another name for self-righteousness.

Only faith receives Christ's own righteousness which alone can render a sinner judicially and spiritually acceptable before God. Yet, faith cannot be a one time act; it must be a continual expression on the part of the believer – "For in it [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith [ek pisteos eis pistin]; as it is written, 'BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH'" (Rom 1:17). Faith initiates the process of personal salvation (from the human side) and must also sustain that process. A professing Christian must continue to believe in Christ as Saviour and Lord; and as he continues to do so, he continues to have the righteousness of Christ imputed to him. Hence, by faith, the believer remains in a justified state. So, we may rightly say that a believer was justified – preterist justification; and that a believer, in so far as he remains in faith, continues to be justified – persistent justification. It is required of the believer that he or she continues to live in faith. The continued expression of faith is not an automatic given; but rather, it is a self-conscious activity and responsibility. Thus, we read, "Yet He [God] has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach – if indeed you continue [epimeno] in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard" (Col 1:22,23a). As long as one continues to live in (the) faith, he or she remains in a justified state. This language of preterist (past act) and persistent (present state) justification simply suggests a difference in perspective, not in substance.

The practical dimension of justification

Persistent justification correlates with sanctification; and, more specifically speaking, with practical righteousness. Along with the imputation of righteousness by faith, God actually vouchsafes a new nature, through His Spirit, to the believer. Justification itself is not the cause of this new nature, but simply coincides with the bestowal of it. Inherent in this new nature (achieved through the regenerative work of the Spirit) is the principle (and power) of righteousness. The believer can actually demonstrate a righteousness which is acceptable or pleasing to God – "For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh in order that the requirement [dikaioma] of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom 8:3,4). On the basis of imputed righteousness, a believer must demonstrate practical righteousness – "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" (Rom 6:13,14). God Himself requires practical righteousness of every believer. The believer must clearly demonstrate the reality of his or her new nature in Christ – "and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth" (Eph 4:24).

This demonstrable righteousness is not a righteousness which is autonomously dependent upon, and produced by, the ability and effort of the believer, but is possible only through the enabling grace and the empowerment of the Spirit (see 1 Jn 2:29; 3:10). This practical righteousness is demonstrated by the believer in spiritual union and fellowship with Jesus Christ – "having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God" (Phil 1:11). Practical righteousness is not meritorious, though it is the necessary ratification of a true experience of salvation. The believer must continue to believe in Christ, not only as His Saviour and Lord, but also as his Sufficiency. In his faith, and out of his faith, a believer must demonstrate Spirit-motivated righteousness; that is, he must be obedient to the will of God and the teachings of Christ. The actual demonstration of practical righteousness (or realized justification) leads to, and reveals itself in, sanctification – "So now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification... But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life" (Rom 6:19b,22). At his conversion, the believer was saved by faith alone. During his sanctification, the believer is also being saved by faith alone, but not by faith which is alone; he is being saved by faith-obedience or the 'obedience of faith' (i.e., a faith that necessarily entails and results in obedience). As the Baptist Confession of 1689 reads, "Faith thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love (ch. 11, sec. 2). The believer was justified by faith alone; and he remains in a justified state by faith-obedience.

The believer must continue to "pursue righteousness" (1 Tim 6:11; 2 Tim 2:22). His life must be characterized by persistent obedience to the Scriptures "for training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16). Righteousness should be the believer's constant desire and goal – "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Mt 5:6; see also Mt 6:33). Practical righteousness must confirm or ratify imputed righteousness. The believer must persevere in practical righteousness. In successfully pursuing and persevering in practical righteousness (i.e., demonstrating Christ's own Spirit-motivated righteousness), the believer practically qualifies himself to enter into the coming eternal kingdom of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 9:27), which is a kingdom of righteousness (2 Pet 3:13). Only demonstrable righteousness ensures that one will eventually receive the fullness of eternal life (cf. 2 Pet 1:10,11). In this sense, we may speak of eschatological justification – a future declaration by God that His elect people have persevered in practical righteousness, and thus are worthy to inherit the eternal kingdom (cf. Mt 25:34-36). Believers must prepare for a future judgement, which logically, and necessarily, entails a future justification. Thus, we read, "But to me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted [dikaioo; lit. 'justified']; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the [future] time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts; and then each man's praise will come to him from God" (1 Cor 4:3-5). The apostle anticipated a future general judgement in which he, and others – both believers and unbelievers – would either be justified or condemned according to the quality of their moral behaviour and 'spiritual' service (cf. Rom 14:10-12; 2 Cor 5:10).

Future justification requires perseverance

In a practical sense, believers are saved through (not because of) their perseverance. At the final judgement, true believers (the elect) will be eternally confirmed in their righteousness. As the apostle Paul affirmed, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award [apodidomi - pay, reward, give back] to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing" (2 Tim 4:7,8). The believer is yet to receive fidelitous justification (i.e., God's declaration of faithful perseverance in practical righteousness in Christ). Paul here confidently anticipated fidelitous justification on the occasion, not basis, of his perseverance. The basis for justification – whether preterist (1 Cor 6:11), persistent (Rom 8:33), or eschatological (Mt 12:36,37) – is always the imputed (and imparted) righteousness of Christ, made possible through His atoning work. Confirmed righteousness is conditioned on perseverance in practical righteousness; and the motivation behind such practical righteousness should be love for Christ.

Persevering in practical righteousness is synonymous with persevering in covenant faithfulness to God. It is only as the believer perseveres in covenant faithfulness that he or she has any assurance of fidelitous justification. In the covenantal language of Galatians, we read, "You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness" (Gal 5:4,5). For Paul, a believer receives a past righteousness or righteous standing (forensic justification – Christ's imputed righteousness); and experiences a present righteousness, resulting in sanctification (ethical justification – Christ's imparted righteousness); and will receive a future righteousness, guaranteeing entrance into the eternal kingdom (fidelitous justification – Christ's perfected righteousness) – justification from three perspectives, though organically united and intricately related. Fidelitous justification coincides with glorification – "the resurrection of the righteous" (Lk 14:14; see also Acts 24:15).

The human reference point for forensic justification is belief in, and confession of, Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. The human reference point for ethical justification is the obedience of faith in the Word of God and the surrendered life to Jesus Christ. The human reference point for fidelitous justification is the obedience of faith in perseverance in covenant faithfulness to God. Forensic justification is a private act (i.e., only truly known by God, and witnessed in the believer); fidelitous justification will be a public act (all will undeniably know the true status and final state of the believer). Forensic justification is the gracious pardon and judicial acceptance of a sinner; fidelitous justification is "the revealing [manifestation] of the sons of God" (Rom 8:19).

Final judgement will focus on the matter of demonstrable righteousness – "Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead" (Acts 17:30,31). Even believers will be judged according to their righteousness (cf. Mt 25:37,46). Only "God's righteousness" will stand up to the fiery test of judgement. Again, God must produce practical righteousness in the life of a believer; He alone can increase a believer's demonstrable righteousness – "Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness" (2 Cor 9:10). The 'harvest of righteousness' is probably an allusion to the final judgement. God will judge the believer's fruit and works (which will determine the genuineness of his profession of faith).

The believer is wholly dependent upon Christ for his future justification – He is the Vine and believers are the branches (Jn. 15:4,5) – though he or she has a moral and spiritual responsibility to render that obedience which God demands and expects. In so far as believers render this faith-obedience, they are justified before God. Hence, we may properly speak in terms of justification by works – "You see that a man is justified [dikaioo] by works and not by faith alone [ouk ek pisteos monon]" (Jas 2:24). It is clear that the teachings of Paul and James are complimentary, and not contradictory, though Paul does emphasize the forensic aspect of justification because of situational exigencies and pressing pastoral concerns. The believer's (good) works are not the basis of his salvation, but the fruit and proof of his salvation – "You see that faith was working with his [Abraham] works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected" (Jas 2:22). Good works have evidential and confirmatory value, not meritorious value. The believer's works ratify true faith, and thus ensure the future blessing of God, which are always given as an act of grace on the sole basis of the redemptive work of Christ, according to the sovereign will of God.