Justification by Faith: What is Justification?
Edited transcript of a sermon preached December 14, 1997
[The following is an edited transcript of a sermon pastor Bacon preached on December 14, 1997. It is part of a series on Justification.]
Last week we began looking in Isaiah 53:11 at the doctrine of justification. We saw that it is necessary to relate the doctrine of justification to Christ. The meritory ground of our justification is in the obedience and death of Christ, and the divine testimony regarding our justification is in his resurrection. We also saw how the blood of Christ and the death of Christ are both parts standing for the whole of both the active and passive obedience of Christ; in his obeying the Law for us and in his accepting the punishment due to us for our sins upon himself.
We continue on with our study of the doctrine of justification by looking at that portion of Isaiah 53:11
that states “by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many.” The word “justify” comes from the hiphil of the Hebrew verb “TZADEQ” or “TZADOQ.” The idea of justification not only in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament as well, is that of declaring someone righteous. The question is how does God make someone righteous?
In subsequent weeks we will be defining the term “justification” in Scripture. We will see that normally God does not make someone righteous by causing him to do righteous things, but constitutes him righteous by imputing Christ’s own righteousness to him. We will be looking at such phrases as “the righteousness of God,” “the righteousness of Christ,” and “the righteousness at the end of time.” We will discover that justification is a courtroom sentence. An antonym is a word that means very nearly the opposite. The antonym for justification is not to be sinful. The antonym for justification is to be condemned. Since “justify” and “condemn” are used as antonyms in Scripture, then justification must be a courtroom or a forensic term. If “condemned” is one courtroom sentence, then “justified” must be the other one. But, if “to condemn” does not mean to make someone a sinner, then “to justify” must not mean to make him intrinsically righteous. Just as to condemn someone is to declare him guilty, so also to justify someone in Scripture is to declare him righteous. Justification in Scripture means that we are declared to be righteous, not that we are righteous. We have to wait until death to be actually righteous. Westminster Shorter Catechism #37 teaches us “the souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness.” WSC #38 goes on to explain that at the resurrection at the last day, when our bodies are raised up in glory and reunited with our souls, we “shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted…and made perfectly blessed...”
We are going to look at a sort of “history of justification.” Justification begins in eternity past and it continues in eternity future. Biblically, “eternity” simply means “outside time.” Therefore when we talk about eternity past and eternity future, we have to use our imaginations a bit. What we usually intend by eternity past is “before I was born” and by eternity future is “after I die.” That will be our working definition. Technically, Biblically speaking, eternity simply means outside time or divorced from time. Time is a part of creation as we are part of creation; therefore time impacts upon us as creatures. We know that certain things happened yesterday and that other things will not happen until tomorrow. However God, as Creator and not part of creation, is not aware of a succession of moments as we are. God is not trapped in a succession of days. For God there is just a constant now. God is always in his present, even though that, again, is speaking in temporal terms and temporal terms do not properly relate to God.
We are going to look at how justification begins in eternity past and moves into eternity future in six steps.
I. Justification is bound to God’s eternal decree
We will begin our study with the Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 11, Article 4, “God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect; and Christ did, in the fulness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth in due time actually apply Christ unto them.” Notice that God decreed to justify the elect — all the elect, not just part of them. Does this section refer to “from all eternity?” Does it refer to the time that Christ died and rose again? Or does it refer to the time when the elect finally believe? The Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 11, Article 4 speaks to all three.
In the counsel of eternity, before the foundation of the world, God eternally ordained Christ as mediator, and in eternally ordaining Christ as mediator, he ordained that certain people would be given to Christ. God the Father decreed that he would justify those people, and no others. He decreed he would justify all those for whom Christ died. God knew the elect from all eternity. There was never a time when God did not know the elect. God never saw the elect in any way other than in Christ. That is what you should understand in the phrase “from all eternity.” God never regarded us any other way. God never saw the elect in any way but in Christ. If God decreed from all eternity to justify the elect, then justification is bound to God’s eternal decree. That is all that we mean, and that is everything we mean, by the term “eternal justification.”
Sometimes people reject the doctrine of eternal justification as though the doctrine indicates that people do not have to believe in order to be justified. That is not a valid comparison. By eternal justification all we mean is that justification is bound to God’s eternal decree. We are not saying that someone is justified subjectively before he believes. Romans 8:29-30, “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” Many times we view these verses as taking place in time but these are all tied together — “whom he did foreknow he also did predestinate… moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called…” We know that at the time Paul wrote this passage not everyone who would be called had already been called. Then why did he use the past tense? He used the past tense because these graces are linked from all eternity.
That linkage between God’s eternal decree and the justification of the elect is the point in Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 11, Article 4. The point is that God did decree from all eternity to justify all the elect. Notice that “whom he called, them he also justified [past tense] and whom he justified, them he also glorified [past tense].” This entire passage is bound to the decree of God, even though for many of us our subjective justification would not take place for centuries after Paul wrote it. There are some who have not been subjectively justified as yet. They still are among God’s elect, and even though, in time, their justification has not yet happened Paul used the past tense because their justification is bound to God’s eternal decree.
The passage in Romans is an obvious one, but now I want to deal with a somewhat subtler argument. In Numbers 23 we read the story of Balaam trying to curse Israel. God told Balaam that he was not allowed to curse Israel. He commanded him to bless Israel. Verse 21 explains why, “He [God] hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them.” What does the passage mean by stating that God “has not beheld iniquity in Jacob?” Does that mean that there were no sinners in the assembly of Israel on that day? Of course not. It means that God was seeing them in Christ! He was seeing them justified. God does not see any perverseness in his elect. He does not see perverseness in his elect because he sees his elect justified.
Justification is so bound to God’s eternal decree that we can characterize it as “eternal justification.” I realize that this is a controversial doctrine. We do not hold that anyone who believes other than this is not Reformed. But, if we would be consistent with the Reformed faith, then we have to maintain that justification is so bound to the eternal decree of God that God eternally “has never seen iniquity in Israel.” In reality we are sinners. In the desert Israel consisted of sinners. Why could God not behold their iniquity? It was not because there was not any to see; it was because it had all been canceled on Christ’s account. But this was before Christ ever died.
The Bible speaks of an objective justification as well as a subjective justification. When God looks at his people objectively, he sees Christ. Objectively he sees the righteousness of Christ, not our sin. But that does not mean that subjectively each one of us is justified until such time as we believe. To give you an idea of what this idea signifies, we need to read Romans 4:25, “Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” If Christ was “raised again for our justification,” when does our justification take place? Did our justification take place at his resurrection? Does our justification take place when we believe? There is an objective sense in which God sees nothing but Christ when he looks at his elect people though they have yet to believe. But there is also a subjective sense in which we receive that justification at such time as we believe.
Let’s consider the example of a surety standing for a debt. When was the debt paid? Was the debt paid when the surety first agreed to stand for it or was the debt paid when the debt was actually paid, or was the debt paid when the debtor received the information that the debt was paid for him? There is a sense in which each of those times is correct. As soon as the surety agrees to pay the debt, the debt is no longer hanging over the original debtor. Then, when the debt actually comes due and the surety pays the debt, there is the sense in which that is the time at which the debt is paid. And finally, when the original debtor comes in to pay his own debt and finds that it has already been paid for him, subjectively it is then that the person is notified that the debt has been paid for him. So, in different aspects, in different senses, all three times are correct. During the Reformation the doctrine of predestination, the doctrine of election and the doctrine of justification were closely bound together. There cannot be one without the others. This is why the Reformers could not accept an Arminian gospel as being a true gospel. We have to see justification as referring to the eternal decree of God, or we do not see Christ as surety.
II. Justification takes place in time
A. Justification is grounded in the death of Christ
We first discussed that justification is based upon the counsel of eternal election, but historically justification is grounded in the death of Christ. What then is the basis of our justification? The doctrine of the atonement must logically precede the doctrine of justification. For the most part, Isaiah 53 has been about the doctrine of the atonement. There are some very important correlations here that I want you to make. Secondly we find that justification is grounded upon the atonement — upon the death of Jesus Christ. Look at Colossians 2:14, “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.” What was the handwriting of ordinances that was against us? The handwriting of ordinances — an indictment — had been drawn out against us because we were guilty of breaking God’s law. Christ blotted out “the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.” He took the indictment against us by the law and nailed it to the cross. The indictment of our law breaking ended up not on us but on Christ. Historically — in time — on the cross at the atonement Christ was atoning for us. He propitiated. Romans 3:25, “[Jesus] whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation.” Christ took away the indictment; it was nailed to the cross.
For some of us the doctrine of eternal salvation is still new. The idea of election and of God’s counsels in eternity — God sovereignly decreeing from before the foundation of the world who would and who would not be saved — is still a new idea for some of us. That was the first point we had to deal with. However, the second point is also important. That point is that justification — our having a right standing with God — is based upon the atonement. It is based upon Christ having paid the penalty for us. Ephesians 2:15-16, “Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby.” Some people maintain that these verses mean that God just abolished the law at the cross. But this is the same idea that we see in Colossians 2:14. At the cross the indictment that was against us for having broken God’s commandment was paid by Christ. This is a forensic judgment and can be illustrated in our court system.
First there is a grand jury that makes an indictment, or “a writing.” The writing is a syllogism along these lines:
a. this action is against the law
b. Mr. Smith committed this action on such and such day at such and such place.
Therefore Mr. Smith must appear before the magistrate on such and such a day for trial.
That is an indictment. An indictment states that there is a law and that Mr. Smith has broken that law on a certain date and that this can be proven. God’s law is much the same way. Man’s law follows in the train of God’s law in this regard. God’s law declared in Genesis 2:17, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.” But man did eat and therefore he must appear before God to give an answer. In Genesis 3:6ff we see all the elements of a judgment taking place. We see these elements also here in Ephesians 2:15. A law has been broken. Because that law has been broken, the relationship between the judge and the accused has been severed. Christ, by his cross, has taken away the enmity between the judge and the accused. Once again we see that reconciliation, — that justification — that right standing with God — is based upon the cross.
We said that the cross is a synecdoche for Christ’s death, his “atonement,” his accepting the penalty due to us for our sins. I want to make this point very clear to you because it is at this very central point that most error in the Christian church begins, whether it is “Evangelical” error or whether it is Roman Catholic error. Most error in the churches today begins at a wrong view of justification. We are going to hammer this home and hammer this home and hammer this home because you have to understand it. It is critical and it is foundational. Colossians 1:20-22, “And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight.” Christ has reconciled you “in the body of his flesh through death.” Has Christ reconciled you in “the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable” in your manner of life? Does your life become perfect? No! Christ has reconciled you in “the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight.” Westminster Shorter Catechism #33 asks, “What is justification?” The answer is, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight.” God sees us as justified in his sight. This verse teaches that we are holy and unblameable and unreprovable in his sight. As God looks upon us, he sees the absolute righteousness of Christ. He does not see any relative righteousness of our own. He does not even see our reformed life. He sees a holy, unblameable, unreprovable life. That holy and unblameable and unreprovable life is found only in Christ. Only in Christ! It is in the body of his flesh through death that we obtain that. It is through his atonement that we obtain reconciliation. It is through his atonement that we obtain right standing with God. We do not just receive pardon. We receive acceptability in his sight. We are “holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight.”
True justification is altogether different from “I’m trying to do better.” True justification is not centered in our faith. God does not see our faith and decide that it is “good enough” to save us. Rather God imputes to us that active and passive righteousness of Christ. That is the true source of our justification. Our justification is bound up in his cross. Our justification is not only bound to God’s eternal decree, our justification is not only bound to our eternal election, our justification is bound to Christ’s cross. 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” When God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, at that very point he did not impute their trespasses unto them. Up to now, then, we have justification tied to the eternal decree and we have justification tied to the cross.
B. Justification is tied to Christ’s resurrection
Justification is also tied to Christ’s resurrection, historically. In Romans 4:25, “Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” We should understand this to be “on account of.” Christ was delivered on account of our offenses. It was because we were offenders that he was delivered, and he was raised again on account of our justification — that we might be justified. The resurrection indicates that God accepted Christ as a satisfaction. It is a vindication of Christ’s death. None of the Old Testament sacrifices came back to life. It is only by the acceptance of God of that full, complete, lasting sacrifice of Christ, demonstrated and sealed in the resurrection, that we know that we have justification. That is why Paul wrote “raised again for our justification.” Our justification is tied to Christ’s resurrection. In Ephesians 2:4-5, we see that same power and that same grace. “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ.” God raising Christ from the dead manifests the same power and grace that he exercises toward us in regenerating us. That same bringing to life — that quickening — of Christ, is that same bringing to life of us when we are regenerated. Christ was raised from the dead physically and we are raised from the dead spiritually by that same grace.
C. Justification is declared in the gospel
Third, justification is declared in the gospel. Understand this! The gospel is not “invite Jesus into your heart.” To declare the gospel we must declare repentance for the remission of sins. What is remission of sins? What is justification? Luke 24:46-47, “[He] said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Christ tied repentance and remission of sins to the atonement. What is it that the Church is to preach? Based upon the atonement of Christ, the Church is to preach justification and remission of sins. Acts 13:38, “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man [Christ] is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins.” That is justification!
D. The righteousness of justification is received by us by faith alone
Justification is grounded and has its origin in the eternal decree. It has its historical basis in the righteousness of the active and passive obedience of Christ. In his resurrection, God declares that he is satisfied with the atonement. Justification is declared among the nations in the gospel. Examining these aspect of justification brings us to understand that justification is from “eternity past” to “eternity future.” Here is the key thing for us. Subjectively, the righteousness of justification is received by us by faith alone. Faith is not another ground of justification. The only ground, the only basis for justification is in the death of Christ. Rather, our faith must always be seen as the means by which the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. God does not see our faith and because of our faith, makes us righteous. That is not it. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to us and received by us by faith alone. Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Romans 4:3, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” Verse 5-6 “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works.”
III. Justification at the righteous judgement of God at the last day
Finally, we are justified at the righteous judgement of God at the last day. Romans 8:23, “And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” Matthew 25:23, “His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” Matthew 10:41, “He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward.” Westminster Shorter Catechism #38, “What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection?” The answer is, “At the resurrection, believers being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgement, and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.” Acquittal is a forensic term — a courtroom term. It means to be justified or to be declared righteous. At the last day, we shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted. Therefore, is justification — this acknowledgement, this acquittal — from eternity past? Is it in history? Or is it to eternity future? In fact, justification does have its origin in eternity past and this same eternal justification has an eternal future orientation as well. We will forever be acquitted. We cannot lose that justification because it is an eternal justification; it has its origin in eternity past and an acquittal that extends on into eternity future.
The first implication is that if we are justified not only from eternity past but until eternity future, then there is a complete forgiveness of sins. God has forgiven every sin. Colossians 1:22 declares us to be “holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight.” Ephesians 1:7, “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.” I do not mean to discourage any of you from looking into as much of God’s Word as he gives you the grace to understand, but let us always remember that we have to start with the forgiveness of sins. If we do not have a right standing with God, anything else that we study is rather beside the point.
The second implication is that of adoption. This is amazing! Not only have our sins been forgiven, we have been made children! It is one thing to have a servant who does not do what you tell him to. You may say, “I will forgive you. I will hire you back.” But God has gone beyond that. Not only has he forgiven our sins; he has made us sons. He has adopted us. Adoption is tied together with the atonement and with justification in Galatians 4:4-6, “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” Notice the order in this passage. We did not cry “Father” first, and then he adopted us. He adopted us first, and then we cried “Abba, Father.” First he adopted us, because of Christ’s atonement. And because of Christ’s atonement — because of Christ’s reconciliation, because of Christ’s redemption — we have received the adoption of sons. And because we have received the adoption of sons, God has sent his Spirit into our hearts, by which we cry “Abba, Father.”
The third implication is that we have an eternal righteousness which cannot be lost. And I would refer you again to Colossians 1:22, being “holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight.” Also John 6:44, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.” And verse 37, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” We have an eternal justification. Because justification means imputed righteousness, we have an eternal righteousness, one that has its origin in God’s decree from all eternity to see us in Christ. On that last day, we will be openly acquitted to the full enjoying of God forever — we have an eternal justification. Because of that eternal justification, we can have an assurance of God’s love. Not because of the extent of our reformation — not because of how good we are or might become — but solely, only, purely, merely, simply because Christ is righteous. Because, as God said, “this is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Only as we are found in him does God sees us also as holy, unblameable, even unreprovable in his sight.
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