Justification and God’s Law
Our Perfect Lord
God’s perfection allows only perfection in His presence. His moral purity causes Him to separate Himself from sin and evil (Ps.5:4; 101:4-8; Hab.1:13; Heb.12:14) and thus He will not accept even the slightest deviation from His eternal standard of righteousness (Gen.17:1; Lev.19:2; Deut.18:13; Matt.5:48). God was under no obligation to create people and so when He did and gave life to His creation, it was a gracious gift (Gen.2:7; 1 Pet.3:7). Adam and Eve had a wonderful intimate relationship with the Father, yet in order for this to continue, they had to continue in perfection, i.e., in perfect obedience to His every Word. This ought to be the creature’s natural response to God’s graciousness in giving him life (Lev.18:5; Rom.10:5). When they rebelled against God’s righteous law-word, they were separated from Him and He was alienated from them. They had violated their relationship with God, which He had graciously brought about, and thus they had polluted themselves. Due to their pollution, they were no longer able to relate to God as they had been doing (Gen.3:8-10). The only basis for communion with God is absolute perfection, every moment of a person’s life and this perfection relates to his words, thoughts, motives and actions.
The law of God is a revelation of His perfection. There is no other way for us to know perfection other than by what God has revealed. His law is a revelation of His righteous character, showing us what He loves, hates and expects. Many Christians in the modern world have a very improper view of God’s law and practically despise it for being “too harsh” (in other words, too perfect—which is utter foolishness) or scoff at it for being imperfect, saying it needed to be modified and upgraded by Christ. The Scriptures, however, see the law only as perfect (Deut.4:8; Ps.19:7; Rom.7:12). You cannot improve on perfection and to reduce perfection in any way is to render it imperfect. That is why Jesus said we must not even begin to think that He came to do away with the law and the prophets. Rather, He came to obey all that was written and fulfil what was written, i.e., confirm and restore in full measure (Matt.5:17-19).1 The law is eternally perfect.
While the law will forever remain perfect, it’s application is only good when it is used lawfully (1 Tim.1:8). To use the law for something it was never supposed to be used for is perverse. The law was never meant to be the means for making people just—it was never designed to serve this purpose and therefore is incapable of being used for this end. Paul was not opposed to God’s law in any way, but when talking about justification to those who had perverted the use of the law, he exposed their erroneous use of the law. Paul strongly condemned teachers that said a person’s personal observance of the law’s details were vital if they were to be declared just. Paul showed the utter inability of the law to make people just because it was never meant to, but this did not mean Paul condemned the law itself in any way (Gal.3:10-14).
Rome versus the Reformers
To be justified is to be declared righteous by God and this is the only starting place for everything within His Kingdom. We have no share in God’s life, relationship or knowledge until we are regenerated (Eph.2:1) and then justified by God’s grace through trusting in Christ’s righteousness alone (Rom.3:24; 4:23-5:2; Titus 3:7). Right teaching about justification was the cornerstone of the Reformation in the sixteenth century and this was because it was the cornerstone of Paul’s doctrine. The Reformers rightly understood that once the truth about justification was distorted, all Christian doctrine would be perverted and ultimately lost and the subtlety of Rome (i.e., the Church of Rome) was not to be underestimated. The central issue for the Reformers was to clearly define and maintain the grounds for justification, i.e., what is it’s basis? Rome teaches that what is needed is faith in Christ plus a person’s own good works (and here it gets subtle). Rome says these good works that are necessary, are brought about by God’s grace whereby He infuses righteousness into a person at their baptism and then He looks at their works and through consideration of these, grants or withholds justification. Rome wants the sinner to be righteous in himself, and so says God graciously infuses the sinner with internal righteousness and the ability to do what is right and then God justifies him. Thus, Rome insists that a person’s own good works are included in the grounds of their justification while also claiming that salvation is all of grace.
The Reformers, on the other hand, insisted that the basis for God accepting sinners is the finished work of Christ and His righteousness, alone! Justification rests solely upon the merit of Christ. It was by embracing the correct view about justification that the Reformers in the sixteenth century were able to free themselves and Christ’s Church from the darkness that had swallowed them. Following Paul, the Reformers said justification is a legal judgement or declaration whereby God pronounces repentant sinners guiltless because Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to or accounted as theirs (not infused into them). Rome’s view of justification, according to J. I. Packer, is that “believers save themselves with the help of the grace that flows from Christ through the church’s sacramental system…”2 The Westminster Standards counter Roman Catholicism by teaching that “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Shorter Catechism Q.33). Rome wants God to justify the just and so man’s own works, as a result of God’s infused righteousness, are vital, whereas Paul says, “God justifies the ungodly” (Rom.4:5). This doesn’t mean we remain ungodly (see the article Kingdom Living and God’s Law). God does deal with the believer’s remaining sin and transforms him more and more into the image of Christ, but this transformation has nothing to do with God declaring him just in the first place.
Only Through Faith
The reason justification is only possible through faith in Christ is because it is impossible for people to live perfect lives before God, even if they whole-heartedly love all of His law (Rom.7:18). The only basis for justification is that the merits of another are accounted as your own and there was only one person who has perfectly obeyed the law of God and that is Jesus Christ and He did it for our benefit. Christ’s whole life, lived in perfect obedience to God’s every word is, by God’s grace, accounted as ours when we believe in Him. Our rebellion was accounted as Christ’s and He was put to death on the cross for our sin and endured God’s wrath as God judged sin in Christ’s human flesh (Rom.8:3; 1 Pet.2:24).
It is when we believe in God’s promise to give us life through faith in Christ, that His righteousness is accounted as ours or imputed to us (2 Cor.5:21). The law’s specifications were not given so that we could make ourselves perfect and therefore, acceptable to God, for this is impossible (Ps.53:1-3; Rom.3:10; Titus 3:3; 1 John 1:8-10). The condition of having a joyful relationship with God is to be found perfectly righteous, which is nothing other than rendering perfect obedience to His every word. Righteousness is nothing other than conformity to the law, while sin is any failure to conform to it. The Father’s mercy and wisdom designed a remedy for our helpless situation. That is, when Christ dwells in our hearts through faith (Eph.3:17), we are clothed with His eternal righteousness (Phil.3:9) and because of Christ’s obedience and sacrifice alone, we are totally accepted by the Father. Christ both bore the penalty for sin in His flesh and lived a perfect life in the flesh. Therefore, when we are united to Him through faith, our sins are cancelled and our relationship with God is eternally secured because it is a relationship of perfect obedience—Christ’s perfect obedience! Thus, we can be perfect as God is perfect (Matt.5:48; Rom.8:10; Eph.1:4,5; Col.1:28; 1 Pet.1:15,16).
Perfect Obedience is Required
To be found “not guilty” in God’s eyes, He has to judge us according to His perfection and be assured that we haven’t deviated from this standard even in the slightest degree. For anything we do to be accepted by God, it has to measure up to His absolute righteous standard. Now when God says that even the believers’ best works are polluted (Isa.64:6), how can we think that anything we do will measure up to His perfection? (Ps.143:2). If we are relying upon our efforts in any way to contribute toward our acceptance with God, we are lost—eternally so! Even if we are told that Christ’s efforts on our behalf contribute 99.9% of what we need for justification and all we have to do is contribute the final 0.01%, we are still incapable of making our contribution measure up to the perfection God requires. Thus, to preach a “gospel” that requires sinful humans to contribute anything of their own efforts toward their justification, is to proclaim eternal damnation (Rom.3:20). For anyone to think they are capable of doing something that can measure up to the perfection of heaven, means they are suppressing the truth about God’s holiness and their sinfulness (Job 14:4; 15:15,16; 25:4; Ps.14:3; 53:3; Ecc.7:20; Jer.17:9; Mk.10:18; Rom.3:10,12), as well as rejecting God’s clear revelation about the basis of justification.
Justification is not a reward that God gives to us for believing in Christ. Faith is trusting God’s promise that it’s through faith that the righteousness of Christ is put into our account by God and that we are fully accepted because of Christ’s righteousness alone (Jer.23:6; Rom.3:24,28; 4:5; 5:19; 10:4; 2 Pet.1:1). While we need to exercise faith in order to be justified, we must not think that our faith is a work that merits justification. Nothing we do merits justification, neither our works nor our faith—faith is not meritorious in any way.
Two Vital Stipulations
There are two things that need to be addressed by God in order for us to be reconciled with Him and to make our relationship with Him eternally secure. Firstly, our sin and guilt needs to be dealt with in terms of divine, unchanging justice and secondly, we need to maintain a relationship with God (after we have been reconciled), of perfect obedience. The basis for our forgiveness is found in Christ’s death upon the cross, where the wrath of God was poured out upon our sin, fully satisfying divine justice. And the basis for our eternal relationship with the Father is found in Christ’s perfect obedience to the whole of God’s will and law when He walked on this earth. Without perfect obedience there can be no relationship with God and when we stand by faith in Christ, we are clothed with His righteousness and so our relationship with God is eternally secured by Christ’s obedience. It is through faith that we partake of God’s bountiful provision for us, but this in no way makes faith the grounds of our justification, nor does our exercising of faith in any way contribute toward our justification. Faith is not the basis that makes us accepted by God, it is our relational connection to Christ, whereby we consciously embrace in our hearts and make our own, everything He has accomplished for us. The cause of this faith is still God. We repent because we have been given faith and the reason we exercise faith unto repentance is because God’s sovereign will and grace have brought about our regeneration. Faith and repentance are the fruit of God’s work of regeneration (regeneration precedes true faith and repentance, i.e., conversion). Therefore, God makes us alive (Eph.2:1), gives us faith (Eph.2:8,9), and even grants us repentance (2 Tim.2:25)—we contribute nothing to the legal pronouncement of being accounted just in God’s sight.
When we believe in Christ’s work done on our behalf and repent of our sin, we call that conversion. While we have to exercise faith when we believe and while repentance includes a complete change in the way we live our lives, we must not think that our “efforts” in conversion contribute to our justification. God’s grace precedes and brings about every good work. We believe and repent (activities that we do), because God has already regenerated us. Our conversion is a consequence of God giving us a new spirit and a new heart, thus anything that is good in us comes from Him (Ezk.11:19).
An Eternal Declaration
It is vital to realize that justification is a legal judgement or pronouncement coming from God’s court with respect to us and does not mean we are changed inwardly. We are declared righteous in the sight of God because our sin is imputed to Christ, who was judged in our place and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. God declaring us just is not because of anything we are, do or become—it is solely because of God’s grace and Christ’s completed work done on our behalf. God’s sovereign declaration that we are “not guilty” is an absolute and complete judgement finding us perfect and complete in every way. When God declares someone to be just, that’s an eternal declaration. Thus our justification, a once-for-all-time declaration by God on our standing before Him, can never be added to (Titus 3:5) and never reversed (Rom.8:30). Everyone who has or will believe in Christ, trusting wholly in Him for their justification, is equally and instantly justified in the eyes of God and there will never be an increase or decrease in the “amount or quality” of their justification. Nevertheless, we must never think that true justification will be without true obedience being worked in our hearts. Obedience and justification are inseparable despite the fact that our justification has nothing to do with our obedience. The evidence of grace in a person’s heart is that they are directed towards holy living and holy living is defined by God’s law-word. As R.L. Dabney has pointed out, fruit is proof that there is healthy life in a fruit tree, but the fruit is not the cause of the life.3 Thus, when we are made healthy by the grace and power of God there will be fruit in our lives, however, it would be madness to say our good works (i.e., righteous living) were the source of our spiritual life. While we distinguish between them, we do not separate justification and sanctification.
Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, says justification includes the sanctification and renewal of the inner man (Council of Trent). In other words, according to Rome, each person has a part to play in their own justification, for God infuses him with grace (righteousness) which he then has to exercise if he is to be rewarded with final justification. Sin will constantly war against the Biblical doctrine of justification, as has been done throughout history. The Roman church almost succeeded in destroying the glorious good news of the gospel that proclaims free and complete justification by grace through faith alone, but God raised up the Reformers who revived this eternal truth. There can never be any assurance of justification on Rome’s position, for the sincere person will, like Martin Luther, always doubt his acceptance before God, being unsure whether his contribution is adequate (i.e., pure enough or sincere enough). In the church, the pure teaching on justification had been twisted, which introduced a slow and increasing darkness that continued to spread until almost everything was engulfed by darkness. Calvin said, “As soon as falsehood has made a breach in the fundamentals of religion, and the system of necessary doctrine is subverted…the certain consequence is the ruin of the church.”4 When the Reformers restored the true teaching about justification, then life, light and liberty flooded back into the church. May we not “fumble this pass” but hold onto it and keep it alive so that we can hand it on to the next generation for God’s honor and glory with great joy.
According to God’s Law
God has ordained only one way for us to be justified, namely, through faith in His promise and provision—this is what the law teaches, thus to deviate from it is to transgress the law. It was in accordance with the teaching of the law (not in accordance with his own invention), that Paul died to the law (Gal.2:19). This is because the law demands absolute perfection as the only basis for coming and remaining in God’s presence and anything short of this is justly condemned. The law requires sin to be judged and also says that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin (Lev.17:11; Heb.9:22). It was the law that constituted us sinners and condemned us to eternal damnation, yet God, through His law, provided for our salvation without violating His perfection. He did this by instituting substitutionary atonement (the life of a perfect substitute being sacrificed to make atonement for the law breaker). It is the law that condemns every sinner (Rom.3:9-20, esp.vs.19). Christ lived in perfect obedience to the whole of God’s law-word so that He could serve as our substitute (Matt.3:13-17; John 5:30; 14:31; 15:10; Gal.4:4; Phil.2:8; Heb.5:8; 10:7,9). It was the law that qualified Christ to be our substitute and it was the law, when fully satisfied, that released Him from the grip of death (Acts 2:24). The law’s demands for justice have been fully satisfied in Christ, thus, when we stand in Christ by faith, trusting in what He accomplished through His life and death on the cross, all the law’s demands upon us, are fully satisfied. It is the law that establishes salvation through faith (Rom.3:27)—why? Because according to Christ, the weightier matters of the law are mercy and faith (Matt.23:23). By being identified with Christ, we are identified with the judgement for sin that He endured and thus, we were judged and died in Him and so the full demands of righteousness have been satisfied with respect to God’s elect (Rom.5:15-17; 6:5-7; 2 Cor.5:14). In other words, the law can ask nothing more from us with respect to our justification and acceptance in God’s eyes. It is the law’s condemnation of sin that Paul said he had died to (Gal.2:19)—he no longer stood condemned by the law, because justice has been fully satisfied. We are truly understanding Biblical justification, if we say that justification is totally without the law, when it comes to our efforts, though totally in accord with the law, when it comes to God’s ordering and Christ’s works done on our behalf.
Those who believe that the teaching that justification is by faith alone makes people lawless, know nothing of the power of Christ’s life. This power is inseparable from and unattainable without justification by faith alone. To begin the “Christian” life with your own efforts means living the whole of your life with human resources. There is only one basis for godly living and that is through the Biblical doctrine of justification, which teaches that you cannot take hold of Christ’s work for justification without also taking hold of the power of Christ’s resurrected life. It is by God’s grace and through faith that we come to know the reality of Christ living in us, by His power and for His glory. When we embrace Christ by faith, trusting Him to deliver us from the guilt of sin, we also trust Him to deliver us from the power of sin. When true faith takes hold of Christ for justification it at the same time takes hold of Christ for our sanctification. When God makes us alive in Christ, He also makes us die to sin. A faith that saves necessarily brings works with it, but these works follow our complete justification, they do not precede it. Neither our faith nor our works contribute anything to the basis of our justification (Rom.5:1; James 2:25). The only basis for justification is the righteousness of Christ, which has to be imputed into our account by a sovereign electing act of God and received by us through faith. When we are freed from the condemnation of the law, we are enabled to live for God’s glory and thus it is vital that we know what this kind of a life looks like (see the article, Kingdom Living and God’s Law).