There is perhaps no doctrine of Christianity that has been subject to more confusion and misapprehension than the doctrine of justification. For most, it has become almost synonymous with conversion. Theologically, it is common to speak of being justified, then beginning to grow in sanctification, and looking to our final glorification. Justification is looked upon as a single act, accomplished once for all, when a person first turns to Jesus Christ in faith. Many believe that upon repentance and faith the sinner becomes a saint and is pronounced just or righteous on the basis of the death of Christ, his guilt is gone forever, all his sins – past, present, and future – are forgiven and he is saved. Now he begins the walk of sanctification where he starts to take back the ground lost through sin, but sin no longer produces condemnation or guilt, he is a son and is forgiven forever. Justification is an act of God, accomplished through the atonement, and hence is irrevocable.
But there are several problems with this view. The first is that it is Antinomian to the core. If the Christian does not come under true condemnation when he sins, then God’s law has been repealed. Where the law used to condemn the sinner, through a one-time exercise of faith in Christ, that which before was sending the sinner to eternal hell may now be indulged in freely, without the slightest fear of judgement. Oh yes, we are told not to sin, that this does not please God, but this is only the displeasure of a father toward his son, the idea of judgement has been totally removed. Sin is now a failure to express gratitude, it is not considered hatred toward God. All this is quite unacceptable. Law without penalty is not law, it is advice. If God, through the atonement, has accomplished a method whereby sinners may be saved in their sins, then God has become the promoter of sin and has made an allegiance with the devil.
The second problem with this view of justification is that it does no honour to the warning passages concerning the very real danger of apostasy. All through the New Testament warnings occur to hold to faith and not become entangled again in sin, lest we fall away and perish. They indicate clearly that a person may once exercise faith in Christ, yet cease to believe and be lost. The obvious idea is that a person who has experienced justification may cease to be justified and ultimately perish. But in the case under consideration, where justification is a once for all irrevocable act of God, apostasy is clearly impossible. Hence, the warnings must be twisted to teach a warning to be sure one truly believed, rather than to be sure that one is still believing. Such a construction will not stand and is entirely prejudiced, ignoring what these passages actually say.
So these problems definitely demand another view of the doctrine of justification. What is justification? Upon what conditions may a sinner be justified? On what basis does he continue in this state? How and when does he cease to be justified? We will look at these questions one by one.
What Is Justification?
First, what is justification? Essentially, it is a governmental pronouncement of a sinner as righteous or just. It is the treating of a sinner as though he had not sinned. Having sinned, he has forever revoked his chance of being pronounced righteous under the law. The law demands his death. Eternal death in hell. But justification is a pronouncement of the sinner as just, outside of the law. Even though the law considers the sinner guilty, he is governmentally treated as though he had not sinned and is righteous. This is justification. The governmental act whereby a sinner is pronounced righteous.
Conditions Of Justification
Second, upon what conditions may the sinner be pronounced justified? Clearly, upon the basis of his own merit, he can never be considered righteous. For even if he were to now obey the whole law for the rest of his life, he cannot change what he has done. He remains forever guilty under the law. The law required perfect obedience and if he were to obey God perfectly now, all he would be doing would be his present duty, there would be no extra merit to put up against his past failure. His guilt is forever his own, and he can never merit forgiveness, no matter what he does. Thus, something must be done to merit salvation for him, to cover and put away his guilt. This God has done through the atonement. Through the sacrifice of his son, God has provided the necessary satisfaction of justice whereby a sinner may be pronounced and treated as righteous.
So the first condition of justification is the atonement, providing a just basis for granting the pardon of a sinner. But this is only the first condition. The atonement by itself accomplishes the salvation of no individual. It is sufficient for the salvation of any sinner, but further conditions are to be met if it is to become the effectual salvation for the individual sinner. The second condition is repentance on the part of the sinner. Repentance is a voluntary forsaking of sin, turning from sin, leaving it behind. The gospel is always presented upon the condition of repentance. No unrepentant sinner can plead Jesus’ death as his basis of acceptance before God. It becomes his only as he forsakes his sin, turns from it decisively. The third condition is faith. Trusting in and relying upon God’s forgiveness in Christ. That God accepts the sinner because of the beloved. Believing that Jesus’ death allows me free pardon and free deliverance from the guilt and condemnation I incurred through violating the law. If the sinner has met these conditions, he enters into justification and on the condition of his repentance and faith in the objective sacrifice of the atonement, he is pronounced righteous and treated as though he had not sinned. His sins are forgiven and he has been cleansed from all unrighteousness. God is just and the justifier of those who believe on Christ.
Our third and fourth questions were: On what basis does he continue to be justified? and, How and when does he cease to be justified? The fact of apostasy as a real possibility taught in the New Testament necessitates an answer to these questions, as nothing is more important than knowing where we stand in order to ensure our safety and final salvation. The answers are quite simple if we realize the conditions of justification in the first place. As we saw, the atonement by itself was only one condition of justification. Further conditions were repentance and faith. The atonement was a sufficient basis for pardon providing the sinner forsook his sins and returned to God. These further conditions being met, the sinner became justified. On what basis, then, does the sinner continue in a state of justification? Clearly, by persevering in faith. Scripture continuously holds out perseverance as a condition of continuing acceptance. One moment’s exercise of faith means nothing, we must walk by faith and continue to believe and trust. The righteous will live by faith. The faith which first introduced me into this state of acceptance must be sustained now throughout my life and until Christ comes.
When Does Justification End?
How and when does he cease to be justified? Obviously, we cease to be justified the moment we sin. Faith is the opposite of repentance. Repentance was forsaking sin. Faith was embracing God and trusting in God. But clearly if I am presently trusting in God, I cannot be presently disobeying God. No sin is consistent with a state of faith. Sin is unbelief. It is calling God a liar, and living for myself. Therefore every sin must be a departure from faith, a return to impenitence, and must be for the time being a departure from justification. Consequently, present justification is upon the condition of present repentance and faith, that I have presently forsaken all sin and am presently in obedience to God, loving him with all my heart (will).
So continuation in justification necessitates perseverance and establishment in the life of sanctification. We are not saying that a Christian is eternally lost if he sins. God is not the type of person to have us saved and lost, saved and lost. But we are saying that God cannot justify a sinner in his sins. The penalty of the law must come upon any violators. If God is to save us from hell he must save us from sin. The atonement does not introduce us into a perpetual state of justification. It is simply the basis upon which we may be justly cleansed of our past sins, and since we are not presently disobeying God, we are counted as righteous by faith in Jesus. Holiness is not that for which (merit) we are considered righteous but it is that without which (condition) we cannot be considered righteous. Again, all we are doing is our present duty, this does not merit forgiveness for past disobedience. We are saved by Christ’s atonement, not by any works of our own. But the condition of that atonement being ours and remaining ours is repentance, faith, and perseverance to the end.
What Is Apostasy?
With this view of justification before us, the issue of apostasy becomes quite clear. All sin is mortal, dangerous, and if we do sin, we must quickly forsake it and confess it and return to submission to God. If we do not repent and continue in impenitence, we will perish, be lost forever. If we die in a state of sin we cannot be saved. But we need not fear this for the promises of the gospel for our sanctification are sufficient to establish us in a walk of faith and holiness where sin, if it does occur, will be the exception and never the rule, and where we may expect to live above the power of sin.
But let us look now at some scriptures which would seem to coincide with this view of justification. Perhaps one of the most interesting is found in I John 5 where John says there is a sin that leads to death. He’s talking about seeing a brother in sin and praying for him that God would give him life. The clear implication is that when we sin, it is a departure from the eternal life we have received, for those John refers to have not physically died. He says pray and God will give them life. Sin is spiritual death. It is turning from God back to the darkness. It is passing from life to death. Ceasing to be dead to sin, and becoming again dead in sin. John doesn’t see this departure as incurable but urges prayer that God would “give them life.” How does he give them life? The same way he did when they were first born again, by bringing them to repent, to forsake sin. If they do this then their advocate (I John 1:1) still stands ready to plead their case on the basis of his atonement and they may be forgiven again. But John also points out another case, where sin leads to death. He says not to pray in this case. Why? The implication is that if they have died in their sins, they cannot be given life. If a Christian’s sins become so gross and deliberate or so repeated that God has to take his life for the sake of the purity of the church, then he cannot be saved. Admittedly this passage in I John 5 is open to debate but its ease of compatibility to the view of justification we have been discussing ought to make us attentive.
James 5 has a similar passage where James urges the Christians to pray for each other when they see each other sin, remembering that anyone who turns a sinner from his error saves him from death. The implication is that eternal death in hell is in view. So again, there is no indication that a Christian cannot sin but certainly that the sinning Christian is in danger of hell and must repent or perish.
Discipline Of Believers
There are also two passages of interest regarding church discipline found in the book of I Corinthians. The first passage, I Corinthians 5, refers to a person who was living in sexual immorality. Paul commanded the church to excommunicate this man and he also said that he would hand him over to Satan so that his flesh would be destroyed but his spirit saved on the day of Christ. There are some who would say this is a strong passage to support that a Christian cannot be lost, but there is nothing to show that this treatment by Paul would inevitably produce the favourable result. Clearly Paul’s intention and hope is that this measure will result in his ultimate salvation but too much scripture, including the writings of Paul, warn that the opposite is certainly possible. Who would consider someone who was grossly sinning as in this case as a likely candidate for salvation? It is also interesting that Paul says to treat him as an unbeliever.
The second passage is I Corinthians 11, where Paul refers to Communion and warns the believers not to eat in an unworthy manner, for by so doing they eat and drink damnation to themselves. Here is a clear reference warning believers of possible damnation. He says that because they are abusing the Lord’s supper, partaking of it while they are still in sin, many of them are sick and others have died. God was trying to discipline them through their physical health, warning them. It went so far that some died. Paul says the reason God disciplines us is so we will not be condemned with the world. Again some here believe that this discipline must necessarily eliminate the possibility of apostasy. But the question is, can we be condemned with the world? If there is no way our actions can ever result in our condemnation, as the classical view of justification would say, then why is discipline a real need? But if sin does bring condemnation, as our view of justification would hold, then God’s discipline is to bring us to repentance. His purpose is to bring us back to holiness and submission to him because if we die in our sins, we will be condemned with the world. What we would then see in view in I Corinthians 11 is that God sought to turn them from their sin, but some were so resistant that they finally had to be removed, not to pollute the rest of the church. Imagine the suggestion that God took their lives so they wouldn’t be lost! It seems the best route to heaven would be to be the worst sinner (provided you already professed salvation)! It is much more likely and again consistent with our view of justification to see that sin is fatal, that to die in sin is to be lost, and that God’s discipline is to bring us back to repentance. But if that fails there is no hope.
Conditions Of Forgiveness
There are two other passages pertinent to our discussion, both of which deal with the issue of forgiveness. They are found in Matthew 6 (see also Luke 11), in reference to the Lord’s Prayer, and in Matthew 18 regarding the parable of the Unmerciful Servant. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he exhorted them to confess their sins to God and seek forgiveness, even as they forgave their enemies who sinned against them. So Jesus taught us to expect to be forgiven if we are forgiving to others. He then clarifies most definitely that this is no option, but is a condition of our receiving forgiveness from God. “If you forgive men when they sin against you, the Father will forgive you. If you do not forgive them, God will not forgive you.” God is forgiving and always disposed to forgive providing the conditions have been met where he may justly forgive. Never is there any unwillingness to forgive. Such unwillingness indicates an impure, unrepentant heart. In such a case, the person unwilling to forgive must be in a state of impenitence, and unbelief, and thus must stand condemned before God. She must be presently in an unjustified state, and if she continues and does not forgive then neither can God justly forgive her for she remains in sin.
The second case in Matthew 18 more graphically displays the same principle. In this chapter Jesus tells a parable of a servant who owed his master an exorbitant amount of money, an amount he could never repay no matter how long he worked. He fell on his knees before his master begging that if he were given time, he would repay all. The master had pity and cancelled his debt. The servant went away rejoicing but on his way he came across a fellow servant who owed him a few dollars. The fellow servant fell on his knees and begged for time to repay but the first servant had him thrown in prison until the debt be paid. When the master heard of this he rebuked the first servant telling him his behaviour was wicked when, after having his own vast debt cancelled he was unwilling to let this small debt go unpaid by his fellow servant. As a result of this servants’ unwillingness to forgive, the master threw him in prison and his full debt was brought upon him again. Having told this parable, Jesus warned his disciples that this is how their heavenly Father would treat them if they did not forgive their brothers from their hearts. A few details we note. First, the servant was forgiven a great debt he could not possibly have repaid. Second, he failed to forgive another who had wronged him. Third, his debt came upon him again. There is no picture here of unconditional forgiveness or perpetual justification but rather that present justification is conditional upon my own present forgiving attitude in thanks for my debt being cancelled. If I do not forgive then I may expect the debt to be mine again.
Ready For Christ’s Return
Further passages of interest are the ones that warn of being ready at Jesus’ coming. Many of Paul’s writings express his desire and confidence in God’s ability to establish the churches in a blameless walk so that they will be found blameless at Christ’s coming. The Philippians he said would be kept blameless until that coming, the Corinthians (who were far from blameless) he expected would be blameless at Christ’s coming. In Philippians, referring to himself in Chapter 3, Paul expresses his desire to be found in him implying that it was possible he might not. The parable of the Ten Virgins indicates that since they were not ready at his coming, they were not allowed into the wedding feast. Other parables warn that those servants who are found not doing what they were commanded to do will be given a place with the unbelievers. Just as a person must die in faith and does not know the time of his death, so also they must be alert and obedient so that when Christ comes at a time they do not know, they will be found in him, having the righteousness that comes by faith, blameless before him at his coming.
A question which usually arises from all the previous discussion is one of practical reality. Does this view of justification mean that if a Christian lives his whole life in holiness but has a momentary fall and then dies before he can repent, or Christ returns at that moment, that he is lost? There are two things we must express in response to this question. The first is to ask what the motive is behind the question? Often people who ask this question are trying to find room, even if it is only a little room, for sin. The Bible leaves no such room and neither may we. Sin brings condemnation. It is as simple as that. We cannot sin and remain in a state of acceptance before God. On the other hand, the inquiry may arise from a sincere heart who is only too aware of the real possibility of sin which we all face living in this world. Would God truly condemn and send to hell someone who has sincerely sought to serve him? This question deserves an answer. I believe that Biblically the answer would have to be a very careful “no.” The issue is not what we are doing the moment we die but rather what our established state of heart is at death. That a person who is well confirmed in holiness can from time to time experience moments of disobedience is a fact well testified to by the history of many venerable saints. There is a big difference between falling to a temptation from time to time and remaining again in sin as an established state of heart.
The issue is, is this sin repented of and forsaken as Proverbs 28:13 requires or is it cherished and perpetuated? A person who dies in an act of sin has no opportunity to repent. God being a God of love will certainly provide this opportunity when he comes before him. And if a person’s state of heart has been right he will certainly agree with God by condemning himself and expressing remorse and repentance. Hebrews 6 tells us that God is just and will not forget our hard work and our labours of love in his dealings with us. Because of this we can be confident of our final salvation. But these considerations do not change the fact that if a person dies in the commitment of a sin, he is guilty and he must repent or he cannot be saved. If his heart has been hard and his life was taken in such a case, death will not change his heart. Jesus spoke of those who in coming into God’s presence will try to justify themselves speaking of how they prophesied and cast out demons in his name. His response will appropriately be “I never knew you.” Sin brings condemnation always. We need to hold firm our confidence to the end and so make our hope sure.
But a final note by way of encouragement. If this view of justification is correct, and I believe it must be, then we have no more definite indication of the attainability of entire sanctification than we could possibly ask for. For Paul tells us in Romans 8:1-2 that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. He also says in verse 4 that “the righteous requirements of the law are fully met in us who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Since any sin must bring condemnation, Paul is saying that through the Spirit’s influence we may live without sin. Since the law is not fulfilled if any disobedience is present, it must again mean that we truly obey by the Spirit. Of course the fact that the Holy Spirit’s influence is moral and persuasive rather than physical and causative means we can still sin. But we need not sin, and the Holy Spirit’s influence is sufficient to work holiness in our souls. Sin cannot be our master if we are abiding in Christ. Thus, as sin is the exception and not the rule, we have no more condemnation. And of course, we are in Christ through present faith. So if we are in Christ at all, we are presently holy. Sin would be for the time being a departure from Christ and from justification. But the clear promises of scripture are that we need not fear temptation or falling, we may expect to stand for we are more than conquerors through Christ by his Spirit!
Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (www.whatibelievethisweek.com)