Current Issues in Justification

CURRENT ISSUES IN JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH

Dennis Priebe

Justification by faith is the most basic principle of the gospel. It is the bottom line of salvation. If we do not experience justification, there is no hope of salvation. However, just as with every crucial aspect of salvation, Satan has provided a counterfeit justification, by which salvation is promised but not delivered. Just as there were false gospels masquerading as the truth in Paul's day, so we have false gospels today promising what they cannot deliver. And multitudes of sincere Christians have bought into Satan's version of the gospel, because it sounds so good.

What does the Bible really teach about justification? How is a person justified? There are two aspects to justification by faith, and it is vital that we clearly understand each aspect.

Justification Declared

The first thing we need to know about justification is in Romans 4:6-8. "Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin." God pardons our sins. Our sins are forgiven. I am no longer a guilty sinner. This is the first thing we need to understand about justification by faith. This is the declarative aspect of justification. God declares me forgiven and pardoned.

“As the penitent sinner, contrite before God, discerns Christ's atonement in his behalf, and accepts this atonement as his only hope in this life and the future life, his sins are pardoned. This is justification by faith... Pardon and justification are one and the same thing. Through faith, the believer passes from the position of a rebel, a child of sin and Satan, to the position of a loyal subject of Christ Jesus, not because of an inherent goodness, but because Christ receives him as His child by adoption." (6BC 1071) Justification is pardon from sin, it is adoption into the family of God. God's grace pardons fully without merit on my part. The first thing to understand about justification is that it is pardon from the penalty and guilt of sin. Nothing I can do in the present or future can atone for my past sins. God simply forgives me.

"The grace of Christ is freely to justify the sinner without merit or claim on his part. Justification is a full, complete pardon of sin. The moment a sinner accepts Christ by faith, that moment he is pardoned. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to him, and he is no more to doubt God's forgiving grace." (6BC 1071)

Justification Experienced

The second thing to understand about justification by faith is found in Titus 3:5-7. "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should he made heirs according to the hope of eternal life." Look carefully at how God saves us. Does the washing of regeneration refer primarily to the waters of baptism? Or is this the washing of a renewed heart? Did not the thief on the cross experience this washing, even though he could not be baptized? This is a heart experience--a complete transformation. It happens in the mind. It changes my values and my attitudes. The Holy Spirit renews my mind. No longer am I self-centered; now I am Christ-centered and others-centered. Now I have the mind of Christ.

When this washing and renewing have been accomplished by Christ and the Holy Spirit, then I am justified and have eternal life. Is there more to justification than being pardoned from past sins? This is justification experienced in the inward life. Notice that justification follows regeneration and renewing.

Jesus put it very simply in John 3:3. "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." In its most basic expression, justification experienced is the new birth. The new birth does not follow justification; it is justification.

"God's forgiveness is not merely a judicial act by which He sets us free from condemnation. It is not only forgiveness for sin, but reclaiming from sin. It is the outflow of redeeming love that transforms the heart. David had the true conception of forgiveness when he prayed, 'Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.' Psalm 51:10." (MB 114) God's forgiveness is declared, but it is more than that. It is reclaiming, transforming, and renewing. It is a clean heart created within us. This is not sanctification; it is part of forgiveness. Justification transforms at the same time it declares. Pardon is an inward transformation.

"In ourselves we are sinners; but in Christ we are righteous. Having made us righteous through the imputed righteousness of Christ, God pronounces us just, and treats us as just... 'Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.'" (1SM 394) This statement is not in harmony with the current definitions of justification in the Christian world. It says that before God pronounces us just, He makes us righteous. Justification by faith is being made righteous. Current theology says that justification is being declared righteous, and making righteous comes later, in sanctification. Notice also that we are made righteous by the imputed righteousness of Christ. Imputed clearly means more than a legal declaration. Justification is making us righteous inwardly as well as declaring us righteous legally.

"As the sinner, drawn by the power of Christ, approaches the uplifted cross, and prostrates himself before it, there is a new creation. A new heart is given him. He becomes a new creature in Christ Jesus... God Himself is the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Rom. 3:26." (COL 163) Justification is receiving a new heart from God, becoming a new creature. Right now there is a major attempt being made to separate the transforming power of the Holy Spirit from justification, to put it totally within the process of sanctification. But what we are finding in these inspired statements is that transformation and making righteous part of the justifying process, after which God declares us righteous. Justification is simply another name for the new birth, the new creation, the new heart.

“By receiving His imputed righteousness, through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, we become like Him." (6BC 1098) Notice that imputed righteousness comes through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Some today want to say that we are justified by Christ and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Nowhere does inspiration support this separation of the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Both are involved in both justification and sanctification. Thus it is clear that imputed means more than accounting and crediting.

"To be pardoned in the way that Christ pardons is not only to be forgiven, but to be renewed in the spirit of our mind. The Lord says, 'A new heart will I give unto thee.' The image of Christ is to be stamped upon the very mind, heart, and soul." (RH 8-19-1890) To pardon means to renew. It is as simple and clear as that.

The first part of justification is to pardoned--forgiven of my sins. The second part of justification -is to be transformed in the new birth experience. Justification is both declarative and experiential. The most current understanding of justification is that it is the first part only. The second part--new birth--is part of sanctification. This means that we can be justified and saved before the new birth happens. And even if the new birth experience is not changing my life as fully as it should, I am still justified and saved. This unbiblical separation between declaring righteous and making righteous is doing more than any other teaching to encourage Christians to tolerate sin in their lives, since they believe that they are justified even when open, unforgiven sin is active in their lives.

During the 1890's, a special message came to the Adventist Church through two young messengers. "The Lord in His great mercy sent a most precious message to His people through Elders Waggoner and Jones. This message was to bring more prominently before the world the uplifted Saviour, the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It presented justification through faith in the surety; it invited people to receive the righteousness of Christ, which is made manifest in obedience to all the commandments of God... All power is given into His hands, that He may dispense rich gifts unto men, imparting the priceless gift of His own righteousness to the helpless human agent. This is the message that God commanded to be given to the world. It is the third angel's message, which is to be proclaimed with a loud voice, and attended with the outpouring of His Spirit in a large measure. (TM 91-92) The message was justification by faith, which is imparting Christ's righteousness to us. Further, this is the everlasting gospel which must be given to the world in the three angels' messages. Imparting is always sharing and giving; it is more than crediting and accounting. So justification is imparting Christ's righteousness.

E. J. Waggoner put it very simply in his book Christ and His Righteousness, pages 51 and 57. "To justify means to make righteous, or to show one to be righteous... Let us first have an object lesson on justification, or the imparting of righteousness." The 1888 Message was out of harmony with the current understanding of justification. Could it be that we are dealing with two different gospels, both competing for our allegiance? Satan's counterfeit of the gospel is no less real and destructive than his counterfeit of God's day of worship.

Conditional or Unconditional?

We often hear comments similar to the following: "I thank God that I am unconditionally justified." "The grace of God is God's unconditional acceptance." "Conditional justification is legalism." Let us compare these statements with inspiration.

"Let none say that there are no conditions to salvation. There are decided conditions... At the peril of our souls must know the prescribed conditions given by Him who has given His own life to save us from ruin." (13MR 22) "Obedience is the first price of eternal life." (1888 Materials 1477) "His (Christ's) righteousness is imputed only to the obedient." (6BC 1072) "Implicit obedience is the condition of salvation." (ST 11-15-1899) "... the righteousness of God in justifying the believer in Jesus, condition of his future obedience to the statutes of God's government in heaven and earth." (RH 4-24-1888) "From Genesis to Revelation, the conditions upon which eternal life is promised, are made plain... Keep my commandments and live, is the requirement of God." (4RH 331) "The gospel that is to be preached to all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people presents the truth in clear lines, showing that obedience is the condition of gaining eternal life." (7BC 972) "Christ died to evidence to the sinner that there was no hope for him while he continued in sin. Obedience to all God's requirements is his only hope for pardon through the blood of Christ." (UL 189) "By perfect obedience to the requirements of the law, man is justified. Only through faith in Christ is such obedience possible." (IHP 146) "God's promises are all made upon conditions... While we earnestly endeavor to be obedient, God will hear our petitions; but He will not bless us in disobedience." (ST 6-16-1890)

These statements are so clear that little explanation is needed. Obedience is clearly a condition of salvation, and this is the gospel which is to go to the whole world. Do we dare to speak of unconditional justification and acceptance with God in light of these statements?

Over one hundred years ago, A.T. Jones was foremost among us in speaking about justification by faith. In his enthusiasm about Christ's free gift of salvation, he was beginning to say some things that Ellen White had to warn him about. In Letter 4, 1893 (April 9), written from New Zealand, she said, "I was attending a meeting, and a large congregation were present. In my dream you were presenting the subject of faith and the imputed righteousness of Christ by faith. You repeated several times that works amounted to nothing, that there were no conditions. The matter was presented in that light that I knew minds would be confused, and would not receive the correct impression in reference to faith and works, and I decided to write to you. You state this matter too strongly. There are conditions to our receiving justification and sanctification, and the righteousness of Christ. I know your meaning, hut you leave a wrong impression upon many minds. While good works will not save even one soul, yet it is impossible for even one soul to be saved without good works... Then when you say there are no conditions, and some expressions are made quite broad, you burden the minds, and some cannot see consistency in your expressions. They cannot see how they can harmonize these expressions with the plain statements of the Word of God. Please guard these points. These strong assertions in regard to works, never make our position any stronger, for there are many who will consider you an extremist, and will lose the rich lessons upon the very subjects they need to know.

People desperately need to know about the free gift of Christ's righteousness. But if we present the gospel gift without, at the same time, addressing the conditions upon which that gospel can be received, we will distort the gospel and lead our hearers to a false assurance of salvation. The necessary balance is well stated in another inspired statement.

"But while God can be just, and yet justify the sinner through the merits of Christ, no man can cover his soul with the garments of Christ's righteousness while practicing known sins, or neglecting known duties. God requires the entire surrender of the heart, before justification can take place; and in order for man to retain justification, there must be continual obedience, through active, living faith that works by love and purifies the soul." (1SM 366) The entire surrender of the heart is clearly a condition of justification. The whole heart must he yielded to God, with nothing held hack. We must decide not to continue in disobedience any longer. Then, to remain in a justified state, the next condition is obedience. But notice that this obedience is not by my efforts alone, it comes through faith in God's power to purify my soul. The decision to obey is always my decision. The two conditions to receiving and keeping justification are surrender and obedience. Without these conditions being met, there is no justification, no matter how much we may claim it. We are in serious danger of false presumption, which is the counterfeit of genuine faith.

But isn't this a subtle form of legalism, making obedience a part of justification? Does this mean that we are saved by faith and works? Picture yourself at Cape Canaveral, watching a space shuttle launch. What is the basic cause of the shuttle going into space? It is the firing of the mighty engines supporting the shuttle. No matter how careful the preparations for launch, nothing will happen if those engines don't fire properly. If they do fire properly, the shuttle will be lifted into space with or without anyone aboard. Now if the astronauts desire to participate in this launch, they must do several things. They must don cumbersome suits, get into the gantry elevator which will lift them to the shuttle entrance, then walk carefully over the catwalk to the doorway, and finally get into the specially prepared seats. Will any of these things cause the astronauts to go into space? They can sit in those seats for three months and never leave the launching pad, if the rocket engines don't fire. The various things that the astronauts must do to go into space are not causes of space flight, but conditions of space flight. They must comply exactly with all the conditions if they hope to travel in space. What if the astronauts decide that all the things they must do are legalistic, that they would rather go to space in the comfort of the control bunkers? It is rather obvious that space flight involves both cause and conditions if it is going to happen. The astronaut simply fulfills the conditions for getting to the place where the power is. We must clearly understand the difference between cause and condition.

These principles are exactly the same in justification by faith. What is the cause of my justification? Is it surrender, or obedience, or even faith? We can obey perfectly for the next fifty years, and we will not be one inch closer to eternal life. The only cause of justification is God's grace expressed in Christ's atoning death on the cross. That is the place of salvation. But if I do not comply with the conditions of salvation---surrender and obedience--I refuse to place myself where salvation happens, at the cross, and salvation (of others) will happen without me. The death of Christ is the meritorious cause of salvation, while surrender and obedience have no merit but make it possible for the cause to save me. Salvation is caused by grace, not by obedience, but obedience places me where the power of the cross can launch me into eternal life.

It is not correct to say that first we are justified and saved, and then obedience will naturally follow along. What if the astronauts would decide to delay obedience to the conditions of space flight until the rocket engines fire properly? If I want to be justified, then I must coordinate properly the cause and the conditions of salvation. Both are essential, each in its proper function.

Assurance of Salvation

Some say that we have assurance of salvation because of God's unconditional love. Now it is true that God loves each human being unconditionally. It is also true that any hope of salvation that we may have is based on that unconditional love. But while the prodigal son was enveloped by his father's unconditional love all during his life of debauchery and immorality, did he have the assurance of salvation during that time? Clearly he could be assured of his personal salvation only when he was back in his father's home. Then it is not correct for us to say that we may have the assurance of salvation because of God's unconditional love for us. After all, God loved Judas unconditionally, too.

Others like to say that we have assurance of salvation because of Christ's death on the cross. But the same problem confronts us here. Most of those for whom Christ died will not enter eternal life--they will not be saved. Before Jesus died, He asked His Father to forgive His executioners because of their ignorance. But the reality is that most of those for whom Christ prayed will not be saved. Obviously there is something more that must happen before we can have the assurance of personal salvation.

How often today we are hearing something like the following: What I do and don't do has nothing to do with whether or not He has accepted me. This is a tragic misunderstanding of the proper relationship between the cause of our salvation and the conditions of our salvation. My decisions have nothing to do with the cause of my salvation, but they have everything to do with the conditions of my salvation. And we cannot be accepted by God unless the conditions of salvation are met.

In the little book by Ellen White, Faith and Works, pp. 15-28, we are given explicit instruction on this matter. Let this point be fully settled in every mind: If we accept Christ as a Redeemer, we must accept Him as a Ruler. We cannot have the assurance and perfect confiding trust in Christ as our Saviour until we acknowledge Him as our King and are obedient to His commandments... The will must be brought into complete harmony with the will of God... The Lord does not propose to do the work He has given man powers to do. Man's part must be done... Divine power and the human agency combined will be a complete success, for Christ's righteousness accomplishes everything. Then the only thing I can base my assurance of salvation on is God's grace to a surrendered sinner. Surrender and an obedient heart are clearly conditions to being saved.

"We must gain the victory over self, crucify the affections and lusts; and then begins the union of the soul with Christ." (GAG 321) Please notice that the death of self is not the result of being saved; it must happen before we can walk with Christ. This means that there can be no assurance of salvation until self is surrendered completely to God. God's grace and my surrender to it place me where I can have the assurance of salvation.

"Saving faith is to be taught. The definition of this faith in Jesus Christ may be described in few words: it is the act of the soul by which the whole man is given over to the guardianship and control of Jesus Christ. He abides in Christ and Christ abides in the soul by faith as supreme. The believer commits his soul and body to God, and with assurance may say, Christ is able to keep that which I have committed to Him against that day. All who do this will be saved unto life eternal. There will be an assurance that the soul is washed in the blood of Christ and clothed with His righteousness and precious in the sight of Jesus." (1888 Materials, p. 405) A surrendered heart, in union with an abiding Christ, is our only assurance of salvation.

I am very concerned that the emphasis currently being placed on the assurance of salvation is leading to a presumptive assurance in the hearts of many, many Adventists today. In the desperate attempt to escape guilt and insecurity and legalism, we are grasping at any teaching which will assure us of salvation. God's love, Christ's death, imputed justification, and Christ's robe of righteousness are all beautiful truths of the gospel which Satan is using just now to lull unsuspecting souls down the broad road to destruction. We desperately want to assure ourselves that we are saved because of these marvelous causes of our salvation. Satan would like us to completely ignore or downplay the essential conditions of our salvation. But make no mistake--cause without conditions met will save no one.

"God has set forth in His Word the conditions upon which every soul will be elected to eternal life--obedience to His commandments, through faith in Christ... He is elected who will have faith continually, and who will be obedient to every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God... The results of redemption will be enjoyed by those who have complied with the conditions." (PP 207-208)

Several years ago a survey included questions about one's personal relationship with Christ. In a letter to the Adventist Review, Jan Doward commented, "When an average of 63 percent say they have an 'intimate relationship with Christ' and 73 percent report 'they have assurance of eternal life' yet only 34 percent study the Bible daily and 33 percent have family worship, one wonders upon what is this 'intimate relationship’ and 'assurance’ based. without the guidance of the Holy Spirit in a daily study of God's word, we are all apt to flounder in a sea of apostasy, making Christ in our own image, after our own likeness, customized to fit the demands and clamorings of the carnal nature."

I do not think I am overstating the case when I say that the greatest danger facing the average Christian today is no longer legalism, but a false assurance of salvation. We are being conditioned to believe that as long as we believe in Jesus and have a 'relationship" with Him, we are assured of being saved, irrespective of whether or not we have met the necessary conditions for salvation. This false assurance is based on a false justification, which says that justification is only to be declared righteous, and does not include making righteous as part of the justifying process.

Legalism is currently one of the most misunderstood concepts in religion. In an article on legalism in Ministry (March, 1995), John M. Fowler, an associate editor, summarized the issue beautifully. "Legalism is not the law. If it were so, God Himself would be a legalist, for He is the author of the law... Legalism is not obedience to the law. If it were so, Jesus would be a legalist... Legalism is a counterfeit way of salvation.. ..Legalism always projects obedience as either the only way of salvation or the human part of it... (It is) the assertion of self to come somehow to the assistance of God in the accomplishment of human salvation." Simply put, legalism is making human works of obedience the cause or partial cause of our salvation. It is feeling that our obedience merits salvation for us, in the same way that we earn our paycheck by our faithful work.

There are some real gems of insight in the little book A Testament of Devotion, by Thomas R. Kelly. "It is just this astonishing life that is willing to follow Him the other half, sincerely to disown itself, this life that intends complete obedience, without any reservations, that I would propose to you in all humility, in all boldness, in all seriousness. I mean this literally, utterly, completely, and I mean it for you and for me--commit your lives in unreserved obedience to Him... For the life of obedience is a holy life, a separated life, a renounced life, cut off from worldly compromises, distinct, heaven-dedicated in the midst of other people, stainless as the snows upon the mountaintops." Some would call this legalism or perhaps even perfectionism. But I believe that the author has gone right to the heart of genuine justification by faith. This is justification experienced, as God transforms the heart and a complete surrender is willingly made to the love of God and the claims of God on the human soul.

"Mercy invites us to enter through the gates into the city of God, and justice is satisfied to accord to every obedient soul full privileges as a member of the royal family... If we were defective in character, we could not pass the gates that mercy has opened to the obedient, for justice stands at the entrance, and demands holiness in all who would see God." (RH Dec. 13, 1892) Without any question, obedience and holiness are prerequisites to salvation. Without them we cannot be saved. It therefore is very misleading to say that we are saved because God declares us righteous, while transformation and obedience are the results of our being saved. If obedience is only a result of salvation, then we are saved before obedience occurs, and we are saved even when obedience is only partial. This false understanding of justification makes it possible for us to think we are saved, while we continue in known sin.

The Evangelical Gospel

Evangelical describes a broad range of Christian denominations. They share a very strong belief in the authority of Scripture. They are generally conservative in outlook, holding high moral standards and emphasizing family values. Many of them believe in a dispensational approach to history, focusing on the pivotal role of Israel and Jerusalem in the future, as well as a secret rapture. But the most important feature of Evangelical belief is their understanding of the gospel and how one is saved. Sometimes their position has been misrepresented. Evangelicals do not believe that they can do whatever they want and still be saved; they are not opposed to obedience and victory over sin; they believe in sanctification following justification.

The key issue is the understanding of justification and the relation of obedience to salvation. In a lengthy letter to Ministry (August, 1993) Ray S. Anderson, professor of theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, tried to clarify the Evangelical position on obedience. The issue for a truly Evangelical theology is the nature of obedience: its motive and its demand... The nature of obedience is very important to Evangelical theology. If obedience to commandments is taken as a sign of justifying faith producing sanctification, then it smacks of legalism... Within the broad Evangelical movement, there can be found those who see obedience to rules, regulations, and commandments as necessary to salvation. At the same time there can be found those who see obedience to Christ as a sign of discipleship and a means of following Him as a contemporary Saviour and Lord. Obedience to Christ is a commitment to a life of discipleship that includes observance of the law of love for both God and neighbor which is the basis for all of God's commandments.

Clearly Professor Anderson sees the latter position as the one truly representative of the Evangelical gospel. The Evangelical position is that if obedience is a sign of justification having occurred, or if obedience is necessary to salvation, then we are into legalism. Obedience is not a sign of justification or necessary to salvation, but it is a sign of discipleship and effective following of Christ.

Perhaps we can best understand this position if we reverse it. If we are not obedient to God's commands, then where do we find ourselves? If we are not obedient, then we are not good disciples--we are not good witnesses for Christ. A disciple--a follower of Christ--is a good disciple only when he is obedient. Our witness is compromised severely when we are disobedient. Our effectiveness as Christ's ambassadors in the world is largely destroyed. But when we are not obedient, are we still justified? The Evangelical gospel says, Yes. Obedience is not a sign of justification or necessary to salvation. We may not be good witnesses or disciples if we are disobedient, but disobedience does not affect our justified standing--we are still saved.

The Evangelical gospel believes that justification declared is all that is necessary to be saved, while justification experienced is the result of salvation already secured, and it belongs more properly in the area of sanctification. The Evangelical gospel does not believe that obedience is the condition of salvation at all.

The difference between the Evangelical gospel and the Adventist (biblical) gospel is simply this. The Evangelical gospel holds that obedience is not a sign of justification or necessary to salvation, but it is a sign of discipleship. The Adventist gospel holds that obedience is a sign of justification and is necessary to salvation. The Evangelical gospel believes that sanctification follows justification, but that it is only a result of salvation, not a part of the saving process. Further, sanctification can never be fully realized in this life. In other words, complete holiness is impossible as long as we live in fallen natures in a fallen world.

Perhaps an illustration will help us to understand this better. The Adventist gospel holds that Sabbathkeeping, for one who understands this truth and is convicted about it, is necessary for salvation, as one of the conditions of salvation. Sabbathkeeping does not cause or merit my salvation, but it is absolutely essential to my salvation. The Evangelical gospel says that Sabbathkeeping, even when understood correctly, is not a condition of my salvation. Even though Sabbathkeeping can make me a better disciple and witness for Christ, I am still saved apart from Sabbathkeeping. This is why many Evangelicals who understand the issues surrounding the seventh-day Sabbath and its transference to Sunday by human authority are still reluctant to begin Sabbathkeeping--because it is not a salvation issue. It is not necessary to keep the Sabbath to be saved. If Sabbathkeeping is only a sign of discipleship, then it can wait until a later time, when Sabbathkeeping becomes more convenient.

The reality is that obedience is both the result and the condition of our salvation. If we try to separate result and condition; if we say that obedience contributes nothing to our salvation; if we say that we can be saved with unconfessed disobedience, we are saying that God's law is not really binding on us or necessary to our salvation. To say that obedience is not a condition of salvation is a great strike against the authority of God. This position leads people to transgress God's law just the same as if they were in rebellion against it.

To summarize, justification is both God's declaration of pardon and His transformation in the new birth. God's grace and Christ's death are the cause of my salvation, while obedience to God's commands is the condition of my salvation. We can have the assurance of salvation only when the heart is completely surrendered to God. In the process of salvation, all is of God, but God awaits my permission--my choice--before salvation can he effective for me.