Atonement in Evangelical and Liberal Thought VIII: Justification

Just what does ‘just’ mean?

     An essential part of the atoning work of Christ is justification. The Bible speaks a great deal about being just or being just-ified, i.e. made just, but there are so many interpretations of what this entails that it must be a baffling task indeed for a new convert to discern the right meaning. The English language does not help matters as the word ‘just’ is as overworked, as ‘to get’ in its diversity of meaning. We say, “Let’s just pray,” or “It’ll just take a minute,” or “Just be careful.” We even give the word ‘just’ opposite meanings. If we say, “He is just a man,” we mean the person is only half a man, but if we say, “He is a just man,” we mean that he is a man and half. Thus when the Scriptures say “The just shall live by faith,” we just do not automatically get the point. We must ask ourselves, “What does the word ‘just’ here really mean?”, “Who demands that we be just?”, “Why are we required to be just?” and “What is demanded of us that we might be accounted just?”

These questions are answered by Isaiah in Chapter 46:18-25:

“For thus saith the LORD that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the LORD; and there is none else. I have not spoken in secret, in a dark place of the earth: I said not unto the seed of Jacob, Seek ye me in vain: I the LORD speak righteousness, I declare things that are right.

Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, ye that are escaped of the nations: . . .    . . who hath declared this from ancient time? who hath told it from that time? have not I the LORD? and there is no God else beside me; a just God and a Saviour; there is none beside me. Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else. I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear. Surely, shall one say, in the LORD have I righteousness and strength: even to him shall men come; and all that are incensed against him shall be ashamed. In the LORD shall all the seed of Israel be justified, and shall glory.”

     Here God describes himself as a just God who acts righteously and who demands that we be just, too. Furthermore, God defines His just character in both ‘declaring things that are right’ and not declaring such things in vain i.e. He makes things right. He also tells us that we can become just and be enabled to act righteously if we turn to Him whenever and wherever we wish. If this responsibility is not exercised, there will be no justification and no righteousness, but merely just cause to be ashamed in the sense of ‘confounded’ or ‘speechless.’ Which means, when faced with God’s justice, we shall not have a word to say in our defence. What God demands of himself, He demands of others. The devil tempted man to become like the gods by disobeying God. God invites us to become like Him through obedience.

     Isaiah 45 also shows us that there is an intricate connection between being just and being righteous. Indeed, in the Biblical languages, whether Hebrew or Greek, to be made just is the same as to be made righteous. The terms are synonymous.

Is justification real or make-believe?

     This truth places us in a modern dilemma. Our fathers in the faith such as Martin Luther taught that God actually makes us righteous.  Anglicans William Romaine and James Hervey, Baptists John Gill and John Ryland Sen., Independents such as William Huntington all agree in teaching that only actual, i.e. real, righteousness justifies us before God and when God has perfected the work of salvation in our lives we are actually and really made righteous by Him in a way that is all of grace and not of works. Nowadays, we are told that God merely justifies us by a declarative and forensic act. He declares us to be righteous and pronounces us legally righteous but we are not actually made so.  It is as if we owe a debt and the debt has been legally annulled by some judicial wrangling which clears the debtor from debt but does not reform him. Such ideas prompted John Murray to say in his work entitled Justification:

“Justification is not the eternal decree of God with respect to us, nor is it the finished work of Christ for us, when once-for-all he reconciled us to God by his death; nor is it the regenerative work of God in us, nor is it any activity on our part in response to and embrace of the gospel, but it is an act of God, accomplished in time wherein God passes judgment with respect to us as individuals.”

     This view is too time-bound, theoretical, and negative. It is also highly unscriptural in its view that justification is not part of Christ’s finished work for His elect. Why Murray writes in this way becomes clear when we read that he sees justification and election as part of the gospel warrant or free offer to every man. He argues that as justification happens after belief, it cannot be a decree of God enacted in eternity. This binds God in the same chains of time which have enwrapped man because of his sin. Had man not sinned, he would not have known time’s polluting  and ageing hand. Scripture passages such as Rom. 8:30-33 show positively that our justification and election were planned and enacted from eternity. Rom. 4:5 makes it quite obvious that justification is before belief but brings with it righteous faith when God, by His grace, discloses His will to us at conversion.

      Murray tells us what justification is not, rather than what it is. The Scriptures affirm that justification is demonstrated to us by God’s acts in eternity and by Christ’s work on the Cross planned and carried out from eternity. Our justification cannot be separated from God’s positively and actively willing it in eternity and providing the Sacrifice of Sacrifices to gain it in time. God has sympathy with people of little faith who cannot believe blindly and He gives us solid reasons for our being justified, reasons bound up with His eternal work in salvation on which grounds he justifies us. Older writers from Calvin, through Gill to Berkof, always anchored their teaching on justification in what God has worked out in order to declare His people righteous. To say that “Justification is not the eternal decree of God with respect to us” makes no sense in view of all the many passages in the Bible which link our justification totally with those decrees and God’s acts in eternity.

Created in righteousness and true holiness

     Furthermore, a hypothetically universal justification in time, not wrought out through our union with Christ who was slain for us from eternity, is not only un-Scriptural but has nothing to do with Calvinism. According to God’s Word, God creates His justified-ones anew and makes them totally different creatures so that Paul tells us that this new man is “created in righteousness and true holiness.”  This truth is emphasised in that fine evangelical essay by John Gill named On the Veracity of God.  In it, Gill explains:

“The works of grace done by him, His acts of grace, both in eternity and time; his choice of persons to eternal life, is true, firm, and real, the foundation of God, which stands sure; the covenant of grace, made in Christ, full of blessings and promises, faithfully performed; the mission of Christ into the world, and His incarnation, who was really made flesh, and dwelt among men; the truth of which the apostle confirms by the various senses of seeing, hearing, and handling, I John 1:1. Justification by his righteousness is really imputed to his people, and by which they truly become righteous; and not in a putative and imaginary sense; pardon by His blood, which is not merely typical, as by the blood of slain beasts, but real; atonement by the sacrifice of himself, which he really and truly offered up to God; and sanctification by the Spirit, which is the new man, created in righteousness and true holiness; and not outward, typical, and ceremonial, nor feigned and hypocritical: and adoption, by which the saints are now really the sons of God; though it does not yet appear what they shall be; and to which the Spirit bears a true and real witness; and which is unto an inheritance, real, solid, and substantial.”

The traditional, orthodox doctrine of justification from eternity

     Gill explains how modern views of justification in time and after belief were not shared by former Reformed men. Indeed, the doctrine of justification from eternity in various forms was commonly upheld in the churches until recently. The Anglican stalwarts of the Lambeth and Dort Articles believed it as also the early Particular Baptists. Benjamin Keach, in his Betwixt Two Extremes which is an essay against the extremes of Hyper-Calvinism and Moderate Calvinism, writes of a ‘gracious person’ in his congregation who believes justification from eternity indicates that pre-conversion elect are not under God’s wrath in their natural state. Keach disagrees, though he argues that his difference with his church member is probably a matter of words only. Suspecting that some might now think he is erring to the other side, balanced Keach says:

“I deny not that fundamental, and representative justification of the Elect in Christ their head, or as a common Person, which is before Faith, which lies in Christ making full satisfaction for all their sins and meriting Faith for them. I also grant a federal Union of the Elect with Christ, as our Surety and blessed Sponsor, from Eternity, who also received a grant of a discharge for them from Condemnation, upon his holy Compact and Covenant with the Father, on the account of what he was to do and suffer, which made Justification and Salvation sure for them all, see 2 Tim.1:9, Tit. 1:2.”

     Though Keach argues that our justification is virtual and our discharge actual in Christ’s work in eternity, he believes that the actual declaration of discharge comes when the sinner is granted faith to believe in Christ’s operation on His elect’s behalf. John Gill, in spite of minor differences with his predecessor, argues that justification is, “an act of God’s grace, whereby he clears his people from sin, discharges them from condemnation, and reckons and accounts them righteous for the sake of Christ’s righteousness, which he has accepted of, and imputes unto them.” This act on God’s part, he says, can be viewed from three different angles. Considered in foro Dei, it is an eternal, immanent act in God, Considered in foro conscientiæ it is a declarative act to and upon the conscience of the believer. Considered in foro mundi, it is an act that will be declared to men and angels at the last judgement.

     Heather Wheeler, writing in the Baptist Quarterly , shows that evangelical-minded churches in Yorkshire still taught the old doctrines, in spite of the spread of so-called Moderate Calvinism (which rejected the doctrine of Justification from eternity) towards the end of the 18th century. She quotes the Pole Moor Declaration of Faith which, apart from stating that election was before the foundation of the world and adoption entails being heirs of the kingdom prepared for the adopted before the world began, says concerning justification:

“Justification is an Act of God’s free grace and Blessing Decreed for all the Elect of God before the world began, they Being Called to in Joy (enjoy) it by faith, throu the Redemption which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. it is at once full and complete, they being Justified from all things, and Clothed in the Righteousness which is of God by faith, and unto all and upon all them that believe and this Act of Grace shall never be Revoked But Abideth for Ever for those who are Justified by Grace, are Hears (heirs) According to the hope of Eternal Life And shall not come into Condemnation.”

     Wheeler states that Andrew Fuller strongly countered such (Gillite) teaching. Fuller’s son’s description of his father’s mind on justification  is revealing. He says his father once shared Gill’s view of justification as ‘a purpose in the Divine mind’ but went on to remove justification from the divine decrees and the realms of certainty, merely viewing it as a conditional and universal promise to whoever might partake of it. Justification, Fuller argued, “consists of the voice of God, in the gospel, declaring that whosoever believeth shall be saved.” Here Fullerites mistake grace for law as justification according to the law was conditional but justification according to grace is not. Though justification is universal in the sense that it is worked out for all the elect for all time, it is not universal in the sense that it applies to those who are not elected by grace. Such was the orthodox view of John Ryland Se., Gill’s contemporary and close friend. Ryland increased his Northampton church seven-fold, yet he combined high views of evangelism with high doctrine, telling August Toplady, a fellow believer in justification from eternity:

“The souls of the elect were saved upon trust for four thousand years. The Father gave credit to Christ, and glorified his saints, on the footing of a sacrifice not then offered up, and of a righteousness not then wrought. Christ also, in the days of his flesh, went on credit with his Father every time he said to a sinner, “Thy sins are forgiven thee,” previous to his offering himself on the cross.”

Being made the righteousness of God in Him

     Now it must be asked what kind of a righteousness God Himself has and how this can become ours. We note:

a. He is of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on iniquity.
b. His very nature moves Him always to do right i.e. reward righteousness and punish wickedness.
b. His nature is revealed in His power and Godhead as shown in creation.
c. His nature is revealed in His character and will displayed in His holy law.

     Paul teaches plainly in Romans Chapter1 that creation displays God to mankind but, sadly, it does not change him for the good. The Genesis account relates how man has fallen generically, federally, hereditary and voluntarily both in Adam and as his successors. Adam was created upright in righteousness, but not with God’s immutability. God is always righteous and can never be anything else but righteous. His will is immutable as are all his attributes. Adam, however, had a free will, allowing his mutability to depend on God’s immutability. He could keep within and under God’s protective righteous care as long as He wished – or depart from it. Sadly, Adam fell and dominoed us all down.

     Now, with nature’s treasures spread before him, man boasts that he is monarch of all he surveys. Forgetting that God placed mankind in the world to be stewards and not usurpers, men go about in disobedience making gods of themselves like Adam. They thus despise not only God’s handiwork but what was the godly part of themselves, too. Just as God is beneficially creative for man, mankind in his playing at God, has enormous creative powers, but, being sinful, they are all destructive. Man has become the opposite of God. He has joined league with the devil himself and all his fallen angels. All his righteousness is like filthy rags and stinking dung.

     God’s long-suffering does not end here, however, as God appointed the law as a covenant of behaviour with man, to be ever before man’s eyes, to show Him from what heights he had fallen and to what heights he must re-climb if He is to share fellowship with God once again as a righteous man. “If ye will obey may voice indeed,” God tells us in Exodus 19:5-6, “and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.”

     “What a futile method,” you might think. “Was God so blind that he did not see that man, left to himself, was unsavable?” God neither gives cause for mockery or allows Himself to be mocked. He knew that the law would serve as a mirror in the hand of man, showing him his own moral defeat and the depth of his self-willed degradation. It was all part of God’s plan and purpose to create a race of men who knew their weakness but received grace to praise God and the desire to live in righteous harmony with Him. God showed fallen man that by the deeds of the law he could never attain righteousness. With reference to Gray’s famous poem, the path of duty is no path of glory though it certainly leads but to the grave. Man can neither recognise such duties, nor carry them out. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”  Thus God used the law as He had always planned, as a textbook in the hand of the Holy Spirit, that divine pedagogue, to guide His elect to His perfect way of salvation. Where duty failed, faith was to take its place and the gaining of a new, imputed righteousness which would be greater than that lost by Adam. Instead of man being made naturally upright, though mutable, God had planned to make countless men just and perfect by clothing them in the righteousness of His own son. This is the glorious gospel of grace. Arminio-Romanism which speak of justification through human deserts and inherent righteousness is a philosophy of sheer skepticism as, in this way, seeing that even Adam fell, no man can possibly be saved.

     This original, divine plan of justification through eternal union with Christ was seminally revealed to man immediately after the fall and progressively through the Old Testament dispensation to the time of the final revelation in the life and work of Christ. It now seems lost to the majority of churches bogged down in the morass of universalism and duty-faith legalism. To tell a modern so-called ‘Low Calvinist’ that God always intended to perfect new men in Christ and never intended the old man to be made perfect by keeping the law and that God pronounced His elect justified in the infinity of His eternity, is to be called an Antinomian and have our evangelical friends turn their backs on us. Yet the Bible clearly teaches that the Promises in Christ came hundreds of years before the law and both the Old and New Testaments show that Abraham was justified by God before faith was reckoned to Him and before the Mosaic Law existed.  God’s elect are “justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses,” and Acts 13:39 ff. carries a solemn warning for those who will not accept this truth. Furthermore, it is obvious that the law was designed to justify the righteous only. “This do and live; refrain and die,” is its teaching. Christ is the only one who ever proclaimed His own justification in fulfilling the law and this justification was wrought out solely for our sakes and to secure a righteous people to be placed under Christ’s Headship as sinful men are placed under Adam’s unrighteous Headship. As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.

Christ’s righteousness imputed for our justification

     The way Christ accomplishes this, transferring His righteousness to us is through the work of imputation, mentioned by Gill above. Whitefield told Hervey as he patiently sought to woo him to Christ:

“I long to have my dear friend come forth, and preach the truth as it is in JESUS. Not a righteousness or inward holiness of our own, whereby we may make ourselves meet, but a righteousness of another, even the LORD our righteousness; upon the imputation and apprehending of which by faith, we shall be made meet by his Holy Spirit to live with, and to enjoy GOD. Dear Mr. H. it is an excellent thing to be convinced of the freeness and riches of GOD’s grace in CHRIST JESUS. It is sweet to know and preach, that CHRIST justifies the ungodly, and that all truly good works are not so much as partly the cause, but the effect of our justification before GOD. Till convinced of these truths, you must own free-will in man, which is directly contrary to the holy scriptures, and the articles of our church.”

     Calvinists refer to the vicarious passive and active obedience of Christ in his redemptive work as imputation. Christ’s passive obedience describes His sufferings as our penal substitute and ransom, thus gaining pardon for our sins. Christ’s active obedience describes Christ’s placing himself under the law and demonstratively fulfilling its righteousness in His human nature as the federal Head of all His elect. He thus gained not only pardon for them but freedom from guilt and a status of innocence. Hervey explains in his Descant when expounding Matthew 22:11 that this is the marriage garment of the Lamb whose covering secures our access to God. All those clothed in the garment of Christ’s righteousness are accounted, judged and declared actually righteous in Gods sight. Hervey stressed this in view of the false teaching that Christ’s sufferings passively fulfilled the law for sinful man but active obedience was to be practised by the Christian to warrant his justification and sanctification. Hervey linked the obedience of Christ to the full law as a demonstration of His righteousness which is the only righteousness accepted by God as such and which is imputed to the elect in the atonement as a bearing away of their sin. Thus at the eschatalogical and sotereological Marriage Feast of the Lamb, all those may partake who are clothed in Christ’s righteousness.

     A Bible-believing person can accept these conclusions fully, though one might hesitate to describe Christ’s sufferings as passive. Christ volunteered before all time in His covenant with the Father to go the way of suffering for His elects’ sake. He set His face towards Jerusalem, knowing that what He actively had planned would come to pass. Furthermore, in face of the modern error in the Reformed establishment that justification is a mere theoretical, passive and legal ‘as if’ status of the elect which virtually leaves them in their guilt which they have to work off through a life of ‘sincere obedience,’ the active obedience of Christ both in His bodily suffering and fulfilling of the law as applied to His elect must be stressed or we shall fall into the Antinomian pit which so-called Moderates are only too willing to dig for us. Here, again, Gill comes to our help:

“I firmly believe, that not only the active obedience of Christ, with his sufferings and death, but also that the holiness of his human nature is imputed to us for justification. The law requires an holy nature, and perfect obedience, and, in case of disobedience, enjoins punishment. Through sin, our nature is become unholy, our obedience imperfect, and so we are liable to punishment. Christ has assumed an holy human nature, and in it performed perfect obedience to the law, and suffered the penalty of it; all which he did not for himself, but for us; and unto us it is all imputed for our justification.”

     Thus Christ’s fulfills the whole righteousness of the law in His elect. Modern scoffers who tell us that the doctrine of imputed righteousness is a letter of manumission, freeing a believer from the burden of living a moral life, err greatly. Just as Christ’s death does not free us from the death of the old man with its physical consequences, so Christ’s obedience does not free us from the obedience which has been imputed to us. On the contrary, we are required and enabled to live a holy life through Christ who strengthens us and meets all the duties of holiness for us. This is because we have not only the law as our example of holiness, given the fact that its curse has been lifted, but Christ’s active obedience of it, a Christ who indwells us by His Spirit and testifies to our spirit how to live righteously. All this work of grace provides us with a holy standard by which we may glorify God, and express our thankfulness to him, for his abundant mercies.