It has been said that justification is the article by which the church is standing or falling. This statement is usually attributed to Martin Luther, whose actual statement is pretty close to the popular paraphrase. Others within the Reformed tradition have affirmed the truth highlighted in this statement, including Westminster professor, John Murray (1898-1975). The point of the statement is to underscore the spiritual and theological importance of justification: if the church is unclear about her standing with God, then spiritual life and vitality will quickly vanish.
In this post, I want to focus on the essential truth that justification is an instantaneous declaration. I will begin with some preliminary definitions.
A Legal Declaration
The judicial guilt of our sin places us in a condemned standing before God. His law condemns us because we have broken it through original sin and personal sin (Rom 1:18ff; 3:10-18; 5:12-21). What we need, therefore, is a change of this condemned status. This remedy “must be a legal declaration concerning our relationship to God’s laws, stating that we are completely forgiven and not liable to punishment (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 722). Both the New Testament (Luke 18:14; Rom 3:21-30; 5:1; Gal 2:16) and the Old Testament (Deut 25:1; 1 Kings 8:32; 2 Chron 6:23; Job 27:5; Prov 17:5) indicate that justification is a declarative act.
Charles Hodge (1797-1878) defines justification well:
But if we take the word in the sense in which the Scriptures so often use it, as expressing relation to justice, then when God pronounces the sinner righteous or just, He simply declares that his guilt is expiated, that justice is satisfied, that He has the righteousness which justice demands. This is precisely what Paul says when he says that God “justifieth the ungodly” (Rom 4:5) (Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3:120.)
Wayne Grudem offers this concise definition:
Just what is justification? We may define it as follows: Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight.
An Instantaneous Declaration
Regarding the “time” element of the declaration, it is an instantaneous declaration. That is, at the very moment a sinner places true faith in Jesus, God declares that sinner fully righteous. It is important to maintain that justification occurs at the moment of faith for two reasons.
First, it allows us to maintain a vital connection between the ordo salutis (order of salvation) and the historia salutis (history of salvation). Eternal justification, articulated, for example, by John Gill (1697-1771), claims that God’s act of declaring the sinner righteous occurs in the eternal counsels of the Godhead prior to creation. Therefore, elect sinners are, from the point of God’s decree, justified; their conversion in space and time merely confirms the eternal reality of God’s decree.
Biblically, however, justification is said to occur upon one’s actual act of faith (see Romans 3:26; 5:1). The implication is that the sinner is, prior to the act of saving faith, not justified and unrighteous before God. Indeed, the wrath of God abides upon him (John 3:36; cf. Rom 1:18). By holding to eternal justification, we wrest the ordo out from under the historia, and we undermine the necessity of a genuine, space-and-time faith in God’s application of salvation to the individual.
Second, it guards the Reformation principle of sola fide. One of the main differences between Reformed evangelicalism and Roman Catholic theology is the notion that, for the latter, justification is not an instantaneous declaration, but a process of being made righteous. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man” (CCC, 1990). Justification, therefore, is not viewed as an instantaneous legal declaration but an ongoing process of growth in Christlikeness. Michael Horton explains,
The first justification occurs at baptism, which eradicates both the guilt and corruption of original sin. Entirely by God’s grace, this initial justification infuses the habit (or principle) of grace into the recipient. By cooperating with this inherent grace, one merits an increase of grace and, one hopes, final justification. So, while initial justification is by grace alone, final justification depends also on the works of the believer, which God graciously accepts as meritorious (Horton, The Christian Faith, 622)
Reformed theologians, however, hold that justification occurs at a moment in time. At the very first moment of saving faith, the sinner is united to Christ and therefore regarded by God as fully righteous, no longer under the condemnation of the law and legally fit to receive all the rights and privileges of a son of God.
Justification and Sanctification as Distinct Theological Realities
Where Reformed theology keeps justification and sanctification distinct (though not completely separate, see here), RCC theology conflates these two theological categories, thus undermining the grounds for the sinner’s assurance, for how does a person know when they’ve achieved enough righteousness to be justified? Our assurance rests on these twin truths: Justification is the legal declaration of the ungodly sinner as fully righteous; sanctification is the process of becoming, practically, more and more righteous. Although the former provides the grounds for the latter, the latter does not affect the status of the former. The Westminster Confession of Faith says it well:
God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified; and, although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of His countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance (XI.5).
If we hedge on the nature of justification as an instantaneous declaration, we register a serious blow to our assurance. If justification is a process, then we can never have full confidence that we have done enough to warrant God’s declaration. But if justification does occur at a moment in time, as Scripture clearly teaches, our self-righteousness and fear of condemnation are eliminated simultaneously as God, at the first moment of faith, declares us righteous apart from our works.
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