Tag: Faith

Justified at the First Moment of Faith

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.

Photo by Kjartan Einarsson on Unsplash


Justified by Works? Sola Fide (Faith Alone) and James 2:24

Roman Catholic theologians turn to James 2:24 to argue their case that justification is according to works. There is good reason for this. James says explicitly: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). We need to get a solid grasp on this passage so we can be clear on what Scripture teaches about justification and know how to answer our Catholic friends when it comes to sharing the gospel. Continue reading “Justified by Works? Sola Fide (Faith Alone) and James 2:24”

How Many Conditions Must We Meet in Order to Believe in Jesus? None

Perhaps the most deadly feature of hyper-Calvinism is the idea that one must first discover certain qualifications of the Spirit’s work in his heart before he has warrant to believe in Jesus. Over the centuries hyper-Calvinists have taught, either implicitly or explicitly, that a certain amount of remorse for sin or love for Christ must be located the soul in order for a person to know that he is elect and has warrant to believe in Jesus for salvation.

Once accepted, however, this damnable notion can keep many souls from Jesus and salvation. Happily, the New Testament does not require any qualifications of the sinner before he come to Christ. The call is to “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Jesus calls to sinners, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).   Continue reading “How Many Conditions Must We Meet in Order to Believe in Jesus? None”

Sleep, Exercise, and Assurance of Salvation

Assurance of salvation is God’s will for Christians. A continual lack of assurance and doubting of one’s standing before God may appear ultra-spiritual, but it is actually a sign of spiritual immaturity. Scripture repeatedly calls Christians to pursue assurance and assumes that it is possible to attain it.

And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises (Heb 6:11-12; emphasis addded)

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13; emphasis added) Continue reading “Sleep, Exercise, and Assurance of Salvation”

Should We Encourage Unbelievers to Ask God for Saving Faith?

As the debate over evangelistic methods continues among fellow evangelicals, important theological questions are sometimes ignored in favor of pragmatic concerns. When it comes to the actual practice of evangelism, however, there are some theological questions that will have immediate influence on our approach to gospel proclamation—whether we realize it or not. One question over which I have mused for many years is the question of whether or not we should encourage an unbeliever to ask God for saving faith. Continue reading “Should We Encourage Unbelievers to Ask God for Saving Faith?”

Spiritual Drought: Thoughts for Refreshment

If you have been a Christian for any amount of time, you know that spiritual passion, sight, and affections ebb and flow. At times our sense of spiritual realities can be strong and vibrant; other times, our hearts feel like lead weights and we find ourselves longing for God to visit us once again and bring refreshment (Psalm 85:4-7). These seasons are usually referred to as times of “spiritual drought” or “spiritual dryness,” and find intimate expression in many of the Psalms. David often cried out to God in times where his soul seemed like dust, and he yearned to be refreshed by the presence of the Lord (Psalm 13; Psalm 63). Other Psalmists expressed their longing to have their parched souls to be replenished by the Lord (Psalm 42). Those who have tasted of the goodness of Christ know what it means to be without that taste; it leaves us pleading, “light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:3)

Continue reading “Spiritual Drought: Thoughts for Refreshment”

Looking to Christ, not to Faith

I have been noticing lately in my own life how joy and assurance comes not from introspection and an intense investigation into my faith, but rather by looking to Christ. There seems to be a subtle yet significant difference between placing faith in my faith, and turning the eyes of faith to Jesus Christ. In his excellent little book, When the Darkness Does not Lift, John Piper instructs one who is counseling a person struggling with doubt to encourage that person to stop looking at their faith and start looking to Jesus. He writes,

Or, second, we might say, ‘Stop looking at your faith, and rivet your attention on Christ. Faith is sustained by looking at Christ, crucified and risen, not by turning from Christ to analyze your faith. Let me help you look to Christ. Let’s read Luke 22 through 24 together. Paradoxically, if we would experience the joy of faith, we must not focus much on it. We must focus on the greatness of our Savior.

It is easy to begin to turn inward and look at our faith for assurance, especially since we understand the vital role faith plays in our salvation and sanctification. Yet, experience tells us that constantly looking inward usually doesn’t help—it often leads to despair and even more introspection as we search and search our hearts for sincere faith. All the while, we are missing the crucial truth that sincere faith looks to Christ and rests in Christ; it doesn’t look to and rest in itself.

This is why reading the Bible, listening to Christ-exalting preaching, hearing the Scripture read, and talking with other Christians about Jesus (not just about books, or our Christian responsibilities, or even our own struggles, although these are good things to talk about) is so important: these things are designed to turn our faith toward Christ. And I also should add that those of us who know that we tend toward unhealthy introspection should be careful to not spend too much time alone and make special effort to regularly fellowship with other believers individually and in corporate worship. Otherwise, we risk becoming ensnared in a downward spiral of despair and hopelessness as we fall prey to a preoccupation with ourselves and, ironically, our faith. God has designed that we look to Christ with the help of the community of believers (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Therefore, anytime we find ourselves sinking into the depths of doubt and despair, this must drive us to the body of Christ, not away from the body of Christ. Even Piper’s counsel is given in the context of community and relationship. It cannot be otherwise. Our faith will be nurtured by looking to Christ, and we will be enabled to look to Christ by the encouragement of Christ’s people, the Church.

So if you are currently feeling the weight of doubt and confusion, and it seems as though God has deserted you; although you may feel like being alone, it is probably best that you are not—at least not for very long. Get yourself around other Christians; get yourself to church; call trusted Christian friends—seek out others who will help you look to Christ so that your faith might be renewed and your joy might be again made full.

Photo: Janus Y