The Biblical Concept of Justification (part 3)

The Importance of Justification

 

It could be said that the importance of the doctrine of justification is twofold: it is important as a doctrinal foundation and it is important as a personal distinction.

 

It is important that we prove justification to be a foundational doctrine.

 

Packer states, “Interest in justification varies according to the weight given to the scriptural insistence that man’s relation to God is determined by law and sinners necessarily stand under His wrath and condemnation.” This is perhaps a good explanation of, as well as a reason for the decline in the priority placed on the doctrine of justification in modern evangelicalism. The mindset of liberalism, that God’s attitude to sinners is more of a paternal affection, void of any penal ramifications, has perhaps leaked into more Biblical evangelicalism resulting in a deemphasized view of this all important doctrine.

 

This is an dangerous oversight on the part of Bible believing Christians. There should no doubting the importance of the doctrine of justification to Biblical Christianity. It is this doctrine which defines Christianity as the religion of grace and faith because both grace and faith are the foundational conditions on which justification rests. It also defines the saving significance of Christ’s life and death, by relating both to God’s law. It was for these reasons and more that Luther declares that the church which deviates from the Biblical doctrine of justification can scarcely be called Christian.

 

Justification, as well, is central to truly Biblical theology because it is the fulfillment of the central theme of Scripture. As Packer puts it, “The basic fact of biblical religion is that God pardons and accepts believing sinners.”[ii] It does not take a very deep examination of historical theology to see the centrality of justification in church history, though some would have us believe otherwise.

 

However, as Dr. John Gerstner states:

“One may say generally of the history of the doctrine of justification that solafideanism (justification-by-faith-alone-ism) was taught implicitly, but not explicitly, from the beginning of the church. That is, it was known in the early church that salvation was by faith alone, but not until the sixteenth century was the church called upon to define that teaching more precisely.”

Regardless of what history may bear out, the concept of justification is eternally rooted in the narrative of God’s Word and in many cases is the determining factor of Biblical religion. Phil Johnson tells us that it is this doctrine which“…distills the pure essence of everything fundamental and everything distinctive about Christianity.” He goes on to explain that a person can hold to a very Biblical understanding of nearly every other Christian doctrine and remain unsound on the gospel because of a deficient idea of justification. “And that error,” he continues, “Paul says, will damn you without remedy.”

 

Johnson makes an additional observation that is very interesting to note. He reaffirms that it is possible to be correct in your understanding of certain Biblical doctrines and still be dangerously wrong in your understanding of justification. “But,” says Johnson, “the converse is not true. I have never met anyone who truly understood and affirmed justification by faith and the principle of sola fide who was unsound on other fundamental doctrines.”

 

It seems, therefore, that this doctrine of justification truly is the keystone of orthodoxy, and for that reason it is vital that we not only affirm its details but prove its necessity as well.  

 

It is important that we prove justification to be a personal distinction.

 

God’s Word, in dealing with this concept of justification, speaks of more than just the spiritual and abstract results of justification. It goes on to discuss the practical application in which this doctrine is manifested in the lives of the justified. We as justified sinners ought to live a life characterized by the justification which we have received. As Ryrie states it, “Justification before the bar of God is demonstrated by holiness of life here on earth before the bar of men.”

 

It is in this area of practical results that two general errors are to be avoided. John MacArthur speaks of these two errors at length. He explains that the doctrine of justification is misused by many to make a pretext of obedience to God’s moral law. Generally such a view is known as antinomianism. This view reduces God’s saving work to only include the declarative act of justification, leaving little room for spiritual rebirth of regeneration (2 Corinthians 5:17) and no room for the moral efforts of the new heart of the believer (Ezekiel 36:26-27). In such a view the forensic element of justification, God’s actual declaring the believing sinner righteous, is the only essential aspect of salvation. The inevitable result is “turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness.” (Jude 1:4)

 

In an attempt to isolate justification from any meritorious work, the antinomian view stops short at justification where Scripture goes on to include sanctification as an inevitable result and proof of justification. Our moral works, to be sure, have no bearing on our standing before God. However, Scripture describes our obedience to God’s moral law as no less than an inevitable manifestation of justification. Packer states that the doctrine of justification “makes clear what Christian morality is – law-keeping out of gratitude to the Savior whose gift of righteousness made law-keeping needless for acceptance.” The freedom and liberty that is so characteristic of salvation is no license for immortality, but rather is the primary motive for living a sanctified Christian life.[iii]

 

The second error to be avoided in the area of practical results goes too far in the opposite direction of antinomianism. While an antinomian view radically isolates justification from sanctification, this view makes justification dependent on a mixture of faith and works. Therefore, justification is considered to be a process rather than a one-time event. Such a view is characteristic of Roman Catholicism and many of the cults.

 

In this view justification is seen as a process grounded in the believer’s own supposed righteousness as opposed to Christ’s true righteousness. In so doing, justification and sanctification are fused together as one process. Faith is deemphasized and works become essential to salvation. This, as MacArthur points out, “was the error of the Galatian legalists (cf. Galatians 2:16). Paul called it ‘a different gospel’ (Galatians 1:6, 9).”

 

Despite these and other distortions of the Biblical concept, the Scriptures clearly produce a concept of justification that is founded upon the grace of God in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness through the faith of the believer without any semblance of meritorious works. However, along with that, God’s Word speaks of the believer’s works as inevitable result and a fail-safe proof of the justification of a sinner. While works are not a stipulation for justification, they are a manifestation of justification.

 

It is of utmost importance that we examine ourselves and be sure that we defend justification as a central doctrine of our faith as well as exemplify that justification by the fruit we are obligated to produce.


[ii]Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, J.I. Packer, Baker Book House Company, 1987, pg. 307

 

[iii]Paul deals with these ideas in Romans 7:1-6 as well as Romans 12.

 

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