Three Mistaken Ideas of Justification
How can the Bible’s teaching on justification be twisted or torqued a bit until it becomes really quite misleading and abused? Well, let me mention three ways.
Justification as “Easy Believism”
The first imagines that justification is all of salvation and ends up with something like “easy believism.” I have heard people ask the question, “Are you saved, brother?” meaning simply: “Have you trusted Christ in order to be justified before Him?” But in the New Testament, justification is only one part of salvation. Salvation is the bigger term. It includes the wholeness of all that is secured by Christ and His cross-work. We are not only to be justified, but to be sanctified, set aside for God, and then growing in existential, experiential, personal holiness eventually we will be glorified with resurrection bodies in perfect harmony with God without any trace of sin or decay or corruption always, always loving God with heart and soul and mind and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. All of that is all secured by Christ and His cross-work, because out of Christ and His cross-work comes, for example, the new birth, and the new birth means that the Spirit has come into our lives and is working within us and transforming us as the down payment of the promised inheritance still to come. So justification settles our status before God. It does not refer customarily to everything that is bound up with our transformation, to everything that is bound up with our salvation.
Now, biblically speaking, you can’t have justification without sanctification. You can’t have justification and sanctification without glorification. You can’t have justification and sanctification without new birth. You can’t have any of them without also anticipating the glory of a new heaven and a new earth and resurrection existence on the last day. It hangs together as a total thing. But if you make justification virtually everything, then you can begin to think that (provided you have the right status with God) everything will fall into place: “I’ve believed Christ; I’m reconciled to God. My sins have been forgiven; He declares me just. That’s it. Now, I can live and die, living just like the world and the devil himself, and who cares? I’m safe. Once saved, always saved. That’s the end of the story.”
Well, the problem is that such justification has been cut off from the rest of life and existence; it’s been cut off from the rest of salvation. The Reformers would say things like this: Justification is by grace alone through faith alone. But where it’s real justification, that faith is never alone. It is always accompanied by transformed living so that, at the end of the day, I am not seeking to do good works in order to win my way into heaven—that’s returning to some brand of merit theology—but if I have truly been justified, if the Spirit of God has worked His way in me in new birth, if the Spirit of God is convicting me of sin and pushing me toward righteousness, it is impossible to imagine living without responding in faith and gratitude and adoration to the one who has changed our status before God. It is impossible to have justification without the rest of the package deal of salvation.
But there are some people today who have had such a cut-down version of what salvation is that I’m sure that there are many, many, many people who think that they are saved by which they mean “acceptable before God” because they mumbled a prayer at some point without necessarily demonstrating repentance and genuine faith or loving holiness or whatever.
The key to all sanctification, the key test, as it were, to seeing if we really are reconciled to God is if we find welling up within ourselves a deepening desire to be holy, to please God, to be just before Him and in our dealings with others. Unless our hearts have been changed, where is the evidence, indeed, that we have been justified before God? Justification is distinctive, but it’s never alone. So that’s the first mistake. If you misunderstand justification in that regard and treat it as the whole, you tend to end up drifting toward “easy believism.”
Justification as God’s Declaration that We Are in the Covenant
Then there are others who have argued that justification, rightly understood, is not God’s declarative act by which He declares His people to be just before Him on the basis of what Christ has done, but God’s declarative act by which He declares us to be in the covenant. Now, when it’s worded like that, you have moved the domain of discussion away from being just before God to simply being in the covenant—in the new covenant, presumably.
Now, I have several problems with that approach to justification.
In the first place, it ignores the fact that the justification word group really is tied up to the notion of justice. It’s not bound up in the first place with notions of belonging or corporate alignment or the like. To be declared just is to disclose a concern for being just as God is just, and to take it away from that toward being declared in the covenant means that you are thinking less about sin and righteousness and holiness despite the vast array of biblical passages that focus on such things, despite the fact that Paul devotes two and a half chapters to this theme in Romans before he comes to the theme of the atonement. This reduction of salvation to merely belonging in the covenant finally does away with too many contributing, competing themes that are bound up with the holiness and justice of God.
Some have weakened the second position today to say that justification is God’s declarative act by which we are just (we are declared just) and in the covenant, so that it’s got two elements to it. Well, I would say that all of salvation certainly is bound up with being in the covenant of God, just as it’s bound up with sanctification and transformation on the last day, but justification by itself, it seems to me, is restricted to justification and that if you try to put too much into justification or focus it into the realm of belonging to the right people of God, it seems to me that you end up finally diluting justification to the point where it is not functioning the way it does in the writings of the New Testament.
Speaking of Two Justifications
There is a third, a somewhat related, way of making the doctrine weaker, perhaps corrosive; that’s to speak of two justifications. Now, I know where this comes from. In this view, you’re declared just with a kind of inaugurated eschatology that I’ve talked about before. You’re declared just now by faith in Christ, but then, after you become a Christian, there are many opportunities for sin, and on the last day, you will be judged on the basis of your whole life lived—that is, not only your trust in Christ, but how you’ve lived, how you’ve behaved. After all, there are about forty passages in the New Testament which seem to talk about God weighing Christians on the last day on the basis of how well they’ve done or what they’ve done—the deeds that they’ve done in the flesh. And this and some other biblical phenomena have generated the view that there are two justifications: a justification now, but a kind of round two, just before the end, bound up with the justice of God, the judgment of God on the last day, and you’ve got to pass both of them to get in, as it were.
But that means, therefore, that during this life as a Christian, from our first experience of justification to the end, you can never really have assurance of faith because you’re always going to be worried that maybe you won’t quite make the grade when it comes to the good deeds you are supposed to do between now and the second justification. So it begins to affect the doctrine of assurance; it begins to affect how real the first justification really was and a whole lot of other things.
Correctives to Mistaken Ideas of Justification
So what do we do with those passages that speak of God looking at us and our works and our deeds, taking them all into account on the last day? What do we do with passages like that? I have found that two bits of theological reflection have been helpful to me in addition to working my way through the relevant forty or so texts. Obviously, we don’t have time to work through those texts now. Let me drop in a couple of suggested ways of thinking about these things.
Two Men, Two Rewards
C. S. Lewis somewhere pictures two men. One man wants a woman, so he goes to the red-light district of town, and he pays his money. And he has a woman; he has his reward. The other, he falls in love with a young woman, and he courts her, treats her with honor and dignity, earns the respect of her family, courts her all the way to the wedding aisle. And not only are the two of them joined in holy matrimony, but the two families come together. It’s a great celebration, and he has his reward. So both the men get their reward.
What’s the difference? The difference, Lewis says, is that in the first case the payment and the reward are so incommensurate that the transaction is obscene. In the second case, the reward is nothing other than the fulfillment of a relationship. It’s the consummation of a relationship, and I think that our deeds are in that latter category.
Our Works and God’s Grace
I have a friend—he’s a pastor of a church in the South—who likes to tell the story of the time when he was a good deal younger, and one of his children, a little lad of three-and-half or four, came outdoors on this autumn day to help his dad. His dad was raking up leaves. In the blustery, cold, biting wind, leaves were being raked up into big piles, and he came out, this little lad, wanting to help. And he was bundled up to the neck in a coat that was too big for him and a hat on his head and gloves and so on. The father said, “Sure, you can help,” and he gave him a small rake. “All you have to do is pile some of these leaves together into this big pile here, so that eventually we’ll bag them and get rid of them all.”
And you can guess what happened. The little lad took his rake and started swinging it around merrily in all directions, and the leaves that had been piled up were now scattered hither and yon, taken by the wind and blowing all over the place again. The father didn’t say anything. After ten or fifteen minutes, the little lad said to him, “Daddy, I’m cold. I’d like to go in now,” which was probably a considerable relief to the father. And so he said, “Well, why don’t you go in and your mom will probably give you some hot chocolate.” So the little lad went off contentedly, and as he was going up the steps into the house, he said, “Daddy, don’t you think you should pay me? I think I should have at least a quarter.” And the father smiled, and he said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you two quarters for your help.” And that, the pastor says, is a bit the way God treats us. We go on with our Christian living and ministry, swatting leaves and throwing them hither and yon, making a mess, and at the end of the day, God turns around in mercy and still says, “Well done, good and faithful slave. You’ve been faithful over a few things. I will make you ruler over many things. Come and enter your master’s happiness.” It still is a matter of great grace that God works even through people like you and me.