Many have said that justification is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. Martin Luther, Balthasar Meisner, and Johann Alsted are just a few of the Lutheran or Reformed theologians who acknowledged that the critical mass of Christian salvation is how one is justified before a holy and righteous God.
If there’s even a hint of truth to that statement, then we must have a clear and precise knowledge of how Scripture describes what takes place at justification, when it takes place, and to whom it takes place.
The Confession begins, “Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ's active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness by faith, which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God.”
It would be good to be reminded presently of the golden chain of redemption of Romans 8: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (vv.29-30).
Justification is near the end of the chain. God knows those whom he will save, he predestines them to that salvation, he calls them by his Spirit, and when the Spirit indwells them, he justifies them. It is the Spirit of God who applies to individuals the redemption purchased by the Son. R.C Sproul was famous for popularizing the Reformation truth, “Regeneration precedes faith.”
We have become so accustomed to praying for the Holy Spirit to come upon us that he have entirely neglected the simple truth that the indwelling of the Spirit is what prompts those who have been called to be justified. We tell people that if they pray a prayer of repentance, then the Spirit will fill them. That’s actually backwards from the clear Scriptural witness. That is a defining tenet of revivalism and pentecostalism, which has become as common and gone unnoticed in the church as a piece of old furniture.
Acts 2:38 says, “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” Is Peter saying that the Holy Spirit comes after repentance and baptism? Do we have to be baptized to receive the Spirit and so be saved? Is it left to our will to be saved?
That contradicts the rest of the book of Acts, as well as the remainder of Scripture, so we need to revisit that conclusion. For instance, when Peter is with Cornelius and his household in Acts 10, he says that as he was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on them (v.44; cf. 11:16). Then in Acts 10:47, Peter tells them to be baptized with water.
Scripture interprets Scripture. Therefore, Peter must be speaking of baptism more broadly in Acts 2:38. He is speaking of baptism as if it is the sum and substance of salvation. There is a baptism of the Spirit that precedes baptism with water. We should also keep in mind that Acts 2:38 falls within the greater event of Pentecost. It was a spectacular, one-time event.
In receiving the Spirit, we have Christ’s righteousness accounted to us. In Scripture, it is an accounting term (used especially throughout the book of Romans), meaning that a certain amount of money is transferred from one ledger to another. Something of value is transferred to another, simple as that. Our salvation is premised upon Christ’s righteousness being counted as our own and our sinfulness being counted as his own.
The theological term for that is “imputation”. We actually believe in a double-imputation, or a two-way-imputation. Christ’s righteousness is granted to our account, and our sinfulness is placed in his account. If we only receive his righteousness, then our sins were never dealt with. If he only received our sinfulness, we never received his righteousness.
“Imputation” is a carefully chosen word. It is to be distinguished from “infusion”. When grace is imputed to us, God himself is justified in declaring us pardoned. The one who was offended paid for the offense himself. It is all or nothing, empty or full. There are no partially-declared court rulings. It is this or that, pardoned or imprisoned.
The Roman Catholic position is that of infusion. If you think of a blood transfusion, your blood is not being replaced. Someone else’s blood is being blended with yours, in hopes of having enough healthy blood to keep you. Good blood hopefully trumps the bad blood. In Roman Catholic theology of justification, God’s grace is blended with our works, our efforts at righteousness. We must work with the grace that we’ve been given in order to maintain or grow in righteousness. As they are prone to say, “grace perfects nature.”
The Confession also speaks of both the “active” and the “passive” obedience of Christ. Like many theological terms, they are not found in the pages of Scripture, but they are helpful categories. Think of theology as a dictionary; when you are defining a word, you don’t use that word in the definition. That’s a circular definition, and it’s not helpful.
Christ’s active obedience is his faithfulness to the law of God. By completely and perfectly fulfilling the demands of the Mosaic law, he remained perfectly righteous. It was that righteousness that was imputed to us. By giving up himself in accordance to the covenant of redemption formed between the three persons of the Trinity, he was passively obedient. This simply means that he voluntarily did nothing to stop the wickedness of evil men against him as foreordained by the Father.
Hopefully you see the richness, as well as the importance, of the doctrine of justification. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and we will continue next time by looking at the place of faith in justification.