The Doctrine of Justification (Declared “Not Guilty!”)
Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer
Those who would discern the important facts and force of Christian doctrine do well to distinguish between the things which God does for the Christian and the things which the Christian may do for God. The wide difference in activities is obvious. What God does is usually His to do of necessity since no one else could do it, and what the Christian may do for God may be superhuman and thus dependent on an enabling power of the indwelling Spirit of God.
The things which are wrought of God on behalf of the Christian in his salvation are, again, to be grouped into two classes: those which are done when one believes and is saved and those which are done when Christ comes to take His own unto Himself. So much is accomplished in the first undertaking that he may well say in the words of the Apostle: “Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col_1:12) . In the second undertaking the body will be changed (cf. 1Co_15:51-54; Php_3:21), and the saved one will pass out of all limitations of knowledge into the immeasurable knowledge of God. This is indicated in 1Co_13:12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
Manifestly, to be justified before God is His own undertaking. It appears as the consummation of God in the work of salvation—not chronologically, however, but logically. That is, it does not occur after some other features of His saving work, only because of those features. The Apostle has indicated certain achievements of God in logical order. It is written then: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Rom_8:29-30). In this passage justification is named as the last and consummating work for the believer while still in the world. In so justifying God does not legalize a fiction or make-believe. He must and does have a righteous ground on which to justify the ungodly (cf. Rom_4:5). A distinction must be observed here between just men of the Old Testament and those justified according to the New Testament. According to the Old Testament men were just because they were true and faithful in keeping the Mosaic Law. Micah defines such a life after this manner: “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Mic_6:8). Men were therefore just because of their own works for God, whereas New Testament justification is God’s work for man in answer to faith (Rom_5:1).
Throughout past generations the theologians have striven to form definitions of justification but perhaps with uniform incompleteness and failure. So great and valuable a theological treatise as the Westminster Shorter Catechism presents the following effort: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ, imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Question 33). Yet there is no Biblical ground whatever for this reference to divine pardon of sin in connection with justification, for justifying has not anything to do with pardon or forgiveness though it is true that none are forgiven who are not justified and none justified who are not forgiven. To forgive means subtraction while to justify means addition. Justification is a declaration by God respecting the Christian that he has been made forever right and acceptable to Himself. For so much as this to be declared there must be an unalterable reality on which it may rest. This basis is the position to which the Christian has been brought through God’s grace. All whom God has predetermined are called, and all who are called are justified, and all who are justified are now (logically speaking), and to be (chronologically speaking), glorified (Rom_8:29-30). God cannot afterwards condemn the one that He has before justified (Rom_8:33). In fact, four great supporting realities are to be named at this point. “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us” (Rom_8:34). Thus a justified state must be unchangeable since the ground upon which it rests is so secure forever. There is no justification provided for man which is not eternal in character. Because the actual standing of the Christian before God is so little understood, justifying is also misunderstood. Of the Christian, however, it is revealed that:
- He is a New Creation. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation” (2Co_5:17-18). The old things which have passed away are not habits or failures in daily life, but positions, which positions were cared for by God—being reconciled of God by Jesus Christ.
- He is Made the Righteousness of God through being in Christ.—“But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1Co_1:30); “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2Co_5:21). Observe accordingly the ambition of the great Apostle at the time when he was saved and had abandoned all his former confidences for the sake of Christ: “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Php_3:7-9).
- He is Prefected Forever. According to Heb_10:14 the Christian is perfected forever in position though not yet in daily life. In this passage the word sanctify must be given its true meaning, ‘to set apart or classify’ as all are so grouped by themselves who are in Christ. It therefore relates to every Christian. The passage reads: “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Heb_10:14).
- He Has the Fullness of Chirst. Furthermore, to be in Christ, as all saved persons are by the baptism of the Spirit, means that the fullness or plērōma of Christ becomes their unchangeable portion. Consider with special care the amazing declarations bearing upon this: “And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace” (Joh_1:16); “For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell” (Col_1:19); “For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power” (Col_2:9-10). To be “complete in him” is but a restatement of Joh_1:16. The words ye are complete are translated from the same root as yields the form πλήρωμα, since all that Christ is—the πλήρωμα of the Godhead bodily—becomes the Christian’s possession because of the fact that he lives in Him. One cannot be thus perfectly in Christ (1Co_12:13) and not partake of all that Christ is.
It is this complete standing which belongs to every believer, which position God recognizes whether anyone on earth recognizes it or not. And it is such a one that God justifies. Indeed, He defends that justification as faithfully and as definitely as once He condemned man as ungodly.
The conclusion of the whole matter is that God undertakes by His Spirit and through His Son to make all He saves meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light, and because of the perfection or quality of the imputed merit of the Son of God He accepts them and is free to justify them forever. If God could be just Himself in justifying His own Son who is the embodiment of divine righteousness, He will be just likewise when He justifies the ungodly who through the mighty changes achieved by salvation appear before Him in the imputed merit of His Son. This is not legalizing a mere fiction nor is it any form of pardon and forgiveness only.
A notable passage is properly considered here, namely: “Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom_3:22-24). A righteousness from God is said to be received and possessed on a faith principle in answer to faith in Christ Jesus, and it reaches unto and comes down upon all who believe—that must signify “being justified freely,” not hoping to be because of a good manner of life. The word translated freely presents a peculiar meaning and revelation here. It does not mean without hesitation on God’s part or any expense on the part of the one who is justified. It means here without a cause, no otherwise than the same word does in Joh_15:25 where Christ is reported as saying: “They hated me without a cause.” There was no basis in Him for their hatred. Thus the thought in Romans is: “Being justified without a cause for justification in the one who is justified.” None could find a cause in Christ for any hate against Him, so none could find a cause for justification in those who have come short of the glory of God through sin.
If it be inquired how God can justify the ungodly and sinful, the answer is to be found in the last part of Rom_3:24. It is all by His grace. But how can God exercise such matchless grace and achieve so much for the ungodly by grace? Verse 24 answers this query also: “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Then Paul’s great verse may well be read in reverse order: Because of the redemption which is secured in Christ Jesus, God is free to exercise His grace toward the ungodly sinner, even justifying him eternally, though finding no cause for justification in the sinner outside of the fact that the righteousness of God has been bestowed upon all who believe. In verse 26 it is declared too that God is Himself just and righteous when He justifies the one who does no more than to believe on Jesus. The verse reads: “To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” Let no one, therefore, add to or take from the sole fact that ungodly sinners are saved—even to eternal justification—who only believe.
Justification rests on the redeeming death of Christ and not, as sometimes supposed, on His resurrection. When it is believed that it depends on the resurrection, it is usually because of some misunderstanding of Rom_4:25, which reads: “Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” He was raised again, however, not to the end that justification might be possible, but because the free grant of it had been secured by His death. When the thing which completes the whole basis of justification was achieved, Christ came out of the realms of death. His great redemption work was thus shown to be something perfectly done.
Justification causes no one to be righteous. It is not the bestowment as such of righteousness. It rather proclaims one to be justified whom God sees as perfected in His Son. Therefore, this may be stated as the correct formula of justification: The sinner becomes righteous in God’s sight when he is in Christ; he is justified by God freely, or without a cause, because thereby he is righteous in His sight.