What would it be like to stand before God and answer for your righteousness, on trial for your eternal life? With your salvation at stake, and no appeals? We know our accuser brings our sins before God night and day (Revelation 12:10). Can you imagine watching hours of your most shameful moments on the HD screen seated at the witness stand between God and Satan? As you check out that video from your rebellious teenage years, you blush a little. But really, it's not THAT bad, you think. Everyone's reckless when they're young. Then a clip pops up from last week. Oops.
As he wraps up his accusations, Satan turns and asks if you think you've achieved a level of righteousness sufficient for salvation. It's obviously a rhetorical question - you just sat through a feature presentation of all your failures. Despite some areas of growth, there is no way anyone could describe you as making significant progress toward "overcoming" sin.
Then your Defender, Jesus Christ steps forward (1 John 2:1, Hebrews 7:25). He announces that He has only one question for you - have you put your faith in Him for salvation? Not just as insurance in case you're not "good enough" by the end of your life, but as the very means by which you can be saved from the punishment you rightly deserve?
"Yes," you answer, humble and broken. After viewing the montage of your sins, what other path could you possibly take?
There is silence. Then, from behind the bench, the Father swings His gavel and renders His verdict: righteous.
You are stunned. After seeing all that, how could He possibly declare YOU righteous? Believe it or not, this is exactly what God promises to do the moment someone repents and puts his or her faith in Jesus Christ. This is what evangelical Christians call the Doctrine of Justification.
In the Churches of God, we know that sin entered the world through Adam and that salvation is possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But when it comes to explaining the mechanics of that salvation, things get a little muddy. Our ministers quote scripture and emphasize our vital need to grow and overcome. And these things should be happening in our lives, although the process the COGs teach puts the cart before the horse. But anyway, what percentage of our sin do we need to overcome before we die to qualify for eternal life? Is it 80 percent? 95 percent? Remember, violating just one point of law makes us 100 percent guilty (James 2:10). The law is like a plate glass window -if we hit it one corner, we shatter the whole thing. So we are talking about an all-or-nothing proposition here.
From the foundation of the world, God saw that He couldn't make our salvation dependent on our own limited capacity to obey Him. We would either become self-righteous and boast in our own performance (Ephesians 2:9) or drown in despair over our failures (Romans 7:18-25). So He offers salvation through a means that forces us to place our trust in something outside ourselves: the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Justification: Our Legal Standing
When most in the evangelical Christian world discuss "justification," they are talking about an instantaneous legal act of God, in which He (a) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ's righteousness as belonging to us, and (b) declares us to be righteous in His sight (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, page 723).
The apostle Paul demonstrates this concept through the example of Abraham: (Romans 4:1-5) "What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness,' Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace, but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness."
By comparison, in its booklet, The New Covenant: Does it Abolish God's Law?, the United Church of God defines justification (on page 90) as being "made just, right or righteous. Literally, it means being made straight - perfectly lined up (with God)."
UCG's definition hints at a typesetting analogy, but the Living Church of God fleshes out the traditional COG explanation further: "One easy way to understand justification is to see how it is used in word processing. The margins on this page, for example, are lined up on both the right and left sides. This is called full justification. In the theological sense, justification involves being 'lined up' with God." ( "The Greatest Love." Living Church of God.)
Sounds plausible, except for the fact that the typesetting term originated in the 1500s, a few decades after the printing press was invented. Now, it's reasonable to assume the Renaissance-era meaning has some roots in the first-century etymology. But it's problematic to use a relatively modern metaphor to determine the meaning of a term that originated more than a thousand years earlier. Plus, the typesetting term came from a phrase meaning, "to make exact," not "to line up.", according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. But the end product doesn't sound too far off, so I'll let it go. For now.
Oh wait. There's more. On page 91 of its booklet on the New Covenant, UCG adds that Christians must maintain their justification through their deeds, a concept they believe is supported by scriptures such as James 2:24. "Ongoing justification - through Christ-empowered obedience and Christ's atoning sacrifice when we fall short - corresponds to the current process of "being saved."
In its extended definition, UCG erroneously combines two separate steps in the process of human redemption - justification and sanctification. Sanctification, which follows justification, is the progressive work of God (and man, to some extent) in our hearts that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our everyday lives (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 746). James 2:24 is a great example of a scripture discussing sanctification that the COGs misread to support their explanation of justification. Evangelical Christianity believes this passage warns that a lack of works and the fruit of the Spirit in our lives could indicate that a true conversion - and therefore our justification - might never have occurred in the first place.
Massaging scriptural terms to fit their doctrines is where the COGs typically go awry. Herbert W. Armstrong had a long history of this, and his disciples carry on his legacy. Consider that within the same page of text, UCG defines justification as both being in a state of alignment with God and AND the process of repeatedly becoming reconciled to God when one falls out of alignment. Logic says it cannot be both. Let's stop playing word games with matters of salvation.
I'm not just picking on UCG; their literature on the topic is just more detailed and readily available. A quick website check shows LCG and COGWA both teach ongoing justification. COG-AIC and PCOG hold their literature too close to the chest for me to check. But the first article on PCOG's "The Virtuous Life" subsection is titled "Achieve Spiritual Perfection," which paints a pretty clear picture. As do decades of sermons warning us that we won't "make it" if we don't get our act together. Works undeniably play a pivotal role in justification in the COGs, and Ephesians 2:8-9 clearly contradicts this flawed doctrine.
Justification by grace through faith in Christ alone - which was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation - is its own distinct step in the process of human redemption. Blurring the lines between justification and sanctification opens the door for the distortion of the core gospel message - that we are all sinners, that we can be justified and receive the gift of righteousness by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
This distortion usually ends up manifesting itself in a situation where the "free" gift God promises depends on certain obligations of obedience we must meet to maintain that gift. In Romans 4:4 Paul calls this obedience "works," which incurs a "debt" that must be paid as wages are paid to a laborer. This is the opposite of grace, which is a free gift that does not depend on the merit or work of the recipient.
The distinction between justification and sanctification is not trivial, says John Piper, a prominent theologian and Chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary. In his book, Counted Righteous in Christ, Piper explains "Our only hope of progress in gradual sanctification (growing in likeness to Jesus) is that we already have a right standing with God by faith alone. By this justification we are accepted into God's favor and enjoy a reconciled position. This right standing establishes the very relationship in which we find the help and power to make progress in love."
There is scant Biblical support for the concept of ongoing justification. The Greek word dikaiosis and its variations, dikaioma and dikaioo - (from which the English words justification, justify and justified are derived) do not appear to include an ongoing individual component, according to Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. UCG interprets Romans 3:24 to mean that individual Christians are being justified on an ongoing basis throughout their lives (on page 90 of the New Covenant booklet). But evangelical commentators explain that the word is used in the present continuous tense, which means that God is in a constant state of justifying a succession of individuals.
Likewise, when the King James Version renders verbiage in Romans 5:1 as "being justified," it is in the aorist tense, meaning it refers to individual Christians being justified on an ongoing basis, according to Vine's. In other words, one man was justified at this moment, another was justified at 3:52 p.m. last Tuesday, and a third was justified three Mondays ago at noon. All were justified at specific points in time, not at multiple points in time throughout their individual lives as the UCG and many other COGs teach.
Several Old Testament examples demonstrate that justifying someone changes their legal status at a point in time, not their internal moral condition. Consider Deuteronomy 25:1-2, which details laws governing disputes between Israelites:
"If there is any dispute between men, and they come to court, that the judges may judge them, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked, then it shall be the wicked man deserves to be beaten...". These judges are charged with justifying the just party in a disagreement and punishing the one in the wrong. Neither action determines the internal state of the parties' character.
Proverbs 17:15 makes it even more clear."He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord." If justifying an evil man meant improving his character, it would not be an abomination to God! It would be great!
Isaiah 5:23 pronounces woe on he who would justify the wicked for a bribe. This too indicates a legal declaration in a specific incident.
Now that we have established what justification does and doesn't mean, in my next post, we will examine how the Bible tells us we can become justified before God.
It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11