Can we talk too much about justification?

For several weeks we have considered the passage in Romans that one writer has called “the most important paragraph ever written.” It is Romans 3:21-26 and it is perhaps the most concise explanation of the doctrine of justification — how unrighteous men are declared to be righteous before God.

Taking four weeks to look at just six verses in such detail might cause someone to ask, “Aren’t you spending too much time on this one topic? And aren’t you over-emphasizing this doctrine? And if you spend so much time on this doctrine, aren’t you giving believers too much confidence in their decision to trust in Christ and thereby turn salvation by grace into salvation by works? Or conversely, perhaps by placing so much emphasis on the grace and security the believer has through the justifying work of Christ, aren’t you encouraging them to antinomianism — to not being obedient to Christ and to not following Him?”

Those are all good questions, and the fact that they might be asked affirms the importance of spending so much time on this topic so that we might think clearly about it.

Let’s think about each of those questions. What about the relationship of justification and faith? By emphasizing faith, is it giving confidence to one’s own decision to trust Christ and is that a kind of works salvation? It is clear that Paul emphasizes the role of faith in justification in this passage. He mentions the root word for “faith” or “belief” four times in these six verses: vv. 22 [2x], 25, 26. So he underlines the cruciality of faith to justification. But notice that no where does he say that faith is what justifies an individual. Rather, justification is in Jesus Christ (v. 22) and a gift by His grace…in Jesus Christ (v. 24) and in His blood (v. 25). And Paul culminates the discussion in v. 26 by saying that God Himself is the Justifier. Man is not justified as a work because of his faith; rather, faith is merely the mechanism (means) through which he is justified. As I noted in the initial message on this topic,

Faith cannot be construed as a work because inherent in the act of faith is the belief, “I cannot save myself; I am wholly dependent on God for my salvation.” There is no merit in the act of faith. Faith is not what saves; it is only the instrument by which salvation is received.

Faith is not a work of merit — it is a response of dependence to what has already been done for us. Faith says, “I can’t…but I believe you can.”

Salvation is not in a plan, but in a person.

As B. B. Warfield wrote, “It is not faith that saves, but faith in Christ. It is not, strictly speaking, even faith in Christ that saves, but Christ that saves through faith. The saving power resides exclusively not in the act of faith, but in the object of faith. We could not more radically misconceive of Biblical representation of faith than by transferring to faith even the smallest fraction of that saving energy which is attributed in the Scriptures solely to Christ Himself.”

So we don’t want to give anyone confidence that their own faith has produced their salvation; but we do want every believer to be confident that when they have been justified by God, as evidenced through their faith in Christ, they really are justified and can be secure and assured of that justifying work of God that has given them salvation and forgiveness.

Then what about the possibility that by over-emphasizing the doctrine of justification and grace that we have opened the possibility that some will turn to antinomianism — they will assert that they are saved and they can do anything they want and that they don’t have to obey or follow Christ? Actually, it is a very real possibility that when some hear the message of the gospel of grace that they will do that very thing — and that has led many to incorporate the doctrine of sanctification (the progressive process of becoming like Christ) into the doctrine of justification.

So how shall we think of the relationship between justification and sanctification, of salvation and works?

There is a difference between justification and sanctification, though they are integrally related. Justification is God’s act in declaring unrighteous sinners to be righteous because of the atoning work of Christ on the cross. That is an event that happens at a particular point it time and is definitive and secure. Sanctification is the response of the justified person to be obedient to His Lord and be transformed into the likeness of Christ. That process is a synergistic cooperation between the Holy Spirit and the believer; the believer is obedient and works hard to follow Christ, but he can only obey because it is God working in him (Phil. 2:12-13). And every individual who is justified will give evidence of that faith in sanctification (though everyone will not be sanctified at the same rate of speed or with the same manifestation of fruitfulness). It has often been said that “justification by faith is alone, but true faith is never alone — good works always follow.”

The relationship between faith and works has been debated and discussed throughout all of redemptive history. And even some whom we might consider stalwarts of the faith have been accused of not holding to imputed righteousness because of their emphasis on the necessity of works. They have rightly asserted that works are necessary in salvation — not as a means to produce salvation (which is what Roman Catholicism came to assert) but as a product of the salvation that has been worked by God in the believer. So works are not the ground of salvation, but are the fruit of salvation. Justification and sanctification are inseparably related, but they are not the same thing (as Catholicism teaches), but are in fact distinguishable.

By emphasizing justification, we are not repudiating the necessity of obedience to Christ and transformation into Christlikeness. We are, however, putting both justification and sanctification in their right places. Justification is God’s monergistic work (He works alone to produce our salvation) — it is given as a gift by grace (Rom. 3:24) and is rooted in the completed, atoning work of Christ on the cross (Rom. 3:25). And sanctification is our synergistic response of faith and faithfulness to God — we obey Him because we are enabled to obey (Phil. 2:12-13) and because we love the One who has saved us.

So, to the initial question, are we spending too much time on this doctrine and over-emphasizing its importance? Not at all. Justification is the foundation of the believer’s life in Christ. It must be understood rightly to have the right eternal destiny. And it must be understood rightly if we are going to communicate the gospel rightly to those who are not saved. We can never think too much on this great truth of God’s work on our behalf.

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