A Threefold Distinction in Justification

Preface

Several years back, a young man aspiring to the ministry visited the church I was temporarily attending on a couple of occasions. This man was taking studies at a well known, conservative Reformed Seminary down south. It was through a certain ministry based in northern New England that he was sent to us as an intern. This ministry concerns itself with training preachers in the art of expository preaching. So we actually had two different men, from two different schools in the region for the summer, both of them sent to us on a rotating basis.

Overall, the preaching by both men was not bad at all. Clearly, both men have a gift that simply needed training. The first message from one of these men is the occasion for me to write this short essay. Providence is often a funny thing. As I sat listening to the message on this text from Paul’s epistle to the Romans, chapter four, verses one through four, I took a mental account of some things I thought were deficient in it. The message itself was doctrinally sound, and the young man made his point from the text. But I could not help but think that he was leaving some things out by way of explaining it better. I think he assumed some things about the hearers understanding. Anyway, when it was over the Elder who was tasked with filling out a questionnaire for the center, asked if I would do it. The following remarks are based on an outline of points I had jotted down.

What struck me about this came in the form of a question. How many preachers are there, who fail to uncover error in the minds of their hearers? This truth of justification by faith has been a playground for the devil since the beginning of time. Right now, there are several horrendous heresies that abide in the Christian churches that all stem from a false view of righteousness, and how it is obtained in the gospel. There are three particular ones that stand out in recent history. The first is Neo-Orthodoxy, the second is Federal Visionism, and the third is New Perspectives on Paul’s Teaching of Justification. In each of these views there are false ideas of faith being taught concerning justification. We are not concerned in this essay to examine each one of these heretical ideas in any detail. What we are concerned with here is to ask and answer the question of what is implied in the Protestant idea of justification by faith? This essay is constructed with that in mind.

Abraham was Justified by Faith

“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.” (Rom. 4:1-4).

Justification by faith is the cornerstone of Christianity. It was the great truth that the apostle Paul preached in the first century to Jews and Gentiles alike. What makes it so astounding is, that it reveals salvation to be something wholly apart from any outward works of the flesh. It strikes at the heart of what sinful men supposes salvation to be. Every world religion is based on a concept of good works, no matter which one is spoken of.

When Paul preached to Jews, this glorious truth, it struck at the heart of their conviction that it was adherence to the law that justified them with God. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. All Paul needed to do was to point out in this text of his that Abraham was not justified by works, but by faith. In other words, this was not a new thing Paul was bringing to them, but an old truth, found in the Scriptures.

But the Jews looked to Moses for their righteousness concerning the law, not Abraham. To be sure, Abraham was their father, of which they boasted. And it was to Abraham a covenant was made that was foundational to the land of Israel being theirs, in which the law of Moses was a depository. But it was Moses, they thought, who gave them the way of righteousness through the law. How interesting is it that nowhere in the New Testament is Moses ever mentioned concerning the doctrines of grace? Every time Moses is mentioned, it is always in connection to the law, which is set at odds to grace concerning the matter of salvation.

Abraham, on the other hand, is put forth by the apostle as the true example of justification for us in the New Testament. And how was it he was justified, was it through works? No, Abraham was justified by faith alone, without works. And this was spoken to the Jew first, then to the Greek. Abraham represented the covenant of God to the Jews, but it was through faith that he enjoyed that covenant relationship, not according to any works of the flesh.

So when Moses led Israel from their captivity in Egypt, into the wilderness and onto the promised land, he led people already in covenant relationship to God. Does that mean every Jew believed? Certainly not, that was shown not to be the case throughout their wilderness wanderings. Men like Joshua and Caleb, who were of a different spirit than most were those who were justified by faith. Therefore, the covenant promise of God was primarily theirs, rather than the majority of unbelieving Jews who died in the wilderness.

This truth of justification by faith was equally as astounding to the Gentiles. They were accustomed to an entirely different sort of works righteousness through their pagan religion. Theirs was made up of philosophical sophistry, in conjunction with the pantheon of deities that made up both Greek and Roman religion. Theirs was a religion of idolatrous devotion to the gods. They made sacrifice to these gods out of that blind devotion that ruled their sin darkened hearts. When the gospel came, and the apostle proclaimed the good news of salvation to them, it struck at the very heart of their false preconceptions about righteousness too.

Now, it might seem on the surface that justification by faith is so simple and basic, it can be understood and embraced by all without controversy. Certainly, this is true, justification by faith is as simple a concept as it can be. It is the very wisdom of God that puts it forth to a sinful world that constructs all manners of works and philosophy as the means of being right with God. This is why a child, or a simple, uneducated person can understand and embrace the concept of justification by faith, as opposed to a system of works, as it is preached in the gospel message.

Yet, in spite of this reality, that justification is by faith, not works, and that this truth is easy and simple to understand and receive, men do not by and large embrace it. This is the grievous nature of sin that it blinds men to the truth of the simplicity of the gospel message. The gospel message is but a few short propositions concerning the person and work of Christ. Anyone can understand it. The gospel once proclaimed, is then put forth with this admonition, to believe in the Lord according to the message preached and be saved. This too, anyone can understand.

But that being the case, there are only a few who see it in a saving way. Faith is too simple. It leaves us with nothing to hang our hat upon so to speak, in terms of personal accomplishment. The unbelieving, self-righteous person reasons within himself, faith alone is devoid of piety, it leaves us to ourselves to pursue sin at the expense of holiness. Those who presented arguments like these in Paul’s day received his further instruction on the nature of free grace. This he did, when he exhorted believers to do good works, not to boast of their self righteousness, but because of having faith in God’s righteousness.

People have forever tried to corrupt and confuse the gospel method of salvation. Many will reinterpret the meaning of justification by faith to be something other than what it is. Some will over simplify the already simple teaching of justification by faith. They do this by discarding a large portion of Scripture, thinking it to be superfluous to the message. They say that too much doctrine corrupts the simple message of faith. Faith should be an experience, something undefinable by the intellect. So the message according to these folk is like some sort of magical incantation. A few words are put forth to the hearer, and zap, God gives them their own Damascus road experience.

Others would try to complicate the simplicity of the gospel message of faith by adding some sort of thinly disguised work to it. Do this, they say, and that will happen. Go forth at some rally to receive the free grace of God by faith. Write down the day and moment you do this, remind yourself and God of it often. Make your boast in this event you performed at when you received Christ as your Savior. This to many, is the way of salvation. The problem is, Paul knew nothing of it, as can be seen in the text above.

There have been many different interpretations of exactly what justification by faith is supposed to mean. There is only one however that accords with Scripture. And while the message itself is simple to the one who hears it and truly believes, God explains it as something theological in nature in His word. Many preachers fail to explain justification by faith as they should. This is serious, for Satan hates this truth with all of his venomous being. If Satan can pervert the meaning of this truth while it is still being taught, what a good job he has made of it!

Oftentimes a preacher will assume way too much about his hearers understanding. The Scripture never does this, but is redundant in its presentation of the truth, restating over and over again the same thing in a slightly different way. This is really what biblical preaching is supposed to entail. Of course, biblical preaching is a matter of exposition. But it is also supposed to be a message. A preacher should circumnavigate around the main point of the message. This means he should dance around it, taking pokes at the central theme throughout the discourse, until, like a Matador who has come to the final phase of his conquest, he stabs the bull of truth right in the heart.

It is incumbent on a preacher to explain the meaning of everything he preaches, no matter how simple it may sound. This is how the cobwebs of vagueness are dispelled from the hearers minds. The Scriptures themselves give ample ammunition to shoot at that great enemy of the soul, unbelief.

The word’s justification by faith is often viewed as a single concept, rather than as a proposition comprising two distinct concepts. There are actually two things being presented in the phrase justification by faith. Justification is one concept, and faith is another. Put together, we have the proposition justification by faith. On the surface this appears by some to be some sort of formula for salvation. “For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” (Rom. 4:3). A formula may be viewed like a mathematical problem, in that both sides of the equation must be equal in order for it to work. In this case, salvation equals faith plus justification. The faith comes from us, but the justification comes from God. Together, they are the formula upon which salvation rests. This is a view that is commonly held by many when they hear this phrase justification by faith.

The problem with this view when it is considered as such, is that a false doctrine is produced in the final analysis. What do we mean by a false doctrine is produced? Well, it is simply this. Since the phrase justification by faith is a proposition comprising two different subjects, combining the two together as a sort of formula to produce a single result, creates a synthesis. By mixing the two concepts together in this manner, faith and justification, each concept is altered in its individual meaning. In the final analysis, salvation becomes a theological dialectic. Man contributes faith, God contributes justification, the result is salvation.

The word’s justification by faith is often taken to mean, if you believe, therefore, you are justified because of it. In other words, justification with God is because of faith, rather than something that exists as a concept apart from it. The act of believing the gospel produces justification. This is the formula for salvation. The truth is, justification is one thing, and faith is another. In order to arrive at what the Bible teaches, you must start with these two subjects in their unmixed form. When it is understood, what each one is, they can be reconciled together as a single propositional statement. The message is one of harmonious free grace. Each element remains unmixed, and therefore, uncorrupted.

Simply stated, justification is a right standing with God. When someone is just, they are legally righteous. Justification is a legal standing with God, one that is righteous, or, acceptable to Him on the basis of His legal requirement. Faith, on the other hand is, believing the righteousness of God in the gospel. So what is faith in the righteousness of God as it is conveyed in the gospel? It is righteousness based on the concept of dual imputation from God. Faith believes the Son of God is righteous according to the law. Faith believes the Son of God was crucified as a malefactor. Faith believes the death Jesus Christ died belonged to them rather than Him. Faith believes the righteousness of God in Christ is accounted to them. The two concepts, justification and faith, come together in this truth of dual imputation from God. Divine imputation is the equal sign in the equation that balances the problem. This is the message of the gospel, to believe in Jesus Christ as a substitutionary Savior, who died at the cross for your justification with God. This is what is meant by justification by faith.

But there are three aspects, or distinctions in justification that are crucial to a right understanding of it. These three distinctions are as follows. 1. Its cause. 2. Its ground. 3. Its means. Paul states these distinctions in three different verses which are all found in the book of Romans (Rom. 3:24,5:1,9). These distinctions, found in these three verses, will be considered here in their proper order as outlined above.

I. The Cause of Justification

“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:21-26).

What is intended in the word ‘cause’ is the answer to the question of where does justification arise from, or, where does it originate? This text from Paul provides the answer to this question. But first, let us examine what else is contained in it.

These verses from Paul in Romans three clearly state that justification is a matter of faith rather than of the works of the law. To clarify what Paul means here by the law, consider what the word justification means. Justification is also called the righteousness of God, here as well as elsewhere in Scripture. This means that to be just is to be considered righteous by God. So the law to which Paul refers here is the entirety of His moral commandments, not just an adherence to the ceremonial rites and sacrifices under Moses. Obedience to God in these was certainly a matter of morality under the Mosaic system. But that was done away with when Jesus came and offered Himself on behalf of sinners. Paul references God’s perfect standard of righteousness which is comprehended in this term “the law” (Verse 21).

There are two places in this text that explicitly bring the two together, both faith and justification. It is seen in the following two places in these words, “the righteousness of God apart from the law” (verse 21), and “the righteousness of God, through faith” (verse 22). Also, it, being justification, is said to be “to all and on all who believe.” (Verse 22).

The object of that faith which justifies is also seen clearly in this text. It is “faith in Jesus Christ” (verse 22). By this we understand the gospel, contained in several propositions regarding the Person and work of Jesus Christ on the cross. There is one thing in particular that is mentioned here in connection with this, it is the “propitiation by His blood” (verse 25) that Jesus made at the cross on behalf of justified sinners. Jesus satisfied the wrath of God against sin by His death.

Jesus, according to the gospel is the object of the faith that justifies. Sometimes, and here in this text, the Person of Jesus Christ is set forth as the object of faith. This should not be understood as an idea which separates the Person from the proposition, for after all, no one believes in someone they do not know. So it is further stated here “that He,” that is God who is righteous, is also the “justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Verse 26).

The cause of justification unto salvation is stated here by Paul as well. It is shown as “being justified freely by His grace” (verse 24). That is, the justification of a sinner is according to the free grace of God. Grace, as everyone knows is an undeserved gift. Nothing could be a more true gift than that of salvation, for no one deserves it from God. We have the reason why this is so stated in the text, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (verse 23). Everyone is by birth and practice a sinner who has fallen short of the righteousness of the law. So the law cannot save a single person in such a condition as this. But God gives His free grace to those whom He justifies. He does this as a gift that He gives, apart from any works of the law.

In fact, Paul says the free gift of grace in justification is a demonstration of the righteousness of God (verse 26). Apart from grace, no one could be right with God. Since grace comes from God, He is the cause of it. There is something else in grace that is demonstrated in justification too. Grace is sovereignly dispensed by God to those whom He justifies. No one of their own volition ever demands or takes a gift from someone else. That defies the very nature of a gift. It means nothing at all if it is not freely given by the giver of it. So justification is a gift of sovereign grace from God who gives it. Not only is God the giver of this gift, but He gives it to whom He wills. Paul states it like this in another place in Romans. “Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.” (Rom. 9:18). Here, the word mercy is substituted for grace, because it is the other side of the same thing. Mercy is not giving to someone something they deserve. In this case, it is wrath that every sinner deserves from God. But God shows mercy to some, while He passes by others. This is what make grace for justification a matter of sovereign prerogative.

So God is the first cause of justification in salvation, to whoever has it. Whatever faith has to do with it, it is not the cause of it. Why does it matter to make this point? It is simply this, there are many who suppose it is their faith that is the cause of justification. How could someone come to this conclusion? It comes from an incorrect view of what it means to say that a sinner is justified by faith. Our text from Paul makes it clear that justification is by faith. It is a mistake to suppose however, that what he means by that is, faith is the cause of justification. Faith receives God’s gift, but it in no way is the cause of it. This might seem superfluous to some to make such a point. After all, everyone knows salvation is a free gift from God. Everyone knows that it is a matter of grace, so why split hairs in trying to explain it? It is precisely for this reason that it is mentioned. Vague notions about this are no doubt, responsible for the many errors found in modern Christendom on this matter of justification.

These errors translate into the supposition that justification is conditional upon belief. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Paul says not only is grace a gift of God, but faith itself is too (Eph. 2:8,9). It is not something a sinner conjures up of their own ability. In fact, it is impossible for a sinner to believe the gospel apart from the sovereign grace of God. This is what God demonstrates in the gospel by justifying faith apart from the works of the law.

Rome teaches that faith is a virtue, something practiced by a sinner for justification. So with this idea in mind, it is no wonder, they add many other things to it. And Romanists aren’t the only ones who think like this. Anyone who exalts human free will and effort over sovereign grace does the same thing with faith. This makes grace something inadequate to save by its own right. It requires the effort, the willingness of a person to make it effective. This makes justification two things. One, it makes justification infused righteousness. It does this by mixing works and faith together. Two, this makes justification something future, rather than present.

Justification as a gift of grace is a matter of imputed righteousness. The righteousness of God is accounted to a sinner in the form of a legal declaration. God declares a person righteous on the merit of His Son and His obedience, shown forth in the gospel. This brings us right back to the objective nature of justification spoken of earlier from Paul’s text in chapter three. The object is Christ. The declaration is an imputation of Him in His work upon the cross. Faith then is the reception of this gift from God, not the reason for it or its benefit.

As an objective declaration by God, justification is a present reality. By faith apart from any human work one receives a present and permanent standing with God that does not involve any future addition to it. A view of justification that is a cooperative effort, God and man working together, is one that does not believe in salvation as a present possession. There must always be an effort to secure some future reward from a faith that is viewed as virtue. This kind of faith does not believe in the sovereign grace of God as the first and final cause of justification. It is no wonder then that those who think like this, Romanists, Arminians, and nowadays, Federal Visionists, do not believe in having eternal security.

But there are some in the church that do speak of eternal security, and yet, deny the sovereign grace of God anyway, giving glory to human free will. This is the neo legalism of Amyrauldianism. These folk are not just wrong, but they are confused and irrational in their thinking about the theology of salvation as well. They make God subject to their faith, not only here on earth, but in eternity past. They do this by suggesting God’s foreknowledge is Him responding to them in time and space, rather than they responding to Him by design.

And finally, there is one more grievous error about faith and justification that seems to be a dominant theme in this post-modern era. This is what has given rise to the so called emergent church movement. It is the idea that both faith and justification are an experience, rather than doctrine. Truth is entirely subjective in nature, for it to be real. All distinctions that define truth are erased in the subjective experience of the believer in Jesus Christ. The Person of Jesus is the gospel, apart from any set of propositions that define Him and it. So justification is seen as a mystical union of the human and divine through experience. Not surprisingly then, these folk concentrate on various forms of a mood induced worship and evangelism. The experience is the message one believes in for justification.

In this, Christianity has come a full circle back to Rome. Justification viewed as experience is what surround the blasphemy of the Mass. In it, a wafer becomes God. A person eats God in the Mass and is justified through the mystical union that is experienced with Him. Of course, they teach that grace is present from God in this. However, the actions of men are what makes it effective.

Against all these forms of error Paul says salvation is “being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (verse 24). God’s grace is the cause of a person’s justification, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the message about it one believes in. Therefore, any idea about faith being the instrumental cause of justification, as a sort of condition, is a Romish error.

II. The Ground of Justification

“For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.” (Rom. 5:6-11).

What is intended by the word ‘ground’ of justification is this. It is the objective basis of God’s declaration of forgiveness and acceptance in Christ. Just as grace is, the cause of a person being justified with God, so the Person and work of Jesus Christ in the gospel are the ground of it. What is meant by ground, therefore, is the fundamental, essential thing upon which justification depends.

In justification, as it is presented in the text above, there are two polar opposite ideas involved that explain it’s ground. It is the concept of sin on the one hand, and the concept of righteousness on the other. It is put in this order here, for this is how it appears logically from a historical consideration of the overall Bible narrative from which redemption is revealed. Another way to say it is this. The problem with man is sin. The solution of God for it is righteousness. So it is this contrast between the two concepts of sin and righteousness appearing together, which forms the ontological framework in which the ground of justification arises.

Paul presents the problem of mans sin in such words as “when we were still without strength” (verse 6), “while we were still sinners” (verse 8), and “when we were enemies” (verse 10). When these three things are put together, they describe what Paul refers to as “the ungodly” (verse 6). So what is it about these three things that make someone ungodly?

Sinners are those who commit individual acts of disobedience against God, or, to put it more specifically, they break His law. This makes anyone who commits such acts unrighteous. Now there are some who suppose that according to accounting standards, acts of sin may be outweighed by a sufficient number of acts of obedience concerning the law. This makes sin and righteousness a sort of balance of accounts. Yes, they reason, sin is a debt, but good works will make restitution of it, so that one will cancel the other. They err, not understanding either the nature of sin, or the nature of righteousness. Sin on the one hand, is infinitely worse than a simple transgression committed in space and time, for it is committed against an infinitely holy God who is eternal in His Being. Righteousness, on the other hand, is infinitely greater in quality than any changeable creature like man is able to ascend to. For instance, even Adam in his original sinless state is called no better than good (Gen. 1:31). The designation of “good” among other things, implies that whatever righteousness Adam had previously was not inherent to his being, it could be lost. So balance sheet accountings with God is utterly deficient where sin is involved.

To be “without strength” in regard to righteousness, describes our deplorable condition as sinners. For once man found himself estranged from God and unrighteous, he was without wherewithal to do a thing about it. This is what contradicts any notion of a balance sheet accounting with God. The debt incurred from being a sinner, so far outweighs the possibility of being made right with Him on any account. From man’s perspective, he is utterly unable and “without strength” to do anything about his condition.

But note here in Paul’s text it was not beyond God’s ability, nor His will to do something about the state of man as lost and condemned to death. We are told “Christ died for us,” that is, those who are saved by it. Here is the strength of God. It is the Death of Christ for sin, to make payment for it, that overcomes the strength and power of sin. The death of Christ made full satisfaction to God against that debt of sin for which His eternal wrath must be expended. And it is not sin by itself in which that wrath is poured out, but the sinner who commits it. This is because sin is but a concept apart from the object upon which it is grounded. So the object of God’s wrath must be the sinner.

It is the death of Christ which brings reconciliation with God as the ground of that peace (Rom. 5:1b). The death of Christ is what the central theme of all the Old Testament sacrifices portrayed. It was that of an innocent life being slain, its blood let upon an altar on behalf of the guilty party for whom it is offered. The guilt of sin deserves the death of the sinner, but the sacrifice is offered instead, its blood being let for those crimes. So it is stated in the Old Testament law, the graphic scene of blood being shed is the pouring out of one life for the life of another (Lev. 17:11). The word atonement is a compound of two words. The words “at” and “one” is brought together in atonement to signify peace between two parties. So the exchange of life for life signified in the shedding of blood, is the ground of acceptance with God in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. His blood ended all those animal sacrifices for it was better in this respect. They simply acted as a covering for the sins of the guilty party under the law. Atonement signifies no more than a temporary abatement of hostility. The reason for this is obvious. An animal, no matter how innocent it is, is far less than a man made in the image of God. So the animal itself was insufficient to satisfy the wrath of God in the eternal sense. It was received by faith from the worshiper.

Jesus Christ, as the incarnated Son of God, did more than make atonement in His sacrifice. Jesus propitiated, satisfied God’s wrath in His blood (Rom. 3:25). Therefore, it is the blood of Jesus Christ that justifies a sinner (verse 9). God forgives a sinner He saves on the basis of that blood payment made by Christ. This is why salvation is also called redemption (Eph. 1:14). The blood of Jesus Christ buys the life of God’s people by paying for their sins in His blood.

But there is even more to it than that in this text (Rom. 5:6-11). We can see this in what Paul says about the death of Christ. “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.” (Verse 9). The blood of Christ removes the guilt of sin from its object, the one for whom He died. This puts them in a right standing with God. But if that was all there is, it would not last long. Why is this? Because the moment someone sinned again, all would be lost, requiring another sacrifice, just as it was under the Old Covenant. Therefore, Paul says this in the next verse. “For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” (Verse 10). It is the righteous life of Jesus Christ, in our humanity, which provides a positive and permanent justification by His death. The blood of Jesus Christ would be insufficient apart from this that He obeyed the law of God perfectly in our humanity, then died as a criminal against it. It is both His active and passive obedience that makes the blood of Christ sufficient to save.

In short, justification is the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ to a sinner. God declares a sinner just on account of His righteousness and shed blood for them at the cross. This makes the blood of Jesus Christ the ground of their justification.

III. The Means of Justification

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5).

It is customary in preaching the gospel, for a preacher to focus primarily upon that which a person must do to be saved. That is, at least in some portion of the sermon. Although salvation is by grace alone apart from works, there is a sense in which the gospel is to be responded to by a hearer. We see this very thing expressed in the early part of the book of Acts, where Peter preached to the people assembled in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:36-39). Interestingly though, in this passage of Scripture, no mention is made of faith.

Paul sets forth faith alone in Romans as the way of justification with God (Rom. 5:1,2). These two verses begin a larger context of thought found in verses 1-5 that connect justification with assurance of salvation. The point Paul makes here are that if someone is just with God, nothing will overthrow that standing. The fact that someone is justified, means therefore, they are saved. And not only saved here and now, but in the future as well. That is the assurance Paul hopes to convey here in this text in relation to the doctrine of justification.

Now, as we have said earlier in this essay, there are some who suppose that faith, since it is the way of justification, so stated in verse one of this text, is the reason or cause of salvation. After all, Scripture makes the distinction between those who have faith and those who don’t (John 3:36, 5:25; I John 5:1,10,13). So preachers often present salvation as though it depended entirely upon the reception by faith of the person to whom they are addressing.

Paul disabuses us of this notion by qualifying what it means to have justifying faith. He does this in the first two verses of Romans chapter five. Paul says that “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” In other words, those who have faith and are therefore justified, have it because of the grace God has given them beforehand. And for what has this grace been given? So that they might be justified and therefore, saved. This is the standing of grace. Faith is the product of sovereign grace. It precedes it in the biblical order of salvation. Paul states it this way in another place. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Eph. 2:8,9). This makes faith a means to being justified, not the reason for it. When someone believes the gospel, and therefore, they are saved, they do so because they have been enabled to by grace.

Don’t misunderstand this point. A person either believes in the gospel or doesn’t. God does not believe for them. That is not what sovereign grace implies. Paul previously said in the book of Romans that no one believes in God because of the total depravity of sin (Rom. 3:10-18,23). So what saving grace does do, is to enable someone to believe, where they were previously unable. This is why faith is the means God has appointed, and is set apart from all other works that a sinner might do. So what is faith then if it something that is exercised. Is it some sort of special state or condition that is acceptable to God that merits His grace? Certainly not, for it is something that follows the saving grace of God. Grace as a gift from God is just as particular in this respect as the atonement. The argument made that because the gospel is to be preached indiscriminately to all men, implies all are able to believe it, is simply not true. God’s grace is reserved and given only to the elect. Those are the ones for whom Christ died to save.

We are made keenly aware of the particularity of God’s grace by our Lord in a certain parable He gave to His disciples (Matt. 22:1-13). Following it Jesus spoke thus about the man left out. “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Verse 14). So grace is given to God’s elect that they might believe the gospel and be justified. Everything that follows grace in terms of what the respondent does is the fruit of grace. This is commonly called conversion. Faith itself is the fruit of God’s grace, in that it follows the initial work of God’s grace in a person. This work is called in Scripture regeneration, or, the new birth (Tit. 3:5; John 3:3,7).

In the doctrine of salvation, everything that pertains to it can be classified two ways. The first and primary aspect of it is what God purposes to bring to pass by way of His eternal decree. The second aspect is what is done to that end in space and time. So Paul sets forth the order of salvation like this. “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.” (Rom. 8:28-30). God predestines His people to salvation by electing them in eternity. His foreknowledge of how this comes to pass is the design of it. In order for it to be fulfilled, God sent His Son into the world at a particular time to accomplish redemption for them. At a particular time and place God effectually calls His elect into that saving relationship. He does that by justifying them. The result of all God purposed and performed to this end is the ultimate glorification of His elect, in eternal life with Him.

Now, a couple of further things should be said about this passage of Scripture. Verse 28 is a well known, often used Scripture to comfort God’s people here in this world. Many things conspire against them to try and overthrow their confidence in God’s promise of salvation to them. If it all depended on their faith at any given time, it is doubtful, nay impossible, that anyone could ever be ultimately glorified. This is because faith, is not what can save anybody, it is all the work of God, of which faith is but one part of the overall design that goes by the name of foreknowledge.

Notice should be taken in these verses there is no mention of faith. For that matter, no mention of sanctification is made either. Why is that? It is because these are not what constitutes salvation. They are the fruit of salvation, or, what the writer of Hebrews calls the “things that accompany salvation” (Heb. 6:9). The security of salvation is in the purpose and work of God in Christ. Faith might be called a means or an instrument, appointed of God to that end. We know we are saved if we believe the gospel. We receive others as Christians on the basis of their testimony of faith in the same. But even here, this is something that demands qualification. The reason is, it is only justifying faith if it is based on the true and proper object of salvation, which is the Person and work of Jesus Christ. This makes doctrine of paramount importance in the matter.

This is why Paul connects the providential hardships of the Christian life in terms of security to exact doctrine in this passage (verses 28-30), and in the previous one in chapter five (verses 1-5). Faith is not something that obtains salvation. It is the knowledge of it. This is how it acts as a means of God toward justification. The act of justification, which is God’s declaration of right standing with Him on the basis of His Son Jesus Christ, is something done in space and time as well. This is where hyper Calvinists have gone wrong over many hundreds of years since the reformation. Neither election, nor predestination, nor foreknowledge is justification. Justification falls within each one of these truths as it pertains to their specific meaning. But justification is something that happens here on earth, within the confines of space and time. The same is true about the work of redemption Christ performed. Unless He actually came and did it, nothing else about predestination would be true. This is why people err who say God could have done anything to save, but this is what He chose. No, it was an absolute necessity. This is what was predestined (Acts 2:23,24). Predestination is the eternal disposition of God. So is it the eternal security of those He has predestined to life.

 

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