Sunday, November 11, 2012

Clarification on Justification

As Louis Berkhof says, “Justification is always a declaration of God, not on the basis of an existing condition, but on that of a gracious imputation...”

Justification changes our legal status from unholy and repugnant to righteous. But it doesn’t change us. Justification happens outside of us. It is simply a status change based on Christ’s righteousness (which becomes ours) through faith.

Mirror reading the book of Romans then, we see that those who were charging the apostles of antinomianism (“We shall sin that grace may abound”) were correctly assessing the logic of Paul’s doctrine of justification.

Only being declared righteous would be grounds for being able to do whatever we want. If we were only declared righteous and that was that, there really would be no danger in sinning! If the doctrine of justification is about foreign righteousness and a guilty verdict being removed –then truly no heart change can happen in us if we are only justified.

But we weren't only justified. 

Romans 6:5-11
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

A guilty verdict reversal does not change our hearts. The Spirit in the rebirth changes our hearts from those of stone to those of flesh. All those (truly) justified have Union with Christ.

When someone believes in Christ, their old self is crucified as Christ was, and raised to new life. This is the reason we can now walk in the newness of life. We can do this because we are no longer enslaved to sin. Sin’s dominion over us has been crushed through the cross. We’ve been reborn by the Spirit, given a new heart. Our redemption has finally been applied when we believe. Before the Christian had faith, all the benefits from their union with Christ were apart from them.

It is like all the spiritual blessings of union with Christ were behind a giant dam. But upon believing in Christ that dam is broken and all the benefits which the believer possesses in Christ from the beginning are applied to them. Justification is a fundamental piece of union with Christ, but it certainly isn’t all there is.

Here’s the reason for the clarification: It seems to me that in many Reformed churches the idea is stressed that justification by faith alone gives us the power to do good works. After the reading of the law, the pastor will say, “Look at what you’ve been given! You’ve been justified! You are righteous because of Christ! Now go and live a week of good works in thankfulness.”

But isn’t this fundamentally flawed thinking? It leaves out the real power source, forcing us into another week of reliance upon our justification, which is the basis for our changed life and our salvation, but cannot impart to us a changed life.

Shouldn’t reliance upon the Spirit be stressed instead? Isn't all grace in the Christian life instigated by the Spirit? He had to regenerate us before we had faith and were justified. 

Rather than pointing to our justification by faith alone for a life of good works (though a life of good works would be impossible without justification, for we must be made right before we can hope to work), shouldn’t we be pointing to reliance on the Spirit, our “newness,” our Union with Christ?

We are to count ourselves as dead to sin and alive to Christ, because we really are dead to sin! We have been united to Christ by the Spirit. It is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. The Spirit gives us Christ’s resurrection power for our lives now.

Some final clarifying statements:
When we fail in the Christian life, of course we look to our Savior Jesus Christ and our justification through him. As 1 John 2:1 says, "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous."

We have salvation because Christ’s work has been imputed to us. As J.V. Fesko states in his book Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, “Justification, not Union with Christ, is the foundation upon which the believer’s Salvation is established” (279). Our perfection and salvation come only through Christ’s blood! Our works add nothing.

But since justification is not based on any change in us, we must realize that good works flow from the resurrection power of  Christ in our lives, which only the Spirit gives.

We can't do the whole, "You've been justified, so try harder this week" thing. We should count ourselves as dead to sin because in Christ, through the Spirit, we are! We can conquer sin because sin's dominion has been crushed.

Of course we should live lives of thankfulness in response to justification, but we can only do that because we have been made new by the Spirit. We are Spirit-empowered people!

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