God's Way of Justifying the Sinner
God's way of justifying the sinner is by grace, by blood and by faith (Rom. 3:24, 25). This is the work of the blessed Trinity. God gives His grace, the Son shed His blood, and the Holy Spirit gives the sinner faith in Jesus.
Let us look at these three aspects of justification:
1. By Grace
"Being justified freely by His grace. . . " Rom. 3:24.
"Grace" in this Pauline setting simply means God's attitude of mercy and favor to sinful and undeserving men. Paul is talking about a quality in God's heart and not (as Catholics teach) a quality in man's heart. Paul makes this clear by saying that we are "justified freely by His grace." The word "freely" means "without cause" (John 15:25). No amount of believing, obeying, repenting or character building ever causes God to regard a man as just in His sight. God extends His loving favor apart from any quality in the sinner. We can never do anything or be anything that would cause God to justify us. His infinite mercy reaches out to accept us in spite of our being unacceptable.
It is also important to notice that Paul is not just talking about becoming justified at the commencement of the Christian life. He uses the present continuous tense of the verb—"being justified." This means that we can never get past justification by grace. We can never remain in God's favor except by pure mercy. We become righteous and remain righteous only in the merciful reckoning of God. Grace finds us sinners, and we remain justified just as long as we remain sinners in our own eyes. If at any time (including the time of trouble) we could stand acceptable before God because of our obedience or moral excellence, it would no longer be justification by grace, but justification by good works.
Here we must pause to make a clear distinction between Christ and the believer. In this area of justification we must never try to make a parallel between Christ and the sinner. It is written of the Saviour: "God was manifest in the flesh, justified in [or by] the Spirit." 1 Tim. 3:16. Christ was so filled with the Spirit, even with all the fulness of the Godhead bodily (Col. 2:9), that He was righteous before God in reality in His own Person. In Him was all the fulness of divine perfection, an infinite life that measured with the broadest claims of an infinite law. God could look directly at Him and say, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." Jesus was righteous, acceptable and pleasing to God in His own Person. This can never be said of us in this life. We are accepted "in the Beloved." We may be pleasing because Another is pleasing. We live under the covenant of grace. Christ lived under the old covenant of obey and live (Gal. 4:4, 5).
In this life we shall stand justified only by grace (i.e., the merciful reckoning of God) and never by the Spirit, for in this life we only have the "firstfruits" or "down payment" of God's Spirit (Rom. 8:23; Eph. 1:14). Never let us forget that this justifying grace means favor shown to undeserving sinners (see Selected Messages, bk. 1, pp. 331, 332). If we ever lose the consciousness of being sinful and undeserving, we can no longer qualify for being justified by grace. Even when Jesus comes in the clouds of heaven, the glorified saints still need His grace. They pale before His glory and cry in the fear and the sense of their own inadequacy, "Who shall be able to stand?" And the Saviour shall proclaim the gospel, "My grace is sufficient for you." (See Great Controversy, p. 641.) In view of this, Peter exhorts us, "Hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." 1 Peter 1:13.
Then let us gladly submit to the words of the apostle: "Even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord." Rom. 5:21. We must live under the reign of grace until eternal life is granted to us as an actual possession at the return of our Lord.
If we would only understand and accept the Pauline teaching of being (remaining) justified by grace, it would be sufficient to expose all vain hope of human perfectionism this side of eternity.
2. By Blood
"Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood. . . ." Rom. 3:24, 25.
"Being now justified by His blood. . . ." Rom. 5:9.
Grace is free, unmerited, given without cause on our part. It costs us nothing, but it has cost God everything. "Grace . . . came by Jesus Christ." John 1:17. It could only be extended to us at infinite expense to heaven, even by the doing and dying of the Lord Jesus.
"Good" people are sometimes afraid of the teaching of unmerited grace, because they see that there are souls who presumptuously carouse on the mercy of God. If men try to grasp grace outside of the wounds of Jesus Christ, it actually will result in permissiveness. But it cannot lead to permissiveness when the sinner sees that grace is only extended through the shedding of Christ's precious blood.
The Son of the infinite God came into this world to become our substitute. In a word, He came to fulfill the law on behalf of all men (Gal. 4:4, 5). First He presented to the law a life that equalled its broadest claims. Do we realize what that means? The law is infinite. Even the life of an angel is not equal to the law (Questions on Doctrine, p. 677). But in the life of Jesus there was revealed an "infinitely perfect character." —That I may know Him, p. 70. He was "the embodiment of divine perfection."—Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 739. There was an "excellence of character found in Him, which never had been found, neither could be, in another." —SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 904. In Him was "all the fulness of the Godhead bodily" (Col. 2:9)—the fulness of infinite purity, the fulness of infinite love, the fulness of infinite mercy, justice, truth, wisdom, patience, righteousness and every other divine attribute. This, our substitute life, was far superior to the sinless life of Adam, far superior to any angel life, for it was a life of infinite worth. Nothing less than such a life could meet the broadest demands of the law on behalf of the fallen race.
Yet that is not all. It required more than the active obedience of Christ to bring us justification before God. It required also His passive obedience, even His death on the cross, to wipe away our debt to the law. It was the Prince of glory who hung on the cross for our justification. His sufferings were nothing less than infinite. If it were only human nature which suffered, the sufferings would have been only finite. But the sins of the world were rolled on Christ's divine soul. All the sufferings of all the holy martyrs combined would not begin to compare with the sufferings of Jesus. His humiliation was infinite. His was not just the humiliation of a man, but the humiliation of a God (Questions on Doctrine, p. 677). He went lower and lower until there was no lower place for Him to go. See here a life of infinite worth bearing infinite pain and humiliation. This is what it took to satisfy the law in order that we might be justified.
In view of the cross, how could we even dream that anything else but the doing and dying of Jesus could meet the claims of God's law? Justification is solo Christo—by Christ alone. To offer to an infinite law anything less than what Christ has done is, to use the strong words of Luther, offering to God "rotten stubble and straw."
"What is the obedience of all the holy angels in comparison to the Son of God delivered, and that most shamefully, even to the death of the cross, so that there was no drop of His most precious blood, but it was shed, and that for thy sin? If thou didst but rightly consider this price, thou shouldst hold as accursed all these ceremonies, vows, works, and merits before grace and after, and throw them all down to hell."—Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, 2:20.
Let a man scale the alpine heights of holy living, and he will still see that his life alone could never fulfill the law of God. Mortal man might just as well scale the highest mountain and then try to reach out to touch the nearest star, as to equal the righteousness of the law. But the Son of God descended to the deepest hell; yet even from there His holiness mounted up to reach beyond the highest star to the throne of the Eternal. "It is finished !" He cried, and the justice of God's law was fully satisfied. And it is by His obedience alone, His fulfilling the law for us, that we not only become justified, but stay justified in the sight of God.
If we think that by imparted (infused) righteousness we will fulfill the law as Jesus did, we are blinded by ignorance and horrible blasphemy (see Desire of Ages, pp. 467, 468). Let us look to Calvary and see what it required to fulfill all righteousness. Do we think we are called to equal that? I realize that we are called to vindicate and fulfill the law of God on a horizontal level—that is, before our fellow men; but no one less than God Himself could fulfill the law on a vertical level.
It is terrible darkness to think Paul's doctrine of justification pertains only to Christian initiation. This was the mistake of the Galatians. They thought Paul's message was only about becoming justified instead of being justified. As we become justified by His blood alone, so we remain justified by His blood alone. The Father looks at our substitute and surety, who ever bears the marks of His cruel sufferings. He accepts our substitute, and we are accepted only because He is accepted.
But says one, "Jesus doesn't plead His blood after the close of probation." True, but does that mean God's people stand justified without the blood? No! No! They themselves, as faithful priests of the Lord, take up the censer and plead the merits of Jesus' blood as their only justification during the time of trouble.
"...they must depend solely upon the merits of the atonement." —Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 203.
" . . [they] will plead the promises of God through Christ, made to just such dependent, helpless, repenting sinners."—Story of Redemption, p. 97.
So during the time of trouble God's people are fully righteous and fully satisfy the law by grace (in the merciful reckoning of God) and blood (on the basis of what Christ has done and suffered).
3. By Faith
"Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." Rom. 3:28.
Faith is not self-generated. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit. As the sinner hears the gospel of what God has done in Christ, the Spirit persuades him that it is true. Then in all his helpless unworthiness he casts himself on the mercy of a compassionate Redeemer, to trust in nothing but that blood that was shed to redeem his soul.
In the fourth chapter of Romans, Paul says that faith is counted, or reckoned, for righteousness. Or to use the other synonym, God imputes the righteousness of Jesus (which is the very righteousness of God—Rom. 3:21, 22) to the believing sinner.
The word impute means to reckon or put to our account. Paul's doctrine is that we are declared righteous by having Christ's righteousness accounted to us. This means that we become justified and remain justified in God's sight by a righteousness which is outside of us. It is, as Luther says, a foreign or alien righteousness. It is, as Bunyan says, a righteousness residing in and remaining with the Person of Christ. We can never be justified in the sight of God by imparted righteousness. Righteousness is indeed imparted by the Spirit, but in this life we have only the "firstfruits" or "down payment" of the Spirit—which is to say the down payment of righteousness. Our full treasure is in heaven, in Christ; and by that alone can we remain justified in the sight of God.
How are we justified? Paul's answer is plain: "Faith is counted for righteousness." Rom. 4:5. Obedience, love and holy living are never counted for righteousness, but faith alone. In this life God's people are righteous before God (justified) by faith alone—not by regeneration, love or sanctification. The Christian life begins in faith and ends in faith, and, in between, the just shall live by faith (Rom. l:17). They are righteous in God's sight just as long as they have faith that Christ Himself is their righteousness, and maintain a vital connection with Him. In Him and Him alone is a righteousness that the law is well pleased with. Faith brings to God the obedience of Jesus Christ, and by that alone can we stand in God's favor (Selected Messages, bk. 1, p. 389).
The idea that we could ever stand in the sight of God by an infilling of the Spirit, or love, or obedience, is Roman darkness. It is the doctrine of antichrist that tries to use Jesus' grace to rob His glory. Against this we must reaffirm the gospel presented by the apostle Paul. In this life we can stand righteous in God's sight only by grace (the merciful reckoning of God), only by blood (the doing and dying of Christ), and only by faith in a righteousness which is completely outside, above and beyond us.
Editorial note: For many traditionalists in the Adventist community the evangelical gospel and justification by faith are labeled as "license to sin until the second coming". Which of course it is no such thing. The gospel merely states that we all fall short of the glory of God and that the only righteousness that the Lord can accept is that which is freely imputed to the repentant believer each day as we call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Only the gospel of free grace can motivate the believer to holiness of life and true sanctification of the heart. The Christian will need imputed righteousness even until the second coming of our Lord in great glory.
The gospel begins in faith and ends in faith in the sinless doing and atoning substitutionary dying of our Lord Jesus Christ reckoned to the repentant believer's account. The gift of the Holy Spirit's indwelling is bestowed upon those who trust only in the cross. All other "methods" of "getting the Holy Spirit" are mere counterfeits and will end in apostasy from the true Christ and will lead to embracing the ecumenical Antichrist of the final deception. Many are called to the kingdom but few will enter by grace alone through the righteousness that is by faith alone in the sinless life and atoning death of Christ alone as revealed in the Bible alone.
The blood of Christ is the meritorious cause of our acceptance with God while faith and repentance are the instrumental cause of our acceptance (Acts 20:20-21).
Acts 20:21 20 I (Paul) kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house, 21 Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
No matter how sanctified a believer becomes in this life he must always confess himself totally dependent upon the imputed righteousness of Christ for the gracious acceptance of God and the gift of eternal life at the resurrection of the redeemed at His coming.