How to Live the Victorious Life
7. Other Principles Necessary to Keep Justification at the Center
We have shown:
1. That justification and sanctification must always be kept together.
2. That sanctification must constantly return to justification.
3. That justification must always remain the center of the church's attention. It must always remain the major chord in the soteriological melody. If sanctification is allowed to drown out the dominant New Testament note, Christian teaching degenerates into sheer moralism or Pharisaism.
There are three basic principles necessary to keep justification at the center and dominant.
a. The Present Continuous Nature of Justification. Much evangelical theology tends to relegate justification by faith to an initiatory action in the soteriological process. This is because it contends that the subjective (personal) justification of the believing sinner is a once-and-for-all, nonrepeatable act. Hence the relationship between justification and sanctification is seen as justification succeeded by sanctification:
The tendency is to celebrate justification as something which happened "back there when I became a Christian"— or to have a memorial of it perhaps once a year. Admittedly, the Reformed doctrine of "the perseverance of the saints" puts some stern backbone into the necessity for sanctification. But where this is lost in the more popular "once saved, always saved" version, justification by faith really ceases to be vitally relevant in daily Christian existence.
Another alternative is to regard justification as mere forgiveness for past sins, then sanctification as the higher stage in the soteriological process. Final justification is conditional on sanctification, as illustrated:
We submit that both of these approaches fail to keep justification at the center. We suggest that Paul sees the atonement of Christ (objective justification) as the once-and-for-all-time event. The believer is subjectively (personally) justified (declared righteous) when he receives Christ in faith. ..... being justified [present continuous tense] freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus... through faith Rom. 3:24, 25. This is not just something which happened "back there when I became a Christian." The law always demands perfect righteousness. We always find ourselves falling short of the law's demand (Rom. 3:20, 23. In Romans 3:23 the verb translated "come short" is in the present continuous tense.). Hence, we must always confess ourselves as sinners and must always flee in faith to lay hold of that "righteousness of One," with which the law is well pleased. Believing unto justification is not a once-and-for-all action, but in the New Testament (John 3:16 for instance) it is generally written in the present continuous tense. As Luther writes in his commentary on Romans, the believer always waits and asks to be justified, and as he keeps counting himself a sinner and imploring God's mercy, God keeps counting him righteous.
The present continuous nature of justification was the genius of Luther's emphasis. In "The Disputation Concerning Justification" (1536), he says:
... Forgiveness of sins is not a matter of a passing work or action, but of perpetual duration. For the forgiveness of sins begins in baptism and remains with us all the way to death, until we arise from the dead, and leads us into life eternal. So we live continually under the remission of sins. Christ is truly and constantly the liberator from our sins, is called our Savior, and saves us by taking away our sins. If, however, he saves us always and continually, then we are constantly sinners. — Ibid., p. 164.
On no condition is sin a passing phase, but we are justified daily by the unmerited forgiveness of sins and by the justification of God's mercy. Sin remains, then, perpetually in this life, until the hour of the last judgment comes and then at last we shall be made perfectly righteous. —Ibid., p. 167.
For the forgiveness of sins is a continuing divine work, until we die. Sin does not cease. Accordingly, Christ saves us perpetually. — Ibid., p. 190.
Daily we sin, daily we are continually justified, just as a doctor is forced to heal sickness day by day until it is cured. —Ibid., p. 191.
This diagram illustrates how sanctification constantly lives under the primary and preeminent grace of justification.
b. The Radical Demands of God's Law. If there is one reason above all others why justification by faith has little significance in today's church, it is because the church has not been taking the law of God with the radical seriousness that Calvary demands. If God was not taking the demands of His law with utmost seriousness, then what was the death of Christ all about?
Justification itself is a legal term. It has no meaning apart from law. It means to be set right before the law (A.H. Strong). If Christ died and set aside the claims of the law, then we do not need to be justified. If the law is still in force to make demands upon us, then we need to be justified by the blood and obedience of Jesus Christ.
The strength of Reformation theology is that it recognizes that man today is still obligated to render to God the obedience that God required of man in his sinless state. This demand for perfect righteousness cannot be annulled, modified or relaxed. Christ did not die to make a lower or easier standard acceptable to God. Christ lived a sinless life in order that our faith might grasp the virtue of His obedience and be able to present to the law the perfect obedience which it rightfully demands. This does not mean that the believer, being justified by a vicarious righteousness, can become secure and lazy, not caring if he obeys or disobeys the holy commandments. He sees the law as an expression of the kind of man God wants him to be. In the gospel he sees that this is now the kind of man he is in Jesus Christ. Now the law becomes an expression of the kind of man he wants to be in daily, concrete existence. God's ideal has become his ideal.
This is what the Reformers called "the third use of the law"-the law as the rule of life for the justified believer. Although it cannot tyrannize the conscience of the believer, it is a radical and rigorous demand for utmost perfection in every act, word, thought and motive-a spiritual law (Rom. 7:14) that desires "truth in the inward parts." Ps. 51:6. As believers, we will "delight in the law of God after the inward man" (Rom. 7:22), and the Spirit works within us "that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us." Rom. 8:4. But alas, there is another factor which we must contend with-something which causes us to cry out in anguish. This brings us to our next point.
c. The Radical Sin of the Believer. "..... by the law is the knowledge of sin." Rom. 3:20. Conversion to Christ does not do away with the bitter knowledge of our sin, but it rather puts us where we may endure its increasing revelation. It is not from immature believers that we hear startling confessions about the corruption of human nature, but from holy prophets, apostles and mature saints. We may even be surprised that they cry out of the depth and bitterness of soul anguish, "Woe is me!... ,""O wretched man that I am! etc. Giddy spirits who have soared up to heaven in high and mighty experiences (and like to testify of their "victory life of piety") find these testimonies of prophets and apostles hard to understand. They think, for instance, that when Paul delineated his state of wretchedness in Romans 7:14-25, he must have been talking about his preconversion days or at least his pre-"second blessing" days. But in the light of the radical demands of God's law, Romans 7 is not so hard to understand — certainly not to him who has honestly sought to come to terms with God's holiness in day-to-day existence. In Romans 7:14-25 there is too much evidence to the contrary to deny that it is really Paul the apostle speaking about himself. But what does he mean when he confesses:
Paul is not describing himself at his worst, but himself at his best — i.e., ". . . the good that I would I do not This is not a description of a man who loathes God's commandments and counts them grievous. Here is a man who delights to do God's will. With the psalmist he rejoices to run the way of God's commandments. But when such deeds are judged by the law with its demand for absolute righteousness, they fall short. Judged by the strict justice of that law, this man would be judged as the son who said, "I go, sir," and went not. The law knows one standard. To miss the mark partially, even by a hair's breadth, is to miss entirely. So the best deeds of such a man could only "merit death and destruction." — Calvin.
Judged by the law, the best state of the best saint is vanity. "Our purest works are no better than filthy rags, when tried by the light of God's law." — J.C. Ryle. This is why the apostle cries out, "O wretched man that I am. . . " That is to say, when he hates evil and does the right, his performance is wretched compared to the purity of the law's demands (or the holiness of the Son of God).
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. — 1 John 1:8.
No work or deed of the saints in this life can meet the severity of God's law. Apart from God's merciful judgment, the good works of the saints would be "mortal sin" (Luther), and nothing is acceptable to God unless mediated through the covering cloud of Christ's merits. Because of "indwelling sin," we need mercy at the end as much as at the beginning, for the old nature is as evil then as ever. Growth in grace, therefore, does not mean becoming less and less sinful, but on the contrary, it means becoming more and more sinful in our own estimation.
... and this is His name whereby He shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. - Jer. 23:6.