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The Justification of Repentant Sinners  

The relationship between justification and regeneration was a major point of contention between Roman Catholic theologians and the Reformers. The papists said that regeneration and penance were the necessary conditions for justification. Penance being the sinner's voluntary self-inflicted punishment as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong. The Reformers taught that regeneration was the fruit of justification. Justification means that the repentant sinner is forgiven of his sins by Christ and that he is reckoned as sinless before God's holy LawChrist Himself being the One who was punished for the sins of the repentant sinner. Christ is the One who did penance for our sins when He alone suffered and died for our sins on the cross of Calvary.

Rome
Regeneration – a necessary condition for justification.

Reformation
Regeneration – the immediate consequence and fruit of justification.

There are many souls today who are not clear on the mighty doctrinal gains of the Reformation. Not only do they confuse justification and regeneration, but some even imagine that regeneration and transformation of character must take place in the heart before God can justify the believer in Jesus. Unless a Christian is clear on this point, it is impossible to be sound in the faith. Therefore we shall examine the evidence from God's Word – evidence that will clearly prove that God justifies men while they are still sinners in themselves.

According to Paul

The book of Romans is the inspired thesis on justification. Here the subject is set out in the most careful and logical order. Paul makes five points to show that men are justified while still sinners in themselves:

1. God justifies the ungodly. First Paul sets forth the truth that all men are sinners. In the third chapter of Romans he declares that faith is the only condition of receiving justification. Then in chapter 4 he says: "But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." Verse 5. In the original language, the word "ungodly" is one of the strongest expressions that can be used to describe a sinner. This scripture certainly contradicts the notion that God justifies only regenerate saints.

2. God justifies the uncircumcised. In order to illustrate that justification comes on the ungodly who believe, Paul illustrates his point from the example of Abraham. The father of the faithful was justified by faith while he was uncircumcised.

RSV Romans 4:9-11 Is this blessing pronounced only upon the circumcised, or also upon the uncircumcised? We say that faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them,

In the minds of the Jews, uncircumcision stood for an unclean and unsanctified state. Circumcision is a symbol of the new heart (Col. 2:11-13).

Colossians 2:11-13 11 When you came to Christ, you were "circumcised," but not by a physical procedure. It was a spiritual procedure -- the cutting away of your sinful nature. For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to a new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ. He forgave all our sins.

So the new life is the sign and witness of the blessing of justification, not the cause or even the condition necessary for justification. Paul's gospel declares that God justifies the ungodly, the uncircumcised and the heathen through faith and faith alone (Rom. 4:5, 10; Gal. 3:7-9).

Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Romans 4:4-5

Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. Galatians 3:7-9

3. God calls the things that be not as though they were. Human wisdom will question, "How can God pronounce a man righteous before the Holy Spirit has made him righteous?" This is how the Catholic system reasons.

Paul anticipates this objection, and so he cites Abraham's experience again to illustrate God's way of justification—

.... (as it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before Him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were." Rom. 4:17.

God did not give Abraham a son and then pronounce him a father. He pronounced him a father while his own body and Sarah's womb were still dead (See verse 19). In the same way, God pronounces the believing sinner righteous even before the fruit of a new life is seen. He calls "those things which be not as though they were."

4. The new heart of peace, joy and love is the consequence of justification. Nothing could be plainer than Romans 5:

"Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. . . . and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us." Verses 1, 2, 5.

Thus does Romans 5 begin to enumerate the fruits of being justified by faith. Nothing works moral renovation like the sense of God's pardoning love. As Luther said, “. . . when I learned how the sinner's justification proceeds from the pure mercy of the Lord by means of faith, then I felt myself revive like a new man, and entered at open doors into the very paradise of God." — J.H. Merle D'Aubigne, History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century, vol. 1, p.73

5. Only the justified receive the gift and infilling of the Spirit. Paul speaks of two gifts – the gift of righteousness, and the gift of the Spirit (Rom. 5:5, 17).

For if by one man's offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ. Romans 5:17

And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. Romans 5:5

Righteousness is imputed to give the believer right standing with God; the Spirit is imparted to work renovation and sanctification in the heart of the believer. As we have seen from Romans 5:1, 5, the gift of the Spirit is given to those who have been justified by faith. In fact, Paul's thorough treatment of the Spirit's work is presented in Romans 8 — only after he has thoroughly presented justification through the imputation of God's righteousness. The Spirit is the witness that the justified are children of God (Rom. 8:16; cf. Eph. 1:13, 14).

The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: Romans 8:16

In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory. Ephesians 1:13-14

In Galatians the apostle declares:

"And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." Gal. 3:8, 9, 13, 14.

The apostle Peter also confirms that the gift of the Spirit is given to the justified, for he says,

"Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." Acts 2:38.

"But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. "Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, Acts 3:18-20

It is true that the Spirit pleads with the hearts of all men as long as Jesus continues to make intercession for the transgressors in the sanctuary above. To those who respond to His drawing, the Spirit gives faith and repentance. In theology this is called "prevenient grace", and should not be confused with the gift and infilling of the Spirit, which comes upon the justified.

Thus men are justified by faith while they are still sinners in themselves.

According to Ezekiel

"Thus saith the Lord God unto Jerusalem: Thy birth and thy nativity is of the land of Canaan; thy father was an Amorite, and thy mother an Hittite. And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to supple thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. None eye pitied thee, to do any of these unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, to the lothing of thy person, in the day that thou wast born. And when I, passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live. .. . Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold, thy time was the time of love, and I spread My skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness: yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord God, and thou becamest Mine. Then washed I thee with water; yea, I thoroughly washed away thy blood from thee, and I anointed thee with oil." Ezek.16:3-6, 8, 9.

What a tremendous illustration of the justification of sinners by the pure mercy of God! Notice how God washes and anoints with oil (the Holy Spirit) after He covers the sinner with His righteousness. Commenting on this scripture, John Bunyan says:

Question: But how could a holy God say, “live”, to such a sinful people?

Answer: Though they had nought but sin, yet he had love and righteousness. He had, 1. Love to pity them; 2. Righteousness to cover them 'Now when I passed by thee and looked upon thee, behold, thy time was the time of love,' Ezek, xvi.8 what follows? 1. 'I spread my skirt over thee;' and, 2, 'Covered thy nakedness;' yea, 3, 'I sware unto thee;' and, 4, 'Entered into covenant with thee;'and, 5, 'Thou becamest mine.' My love pitied thee; my skirt covered thee. Thus God delivered them from the curse in his sight. 'Then I washed thee with water (after thou wast justified); yea, I thoroughly washed away thy blood from thee, and anointed thee with oil.' verse 9.

Sanctification, then, is consequential, justification goes before — the Holy Ghost by this scripture setteth forth to the life, free grace to the sons of men while they themselves are sinners. I say, while they are unwashed, unswaddled, unsalted, but bloody sinners; for by these words, 'not washed, not salted, not swaddled,' he setteth forth their unsanctified state; yea, they were not only unsanctified, but also cast out, without pity, to the loathing of their persons; yea, 'no eye pitied them, to do any of these things for them;' no eye but his whose glorious grace is unsearchable; no eye but his who could look and love; all others looked and loathed; but blessed be God that hath passed by us in that day that we wallowed in our own blood; and blessed be God for the skirt of his glorious righteousness wherewith he covered us when we lay before him naked in blood. It was when we were in our blood that he loved us; when we were in our blood he said, Live. Therefore, men are justified from the curse in the sight of God while sinners in themselves.' “Justification by an Imputed Righteousness, pp.31, 32.

According to the Way of Divine Forgiveness

According to the glorious gospel of saving grace, God forgives sinners rather than transformed, born-again saints. But according to Rome, a sinner cannot be forgiven unless he first becomes a new creature. In this way the poor sinner is unable to grasp the free gift of God's pardon, for, looking to himself, he is never sure if he is transformed enough for God to accept him. This was the nature of the struggle in the heart of Luther as he wailed, "How can I know that God forgives me when there is nothing in my heart like true conversion?" But as soon as he grasped God's free pardon to an unworthy sinner, he experienced the peace, joy and love of the regenerate life. The great evil of the mystery of iniquity is in that it takes the fruit of justification and presents that as the means of justification.

Jesus' act of forgiving and healing the sick of the palsy is a beautiful illustration of the relationship of justification and newness of life.

"When Jesus saw their faith, He said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee. But there were certain of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts, Why doth this Man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only? And immediately when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, He said unto them, Why reason ye these things in your hearts? Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (He saith to the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house. And immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went forth before them all; insomuch that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, We never saw it on this fashion." Mark 2:5-12.

The sick man's physical restoration was the sign, or seal, of the righteousness which he had by faith (cf. Rom. 4:10, 11). This miracle was an illustration of Jesus' power to bring regeneration and newness of life to souls that are palsied by sin. It shows that forgiveness and regeneration are never to be separated. Yet they must not be confused. First the palsied man was forgiven. Then he was restored to the vigor of new life. Here is an illustration of the gospel. The soul palsied by sin is first forgiven, then restored to spiritual soundness.

According to the Sanctuary

As soon as the repentant Hebrew stepped through the "door of the court" and into the enclosure of the sanctuary, he found himself surrounded on all sides by the white linen of the outer court. Here is an illustration of the imputed righteousness of Jesus. The moment the sinner steps through the door of faith and repentance, he is justified by the righteousness of God.

It is significant that the altar of burnt offering and the laver were within the court. This teaches us that the blessings of the covenant are found only in Christ. None are found outside. Sinners must run into Christ before anything else. If God wanted to show us that we must be free from sin before we run into Christ, He would have instructed Moses to put the altar and laver outside the court. This is what people do when they teach that men must experience regeneration before God can cover them with His righteousness.

According to the Reformers

The Reformers were not without fault in their understanding of truth. But God gave them the light on justification by faith, and despite differences that existed among some of them on certain points, they were all united on justification, the foundation of the Protestant Reformation. They gave united witness to the truth that God justifies men while they are still sinners in themselves.

Andrew Osiander broke from Luther and the Reformation position on justification. He confounded justification and regeneration, and contended that men are made righteous before God by the indwelling of Christ. The Reformers recognized that Osiander's doctrine constituted a return, in principle, to the doctrine of Romanism. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin devoted a section to refute Osiander's theology. Among other things, he said:

"6. Osiander erroneously mixes forgiveness of sins with rebirth."

"To prove the first point — that God justifies not only by pardoning but by regenerating — he asks whether God leaves as they were by nature those whom he justified, changing none of their vices. This is exceedingly easy to answer— as Christ cannot be torn into parts, so these two which we perceive in him together and conjointly are inseparable — namely, righteousness and sanctification. Whomever, therefore, God receives into grace, on them he at the same time bestows the spirit of adoption [Rom. 8:15], by whose power he remakes them to his own image. But if the brightness of the sun cannot be separated from its heat, shall we therefore say that the earth is warmed by its light, or lighted by its heat? Is there anything more applicable to the present matter than this comparison? The sun, by its heat, quickens and fructifies the earth, by its beams brightens and illumines it. Here is a mutual and indivisible connection. Yet reason itself forbids us to transfer the peculiar qualities of the one to the other. In this confusion of the two kinds of grace that Osiander forces upon us there is a like absurdity. For since God, for the preservation of righteousness, renews those whom he freely reckons as righteous, Osiander mixes that gift of regeneration with this free acceptance and contends that they are one and the same. Yet Scripture, even though it joins them, still lists them separately in order that God's manifold grace may better appear to us. For Paul's statement is not redundant: that Christ was given to us for our righteousness and sanctification [1 Cor. 1:30]. And whenever he reasons — from the salvation purchased for us, from God's fatherly love, and from Christ's grace that we are called to holiness and cleanness, he clearly indicates that to be justified means something different from being made new creatures."

John Wesley was noted for his great emphasis on holiness of life; yet he stood decidedly with the Reformers on the true relation of justification and regeneration. Said Wesley:

"If any doctrines within the whole compass of Christianity may be properly termed fundamental, they are doubtless these two; the doctrine of justification, and that of the new birth: the former relating to that great work which God does for us, in forgiving our sins; the latter, to the great work which God does in us, in renewing our fallen nature. In order of time, neither of these is before the other; in the moment we are justified by the grace of God, through the redemption that is in Jesus, we are also 'born of the Spirit;' but in order of thinking as it is termed, justification precedes the new birth. We first conceive His wrath to be turned away, and then his Spirit to work in our hearts." Sermons on Several Occasions, sermon 45, "The New Birth."

Unless Wesley was clear on this matter of justification, he could not have preached for the conversion of thousands of sinners. See how he concluded a powerful sermon on justification:

"Thou ungodly one, who hearest or readest these words, thou vile, helpless, miserable sinner, I charge thee before God, the Judge of all, go straight unto him, with all thy ungodliness. Take heed thou destroy not thy own soul by pleading thy righteousness more or less. Go as altogether ungodly, guilty, lost, destroyed, deserving and dropping into hell; and thou shalt then find favour in his sight, and know that he justifieth the ungodly. As such thou shalt be brought unto the blood of sprinkling, as an undone, helpless, damned sinner. Thus look unto Jesus! There is the Lamb of God, who taketh away thy sins! Plead thou no works, no righteousness of thine own! No humility, contrition, sincerity! In no wise. That were, in very deed, to deny the Lord that bought thee. No; plead thou, singly, the blood of the covenant, the ransom paid for thy proud, stubborn, sinful soul. Who art thou, that now seest and feelest both thine inward and outward ungodliness? Thou art the man! I want thee for my Lord! I challenge thee for a child of God by faith! The Lord hath need of thee. Thou who feelest thou art just fit for hell, art just fit to advance his glory; the glory of his free grace, justifying the ungodly and him that worketh not. Oh come quickly! Believe in the Lord Jesus; and thou, even thou, art reconciled to God." Ibid., sermon 5, "Justification by Faith."

Conclusion

There is freedom and power, as well as a wealth of comfort, in the truth. We need to know that God justifies sinners who believe His gospel message. But if we once accept the devil's premise that God will justify us on the basis of some inward righteousness, faith totters, and the soul falls into uncertainty and despair. Those who would teach that regeneration must precede justification do dig ditches in the path to Christ that neither themselves nor poor sinners who heed them can ever get across. But in the light of the gospel, the conviction of our utter sinfulness need not drive us to despair. Indeed, such conviction prepares us for the comfort of the gospel. The fact that we are sinners entitles us to come to Christ. We may come just as we are and, throwing ourselves in all our unworthiness entirely upon His mercy, may grasp the promise:

"But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." Rom. 4:5.