Justification is another part of God’s orderly plan of salvation for man. It follows the preceding parts, namely, the calling, regeneration, conversion, and faith.
The apostolic church of the New Testament was enthusiastically following the instructions of their Master. As a consequence, the gospel spread throughout Asia Minor and beyond, and, as a result, many converts were brought into the Church. However, by the sixteenth century, many false conceptions of the Truth had entered the church. The truth of the gospel had been watered down to the point that the true Church was about to lose its way if that were possible. The church was in serious need of a revival of the truth. Historically, God has used men to fill that purpose. We have examples of that in men of the Old Testament such as Enoch, Moses, and Abraham.
In the 16th century, God once more used a man to restore the truth. Martin Luther was a faithful member of the Roman Catholic Church, yet he was uncomfortable with its teachings on the subjects of indulgences and purgatory. He could find no comfort for his soul with regard to such teachings. He diligently searched the scriptures for answers to his spiritual dilemma. God revealed this scriptural truth to Martin Luther: “The just shall live by Faith” (Romans 1:17).
Over and over, this truth kept repeating itself to the troubled heart of Luther. He was afraid to speak or publish this truth because he feared excommunication and a loss of the blessing of the Church. Still, he continued to study the Scriptures and was spiritually fortified by two other great truths of scripture: “Therefore being justified by Faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1) and “For by grace are ye saved through Faith and that not of yourself, it is a gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9).
Here at last was an answer to Luther’s prayers. He was overjoyed, for now he knew that faith was the vehicle by which we obtain righteousness and justification. This replaced the teaching of the Church that one was justified by good works. When these truths were applied to Luther’s heart by means of the Holy Spirit, Luther could no longer remain silent. At the risk of his own life, he posted his ninety-five theses to the cathedral door, and the Reformation was born. The truth of the Reformation spread rapidly in that part of the world, as God prepared and used Luther to bring a revival and rebirth to His Church.
Faith is the doorway through which we must travel if we are to be justified. Bavinck wrote: “Regeneration, conversion, and faith are but conditions which pave the way by which we are justified.”
Our faith may be expressed in different ways, but it must be a sincere faith. Some will express their faith with the impetus of a Peter. Christ said to Peter, “If I do not wash thy feet thou hast no part in me.” Peter responded, “Lord wash not my feet only, but my hands and head also.” Others will embrace Christ in a more timid manner, but in positive belief as did the woman with an incurable disease. Unable to approach Christ due to the multitude, she reached through the pressing crowd, saying to herself, “If I may but touch the hem of His garment I shall be made whole.” When Jesus saw her, He said, “Daughter, be of good comfort, thy faith hath made thee whole.”
Justification by Faith Alone is the doctrine of faith by which the Church stands or falls. All of the great reformers of the sixteenth century subscribed to this doctrine of justification with heart and soul. We must recognize that we are sinners and have no merit within ourselves to obtain righteousness. Without righteousness, heaven can not be attained. God’s justice will demand that our guilt be absolved, and only the righteousness of Christ is able to meet this demand.
Righteousness as a result of justification is more than a mere pardon of sins. Forgiveness of sins by themselves does not equate to righteousness. When Christ healed the sick and the maimed He often said, “Thy sins be forgiven thee, go they way and sin no more.” This does not necessarily mean that they were saved. Recall, for example, the leper who returned to give thanks for Christ’s cleansing. Jesus asks him about the others saying: “Were there not ten that were cleansed, but where are the other nine?” These did not return to give thanks, the implication being that their sins were forgiven, and yet they went their way unsaved.
To further illustrate the point, if you had accumulated a very great debt that you could not pay, you would have nothing but debts. If some benefactor paid all this debt for you then your debt would be paid indeed, but you would still have nothing, even though your debts were paid. So it is with the sinner whose debt is paid. He needs more. He needs to have the righteousness of Christ, which alone will satisfy God’s justice.
So justification is a two-fold action in which our penitence obtains for us the forgiveness of sins and our faith obtains for us the righteousness of Christ. Jesus must not only forgive your sins, but He must also pay the penalty of your guilt before you can be acquitted. God acts in full accord with the demands of His justice, and therefore He does not recognize satisfaction of His justice without the atonement and righteousness of Christ. His righteousness must be given in your stead, for He alone is able to give it, having earned the right with His life of perfect obedience and His death on the cross. Justification means that Christ, as our substitute sin-bearer, has paid our debt in full. God, in accordance with the promise of the gospel, imputes to those who believe in Christ the righteousness that Christ alone can give.
Now we begin to understand how it is possible for a righteous God to be just and yet to be able to justify the ungodly sinner. God is a God of unimpeachable righteousness, He must acquit believers of all guilt and free them of punishment because they stand before Him clothed with the righteousness of Christ. God could not do otherwise, for in doing so, He would deny Himself and thus God could not remain God.
Sanctification is a matter of the highest importance with regard to our salvation, as proven from Scripture: “Jesus Christ was made unto us from God, sanctification as well as wisdom, righteousness, and redemption” (I Corinthians 1:30)
When we are justified by God from the guilt of sin, God just as surely declares that He will free us from the power of sin. This is exactly what God does when He sanctifies us. God progressively makes the sinner righteous by renewing the sinner’s nature and removing the unclean state of sin.
Sanctification, like all the other steps of our salvation, is the work of God and not of man. This theme can never receive too much emphasis when we consider our salvation. The Bible teaches emphatically that salvation is of grace, that God may receive all the glory. Is it not true that the whole purpose of creation is the glorification of God?
There are those who teach and would have us believe that sanctification is a cooperative venture, the co-responsibility of both God and man. Nothing could be further from the truth. If man could give himself some credit for his arrival in heaven, it would mean that the sacrifice of Christ was not complete in itself, but was contingent on what man would do to assist in the process. God, and God alone, removes the evil that is in the believer’s heart and undermines its power. God, and God alone, causes the believer to walk the road of obedience and engage in good works. God, and God alone, conforms the soul of the believer to the image of Christ. We must maintain that it is God who saves man and not man who saves himself.
God sanctifies the believer by employing the believer as His agent in this saving process. The Belgic Confession Article 24 states: “We are indebted to God for the good works that we do, and not He to us.”
Faith is the most basic factor in the operation of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works directly upon the believer’s heart with His renewing power. Faith is not only the receiving organ by which we are justified, but it is also a positive power for good, and plays a pivotal part in the process of our sanctification. Faith works through love and excites men to practice the works that God has commanded in His word. Therefore, Reformed teachers say that faith is indispensable for sanctification, and that it is the instrumental cause of sanctification, since it keeps us in touch with Christ, who is the source of our progressive sanctification.
If we are to be sanctified, the window of our soul must always be open through faith toward the Grace of God. Much as a TV antenna must be pointed in the direction of the sending station if we are to receive the picture, so too, we must have the window of our soul turned in the direction of God through the use of the effective means of the study of God’s Word and a sincere prayer life. We should be faithful in placing ourselves under the preaching of the Word and in partaking of the sacraments that we may receive the Grace that is communicated through them. We should have a family altar in our homes, where the discussion of spiritual things can take place together with family prayer. We should take advantage of good reading. All these are the arms of the antenna which must be continually pointed toward the Christ. Failure to do so will create a blurred picture and a starving faith in our spiritual life.
Sanctification demands that we shall live more and more for Christ and die more and more to the things of this world. The problem with the human nature is that we are not willing to do this. We want Christ but we want the world also. We try to keep that antenna pointed in two directions at the same time. Needless to say, that this will not work and results in Church members who are spiritually weak. They have no interest in cultivating the spiritual things to promote the welfare of their souls. They are like the sick man who has lost his appetite for food. If he allows this lack of appetite to remain uncontrolled, he will not get well and may die. On the other hand, if he forces himself against his will to eat, he will gain the necessary strength to get well.
We are sinners by nature and thus we lean to the things of this world. We have no appetite for the spiritual things. However, we must force ourselves by the grace of God to cultivate these desires. Thus, God promises to bless us with the things Spiritual.
Salvation is a work of God. God’s plan of salvation began at the Counsel of God in eternity before the worlds were framed, stretching across time, and reaches into eternity at the end of time. What then is contained in God’s plan of salvation? The Apostle Paul wrote, “Whom he (God) did predestinate, he also called, and whom he called them he also justified, and whom he justified he also sanctified.” Thus, we see how God in His mercy has set forth His plan for the salvation of man (the elect). The question remains, how can the sinner become part of God’s plan and thus be saved? The scripture gives an answer to that question: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life, and consequently will be saved.” Needless to say, believing on the Son of God implies that you will be obedient to His word.
However, we must remember that as long as we are in this life, we have a dual nature with which to contend. We have a new nature born of the Spirit, and at the same time, we must deal with the corrupt nature that we inherited at birth. That old nature is not only slow to die, but it remains with us until we die. Thus, we are beset with many temptations and problems with sin in our life.
At Regeneration, the new life in the soul began, but it was not a sinless life. In Justification, a sinner’s legal position before God is changed. Before, he was guilty and worthy of death. By the righteousness of Christ, which he accepted in faith, he is now free from guilt and condemnation, but he is not free from the power of sin in his heart and life. A constant struggle will result in the life of the Christian. The old nature must be conquered and the new must grow in conformity unto obedience to Christ. It is the Holy Spirit who sanctifies, and by His power, we are to sanctify ourselves. Now we will find ourselves on the road to glorification, and as we mentioned, the old nature remains with us until our life comes to an end. When we die, the Soul is separated from the Body, and the Body with its corrupt nature is returned to the dust from which it originated.
The soul, having departed the corrupt body, is freed from the ravages of sin, for no sin would be tolerated in the realm of the heavenly. It is the sanctified soul with the new nature and the life that never dies, that enters the portals of heaven and into the very presence of God, together with all the saints who preceded it. This for the soul is glorification, as it enters the glorified state, in the presence of his Lord.
Even so, the state of glorification has not reached its zenith. The bliss of the soul cannot be complete as long as the body is in the power of death, and cannot share in the glory of the soul.
In the meantime, the souls in Heaven join the Angels in singing praises to God, as they look forward to the second coming of the Lord Jesus.
The Scripture assures us that Christ will come again. He will visibly appear, as all shall see Him, and He will be attended by angels, and with power and great glory (Matthew 24:30).
Then shall come the resurrection of the dead, as the sanctified bodies shall arise at the sound of the trumpet of God. These bodies shall be reunited with their souls, and the glorification of soul and body will be complete to serve God for all eternity, living in the mansions that our Lord had promised and prepared for them.
“Marvel not at this for the hour is coming in which all that are in the graves shall come forth,” “for the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, and the voice of arch angel, and with the trumpet of God, and all the dead in Christ shall rise first” (John 5:28; I Thessalonians 4:16).
Mr. Dow Haan is a member of the Covenant United Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan.