Justification is one of the most important terms in the Bible and one of the most significant aspects of salvation. It is also a concept whose meaning has been subject to ongoing debates in Christianity and Adventism. The main question could be summarized thus: is justification a declaration of the imputed righteousness of Christ, or is does it also include the process of transformation through the imparted righteousness of Christ? To clarify this challenge, let’s look briefly first at some key historical records on the concept of justification, and then at the biblical view of justification. To this end, I will primarily explore Richard Davidson’s chapter entitled “How Shall a Person Stand Before God? What is the Meaning of Justification?” referencing the page numbers in parenthesis throughout the article.[i]
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Some Historical Considerations
Martin Luther’s most important contribution to Christian theology was his work on justification by faith. For him, the justifying righteousness of God was “the alien righteousness of Christ” imputed to us before God. (59) Melanchthon was even more precise in his definition. In contrast with Augustine’s view of justification as a process by which God makes sinners righteous through the conversion of the human will, he understood justification as “the divine act of declaring sinners righteous, based upon the extrinsic, imputed righteousness of Christ.” (59) Calvin also regarded justification as “the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.” (60). He stated:
“To justify, therefore, is nothing else than to acquit from the charge of guilt, as if innocence were proved. Hence, when God justifies us through the intercession of Christ, he does not acquit us on a proof of our own innocence, but by an imputation of righteousness, so that though not righteous in ourselves, we are deemed righteous in Christ.”[ii]
For Calvin, the sinner’s union with Christ through the Holy Spirit produces “a double grace: justification and sanctification. They are simultaneous, and although they can be distinguished, they cannot be separated.”[iii] In Christ justification and sanctification are inseparable yet distinct, just as the brightness and heat both proceed from the sun simultaneously and yet each performs its unique role.[iv]
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According to Alister McGrath, by 1540 the following features constituted the consensus on justification in Protestantism:
1. “Justification is the forensic declaration that the Christian is righteous, rather than the process by which he or she is made righteous. It involves a change in status rather than in nature.
2. A deliberate and systematic distinction is made between justification (the external act by which God declares the believer to be righteous) and sanctification or regeneration (the internal process of renewal by the Holy Spirit).
3. Justifying righteousness as the alien righteousness of Christ, imputed to the believer and external to him, not a righteousness that is inherent within him, located within him, or in any way belonging to him.
4. Justification takes place per fidem propter Christum [through faith on account of Christ], with faith being understood as the God-given means of justification and the merits of Christ as the God-given foundation of justification.”[v]
This view, adopted by the later Reformers as well (Jacobus Arminius, John Wesley), became the dominant take of justification in Protestantism in contrast with the Roman Catholic understanding of justification as a process. In this process, God’s grace infuses the sinner and makes righteousness possible through the sinner’s cooperation with God. Thus, “justification is understood to be a process and is defined in terms of inherent righteousness. Justification by faith alone is categorically rejected, and justification is based in part on human works. Hence, the notion that righteousness is imputed to us is also repudiated, along with the notion that one can have assurance of final salvation.”[vi] R. C. Sproul sums up the contrast between the Protestant and Catholic view of justification in the following terms: “Is the ground of our justification the righteousness of Christ imputed to us [the Reformation view], or the righteousness of Christ working within us [the Catholic view]? For the Reformers the doctrine of justification by faith alone meant justification by Christ and His righteousness alone.”[vii] Simply put, “[a]re we declared just or are we made just in justification?”[viii]
A Biblical View of Justification
The historical records show that the predominant view of justification among Protestants was that justification is the declaration of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, as opposed to a process by which Christ makes us righteous. While history provides valuable perspective, the most important source for understanding this concept is the Scripture. How then does the Bible define justification?
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Davidson notes that in the Bible the words for “to justify” (tsadaq in the Old Testament and dikaiooin the New Testament) mean“to declare righteous.” He further clarifies that this “is a legal courtroom term [which] describe[s] the pronouncement of the judge that the one on trial is acquitted, declared in the right. … [it does] not speak about the moral condition of the person in question but … about the declaration of the judge that the defendant is acquitted (declared in the right).” (67) Several Bible passages support this definition.
A first example is Genesis 1-3, which contours the Adam-Christ typologyPaul mentions in Romans 5:12-21 where he discusses justification. Verse 3:15 is the first promise of the gospel and introduces the representative “seed” of the woman, who will bruise Satan’s head. The context is a judgment scene – the trial of Adam and Eve. The picture portrayed here is one of substitutionary sacrifice, foreshadowing the death of Christ to redeem humanity fallen into sin. This message is also contained in the imagery of Adam and Eve clothed with animal skin, which required a sacrificial death. Skin coverings pointing to the future sacrifice of Christ and His righteousness imputed to us were more fitted robes for the fallen humans than the self-righteousness implied in garments of leaves. Via typology, Paul offers a crucial lesson about justification by faith: through one man (Adam), death and condemnation entered our world, but the grace of Christ, the gift of justification, and eternal life are available to all who are condemned and doomed to perish. (Romans 5:15-21). (68) Davidson draws the following conclusions from Genesis 1-3 and Paul’s discussion of justification:
“Justification is a judicial declaration of acquittal, the opposite of condemnation (Genesis 3:15; Romans 5:16), and not an ethical condition.Justification is based upon the external righteousness of Christ, not the inherent righteousness of the individual (Genesis 3:21; Romans 5:17,18). The sole ground of justification is the substitutionary death of Christ and the imputed merits of His righteousness, not the imparted righteousness of Christ (Le., sanctification) (Genesis 3:15, 21; Romans 5:15,17-19). Justification is a free gift, not a matter of human works (Genesis 3:15, 21; Romans 5:16,17).”(69)
This conclusion is further supported by texts referring to Abraham who, though ungodly (and thus no example of righteousness), was accounted righteous based on his faith in God’s imputed righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3-5, 9, 22). (69) It is in the story of Isaac’s sacrifice that we find the first biblical reference to a substitutionary sacrifice, pointing to the sacrifice of Christ through which Abraham would be justified (Genesis 22:13). (74)
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The Sanctuary typology also shows the declaring nature of justification in various ways. The process of sacrificial offerings pointed to the transfer of sins from the human to the animal, which represented Christ. Through this transfer, the sinner was forgiven and declared righteous on account of Christ’s substitutionary death. (Leviticus 4:31; Leviticus 17:11).Moreover, the daily sacrifices and the continuous burning of the offerings pointed to the continuous dependence of Israel upon Christ’s blood. (Exodus 31:9; Leviticus 4:30; Leviticus 6:9-13; Numbers 28:3-8). (75) At no time would someone in the chosen people come to a point where justification through Jesus’s atoning blood would no longer be needed. The altar of incense represented Christ’s merits, which justify us before God. Just as the burnt offerings were continuous, indicating the constant need of transferring the sinner’s sins upon the holy Christ, the perpetual burning of incense pointed to the constant intercession of Christ on behalf of sinners. The blood “presents the efficacy of Christ’s death as the Substitute for man, [and the incense] presents the efficacy of Christ’s merits (or righteousness) that is imputed to the believing sinner…. Only by virtue of Christ’s substitutionary death can He be qualified to apply His merits in our behalf. And at the same time, only by virtue of His spotless, incense-filled life of righteousness was He qualified to die in our stead.” (76)
Other Bible passages that support the view of justification as a declaration of righteousness are Psalm 32:1, 2 and Romans 4:5-8, where instead of imputing us our sin, God imputes us Christ’s righteousness. Our works have no bearing on us being declared righteous. In harmony with other writers, Paul clearly and repeatedly states that the entire humanity is sinful and guilty. (Romans 3:10-18; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9). Even the godly examples referred to as “righteous” or “blameless” (Ezekiel 14:14, 20; cf. Genesis 7:1; Job 1:1) have committed sin (Genesis 9:21; Job 40:4; 42:2-6; Daniel 9:4-19). Sin and unrighteousness is an ontological condition that obedience to the law cannot overcome. There is only one way to become righteous, and that is through Christ’s imputed righteousness. (77-78)
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Lastly, let’s look at Isaiah 53, the supreme depiction of justification through the death of the suffering Servant – Christ. The passage clearly states that the Messiah paid the penalty for our sins so that we can be free from condemnation. Thus, the themes of penal substitution and forensic justification interlace to provide a complete picture of justification. Davidson notes that all the key aspects of justification are included here:
(1) the Servant was sinless and righteous (verses 7, 9, 11);
(2) all of us are sinners, having gone astray and turned to our own way (verse 6);
(3) the guilt and punishment of our sins was imputed to Him, as the Lord laid on Him the iniquity … of us all and numbered … with the transgressors (verses 4-6, 8, 11, 12);
(4) He suffered and died for ‘all,’ an unlimited atonement making justification available to everyone (verse 6; cf. Isaiah 52:12);
(5) God the Father Himself acted to lay our iniquity and guilt upon the Servant and to punish Him for those sins, according to the principle of lex talionis (just retribution), thus satisfying His justice (Isaiah 53:6, 10); (6) the Righteous Servant suffered willingly and deliberately (verses 4, 11, 12);
(7) He became a guilt offering …to make atonement for our guilt (verse 10; cf. Leviticus 5-7); (8) the voluntary suffering and death of the Righteous Servant ‘will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities’ (Isaiah 53:11, NASB); His righteousness will be imputed to them.” (79)
The Bible does depict Christ’s sacrifice as offering not only justification – a declaration of forgiveness and imputed righteousness, but also the ongoing process of sanctification through the imparted righteousness. Yet these two aspects, while both rooted in Christ, present two distinct aspects of salvation (Isaiah 53:1-5,11; Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; 5:1-5; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 2:8-10; and Titus 3:5-8). (81)
“The basis of our justification is always the imputed righteousness of Christ (what Christ has done for us, outside of us), which is perfect and acceptable to God, not His imparted righteousness (what Christ is doing in us; sanctification), which is always partial, always ‘falls short’ of the glory of God, and can never commend us to God. Only on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ can we have peace – the assurance of salvation.” (81)
Some Adventists understand justification to mean “only the forgiveness of past sins when one first comes to Christ” and that “after one’s initial justification, acceptance by God is based on Christ’s infused righteousness that makes one righteous and thereby acceptable in God’s sight.” (60) Closely related to this view of justification is the idea that God’s people must achieve victory over sin during the end time, “which will in effect make objective justification no longer needed, because God’s people have reached a state of sanctification in which objective (imputed) justification is wholly replaced by the imparted righteousness of Christ.” (65) But, as noted earlier, this view is consistent with the Catholic understanding of justification as including the process of sanctification.[ix] This, in turn, automatically implies that salvation is partially by works.
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The Council of Trent and the Decree on Justification clearly teaches that justification increases “through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith cooperating with good works” and that justification is meritorious in salvation.[x] It condemns those who insist “that the justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase.”[xi] Reaffirmed in the Catechism, the Catholic view that “justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man,”[xii] along with the implications that salvation is partially by works, is rejected by the Seventh-day Adventist church, as clearly stated in our Fundamental Beliefs:
“In Christ’s life of perfect obedience to God’s will, His suffering, death, and resurrection, God provided the only means of atonement for human sin, so that those who by faith accept this atonement may have eternal life, and the whole creation may better understand the infinite and holy love of the Creator. This perfect atonement vindicates the righteousness of God’s law and the graciousness of His character; for it both condemns our sin and provides for our forgiveness.”[xiii]
Ellen White concurs:
“The blood of Christ was shed to atone for sin and to cleanse the sinner; and we must take hold of the merits of Christ’s blood, and believe that we have life through his name. Let not the fallacies of Satan deceive you; you are justified by faith alone.”[xiv]
Truly, God calls us to keep the moral law, but our obedience to God is “the fruit of justification, never the root.”[xv]Our justification is through faith alone and Christ alone is the complete means of our salvation and thus of vindicating God’s character.
[i] Richard Davidson, “How Shall a Person Stand Before God? What is the Meaning of Justification?” in God’s Character and the Last Generation, edited by John Peckham and Jiri Moskala (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2018).
[ii] John Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.2.
[iii] Wubbenhorst, “Calvin’s Doctrine of Justification,” 115, in Davidson, 60.
[iv] See John Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.10.
[v] Alister McGrath, Justification by Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 61, cited in Davidson, 59-60.
[vi] Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone, 66, cited in Davidson, 62.
[vii] R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), 73, cited in Davidson, 61.
[viii] R. C. Sproul, ”The Forensic Nature of justification,” 25, cited in Davidson,61.
[ix] Norman R. Gulley offers a good summary of the historical debates between Catholicism and Protestantism in “Debate Over Justification by Faith: Evangelicals and Catholics” (Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 20:1-2, 2009)112-146.
[x] H. J. Schroeder, trans., Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, 1978), 36 and 40-42, cited in Peter M. van Bemmelen, “Justification by Faith:An Adventist Understanding” (Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 20/1-2, 2009), 186.
[xi] Schroeder, 45 (Canon 24), cited in Peter M. van Bemmelen, 187.
[xii] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 482, paragraph 1989), cited inPeter M. van Bemmelen, 187.
[xiii] “Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists, 9. ‘Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ,’” in Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook, 2006 ([Silver Springs, Maryland:] The General Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventists, 2006), 5, cited in Peter M. van Bemmelen. 181.
[xiv] Ellen G. White, “Faith Does Not Make Void the Law,” Signs of the Times, March 24, 1890, cited in Peter M. van Bemmelen, 182.
[xv] Peter M. van Bemmelen, 188.