A good theologian must “rightly [divide] the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15), that is, make proper distinctions. The word translated “rightly dividing” means to cut straight. In our consideration of justification, we make distinctions. It is tempting not to do this or to be suspicious of those who do so. Nevertheless, theology without distinctions is impossible.
One of the distinctions that theologians have made is between justification in eternity and justification in time. Sometimes that distinction is expressed as being between objective and subjective justification. Another distinction is between the fact of justification and the experience or enjoyment of justification. Yet another distinction is between justification and the forgiveness of sins.
We recognize different aspects of justification. First, in eternity God decreed to justify us. Second, Christ purchased our justification at the cross and, because we are righteous in Him, God raised Christ from the dead (Rom. 4:25). Third, the Holy Spirit applies that justification to us, and imputes to us the perfect righteousness of Christ when we believe. Fourth, when we sin after justification, although we do not forfeit the state of justification, we know ourselves to be guilty and we seek and receive the pardon of our sins when we repent. Fifth, and finally, our justification before God is publicly declared on the Day of Judgment.
The testimony of Scripture
God’s Word teaches justification by faith alone. On his first missionary journey Paul says, “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man [Jesus] is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe [present tense] are justified [present tense] from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39). Paul did not preach, “You were justified in eternity, and through faith you simply come to the conscious realization of that eternal reality.” When the men of Antioch, who were “ordained to eternal life” according to verse 48, believed, they were justified. Their legal status changed. They had been under condemnation. Then they were justified. In Acts 16:30 the Philippian jailor cried out, “What must I do to be saved?” The answer was not, “You are already saved from eternity and eternally justified, so that God does not see—and never has seen—any sin in you.” The answer is the clear and simple call, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved [future tense], and thy house” (v. 31). Justification would happen after the jailor’s believing. Paul could not preach eternal justification to the Philippian jailor because, until the wretched man believed, neither he nor the apostle could know that he was an elect person. A preacher on the mission field may not declare to someone who does not yet believe, “God sees no sin in you; in fact, you have always been saved and all of your sins have been eternally forgiven without faith and without repentance.” The effect of such a message would be to confuse the unbeliever: should he believe and repent or not? Nor may an elder say to a wayward member of the church who refuses to repent, “God sees no sin in you. God sees you only in Christ. Christ’s righteousness was eternally imputed to you, so that, regardless of your impenitence, all your sins are forgiven, both now and forever.” Stubbornly impenitent people “who refuse to walk in the ways of the elect” (Canons 1:13) have no right to view themselves as elect.
This teaching preached on the mission field is repeated in the epistles. Paul proclaims “the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe [present tense]” (Rom. 3:22). In Romans 4 where the apostle deals with the imputation of righteousness, he repeats this theme: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth [present tense]” (v. 5). In verses 23, 24 we read, “It was not written for his sake alone [Abraham’s], that it was imputed to him; but for us also, to whom it shall be imputed [future tense], if we believe” (Greek: “to whom it is going to be imputed, to the ones believing” [present tense]).
I Corinthians 6 lists a number of sins of which the members of the church had been guilty, at which time they were not yet justified: “And such were some of you, but ye are…justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (v. 11). Before their conversion, and certainly not in eternity, they did not yet have the Spirit. In Galatians 3:3 the apostle writes of Scripture “foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith,” not that the heathen were eternally justified without faith. In verse 24 the apostle speaks of the law “bring[ing] us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith,” not that we were already justified before we came to Jesus in faith. God’s Word insists that only the believer is justified. Therefore, to be justified you must believe in Jesus.
The testimony of the creeds
In introducing the crucial subject of justification, the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “But what doth it profit thee now that thou believest all this?” and it answers “that I am righteous before God” (that is, justified, Q&A 59). There is real profit in believing. By believing—not by working, but by believing, trusting in Jesus Christ alone—we are righteous. The Catechism does not say, “I was always righteous.” It says, “By believing all this I am righteous.” In its explanation of justification in Answers 60 and 61, the Catechism gives faith an instrumental role: God imputes Christ’s righteousness, and I receive it by faith, that is, by believing. “Inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart” (German: wenn ich… annehme—“when I receive,” A. 60). “I cannot receive and apply the same to myself [German: mir zueignen— “appropriate to myself”] any other way than by faith only” (A. 61).
There is an act of faith by which in justification the believer receives Jesus Christ and His righteousness. This act of faith, which is God’s gift (Phil. 1:29), is repeated throughout our lifetime, every time we consciously lay hold of Jesus Christ by faith, so that, having heard and received the gospel by faith we “[go] down to [our] house justified” (Luke 18:14). In that parable the publican entered the temple unjustified, at least as far as his consciousness was concerned. The publican confessed his sins and besought pardon—“God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (v. 13). Finally, having received a gracious answer from God, the publican went home justified. Paul gives justification before God as the purpose of our believing. Paul would answer, “But what doth it profit thee now that thou believest all this?” with the words of Galatians 2:16, “We have believed in Jesus Christ, that [the word means “so that,” or “with the purpose that”] we might be justified.” Paul does not say, “We were eternally justified; therefore, we are justified whether we believe or not, or we are justified without believing.”
The Catechism’s teaching on justification or the forgiveness of sins is not limited to Lord’s Day 23-24. In A. 76 in connection with instruction on the Lord’s Supper and our eating and drinking Christ’s flesh and blood by faith we read this: “It is…to embrace [German: annehmen—“ receive”] with a believing heart all the sufferings and death of Christ, and thereby to obtain [German: bekommen—“get”] the pardon of sin.” By believing we obtain or get the forgiveness of sins or justification. That is the language of the Catechism. In connection with the keys of the kingdom the Catechism teaches that in the preaching “it is publicly testified to all and every believer that, whenever [German: so oft—“as often as”] they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, all their sins are really forgiven them of God” (A. 84). The keys do not work merely on the mission field to open the kingdom to the erstwhile unbeliever, but “as often as” we believe the gospel in the congregation, our sins are forgiven. Our sins are forgiven—or we are justified— repeatedly by believing the promise of the gospel. In every sermon in which we receive the gospel with a true faith God says, “Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.” Also in connection with the fifth petition the Catechism teaches us to pray, “Be pleased…not to impute… our transgressions [to us]” (A. 126). The Catechism does not say, “Since we were justified in eternity, and since thou dost not see our sins, nor hast thou ever seen any sin in us, be pleased.…”
The Belgic Confession, which was originally written in French, teaches the exact same truth, namely, that we are justified in time when we believe. Article 22 describes the miracle by which the Spirit “kindleth” (French: allume—“ lights, ignites”) faith in our hearts, which “embraces Jesus Christ…appropriates [French: le fait sien— “makes its own”]…and seeks nothing more besides [Jesus Christ].” Faith, the Confession continues, “is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness.” In Article 23, titled “Justification,” we read about Christ’s obedience or His righteousness, that it “becomes ours when we believe in Him.” The Confession does not say, “Which perfect righteousness was always ours, even before the foundation of the world, regardless of our believing or not believing in Him.” It says, “When [that is a temporal conjunction] we [that is a personal pronoun] believe [that is a verb in the present tense, expressing an activity] in Him [that is, the object of our faith, Jesus].” In Article 24 the Confession teaches that our good works “are of no account towards our justification” and explains that “it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works.” In Article 26 the Confession teaches that Christ’s righteousness “is become ours by faith.” Before we believed, we did not have His righteousness. In Article 29 “[Christians] have remission of sins, through faith in Him.”
Finally, we consider the Canons of Dordt which, although they do not treat justification at length, do have some relevance to the question of when we are justified. Canons, I.4 says, “Such as receive [the gospel] and embrace [Latin: amplectuntur—“grasp, lay hold of”] Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith are by Him delivered from the wrath of God and from destruction, and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them” (Latin: donantur—“are given [it]”). In connection with sovereign election in the first head, the Canons teach the truth that the elect receive salvation by believing in Jesus, which faith our creed ascribes to God’s decree in subsequent articles.
In the rejection of errors section of the second head, in connection with a teaching that the Arminians rejected, we read this about the orthodox doctrine of justification: “We by faith, inasmuch as it accepts [Latin: apprehendit—“lays hold on, grasps, seizes, takes”] the merits of Christ are justified before God [Latin: coram Deo—“before the face of God”] and saved” (Canons, II.R.4). Again, the Canons view justification as a blessing received when we lay hold upon Jesus Christ by faith, not something we have from eternity whether we believe or not. In Canons, III/IV.6 we read that God is pleased “to save such as believe” (Latin: homines credentes…servare—“to save believing men”).
Finally, the fifth head of doctrine warns against the serious consequences of falling into gross transgressions. One of them is that backsliders “incur a deadly guilt” (Latin: reatum mortis incurrunt—“run into the guilt of death,” Canons, V.5), which surely is incompatible with justification, at least in its conscious enjoyment. Yet such a backslidden child of God is not permitted by God to “forfeit the state of justification” (Latin: justificationis statu excidant—“ falling out of the state of justification,” Canons, V.6). Clearly, then, the Canons distinguish between the state of justification, which is unchanging in the life of the believer, and the enjoyment or consciousness of justification, which fluctuates, and can even be lost if we walk impenitently in our sins. The impenitent one incurs a deadly guilt until he confesses and forsakes that sin of which he is guilty (Canons, V.5, 7).
In eternity God has made a judgment concerning His people: “I will not punish them for their sins.” That is objective justification. There is also a time when God actually blotted out our transgressions, namely, on the cross, when Christ made atonement. Thus Paul speaks of being “justified by his blood” (Rom. 5:9). Subjective justification is God’s declaration to our souls in our lifetime, repeatedly in our lifetime, that we are righteous. This declaration is received by faith alone. The forgiveness of sins is God’s sending away our sins or not remembering them, while justification includes not only the pardon of our sins, but also a further benefit— the positive declaration of righteousness. It is one thing for a judge to say, “Not guilty.” It is another for him to say, “Perfectly righteous, in perfect harmony with and in perfect conformity to my standard, which is my law.” In justification we have both, graciously given, received by faith alone.
And when we commit sin, which we so often do, we pray, “Forgive us our debts,” which prayer presupposes both faith and repentance. For such a petition, which God graciously hears, comes from a broken and a contrite heart trusting in God’s mercy, which God will not despise (Ps. 51:17), not from the heart of one who regards iniquity, whom God will not hear (Ps. 66:18).