The Doctrine of Justification

John G. Reisinger

All agree that this doctrine was the heart and soul of the reformation. All do not agree that the Reformers had a well-balanced biblical view of the doctrine. There are two major difficulties involved in any attempt to teach this subject. Both of the difficulties involve the relationship of justification and sanctification.

On the one hand, the ground of justification must be 100% free from any mixture of faith and works, or law and grace. Justification and sanctification are two totally and distinctly different doctrines. On the other hand, justification and sanctification are wedded to each other in an inseparable union in some sense. What that sense is involves the heart of the problem. The problem of both legalism and antinomianism will always in some way involve a distorted view of justification and its relationship to sanctification.

Whenever "assurance of salvation is held hostage to obedience to the law" (a phrase coined by Mark McCulley) there will be an emphasis on introspection and "fruit inspection." The question in such a case soon becomes, "How much, and what specific kind of obedience (Who makes the list?) is necessary in order to have true assurance of salvation. One man's assurance is another man's deceived heart. Depending on the temperament of both the inspector and person being inspected, assurance may become either impossible or radical outward conformity centered. The "fruit inspector" will soon become the conscience of the individual. Likewise, when assurance is totally divorced from any sincere testing of one's professed conversion under the guise that we "dare not become legalistic," there is the imminent danger of antinomian easy-believism. I think it was Spurgeon who spoke of the "white devil of legalism and the black devil of antinomianism."

How do we understand justification and its relationship to sanctification so as to theologically and practically avoid both legalism and antinomianism? First of all, we must realize the problem is not new. The confusion did not begin with our generation nor did it begin at the Reformation. This is one tension that occupies many pages, as well as one whole epistle, in the New Testament Scriptures. One of the most glaring so-called contradictions in the Scriptures is seen when both Paul and James use the same Old Testament passage to prove, at least on the surface, two different views of justification. In Romans 4:1-5, Paul is as emphatic as possible that Abraham was not justified by works. He is quite dogmatic that it was by faith alone without any works at all that Abraham was justified. However, James is just as emphatic that the same Abraham was justified by works (cf. James 2:14-26).

How we reconcile these two statements—and all of us must reconcile them or admit the Bible contradicts itself—will be determined by our theological understanding of justification and sanctification. Let's begin with some definitions and certainties. The word justify is a legal term. It denotes the status of something or somebody. We must understand the difference between state and standing. A man may kill someone and claim he did it in self defense. A jury may find him not guilty of murder because they are convinced the man was "justified" in defending himself. When they say, "We find this man not guilty" that means that his "standing before the law" is one of innocence. The law can only treat him as innocent. However, if the man was lying and has completely fooled the jury, his actual state is one of guilt even though his standing is one of innocence. He is a guilty man being treated as if he were innocent. The jury has justified the man and he must therefore be treated as if their declaration was correct.

It is vital to see that justification in and of itself cannot actually make a person innocent. It merely declares that the person is going to be treated as if he were not guilty but righteous. A jury in court "finds" and "declares" an individual either guilty or innocent but it cannot "make" him either one. As just noted, it is quite possible for a jury to find an innocent man guilty and have him put to death or find a guilty man innocent and allow him to go free. In other words, the declaration of justification does not in any way change a sinner's nature. It merely changes his status before God. The absolute proof of this is the fact that men "justify" God. "And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John" (Luke 7:29). The publicans did not make any change whatsoever in the nature of God, they merely made a declaration about Him. The same is true when God justifies a sinner. He declares a guilty sinner to be righteous in His sight. As we shall see later the gospel is the defense of God in this action. The gospel "reveals the righteousness of God" and shows how He can be both just and at the same justify the ungodly.

The distinction between state and standing can be seen by comparing two texts of Scripture. In Romans 5:1-3 Paul is showing the certain results of justification. The first one is peace with God. "Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1). This is not peace of mind or a tranquil spirit that does not get upset. That is the peace of God and Paul talks about this in Philippians 4:7, "And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." A child of God may lose this latter peace of God, and some fearful saints never experience it. The peace with God in Romans 5:1 is reconciliation and is experienced by every Christian. This is a peace that can never be lost. We were born enemies of God (Rom. 5:10) and were justly under His wrath (Eph. 2:3). We were in a state of sin and had no standing before God. Because our Savior took our place and bore God's wrath that we had earned, God can justly forgive us and reward us with the righteousness that Christ secured for us. We are now reconciled and no longer under His wrath. Our standing before God is now one of righteousness instead of guilt. We have peace with God. The war is over. His wrath was removed by the death of Christ, and the wrath and rebellion in our hearts has been removed in regeneration. There is true and righteous reconciliation.

We should add that it is possible to reconcile two people that are separated by an offense of such a nature that they are "at enmity" with each other. It is quite possible that they, as persons, can be reconciled to each other, but it is not possible to reconcile the enmity between them. The enmity must be removed before there can be true reconciliation. This is why the cross was essential to remove God's just enmity against us and make reconciliation possible from His side. Regeneration was also essential to remove our very real, but very unjustified, hatred towards God and His authority over us (Rom. 8:7). Enemies can, and have been, reconciled but enmity must, and has been "slain and taken out of the way" by the cross (Eph. 2:16).

When Paul said, "I have learned that whatever state I am in, I have learned to be content," he was not saying, "Whether I am saved or lost it makes no difference." By state he meant circumstances of life. Likewise when he wrote the following:

But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timotheus shortly unto you, that I also may be of good comfort, when I know your state. For I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's (Phil. 2:19-21)

Paul was not concerned about whether these people were saved and lost. That has to do with our standing before God in Christ. Paul was concerned with their present Christian experience. A sinner's standing before God is permanently and completely settled when he believes the gospel. He is justified and given a standing before God that can never be taken away. His state may vary greatly at different times but never his standing.

The question we must immediately raise is this: "Does that mean that a man can be justified by God, and put into an acceptable standing before God, without any change whatsoever in his nature or his conduct?" If justification is 100% divorced from sanctification and his works play no, zero, zip, role in the sinner's being justified, does it not follow that the carnal Christian people and the critics of the book of James are correct? The answer is both yes and no, and therein lies the difficulty for many people. They want an either/or when Scripture gives a yes/but. Justification is 100% by grace through faith and is not in any way caused or maintained by works. The answer to the question, if we are talking about standing, or the ground upon which justification rests, is an emphatic, "Yes, a sinner is justified before God without any change or condition within himself whatsoever being necessary for it to take place." The sinner is justified while he is still totally ungodly (Rom. 5:6-11).

However, we must add in the same breath that when God saves a sinner He does more than simply justify him. Although justification is 100% without works contributing a single ounce, justification is something that never happens without other things also happening at the same time. It is impossible to be justified by faith without first being given a new nature that enables you to repent and believe. This is regeneration, the giving of the Holy Spirit, and without it faith is impossible—and if faith is impossible so is any justification that is by faith alone. What we are going to come to is what I believe is quite clear. It has been stated many ways but I like this statement: "Man is saved by faith alone but never by a faith which is alone." I will immediately admit that some legalists will use that as a hunting license to bring the sheep of Christ into bondage to Moses but it is nonetheless still true when understood correctly.

On the other hand, just as the legalist will use part of what we said, the antinomian will use the other part. He will say, "A sinner is saved and kept by faith alone, period, end of discussion, the story is complete." I fear many who use the label, New Covenant Theology, grievously err at this point. I sincerely wish these folks would be one tenth as afraid of sin and pride as they are of the word obey. I have seen the effects of both the white and the black devils that Spurgeon talked about and they both scare me to death.

I agree that the chapter on justification is totally complete when we say it is by grace through faith without any mixture of law or works. However, the book of salvation is not a one-chapter book. There are many chapters in the story of God taking a guilty and totally depraved sinner from the tomb of death and ultimately settling him in heaven with a glorified nature incapable of sin. One of those chapters includes the necessity of sanctification.

Let us now look at the great "contradictory passages" of Paul and James.

If we carefully study Romans 4:1-5 we will conclude that God justifies a sinner not only before he has a single good work but while he is totally ungodly. So far we have concluded that if the question is, "Do good works play any part whatsoever in a sinner's justification before God?" the answer, from Romans 4:1-5, will be an emphatic "No!" every time. If the question means, "Is it possible for a justified sinner to be truly saved and at the same time totally unchanged in being and nature?" the answer will be just as emphatically "No!" However, that answer will not come out of Romans 4:1-5. If those clear facts have confused you, hear me out.

God never justifies a sinner without regenerating that sinner and giving him a new nature. However, the new nature imparted by the Holy Spirit has nothing to do with justification. If we understand the difference between Roman Catholic and biblical justification, then the above makes perfect sense. Early in his ministry John MacArthur taught the Roman Catholic view of justification. Please, please, I am not saying that MacArthur was ever a Roman Catholic, only that he once held their view of justification. He has since changed his view and it is now as clear as crystal on the subject. Let me show you the difference in his views. First his former view, and then his present view.


Some people say that the word justified means "to declare someone righteous." They say, "Justified means 'just-as-if-I'd never sinned.' " But God isn't saying, "I'm going to pretend that it was just as if they had never sinned." To justify doesn't mean to declare you are righteous when you are not; it means to make you righteous. That is an important distinction." From Justification by Faith, John MacArthur, Moody Press, 1985, p. 50.

MacArthur is absolutely correct in saying, "That is an important distinction." It is the basic distinction between Roman Catholicism and the Reformers. Rome taught that we were "saved by grace." They meant that the grace of God helped us to repent, believe, and then do good works. God was then able to righteously justify us on the basis of those good works. He could justify us because we were actually righteous. Because the good works were performed by us only because of the grace He had given us, Rome could claim, "See, we also believe in 'salvation by grace.' " The Reformers saw this for what it was, a back-door justification-by-works. This helps to explain their emphasis on grace alone. MacArthur is very wrong when he says, "To justify doesn't mean to declare you are righteous when you are not." That is precisely what it does mean.

When I read the above paragraph from MacArthur, my first reaction was that he had just not been very careful with his words and did not mean what he had actually said. However, his next paragraph disproved this.

Paul's usage [of the word justify] was drawn from the Old Testament concept. The equivalent in the Hebrew is the verb tsadeq, which primarily means "to cause someone to be righteous." God does not say, "I'm going to pretend you are righteous"—He makes us righteous. It is the opposite of condemnation. It is a transformation. If we believe that God is saying that we are righteous when we are not, then conversion isn't a transformation. But justification makes us righteous. And I believe we are made right with God—that we receive an actual acquittal, an actual imputation of the righteous nature granted to us. Ibid, p. 50.

This statement contains some very important words. One—transformation, which is given in conversion, not justification. Conversion is indeed a transformation but conversion cannot be limited to justification. Two—acquittal, which we do indeed receive in justification, is not because we have been "made righteous" but because Christ died for our sin. Three—the phrase, "actual imputation of the righteous nature," is totally confusing justification with sanctification, or imputed righteousness with imparted righteousness.

MacArthur's present view is set forth in The MacArthur Study Bible. You see can how clearly his view of justification has changed.

justified. This verb, and related words from the same Gr. Root (e.g., justification) occur some 30 times in Romans and are concentrated in 2:13-5:1. This legal, or forensic term comes from the Gr. word for "righteous" and means "to declare righteous."…Sanctification, the work of God by which He makes righteous those whom He has already justified, is distinct from justification, but without exception, always follows it. John MacArthur, editor (The MacArthur Study Bible, Word, 1997) p. 1689.

The first quotation from MacArthur's book on justification is classic Roman Catholicism and the second, from his new study Bible, is classic Reformation theology. Anyone that has read MacArthur's book, The Gospel According to Jesus can easily see the thinking that led him to change his mind.

Once justification is seen to be a declarative act and not a change of the sinner's nature, then it becomes obvious that Paul and James are talking about two different things and are using the word justify two different ways.

It seems to me that the conclusion to James' argument gives us the clue to understanding his meaning. He first says in 2:24, "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not faith only." That statement, standing alone, does indeed contradict Paul's theology of justification. That statement, meaning "exactly what it says" with no comparison with any other verses would indeed justify Luther's desire to remove the Book of James from the canon of Scripture. However, we must always remember that no one Scripture is of "private interpretation."

In verse 26, James sums up his argument with an effective illustration: "For [by way of illustration] as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also." The question in James is not, "What justifies a sinner's person before a holy God?" It is impossible to have a proper understanding of the Books of Romans or Galatians and not conclude, "Nothing but faith alone plus nothing at all." The question in James is this, "What kind of faith is it that justifies a guilty sinner?" and the answer is, "Only a living faith is a true faith, and a living faith will always prove it is alive." James is arguing that a person is not just a clay body. A body without life is not a real person. So faith that does not demonstrate life is not real faith at all.

Perhaps the following illustration will help. It may come from A. H. Strong's Systematic Theology. James is describing the nature of faith, while Paul is describing the instrument of justification. They are like two men carrying a bag of gold who are beset by a couple of robbers. They put their backs to each other and the bag of gold in between them. They each fight a different enemy coming at them from a different direction. Paul and James are protecting the same gospel bag of gold. Paul hears a legalist brag about keeping the law to be saved and swings his sword shouting, "To him that worketh not but believeth on him that justifies the ungodly" (Rom. 4:5). James says, "Well done, brother Paul. There is an antinomian zealot over here boasting about his great faith while his life is a disgrace to his profession. I will fix his clock." James swings the same gospel sword and shouts, "Oh, Foolish, do you not know that a profession of faith that only produces empty words in not a saving faith at all?" (James 2:20).

In no sense is James denying salvation to any man who really has faith, but only to the man who falsely professes to have it. When James says, "by works a man is justified" you cannot read that, "by works a sinner is saved and pardoned." James is speaking from the point of view of human consciousness and outward manifestation in personal life. In works only does faith demonstrate itself as genuine and complete. Is this not the same message as Rev. 22:11, "… let him who does right [or is righteous] continue to do right [or let him do righteousness still]. Someone has said, "Faith without works is a tree without fruit, and works without faith is a tree without roots." That is the message of Paul and James.

Christ is the great physician. The physician says: "If you wish to be cured, you must trust me." The patient replies: "I do trust you fully." The physician continues, "If you wish to be cured, you must take my medicine as I have instructed you." The patient objects: "But I thought I was to be cured by trust in you. Why lay such stress on what I do?" The physician answers: "You must show your trust in me by your action. Trust in me, without action is proof of a trust that amounts to nothing" (S.S. Times). Doing, without a physician, is death; hence Paul says works cannot save. Trust in the physician implies obedience; hence James says faith without works is dead (Religion for Tomorrow, 152).

Paul insists on apple-tree righteousness, and warns us against Christmas-tree righteousness. By works, Paul means works of law; James, by works, means works of faith. A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, p.852.

In another article, I will try to exegete James 2:14–26 and Romans 4:1–5. I think it is clearly evident that the different emphasis of Paul and James is understood when we see them as fighting two different enemies in order to protect the same gospel of sovereign grace. To repeat what Spurgeon said, "The black devil of antinomianism is just as wicked and destructive as the white devil of legalism."

(From: Sound of Grace-Volume 5, #7)


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