Justification … OR … You understand me? Catching my drift? Or am I being obtuse?

In an attempt to unpack the Kwan of our salvation, we now turn our attention to JUSTIFICATION.

The Abstract of Principles[1] defines justification in the following manner:

“Justification is God’s gracious and full acquittal of sinners, who believe in Christ, from all sin, through the satisfaction that Christ has made; not for anything wrought in them or done by them; but on account of the obedience and satisfaction of Christ, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith.”

With regard to sin, humanity is cursed to the third degree.[2] This sets up our awareness of the problem: Humanity is sinful and stands under the wrath of a holy God who demands perfect obedience. Part of understanding salvation is to first understand the peril of being lost. The Apostle Paul spends essentially the first three chapters of the book of Romans (particularly 1:18-3:20) showing that everyone is sinful and under God’s wrath because of it. Theologians call this total depravity, meaning that the totality of the human self is depraved, that he or she is corrupt through and through.

However, the Bible also makes us aware of the solution to our problem, a solution of God’s own design and initiation: Jesus Christ rendered perfect obedience to the Law and His righteousness is credited to anyone who places his/her faith in Him alone for salvation and He bears the sinfulness of him/her as well. Thus, we see that there are two transactions for the Christian (2 Cor 5:21). He takes our sin, but we receive His righteousness. Sin brings death, but God’s gift is that of eternal life for those who believe in Christ (Rom 6:23).

This salvation is by grace alone, not because of God’s grace and our efforts to please Him. This salvation is through faith alone in Christ, not through (and certainly not because of) faith plus our good works. This salvation is accoplished by Christ alone, not by any other means than His righteousness imputed to the sinner and the sinner’s sin imputed to the Christ on the cross. As well, we must remember that all of the glory of salvation goes to God alone,[3] since He is the author and finisher of our faith (Heb 12:2).

However, before a person can experience justification, he or she must believe. Yet, due to the biblical understanding of sin and depravity, one is not able to believe in Christ on our own (cf. John 6:44, 65). The solution to that problem is found in God as well. God must regenerate[4] the person before he or she can enter or even see the kingdom (John 3:3, 5). God must make people spiritually alive, bringing them to life from their dead state (Eph 2:1-5).

The question must be asked, however, who are those who get regenerated? Is it those that ask or those who desire it? Is it merely something based on His grace and mercy, which He gives as He sees fit, apart from anything in the creature? (cf. Rom 9:15-18) Clearly, those who receive Christ by faith are the ones who become children of God (John 1:12). However, those children are not born of their own volition and will, but of God’s (John 1:13).

In fact, this choice as to who will be regenerated and who will be saved was asked and answered by God before the creation of the world. We were selected by God from among the pool of future humanity to be His children (Eph 1:4-6). He chose us not because of even some potential good in us, but according to His own good pleasure (cf. Rom 9:10-15). This choosing or predestinating was done for our good, but ultimately for His glory (Eph 1:11-12).

This choosing is called election, whereby God elects, or chooses, a people for Himself. We might define election in the following manner:

“Election is God’s eternal choice of some persons unto everlasting life — not because of foreseen merit in them, but of his mere mercy in Christ — in consequence of which choice they are called, justified and glorified.”[5]

Perhaps the most explicit passage that deals with the relationship of faith, works, and justification is Eph 2:8-10. We see here the importance of faith. Faith has also been quite concisely defined by The Abstract of Principles:

“Saving faith is the belief, on God’s authority, of whatsoever is revealed in His Word concerning Christ; accepting and resting upon Him alone for justification and eternal life. It is wrought in the heart by the Holy Spirit, and is accompanied by all other saving graces, and leads to a life of holiness.”

In the Protestant understanding of justification, good works are not the cause of justification; rather they are the result and by-product of faith and justification.

One last thing needs to be said about the beauty of justification and that is its Trinitarian nature. In justification we see that the Father chooses a people, whom He gives to the Son (John 6:37, 39; 10:29). The Son dies for that people (John 10:11, 14-15; 15:13). The Holy Spirit regenerates that people (Eph 2:4-5). We are thrice blessed by our triune God. Our justification ensures our glorification (Rom 8:29-30) and sets us on the journey that is known as sanctification, which we will look in an forthcoming post.


[1] The Abstract of Principles is the first Southern Baptist doctrinal statement. It was part of the original charter of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1858 and is still its doctrinal standard.

[2] (a) Imputed sin & guilt of Adam (Rom 5:12-21), (b) Transmitted sin nature (Jer 17:9), and (c) Personal sins of commission and omission (1 John 3:4; James 4:17).

[3] Elaboration on these “alone” themes can be seen in The Cambridge Declaration. In short, our authority is Scripture Alone by which we hold that salvation from the wrath to come is accomplished by Christ Alone& applied by Grace Alone, through Faith(in Christ & His work) Alone. Thus, we proclaim To God Alone Be the Glory!

[4] “Regeneration is a change of heart, wrought by the Holy Spirit, who quickeneth the dead in trespasses and sins enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the Word of God, and renewing their whole nature, so that they love and practice holiness. It is a work of God’s free and special grace alone.” The Abstract of Principles (1858) That regeneration produces a new life in Christ (2 Cor 5:17) as well as repentance that moves one to Christ. The Abstract of Principles defines repentance in the following fashion: “Repentance is an evangelical grace, wherein a person being, by the Holy Spirit, made sensible of the manifold evil of his sin, humbleth himself for it, with godly sorrow, detestation of it, and self-abhorrence, with a purpose and endeavor to walk before God so as to please Him in all things.”

[5] The Abstract of Principles (1858) – For further discussion of election, read A Southern Baptist Looks at the Biblical Doctrine of Election by Ernest Reisinger.

About Eric "Gunny" Hartman

Gunny is pastor of Providence Church in Plano, TX, and has taught at Dallas Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has completed coursework for a PhD in Rhetoric at University of Texas at Arlington and tries to be a good father to his 4 kiddos, exhibited by coaching a girls soccer team.


8 thoughts on “Justification … OR … You understand me? Catching my drift? Or am I being obtuse?

  1. Brother, that Cambridge Declaration is just brilliant. We use it as a response reading/affirmation of faith at Providence Church and it is officially our “Philosophy of Ministry.”

    I couldn’t “AMEN” that document loudly enough.

    Posted by Eric "Gunny" Hartman | August 10, 2011, 12:40 am
  2. You wrote: “It’s almost impossible, due to the bad assumptions people make equating freedom with licentiousness, to talk about genuine Christian freedom without so many caveats about licentiousness that the average person does not come away with an impression about Christian freedom other than ‘all it is, is a fancy preacher’s way of saying we must do what’s right, and do it naturally.'”

    Ain’t that the truth! It’s hard, because you can’t really use footnotes or parentheses in a sermon, at least not in a way that isn’t disruptive and derailing.

    Also, thanks for listening to the sermon and for the feedback there and here.

    You wrote: “What regeneration can’t become is just an explanation for required behavior.”

    I can agree with you … perhaps, especially if I can heartily emphasize “just” in the above statement.

    It’s not just that, but it is an explanation for why there’s a change in a person doing things he or she would not have done prior to. It’s the sine qua non of an act pleasing to God, but also I’d want to put a heavy emphasis on the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.

    Really, I think the Holy Spirit is more the explanation and cause (CAVEAT: though not complete and to the exclusion of the human and his or her responsibility).

    Those who are regenerated as New Covenant believers have the Holy Spirit within and His presence and work brings about certain effects (cf. Ezekiel 36:26-27). We are moved in accordance with His decrees.

    Due to the Spirit, we work because He works in us (Phil 2:12-13). He completes the work He began (Phil 1:6).

    We are not passive, however, but diligently dependent (to coin a phrase I coined a few sermons back). I think you see this in Paul’s assertion in 1 Cor 15:10.
    But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (ESV)

    Ergo, we are responsible, active, and commendable, but at the same time there should not be any boasting about those works in which we walk that were prepared beforehand (Eph 2:10)

    So, to answer why one does what one should and why another cannot do what what should, I think it’s valid to say either (a) He or she is/isn’t regenerate or (b) He or she doesn’t have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

    Of course, another question entirely is why the regenerate and Spirit indwelt person doesn’t do what he or should.

    Posted by Eric "Gunny" Hartman | August 10, 2011, 12:38 am
  3. Thanks for your sermon Sunday, which I heard. It’s almost impossible, due to the bad assumptions people make equating freedom with licentiousness, to talk about genuine Christian freedom without so many caveats about licentiousness that the average person does not come away with an impression about Christian freedom other than “all it is, is a fancy preacher’s way of saying we must do what’s right, and do it naturally.”

    But just like walking, doing something naturally often takes guidance and training and some prayer and perseverance and examples! I would love to see the positive assertions of Christian freedom expand on the single point, freedom to practice righteousness. Certainly, being “free indeed” (Jn 8) has greater aspects to it than discovering gray areas and adiaphora. And definitely the different ways to walk righteously will have an eternity of expression. I wish the moral life of vivification got more than its typical short shrift while the moral life of mortification gets all the attention. This too is cultural.

    So, in that spirit, I’ll offer something on “regeneration,” which I said earlier suffered from a problematic definition in this post. That wasn’t pointing to much of a solution, was it? It wasn’t using the freedom Christ has set us free to have, to practice righteousness, as positively as I could!

    What regeneration can’t become is just an explanation for required behavior. For example, the car dealer, who will not part with a car without a method of getting money for it, may say “come to the showroom, where all you need to drive a car out today … is your job!” The dealer will definitely secure the means to be paid, but will make it seem to a customer to provide a car in a simple, easy, effortless way. Similarly, regeneration can never be an excuse to require salvation only by exchanging a lifetime of good works for it, and saying “your regeneration will give you all that.”

    Scripturally, the Lord opens the hearts of people who believe. He does the choosing of the individual, using a variety of means: “‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’ ‘Come and see!'” … “I was in prison, and you visited Me” … “Zaccheus, come down from that tree, for I must stay at your house today!” … and in non-narrative language, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing, by the Word of God….” “You did not choose Me, but I chose you….”

    These examples are not the language of cause-and-effect, nor are they examples of a salvation dependent upon some kind of glory that must be given to a person the Lord saves. The person who hears the gospel has been given a blessing they don’t deserve. Paul answers the standard question, “why do some believe, and some don’t,” by the phrase “hearing, by the word of God.”

    And by the way, thanks for bringing the Cambridge Declaration to people’s remembrance, both on your church website and in the footnotes of this post. I love that thing.

    Posted by larnewman | August 9, 2011, 7:21 am
  4. Good, Gunny, I haven’t visited in awhile and would love to hear you wax on “for freedom Christ set us free.” I hope I can hear you someplace on the web.

    “You inexplicably read all the right book(s) and inexplicably get mostly the wrong things out of them. You occassionally will allow a feeble trickle of someone else’s view over the horizon of your hemisphere of opinions … we must be friends!”

    I’m glad you see some problem or clarification needed in using cause and effect as the relationship between faith and works. You explicitly disagreed with my point “if faith merely caused good works, there would be no doer, just an inevitable process that produced a result.”

    What I mean by “caused” is strict cause-and-effect, which some people call “causal necessity.” There are other necessities, such as legal, moral, logical, etc. If faith causes good works, in the strict causal-necessity sense, then nothing else is necessary, for works to occur. They always would occur as a causal result of faith. We know that this is not true, since apart from Christ we can do nothing. So faith, by itself, cannot be to works as strict cause to effect.

    When I said that under (strict) cause and effect “there would be no doer,” I mean that under the cause-and-effect paradigm there would be nothing for a doer to do except possess faith. The faith, by itself, would do the rest. This is not the Christian model of doing good. That’s a machine model.

    Hope that helps. It dovetails with your sermon topic, eh? Great. Please remember the point about Hebrews 11: people (the people Paul is talking about in your sermon topic on Gal 5) did these things by faith. The faith didn’t do them like a machine does things, all by itself. People — freed people — doing things through faith, and with Christ, and. in dependence on Him … is far more biblical than the postulation of us possessing a faith machine that produces product.

    Christ did not die for machines, as if we are machines that now begin to produce. Hope that helps the idea of “processes producing product.” Think of machines that output works: that’s not the Christian life model.

    I hope you get a chance to show how Galatians dovetails with the great verses in Eph 2 you mention. This idea of God — a moral agent Himself (!) — preparing our good works beforehand, for us to walk in them, is a model that involves both God’s Personhood and our new, freed personhood. Christians are moral agents, freed and free to walk in chosen actions. They don’t just “happen,” but we do them by choice!

    Posted by larnewman | August 5, 2011, 12:42 am
  5. I’ll briefly add that the Augsburg Confession speaks of the “New Obedience” in the following manner:
    “Also they teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruits”

    Again, I wouldn’t infer that they actually believe that it’s faith (i.e., and not the person) that is actually doing the good works, but, for lack of a better expression at the moment, that there’s a cause & effect relationship.

    Posted by Eric "Gunny" Hartman | August 4, 2011, 8:19 pm
  6. LARNEWMAN, Thanks for the comment. Think of the arrows less in terms of a chemistry equation and more as a visual way of showing the necessary outcomes and necessary conditions met.

    I would agree that it’s not actually the faith that brings effects, though perhaps you could contend that faith inherently is accompanied by faithfulness (i.e., sanctification).

    That being said, I’m certainly open to another label for the visual attempt to show that distinction between justification and sanctification from the two perspectives.

    “If faith merely caused good works, there would be no doer, just an inevitable process that produced a result.”

    Not necessarily, I’d say, since the faith is possessed by the individual, who is consequently the doer.

    “Christ didn’t die for processes producing product.”

    I’m not sure I understand that statement, LAR, even with the statement that precedes it. Incidentally, I’m preaching on Galatians 5:1 this upcoming Sunday, so that statement does resonate with me, though I might tweak it some.

    Posted by Eric "Gunny" Hartman | August 4, 2011, 8:11 pm
  7. There’s also something strange about the cause and effect model superimposed on the relationship between faith and works. The lockstep inevitability of Newton’s laws do not go well with looking at people freed by the work of God to accomplish what God has prepared beforehand for us to walk in. it is God who will one day render to every man. He will say to the doer of the good work, “well done, good and faithful servant. Because you have been faithful in a few things, ….” If faith merely caused good works, there would be no doer, just an inevitable process that produced a result.

    Hebrews 11 doesn’t say that faith causes good works,but that people, by faith, did these things mentioned there. Christ died to set Christians free to be doers of the Word. Christ didn’t die for processes producing product.

    Posted by larnewman | August 4, 2011, 4:23 pm
  8. Unfortunately, defining regeneration as it does, and making it temporally prior and necessary for justification, takes away the attempt at Protestantism: look at its definition of regeneration. It defines regeneration using infused grace categories: “renewing their whole nature, so that they love and practice holiness.” That’s infused grace. A faithful Protestantism denies that our justification is dependent upon infused grace. The problem is with the infused-grace definition of regeneration.

    Posted by larnewman | August 3, 2011, 10:00 am

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