The Nature and Scope of
Justification, or Complete in Christ: Romans 8:30-35 and Colossians
by Bill Parker
Most everyone who claims to be "Christian" will agree that a sinner must be justified in order to be saved and go to Heaven. But what exactly is justification? How is justification attained, and what does justification include? These are matters with which most who call themselves "Christian" disagree, and yet these are matters that are fundamental to true Christianity -- the gospel, the doctrines of grace, and salvation itself. Apart from a God-given understanding and assent to the basic issues of the nature and scope of justification, there can be no saving faith. This is an issue of life and death.
I. WHAT IS JUSTIFICATION?
First, we must specify what we mean by justification. The word justification, in the Bible, sometimes means the justification of persons. Sometimes it means the justification of actions. Sometimes it means the justification of both the persons and the actions. The word itself is a form of the word translated as right or righteous or righteousness. Justification, then, has to do with a person being made righteous or declared righteous. In the sense of being made righteous, justification is legal or forensic, having to do with how a person (a sinner) is legally made righteous before a holy and just God. In the sense of being declared righteous, justification is evidential, i.e, not having to do with what actually makes a person righteous, but having to do with evidences that declare or prove that a person has already been made righteous. We have a classic example of this in Romans 4:1-5 and James 2:21-24. Both Paul and James used Abraham as an example of justification. Paul was writing of how Abraham, a sinner, was actually made righteous before God. He emphasized how Abraham was not made righteous by his works in any way. Abraham was made righteous by God's grace through the Lord Jesus Christ. James was writing of how Abraham, a saved/justified sinner, was declared righteous before men. He emphasized how Abraham's works proved him to be justified before God. Abraham's works did not make him justified before God. His works merely evidenced that he was justified before God.
In this study, we will consider justification in the legal, forensic sense, having to do with how a sinner, one who deserves nothing but wrath and condemnation according to God's strict law and inflexible justice, is actually made righteous before a just and holy God. It is true that sometimes we speak of justification as God declaring a sinner righteous, and this is so, but when it comes to justification before God, we must specify the difference between legal justification and declarative justification in the sense that declarative refers to the evidences of justification before God. Justification then is a matter of a holy and just God making and declaring a sinner righteous according to His strict law and inflexible justice.
In this context then we must understand that the main issues of both "lost" and "saved" are primarily law and justice. Every term used in the Bible to describe "lost" people refers to those who owe a debt to God's law and justice. Every term used in the Bible to describe "saved" people refers to those whose debt to law and justice has been paid in full by Christ as their Representative and Surety. The Bible divides the whole human race into two classes of people: (1) the "lost" -- those who owe a debt to law and justice, and (2) the "saved" -- those whose debt has been paid. So "lost" and "saved" are primarily matters of law. Some may object that "saved" is primarily a matter of grace. It is true that salvation is attained and maintained strictly by grace and not in any way by works of the law. The way of salvation is by God's grace in Christ Jesus, but this is another way of saying, "For Christ is the END OF THE LAW for righteousness to every one that believeth" (Romans 10:4). This means Christ paid the debt to law and justice in full for every one that believes God's gospel -- His promise of eternal salvation and final glory based on the righteousness of Christ.
The law and the gospel are not the same thing, but the gospel does reveal the way God's law and justice are satisfied in the Person and work of Christ. The law and the gospel are not opposed as the gospel shows how God's love provided in and by Christ what His holy law and justice demanded. The law and the gospel are only opposed when sinners seek salvation or any part of it by works of the law. This is why the Apostle Paul was so adamant and dogmatic in saying "I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain" (Galatians 2:21). He was saying, "If you reject Christ's righteousness as paying the debt in full, you are a debtor to do the whole law. If you think salvation is conditioned on your efforts to keep the law in any way or in any form (ex. circumcision), you reject God's grace, you reject Christ and His righteousness, and you must establish one of your own (Galatians 5:2-4), and this is impossible" (Romans 3:20).
II. HOW IS JUSTIFICATION BEFORE GOD ATTAINED?
First, we need to show how justification before God is not attained, because the Bible shows this first. The Bible is clear and adamant that in the matter of the justification of a sinner before God, our works and efforts to keep the law, deeds of law, anything proceeding from our personal character and conduct, even the work of the Holy Spirit in us, must be totally excluded from the ground of justification (Romans 3:19-20). The work of the Holy Spirit in a person is as necessary in salvation as the work of Christ for a person but not for the same reason. The work of Christ for sinners is the only ground of justification. The work of the Holy Spirit in sinners is the fruit and effect of the work of Christ for sinners. This is very important if we are to have right views of salvation and of how God is glorified, Christ is exalted, and all boasting is excluded in redeemed, converted sinners.
The Bible tells us that God justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5). How could He justify the ungodly based on things proceeding from their character and conduct? If they are ungodly, then everything proceeding from their character and conduct is ungodly. The Bible reveals that before salvation, all of us by nature are guilty, defiled, condemned, ungodly sinners (Romans 3:10-18) who are in need of a righteousness we cannot produce. The Bible reveals that God has chosen a people out of Adam's fallen race before the foundation of the world, and He has promised to save them and give them all the blessings of eternal life and glory. But God could not give them the first blessing apart from His holy law and inflexible justice being satisfied. God is holy! Therefore if any of us are to be saved, we need a substitute, a mediator, a surety, a representative. We need a divine substitute who can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves -- produce a righteousness that answers the demands of God's holy law and justice.
The Bible reveals that God's love provided in the Person of His beloved Son what His holiness demanded. In order for Him to be glorified, to be just and the Justifier of the ungodly, God appointed His Son and conditioned all of the salvation of His people upon Christ. He sent Christ to fulfill those conditions by His obedience unto death to satisfy law and justice on their behalf and bring forth a righteousness that equals all the demands of the law. And on the basis of the death of Christ alone, His righteousness alone, the law and justice of God is perfectly satisfied (Romans 3:21-25). As a result, all whom Christ represented in His obedience unto death must be released from the curse of the law and released from the requirements of that law as to the ground of salvation.
In the gospel, God commands sinners to seek salvation and every part of it based on what Christ has accomplished by way of obedience and death (righteousness), and He forbids sinners to seek salvation or any part of based on anything that proceeds from their character and conduct. God reveals that He can only be glorified in the salvation of sinners based on the righteousness of Christ freely imputed to them and received by God-given faith. He reveals that He cannot be glorified if salvation is conditioned on anything proceeding from the sinner's character and conduct, because that which proceeds from our character and conduct cannot satisfy the law's demands. It cannot satisfy God's holiness and justice. Therefore, to seek to be justified before God based on anything that proceeds from our personal character and conduct dishonors God, denies Christ and His blood and righteousness, and keeps sinners in a state of bondage and cursedness (Galatians 2:21; 5:2-4). We must conclude, according to God's revelation in the promise of the gospel, and according to God's holy law and justice, that the only ground of the justification of a sinner before God is the righteousness of Christ freely imputed and received by God-given faith (Romans 4:6-8; 5:18-21; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Sinners who come to God seeking salvation upon any other ground, even if they attribute it to God or a work of the Holy Spirit, shall be damned (Matthew 5:20; Luke 18:9-14; Romans 9:32-10:3).
This one ground of justification is revealed in the preaching of the gospel (Romans 1:16-17). When a sinner hears and believes this gospel savingly, he/she will see the futility and wickedness of seeking salvation based on any other ground. This brings true repentance from dead works and idolatry. When we see the holiness of God in light of these blessed truths of Christ and the righteousness He established by His obedience unto death, we also see that all of our efforts to be saved based on any other ground were dead works, evil deeds, and fruit unto death (Philippians 3:7-10). We then become ashamed of ever thinking in our self-righteousness and pride that God could have saved us or blessed us based on anything proceeding from our character and conduct. Consider how highly a person must exalt themselves and their works to think that a holy and righteous God could save them or bless them based on anything other than the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ.
III. HOW IS JUSTIFICATION BEFORE GOD APPLIED?
The application of justification to God's elect in time is a subject of much debate and controversy. The reason this is so is because many want to claim to have been justified before God before the Scriptures will bear record of this. Such persons want to make justification mystical or claim that a person can be justified while ignorant of the only true and living God and Jesus Christ whom He sent. The problem is self-righteousness and religious pride whereby they refuse to repent of dead works and former idolatry. As one man said, "We all by nature think we are saved, before we are saved, until we are saved." Many times such persons will refer to the reality of justification in the mind of and purpose of God to justify their false claims and professions, but the Bible will not support them in this. We need to view the who scope of justification as revealed in the Bible in order to understand salvation. Consider the following:
A. Justification in the mind and purpose of God (Romans 8:29-30) --
Here we see the matter of justification as is it viewed in God's eternal mind and purpose. God in eternity past sovereignly chose a people in Christ and determined to justify them based on the righteousness of Christ. His purpose was and is to glorify Himself in the salvation of sinners based on the righteousness of Christ. In Romans 8:30 it says that all whom God foreordained and predestinated to be conformed to Christ, He also called, justified, and glorified. All of these blessings which are earned by Christ for His people are spoken of in past tense, as if they had already occurred. Yet, many of God's elect had not even been born at this time. How, then, could it be said that they are already called, justified, and glorified. We must make a distinction between God's eternal purpose before time and what God accomplishes in His elect in time. It is true that in the mind and purpose of God, His elect have always been saved, called, justified, and glorified, not in their own persons but in the mind and purpose of God. It has always been so sure and certain that they would be saved, called, justified, and eternally glorified, that it is sometimes spoken of in past tense as if it had already taken place. It has always been so sure and certain because it was never conditioned on them. It was always conditioned on the sovereign grace and power of God who cannot fail and on the Person and work of Christ who is faithful to His Father. So even though it has always been true in the mind and purpose of God, it is not applied to God's elect personally until they come to a saving knowledge of Christ as revealed in the gospel. When they are born in each successive generation, they are born guilty, depraved, defiled, condemned, ungodly, and cursed. What God has purposed for them before time must be applied to them personally in time, and it is all for His glory and for the preeminence of Christ.
B. Justified by the obedience and death of Christ (Romans 4:25; 5:9,18) --
In these passages the Bible speaks of justification as a work accomplished by Christ 2000 years ago as He obeyed the law and died on the cross for His people. Christ went to the cross, not as a private person, but as the Representative and Substitute of His sheep. He died, not for sins He had committed, but for the sins of all whom He represented. Their sins were legally charged (imputed) to His account so that God the Father was just to punish His holy, harmless, undefiled Son, for sins. Christ did all this in order to establish a righteousness for His people so that God could be just to justify them, the ungodly. This was completely accomplished 2000 years ago (John 17:4; 19:30) so much that God's elect in the Old Testament were justified based on this righteousness even before it was accomplished in time, and God's elect in the New Testament era are saved based on its having been accomplished in time.
Can we say then that we were saved 2000 years ago when Christ accomplished this great work on our behalf? We must be very careful here so that we do not dishonor the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit while exalting ourselves. We can only say were saved, justified, in the Person of Christ our Substitute and Surety. We cannot say that were saved then in our own persons. This is necessary if Christ is to have the preeminence and God be glorified in our hearts. We must always clarify the vast difference between Christ, Representative, and the elect, the ones whom He represented. He must have the preeminence. Think about this -- All of God's elect possess everything that is included in salvation even unto final glory right now in the Person of Christ our Substitute (Ephesians 1:3). According to Romans 8:30, all of God's elect have already been glorified in the Person of Christ, but none of God's elect have already been glorified in their own persons. This will not be accomplished in our own persons until we are all taken up to be with Christ. This glorification is certain to take place because Christ, our Substitute, has established the righteousness that demands it, and He Himself has already been glorified.
C. Justified by faith as applied to our persons (Romans 5:1; 6:17-18; Acts 13:38-39) --
These verses speak of the actual justification of a sinner's person in time. Each one of God's elect in each successive generation, by God's sovereign power and grace, and based on the righteousness of Christ, will be justified in their own persons by faith. Justification by faith does not mean they are justified on the basis of faith. Saving faith is the gift of God, the work of the Holy Spirit in a sinner, and proceeds from the sinner's personal character and conduct. Therefore, it must be excluded from the ground or basis of justification before God. Justified by faith means that a sinner is justified based on the righteousness of Christ received by God-given faith. Saving faith sees that Christ's righteousness alone is the ground of salvation and makes the only difference between heaven and hell. Saving faith looks outside of itself and toward Christ. It causes a sinner to rest in Him alone. If a person believe that faith itself makes the difference in salvation, then that person has faith in their faith, not faith in Christ. God the Holy Spirit works in sinners to accomplish the new birth, giving them life, and bringing them to faith and repentance through the preaching of the gospel. This is why we must agree that sinners must believe in order to be saved, but what is it they must believe? They must believe that Christ has already met the conditions for their entire salvation by establishing the only righteousness based upon which God can be just to justify them. Before sinners hear and believe the gospel, they are unjust, guilty, defiled, condemned, and ungodly. The moment they hear and believe the gospel, they are justified based on the imputed righteousness of Christ.
IV. WHAT DOES JUSTIFICATION BEFORE GOD INCLUDE?
Here is a matter of much disagreement amongst those who call themselves "Christian." As stated, most will agree that a sinner must be justified to be saved. Many will agree that justification is not by the works and efforts of sinners but based on the righteousness of Christ alone. Yet, even amongst these many disagree on what that justification actually includes. This was a problem in the Galatian and Colossian churches where false preachers claim that salvation (justification) was by grace based on the righteousness of Christ alone, but they claimed that a saved sinner needed more than this to be more saved, holier, more fit and qualified for God's blessings, favor, and even for heaven itself. They claimed that a believer's works and efforts at obedience would make that believer more saved, holier, more fit and qualified. Have you ever heard people say that sinners are justified freely by God's grace in Christ, but the moment a sinner is justified, he must begin to earn his rewards in heaven? This is the same heresy as the Galatian and Colossian heresy. This is why the Apostle Paul told the Galatians, "I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain" (Galatians 2:21). He also told them, "Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace" (Galatians 5:2-4).
The Apostle Paul also made it clear to the Colossians that all who are in Christ are "COMPLETE IN HIM" --
When we consider this completeness that every justified sinner has in Christ and by virtue of their oneness with Him, it is an amazing revelation of God's grace. Consider the following as to what justification in Christ actually includes:
A. Complete pardon and forgiveness of all sins (past, present, and future) -- Justified sinners are totally free from the guilt of all sin and cleansed from the defilement of sin by the blood of Christ. Romans 6:2 says we are "dead to sin," and Romans 6:7 says we are "freed (justified) from sin." This means we are dead to sin's condemning power, dead to the guilt and defilement of sin, as we are considered in Christ. Although the fact that we are dead to sin by the blood of Christ certainly affects our character and conduct, in itself, it has nothing to do with our character and conduct. That is to say that in our character and conduct we are still sinners. Though we are dead to sin, we still come short of the glory of God in our personal character and conduct. We are not dead to the power, presence, and influence of sin in our lives. Sin is all too powerful and present and influential in our lives (Romans 7:14-25), but we are completely dead to the guilt, defilement, and dominion of sin because Christ has satisfied law and justice on our behalf. He paid our sin debt and set us free completely. He did not pay for our past sins and then leave us to pay for our present and future sins. He paid it all -- completely.
The Bible says that all who are justified by Christ are "dead to the law by the body of Christ" (Romans 7:4). This means all who are in Christ are dead to the curse of the law because Christ was made a curse for us (Galatians 3:13). We all owed a debt to God's law before we were justified, but now Christ has completely paid that debt so much so that the law can never again curse us based on our sins. We are also dead to the law's demands of personal obedience for the purposes of attaining or maintaining salvation or any part of it. The law of God demands much of believers. It commands us to love God perfectly and to love our neighbor as ourselves, but it does not command anything of us in order to attain or maintain salvation. Christ has already done that for us completely. We no longer owe a debt to God's law because Christ has paid that debt.
"Dead to sin" and "dead to the law" does not refer to our personal character and conduct. Again, even though these truths affect our personal character and conduct, they refer to what a justified sinner already is (complete) in Christ. The key to understanding this is in Romans 6:11 --
"Likewise"or in the same manner as Christ died unto sin, reckon yourselves as dead indeed unto sin. Christ did not die unto sin in His character and conduct. He had no sin in His character and conduct. He died unto sin as to its guilt and defilement and dominion as it was legally imputed to Him. When the sins of His people were charged to Him, He was held legally responsible for their guilt and legal defilement. He was under the dominion of sin, not in His character and conduct, but in the sense that He owed a debt to law and justice, a debt that was imputed to Him. When He died, He paid that debt in full, and He was set free, not as a private person, but as the Representative of His sheep. In the same manner, we who believe the gospel, who are justified in Christ, are to reckon ourselves as dead to sin. We have a complete pardon from all the guilt and defilement of sin, and we are no longer under the dominion of sin as we no longer owe a debt to God's justice (Romans 6:14). We know that if God were to judge us based on our character and conduct, we would be doomed eternally (Psalm 130:3). We thank God that He does not judge us based on our conduct, but that He judges us based on the righteousness of Christ (Psalm 32:1-2; Romans 8:33-34). Our works, our repentance, our reformations, our promises to do better, are not good enough to bring forgiveness, pardon, and remission of sins. Only the blood of Christ can accomplish this.
B. Complete fitness, and free, unhindered access into God's favor and presence -- It is common for people to claim to be saved by grace, even based on the righteousness of Christ, but then to say that a person must make him/herself fit and qualified for God's favor, blessings, and presence. For example, a pastor once told of one of his members, one who claimed to be saved by grace, but who saw himself as so sinful he was afraid to pray. This pastor was extolling the man's humility. The problem is that for a believer this is not humility. It is unbelief, and, in fact, a cleverly disguised religious pride. We need to see that it is the height of religious pride for one who claims to be saved by the grace of God in Christ, who claims that he is trusting Christ, to think he is too sinful to pray. If he claims to be trusting in Christ, to be under His blood, and yet his sins bars him from the throne of grace, then where could he find access to the throne and relief from sin? If Christ did not take care of the sin problem for this man, then he must be thinking that his obedience, repentance, reformations, and determinations to do better would gain and maintain access to God. This is the proud look that God hates (Prov. 6:16-17).
The Bible tells us that the only ones who are unqualified, unfit, and unworthy for these privileges are unbelievers. None of us are worthy in and of ourselves, based on our character and conduct. Our only worthiness is Christ. The reason unbelievers are not worthy to pray or take the Lord's Supper is not simply due to the fact that they are sinners. It is due to the fact that they are ignorant of or not submitted to the only righteousness that makes any sinner worthy -- the imputed righteousness of Christ. A person who claims to be justified based on the righteousness of Christ but who sees themselves as too sinful to pray is only denying the very righteousness he claims. If Christ's blood does not put away the entire guilt and defilement of sin, then what could we do to put it away? Nothing (Hebrews 10:18)! If Christ's righteousness does not make me worthy, then what could I do to make myself worthy? Nothing (Galatians 2:21; 5:3-4)!
Justified in Christ means that we are completely and unchangeably fit and qualified for the favor, presence, and fellowship of God, and that we are already fit and qualified for heaven itself based on the righteousness of Christ. Our works and efforts do not and cannot make us fit and qualified for any of these blessings. They are not good enough to accomplish this. Even our works and efforts at obedience must be cleansed continually by the blood of Christ. How could they cleanse us and make us fit for God? They cannot. We may grow in grace and knowledge. We may and we should, by the grace and power of God, make reforms and improvements in our character and conduct, but we will never be any more fit or qualified for heaven than we are already, right now, in Christ! Not only is every believer qualified to pray, every believer is commanded to pray, and all prayer is to be based on the merits of the Person and work of our Great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-16), not based on anything proceeding from our personal character and conduct.
Someone objects that a believer who is overcome with some specific sin should repent and seek to remedy the situation before he prays or takes the Lord's Supper. Well, a believer who is overcome in some specific sin should repent and seek to remedy the situation, but not in order to make himself more fit and qualified and worthy. That would be legalism. He should repent as he is motivated by grace and gratitude to God who has already made him fit and qualified and worthy in Christ. If we count ourselves to be unfit, unqualified, and unworthy because of some specific sin in our lives, why do we not consider ourselves to be unfit, unqualified, and unworthy because of any sin in our lives? Our worthiness is in Christ and based on His righteousness alone. Thank God, we are complete in Him! Our works and efforts are not good enough to make us fit, qualified, and worthy. The righteousness of Christ is more than enough. One sin is enough to bring eternal death, but the blood of Christ brings the complete forgiveness of many, many sins, and it is good enough to qualify every sinner who comes to Him for salvation (Romans 5:20).
C. Complete entitlement to the whole inheritance and reward of grace -- It is common in counterfeit Christianity to claim that salvation is by grace but that once a person is saved by grace he must then begin to earn his rewards in heaven. These counterfeit Christians speak often of degrees of rewards in heaven as if the greater the person works the greater their rewards. This is totally foreign to the gospel and the truth of salvation by God's free and sovereign grace in Christ Jesus. To be justified based on the righteousness of Christ means to be already entitled to the whole inheritance and reward of grace as Christ, our Mediator and Surety, earned it for all who believe in Him. The Bible tells us that all who are vitally united to Christ have been blessed with all spiritual blessings in Him. It has always been so in His Person --
Christ as the Representative and Surety
of the whole election of grace has earned for them all grace here
and all glory hereafter by establishing a righteousness that demands
their salvation and final glory to the praise of the glory of God's
grace. All spiritual blessings and rewards reside in His Person, and
He sovereignly rules and reigns over all things in order to give these
blessings and rewards to His church. Notice how the blessings and
rewards are called an inheritance (Ephesians 1:11,14, 18).
An inheritance is not something we can earn. It is something given
to us based upon the death of the one who bequeathed it to us (Hebrews
9:15). Christ is the one who earned the inheritance for us.
We merely receive it in and by Him. It is all based on His righteousness
and not our righteousness.
The Apostle Paul dealt with this using Abraham as an example of how God justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:1-5). If the reward is something we earn by our works, then it cannot be of grace. It is a matter of debt -- something God owes us because we earned it by our works. This would not glorify God, nor would it exalt Christ. It would give sinners room to boast and have confidence in the flesh. As our works are not good enough to make us fit and qualified for heaven, our works are not good enough to earn rewards in heaven. We must understand that all who are justified in Christ are equally saved, equally qualified and fit for heaven, equally sanctified, equally, forgiven and pardoned, and equally rewarded, all based on the righteousness of Christ. Even as justified sinners, we are still unprofitable servants. This means we cannot earn God's favor and blessings. We must trust Christ alone for these.
The Apostle Peter describes the inheritance of the saints as "an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you" (1 Peter 1:4). It is incorruptible, undefiled and does not fade away because it is an inheritance that Christ earned and preserves for us. If it were based on or conditioned on our efforts, how could it be incorruptible, undefiled, and certain not to be lost. If we can earn it by our works, we can lose it by our sins. This is not grace. Consider the words of God by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:32--
God who spared not His own Son will surely and freely (unconditionally) according to His promise give us all things -- all grace here and all glory hereafter. The justified sinner's reward is Christ and all the blessings of eternal life in Him.
Some argue that if there are degrees of punishment in hell, then there must be degrees of reward and blessing in heaven. This is not so. There are degrees of punishment in hell, but that is because punishment in hell is what sinners earn -- "For the WAGES of sin is death;" (Romans 6:23a). However there are no degrees of reward in heaven because heaven and eternal life is not what justified sinners earn, it is what we receive as a gift -- "but the GIFT of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 6:23b). Again, our works and efforts are not good enough to earn the blessings and reward of heaven. It is only through and by Christ we obtain all grace here and all glory hereafter.
All who are justified in Christ, based on His righteousness alone, are completely entitled to the whole inheritance of grace, and this is one of the greatest motivations for believers to be zealous in obedience, worship, love, and good works. Our completeness in Christ should bring such gratitude that we ought to be ashamed when we are not seeking to be obedient and loving children of God.