Justification: Its Necessity and Grounds

Alan D. Strange

We need a "New Perspective on Paul," or so a number of New Testament scholars have claimed in recent decades. The "New Perspective on Paul" (NPP) has impacted Pauline interpretation at many critical points, creating controversy particularly in its recasting of the doctrine of justification.

While the leading proponents of NPP do not all agree on the precise shape of Paul's doctrine of justification, they do all agree that in some measure the Reformers and the teaching of the Reformation, as reflected in the Reformed confessions and catechisms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, erred in understanding Paul's doctrine of justification (and thus in formulating their own doctrine). Many NPP adherents, for instance, dispute the historic Reformed contention that the justification of the ungodly is a central concern for Paul.

Some promoters of NPP apparently want not simply a rereading of Paul, but a rereading of the whole Bible. It is quite true that Luther and the other Reformers focused particularly on Paul's epistles (especially Romans and Galatians) in formulating their doctrine of justification, but it is also true that the whole of Scripture, rightly interpreted, is concerned with the question of justification.

The Nature of Justification

Justification involves, first of all, the simple declaration that one is righteous in the sight of a holy and righteous God. If we properly understand that justification is forensic (legal), not transformative, then we understand that justification is the declaring of the righteous to be righteous (Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; Luke 7:29). This is why even God can properly be said to be justified (Ps. 51:4), that is, declared to be what he is—holy and righteous. This concept of justification is found not only in Paul, but everywhere in God's Word. But why, we may ask, do we need to be justified, and upon what basis are we justified?

To understand the necessity for, and the grounds of, justification, we begin neither in Paul nor even with the doctrine of justification proper, but back of that. To put it another way, before we launch into soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), in which justification is an important part, we need to go back of soteriology to theology proper (the doctrine of God), anthropology (the doctrine of man), and Christology (the doctrine of Christ). The place to begin, in properly understanding the scriptural doctrine of justification, is with the nature and character of God, and of man, who is made in the image and likeness of God.

In considering the nature and character of God in relation to justification, perhaps it is the holiness and righteousness of God more than any other attribute that should receive our attention. Scripture is replete with testimony to the holiness of God. The book of Isaiah, for instance, repeatedly presents God as the Holy One of Israel. In Isaiah's vision (6:1-7), the Lord is thrice denominated as holy, and it is in that light that Isaiah gains a true understanding of his own wretchedness and need. Habakkuk puts it this way, in fact: You "are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong" (1:13). In a day in which truth is said to be relative and guilt for sin is denied, it is crucial to hear and receive the witness of God's Word to his ineffable holiness. No one else, in fact, is holy as is the Lord alone, who is "majestic in holiness" (Ex. 15:11).

The word holiness in Scripture indicates God's separateness from sin and includes the moral concept of righteousness. Holiness involves more than righteousness, but it never involves less than righteousness. To say then that God is holy is to say, in respect to righteousness, that he is pure and not besmirched by any moral stain.

The Necessity for Justification

Since God is holy and righteous, he requires us to be holy and righteous. This is clear in passages like Psalm 15 and Psalm 24, in which the question is posed, "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place" (24:3)? The psalmist is asking who may approach the Lord, the Holy One, and dwell in his comfortable presence. And the answer, given in Psalm 24:4 (or Psalm 15:2-5), is, essentially: one who maintains perfect outer and inner purity. Here is the necessity for justification: God is holy and requires that we be holy in order to have access to him.

For God to require that man be perfectly holy in order to come into his holy presence is entirely reasonable. Since God is of purer eyes than to behold sin, we should expect nothing other than that. It would be contrary to his own revealed nature to admit anyone who is less than perfectly holy into his presence.

Before the fall of Adam, this was no problem. The justification of the godly—declaring that the godly are indeed godly—is obvious and not problematic. And that was the case before Adam's fall into sin: God justified Adam before the Fall, that is, God made Adam upright (Eccl. 7:29) and declared him to be "very good" (Gen. 1:31). Adam was created pure by God, and God recognized him and declared him to be such, inasmuch as God always speaks the truth about those with whom he deals, being just and holy.

As Adam's loving Father, who in great kindness furnished him with all that he needed, God made man, as Augustine taught, both able to sin and able not to sin. The arrangement that prevailed with Adam before the Fall is often referred to as a covenant of life or a covenant of works (WCF 7.2; WLC 20; WSC 12; Gen. 2:15-17). It seems quite fitting that God, having made man in his image, should enter into a relationship with him (hence, the covenant aspect), and that the relationship should be predicated upon man continuing to walk in the holiness and righteousness in which he was created (hence, the works aspect: Gal. 3:12; Rom. 10:5).

It was not that Adam before the Fall was autonomous in any aspect of his being. Rather, he was utterly dependent upon God for sustaining him in righteousness. But he was, in looking to God, able not to sin. When he stopped loving and worshiping God, when he stopped trusting and obeying God, when he ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree, he did, in that day, surely die, becoming spiritually dead and alienated from the life of God (Gen. 3:1-14).

As long as Adam continued to walk in covenant faithfulness, God continued to declare him to be righteous. Had he not sinned when tempted, God would have declared him righteous and confirmed him in that righteousness. He would have gone from being able to sin and able not to sin to being not able to sin. Clearly God did not intend Adam to remain in the condition of being able to sin and able not to sin, but wanted him to come to the point where he would not be able to sin.

God's intention is clear, because this is where he takes us in glorification. Because Christ, the last Adam, obeyed perfectly (and paid for our disobedience), we shall, in the new heavens and earth, not be able to sin. Adam, as we have said, was made upright, but was not yet in the condition where he could only choose the good, even as God can only choose the good (WCF 9.1-5).

When our first parents disobeyed, however, they could no longer choose the good, but became unable not to sin. This is the horror of the Fall, and because Adam was appointed as federal head of the race, the whole of humanity was plunged into sin. After the Fall, man is accounted as guilty of Adam's first sin, he lacks original righteousness, and his whole nature is corrupted (WSC 18). Man now suffers from total depravity. Rather than being declared righteous by a holy God, he is condemned by a holy God (Gen. 3:16-19).

Here is the problem—what John Murray calls "the basic religious question": How can man, being sinful, hope to have any approach whatever to a holy God? The weight of this problem needs properly to be appreciated. After Adam's sin, we are no longer righteous, no longer holy, but wicked and ungodly. We are thus, on the terms of Psalm 24:3-4, unable to approach God. Adam and Eve needed to be declared righteous once again. But how can God do it? How can God justify the ungodly (Rom. 3:26)? This is the great dilemma that all the religions of the world try to answer in their own ways, and for which biblical Christianity alone has the correct answer.

The Grounds of Justification

Indeed, how can God justify the ungodly without ceasing to be holy and righteous? After Paul concludes in Romans 3:9-19 that the whole human race is lost in sin, he gives us the bad news: After the Fall, "through the law comes knowledge of sin" (vs. 20). Before the Fall, the law was not our judge and condemner, but in our fallen, sinful, unregenerate condition, it can be nothing other than that.

In the rest of Romans 3 and in Romans 4-5, Paul sets forth how it is that God can be just and the justifier of the ungodly. Here we see the grounds for the justification of the ungodly. Adam was bound to obey, and in disobeying incurred the wrath and curse of God. Adam, and we with Adam, need someone to undo what Adam and we have done. That is, our lawbreaking needs to be atoned for. And we need someone to do what Adam and we have not done, that is, to keep the whole law that we and Adam have not kept.

Christ undoes what Adam and we have done. Romans 5:6-8 tells us that, although we were ungodly, Christ died for us, so that we might be saved from wrath through him and reconciled to God (vs. 9). We need to be saved from wrath because God's justice demands satisfaction. God's righteous anger, which burns hot against us because of our sin, is satisfied by "the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood" (Rom. 3:24-25). That is, the penalty that the broken law demanded, which after the Fall gives us the "knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20), was paid by Christ.

It pleased God to bruise Christ because he was bearing our iniquities (Isa. 53:10-11). In the whole of his passion, we might say, he was never acting for himself, but was always acting for us. He made no defense before his accusers (Mark 15:2-5), for instance, because we have none. As the hymn writer put it, "In my place condemned he stood." He was condemned because he was bearing my sins and because I deserve to be condemned. To put it another way, our sins—the sins of his people (including the guilt of Adam's first sin)—were imputed to him, were accounted to him, and he paid for them entirely.

Christ undoes what we have done; he also does what we have not done. Not only Christ's passion, but also the whole of his life, was for us. We see this in the comprehensive parallel set forth in Romans 5:12-21, especially verse 19: "For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous." Thus, our sin was imputed to him, and his righteousness was imputed to us—the righteousness of his perfect law-keeping on our behalf.

Sadly, there are those even in Reformed circles who have in more recent times denied that the perfect law-keeping of Christ is imputed to believers in their justification. They argue that while the church has always acknowledged that Christ died for our sins (in some sense), this idea of imputation is an unwarranted Reformational or post-Reformational innovation. However, this doctrine not only goes back to Augustine, but has its antecedents in Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, and others.

These church fathers understood the Incarnation to involve, in some measure, not only Christ as the last Adam undoing what the first Adam did, but also doing what the first failed to do—not merely so that he might be qualified to be a perfect sacrifice, but so that by his own perfect humanity he might redeem ours. Galatians 4:4-5 tells us that Christ was born under the law to redeem those who were under the law. In his life as the second Adam, Christ did what the first Adam did not do—obey perfectly during his time of probation, in all of his temptations (cf. Matt. 4:1-11).

God requires righteousness for us to come into his presence, as we have seen in Psalm 24:3-4. That means that God requires both punishment for disobedience and perfect law-keeping. If my child fails to clean his room upon my instructions, I both punish him for that failure and subsequently require him to clean the room. Christ takes the punishment for our failure to keep the law, as well as perfectly keeping it for us—undoing what we have done, and doing what we have not done.

Here we have the ground of our justification: the active and passive obedience of Christ. His active obedience is his keeping of the law for us. His passive obedience is his paying for our failure to keep the law. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 puts it, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Luther and Melanchthon referred to this as the glorious exchange in which Christ takes our sin (imputed to him) and gives us his righteousness (imputed to us), which we receive and rest upon by faith alone (Rom. 3:28; 4:4-9).

It is this proclaiming of us to be righteous because of that double imputation in which our justification consists. Before the Fall, we were justified, or declared to be righteous, because we were such in our own proper persons. After the Fall, we are sinners who must be justified on some other basis. Thus we see that the grounds of justification for the ungodly are entirely external to them. Our justification is entirely based on the obedience of Christ (active and passive). His righteousness is ours, not through our law keeping, but through faith in Christ (Phil. 3:9).

The author is the associate pastor of New Covenant Community OPC in New Lenox, Ill. He is the librarian and teaches church history at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He also serves on the OPC's Committee on Christian Education. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2005.

New Horizons: February 2005

James and Justification by Faith

Also in this issue

James and Justification by Faith

The Other Justification by Faith

A Fresh Perspective on Jesus Christ

Turning Points in American Presbyterian History
Part 2: Origins and Identity, 1706-1729

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