The Resurrection of Christ and Justification
Speaking of Abraham, whose faith was “counted to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:22, ESV), the Apostle Paul asserts the glorious gospel truth that: “It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (Rom. 4:24-25, ESV, emphasis added)
In the traditional church calendar this is the Easter season, today being “Good Friday.” At this time of year our attention is focused upon the sacrificial death of the Son of God and His glorious resurrection from the dead on the third day. The truths of Christ’s death and resurrection are central to the gospel message, and therefore they were central to the preaching of the apostles. As St. Paul the Apostle reminds the Corinthian Christians: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Cor. 15:3-5, ESV) The proclamation of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection are said to be “of first importance” when it comes to the gospel message. And, indeed, they are! All orthodox, biblical Christians will agree with this. But while it is a good thing to emphasize the historical events of our Lord’s death for our sins and His resurrection from the dead, rarely does one hear about the importance of Christ’s resurrection in connection with our justification before God. In this blog article I want to have us reflect upon the vital importance of Christ’s physical, bodily resurrection from the dead in connection with our standing as just before God.
As we dive into this vitally important subject, it is first of all important to understand what the word “justification” means in Scripture when connected to our salvation (and especially how the term is used in the writings of the Apostle Paul). Our Shorter Catechism offers an excellent, Bible-based definition of the doctrine of justification in the answer to Question # 33 (“What is justification?“): “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” (Scripture proofs: Gen. 15:6; Psa. 32:1-2; Isa. 53:11; Jn. 5:24; Acts 13:39; Rom. 3:24; 4:6-8; 2 Cor. 5:19, 21; Rom. 5:19; Gal. 2:16; Phil. 3:9; Rom. 8:33-34; etc.) Note a number of things about this definition:
(1) Justification is an act of God, not a work of God.
The Westminster Divines were very careful and precise in using this language. By an “act” of God they meant that justification is something that takes place outside of man, rather than something God does within the heart of man. For example, in contrast to justification, the Westminster Divines rightly describe sanctification as a “work” of God (answer to Shorter Catechism Question # 35, What is sanctification?, begins by saying “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace…”). In justification God declares a believing sinner to be legally, forensically “just” or “righteous” in His sight; He doesn’t “make” that sinner inherently, internally righteous by infusing grace into his soul. (Certainly such an infusion of grace and inner renovation/renewal does take place in the hearts and lives of all who are justified, but this takes place in the ongoing process or Divine “work” of progressive sanctification, not in the legal, once-for-all Divine “act” of forensic justification). Justification is an objective, external declaration of God that takes place in the courtroom of heaven, the verdict and benefits of which are conferred to the sinner solely (“sola fide,” “faith alone”) through that sinner’s faith in Jesus Christ alone (a faith which itself is a Divinely-bestowed sovereign gift of God, and not a work of man’s “free will”; Eph. 2:8-9). This is in contrast to the error of the Roman Catholic understanding of justification, which confuses and mixes justification and sanctification. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes approvingly the Council of Trent on justification as follows: “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.” (p. 482, section 1989; Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1994). The Roman Catholic view of justification is that God cannot declare a man to be just in His sight unless that man is inherently, internally just through the infusion of Divine grace. Rome historically has criticized the Protestant understanding of justification to be a “legal fiction.” In Rome’s view justification is initially conferred in baptism, and sanctifying grace, grounded in the death and resurrection of Christ, dispensed through the church’s sacramental system as administered by a sacerdotal priesthood, and received by the baptized as they faithfully avail themselves of the sacraments, enables a sinner to merit the righteousness necessary to obtain final justification and eternal life. From the historic Protestant and Reformed perspective the Roman Catholic understanding of justification involves a serious confusion of justification and sanctification, is clearly refuted by the teachings of the Bible, and ultimately results in a works-righteousness system of salvation which strips its adherents of assurance and comfort and brings them into the bondage of legalism. Taken to its logical end, the Roman view of justification is a false, soul-damning gospel (see Gal. 1:6-9).
How does the resurrection of Christ relate to the doctrine of justification as an act of God’s free grace? Quite simply, the reason why God the Father as our heavenly Judge can declare us to be legally righteous in His sight in the courtroom of heaven is because His eternal, incarnate Son, the Righteous One, died in our place as our sinbearer and Substitute. Christ’s resurrection proves that God the Father had accepted His Son’s sacrifice for our sins. The resurrection was God the Father’s vindication of His Son and a public declaration on the Father’s part of the fact that He has accepted His Son’s sacrifice on behalf of His people. Furthermore, because God is perfect, we need a perfect righteousness to stand just in His sight. In this life even the most mature, sanctified believer is still far from attaining to such a perfect righteousness, for the remnants of the sin nature remain within us throughout this life. But Christ was the sinless, spotless Lamb of God! By His perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself He merited that perfect, everlasting righteousness we sinners need in order to stand justified before our infinitely holy and perfectly righteous Creator! The Roman system of sanctifying grace and infused, grace-wrought righteousness serving as the basis for our justification just does not cut it, because God, being a perfectly just and righteous Judge, will not accept a less-than-perfect righteousness for justification. But by God’s amazing grace He imputes (“credits to our account”) the perfect righteousness of Christ to us as the ground and basis of our justification. (Luther referred to this as an “alien righteousness,” because Christ’s righteousness is outside of us, not internal to us or infused into us.) We receive the benefits of this perfect, alien righteousness of Christ through simple, child-like trust in Him. We are justified on the ground of Christ’s righteousness alone, received by faith alone, and that “alien righteousness” of Christ alone serves as our title to eternal life. The resurrection of Christ made all of this possible.
(2) Justification is a legal, forensic act, not an internal, renovative work.
This point just reinforces and restates the first point made above. The fact that the Scriptures use the term “justification” to refer to a forensic declaration of God rather than an inner, renovative work of God is seen by the biblical contrast between justification and condemnation, especially as that contrast is brought out by the Apostle Paul. For example, Romans 8:33-34a says: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?” (ESV) In this passage Paul contemplates God as a Judge, and asks who can bring any kind of legal “charge” against God’s elect? Then, in this forensic context, he immediately contrasts justification and condemnation. When God condemns a man He does not make that man condemned; He simply declares that man to be condemned by the standard of Divine Law. Likewise, in justification God does not make the sinner righteous; rather, He simply declares that sinner to be righteous in His sight. (To illustrate: A human judge does not make the accussed innocent or guilty by his verdict; rather, he simply declares the accussed to be either “guilty” or “not guilty” in the judgment of the court.) Again, this declaration is made possible by Christ’s resurrection, for in His resurrection Christ Himself was “justified” in the sense that He who was unjustly condemned by wicked men and crucified on the cross as a sinner (even though He Himself was without sin) was openly vindicated and publicly declared by God the Father to be righteous. We who are united to Christ by faith are thereby vindicated and justified in Christ, the Righteous One, for His righteousness is imputed to us.
Of course, none of this is to deny that God also works in the hearts of His elect to renew them after the image of Christ and thus to fit them for the enjoyment of heaven. But this is called “sanctification,” and it is distinct from justification. All historic, orthodox Protestants acknowledge that everyone whom God justifies He also sanctifies. There doesn’t exist a truly justified person who is not also a sanctified person, as likewise there doesn’t exist a truly sanctified person who is not also justified. The salvation package includes many spiritual and saving blessings, including justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and ultimately glorification. Those whom God justifies He also sanctifies. But our justification is not grounded in or based upon our sanctification, nor does God justify us because we are sanctified or have attained to a certain level of sanctity or holiness in our lives. (Indeed, Romans 4:5 tells us that God justifies the “ungodly” – not the sanctified – as a gift of His grace.) Rather, both justification and sanctification spring from our union with Christ in His death and resurrection (and, I would argue, our sanctification and growth in grace are the logical outworking and fruits of our justification). Therefore, when Rome accuses the historic Protestant doctrine of justification of catering to licentious and sinful living (for example, when Romanists say things like “Protestants teach that all you have to do is accept Jesus as your Savior, and then you can live like hell and still go to heaven”), it fundamentally misunderstands and misrepresents the biblical and Protestant view. Orthodox Protestantism has always taught that, while we are not justified or saved on the basis of our works or merits, nonetheless those who have true faith will demonstrate the reality of their faith by their works, since good works are the inevitable fruits and evidences of a true and living faith. How can this be? Because, as Scripture and the Protestant confessions teach, while justification and sanctification can (and must!) be distinguished, they cannot be separated, for all whom God justifies He will also sanctify. The resurrection of Christ guarantees both our justification and our sanctification.
(3) In justification God legally pardons all of our sins and accepts us as righteous in His sight, solely on the basis of Christ’s righteousness which is credited to us, and received by our faith in Christ alone.
In justification God legally pardons all of our sins — past, present and future — and accepts us as perfectly righteous in His sight. He does so, not because we are inherently righteous in and of ourselves (on the contrary, in ourselves we are sinners worthy of His condemnation!), but because of Christ’s perfect, everlasting righteousness being credited to us, we receiveing Christ and His righteousness through simple, child-like trust in Him alone for salvation as He is free offered to us in the gospel. Christ’s atonement on the cross was a full, perfect, all-sufficient satisfaction of Divine justice against our sins, and therefore God’s act of justifying sinners is a once-and-for-all, unrepeatable, and irreversible declaration of our righteous standing before our infinitely holy Creator and Judge! The once-and-for all, physical, bodily resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ secures this everlasting, “alien” righteousness of Christ for us believing sinners. That is why the Apostle Paul can declare that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1, ESV, emphasis added), and why our Lord Jesus could say in John 5:24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (ESV) Once a sinner is justified, he is always justified.
Now, some might object by asking, “If even our future sins have been forgiven in our justification, then why does Scripture command believers (who are justified) to confess their sins in order to obtain forgiveness (as in First John 1:9)?” The answer is that our justification guarantees our full legal forgiveness and serves as our title to heaven, but our ongoing, daily confession of sin is necessary for us to experience our heavenly Father’s ongoing fatherly forgiveness. Justification contemplates God as our heavenly Judge. Daily confession of sins contemplates God as our heavenly Father. To offer an illustration: Say parents adopt a boy into their family. Once the legal adoption is ratified, that child belongs to the adoptive family forever. Say they are loving parents who care deeply for the child. Yet, say this adopted boy engages in some wilful disobedience. Does the child’s disobedience negate his status as the legal son of his adoptive parents? Of course not. Will the child’s disobedience result in the child being kicked out of the household? Again, of course not (we’re talking about loving parents here, not abusive or negligent ones!). However, until that child repents of his disobedience there is a rift in his relationship with his parents. They still love him and treat him as their son, even when he is disobedient, but they may need to impose loving discipline upon their adopted son in order to correct his behavior. But the point is that his status as their son is not altered by his disobedient behavior. It is similar when it comes to our justification. When God justifies us He also legally adopts us as His sons and daughters in Jesus Christ. When we as believers fall into sin, we incur His fatherly displeasure and may even experience His loving hand of chastisement in the form of temporal judgments. But if we are true believers then we are still His children. (And, of course, if we truly belong to Him then sooner or later His Spirit will work renewed repentance and change in our hearts and lives.) Nonetheless, in order to enjoy close communion and fellowship with our heavenly Father, we daily need to confess and repent of our sins, and renew our faith in Him. Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, and through union with Him in His death and resurrection, we are empowered by His Spirit do walk daily with Him in renewed daily conversion (ongoing repentance and faith).
It is because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead that we who believe in Him as Savior and Lord are now and forever justified before God! Now, that is a reason to celebrate. The Lord is risen indeed! Let us rejoice in our risen King, the Righteous One in Whom we are declared righteous!