The Fork in the Road: When Am I Justified?

I continue to try to sort out just where the progressives and conservatives part ways in their theology. Ask any conservative, and he’ll assure you that he believes we are justified by faith, not works, by the grace of God. He’ll cite many of the same verses that the progressives use as proof texts. And he’ll mean it.

Here’s the problem, I think. There’s an old saw that’s been taught in Bible classes for centuries: we receive justification when we are baptized, which is followed by a period of sanctification until we die, and then glorification. And those words are indeed used in those senses in the scriptures — but not always. Maybe not even most of the time.

As a result, many Bible students conclude quite naturally that “justification” always refers to our initial salvation at baptism. It’s not true.

The conservatives therefore read “justified by faith” to refer to what happens at our baptism. And they genuinely believe that our initial salvation is by grace through faith. However, they don’t believe that the system stays the same. Most believe that after baptism faith is no longer sufficient to keep us justified.

What does the Bible say?

Well, the Bible doesn’t make a distinction between the standard for getting saved and staying saved. For example,

(1 Cor 1:2)  To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ–their Lord and ours:

In this passage, “sanctify” refers to completed action in the past (perfect, passive participle). It’s not speaking of a process but of our initial conversion. Well, that only makes sense. “Sanctify” means to make holy. Sometimes Paul is speaking of being made holy in God’s eyes (already finished) or of being made holy in how we live (still a work in process).

“Justify” is a little harder to pin down, because we tend to think it means “wash sins away in baptism.” That’s not the definition. In fact, “justified” is a legal term, meaning “not guilty” — not in the American sense of “not proven” but in the Roman sense of “found guiltless.” It’s God’s decree that we are free from the accusation of sin.

You can hear the law court language clearly in such passages as,

(Rom 8:33-34)  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died — more than that, who was raised to life — is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.

“It is God who justifies” means “It is God who renders the verdict of not guilty.” And in this passage, “justifies” is a present, active participle, indicating continuous action. After all, how often might a charge be brought against us? Well, for me, pretty much continuously. How often do I need God to find me not guilty? Hence, we see Jesus described as “is … interceding” (present, indicative active, meaning that it’s happening right now) not “has interceded” for us.

Of course, there are plenty of verses where Paul speaks of our having been justified when we were first saved. But there are also verses where God’s justification is spoken of as continuous. For example,

(Rom 3:22-24)  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

“Are justified” is a present, passive participle, indicating continuous action — we are continuously justified freely by his grace!

Which brings us to Galatians. In chapter 5, Paul condemns those who seek justification by law —

(Gal 5:4-5)  You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.

“Justified” is present, indicative middle — indicating action taking place right now. And “await” is the same tense. Those who are seeking a works justification are presently lost, while we are presently awaiting righteousness by faith. Neither looks to a past saving event but both speak to how we expect to make it to be with God right now.

(Gal 2:15-16)  “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ 16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.

Not surprisingly, the first “justified” is also present, indicative middle, showing how the brilliant Paul brings his argument full circle from the first to last mention of the word in Galatians. A man is “not being justified right now by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” Again, he’s not looking to a past saving event.

(Gal 3:11)  Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.”

“Justified” is present, indicative passive, meaning action taking place right now: presently justified.

Just so, we find the same conclusion in other passages, although the same thought is expressed in other terms —

(John 3:14-18)  “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

In each case, “believes” is a present, active participle, referring to continuous, not point-in-time, action. Jesus’ words aren’t limited to the moment when we confess our faith immediately before baptism. The promise is continuously true thereafter.

Now, as I’ve pointed out before, in John and Paul (not James), “faith” or “believe” includes the idea of repentance or repent — that is, submitting to Jesus as Lord. There is nothing here saying we have no obligation to obey God’s commands. It’s just that the test of our salvation is our faith and repentance, not how perfectly we understand how many children an elder must have.


16 Responses

  1. Jay

    We all love to sing “amazing grace” penned by the slave trader John Newton. I understand his conviction came mid ocean with a cargo of slaves.

    What about the end of the second or third verse that grace abounds the hour I first believe?

    When was John justified? Both John Newton and Wilburforce abolished slavery in England years before the U.S.


  2. Jay, you give the example of Jn. (3:14-18) and rightly so. please explain in what are we supposed to have faith, (The snake on a pole) (Jesus on the cross) or God of heaven and his holy word.

    I believe no person would be saved by either the “Golden snake, or the death of Christ” if they did not have faith in God the Father, and believe what he presented through both Moses and Jesus. God is the ultimate savior (not the snake, not the Son) we show faith in God’s word by doing what his messengers told us to do. Therefore we show faith in God.
    Some seem to believe we are saved by Jesus, not through Jesus. so they call Jesus God. Was the golden snake God also? no both represent the promises of God in which we must have faith in order to be saved.

  3. laymond,

    Not quite sure what you are saying, sounds like semantics to me and on the edge of blasphemy but…

    John 10:34-36
    Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and the Scripture cannot be broken—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?

    The spiritual laws of genetics say a son is like the father IN EVERY WAY but just different.

    1Corinthians 11:3
    Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

    Father is authoritative over the Son, but that doesn’t make Jesus any less God.


    1Timothy 1:15
    Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world TO SAVE sinners—of whom I am the worst.

    Hmmm. Apparently: Jesus saves….

    Sounds like a couple of good sayings to me…. amen? 😉

    1Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.

    Grace vs. works solved…

    And by the way, the golden snake was a “shadow” of Jesus… YOU really need to read this post below. I feel like I’m repeating myself…

  4. Hello Jay,
    Good comments. Thanks.
    1 Cor. 6:11 also succinctly brings together several key aspects of the dynamic existential relationship between the human (ordinary people like me) and Divine. Theologans attempt to devise and write out “formula” to capture the dynamics of this existential relationship. That’s OK. It is quite rational to attempt to think through the significance and application of all those New Testament metaphors and to express them (the question , “What must I do to be saved?” deserves and requires a clear answer).
    Still, we who are obsessively analytical must remind ourselves that merer personality itself defies reductionistic explanatory formula; so, it is no wonder that complex relationships involving personalities–(and one of them Infinite!)– do too.
    Theological expression is fine; we simply need to be clear re: its limitations.
    I am fond of Paul’s reference to this “grace in which we stand,” a “spatial” or “geographical” way to express this transcendent extential relational reality–as though it happens in a “sphere” or “dominion” or as some put it, an “eon” (from the Greek, “aion”) where the benefits of embracing Christ and being embraced by Him exist. Other experssions include: “in Christ,”
    “in the Son,” or “in the Kingdom,” etc. (as opposed to “in Adam” or “in the flesh”). This “place”
    (“where” my spirit and His “connect” and interact) is “where” my faith and His power lead me and “where” they “operate” to keep me.

  5. Amen T….
    Here’s a mind blower. A serious prepositional proposition:

    Ephesians 2:6
    And God raised US up
    WITH Christ
    the heavenly realms
    Christ Jesus

    We can all ask ourselves: Is that REALLY where I’M SITTING? NOW?

    Check this out when you have time:

  6. pilgrim, do you even know what blasphemy is, If what I said was blasphemy, it is a good thing it was not against the “Holy Ghost”
    Mt:12:31: Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.

    Why because”Holy Ghost” is another way of addressing the one God.

    It is strange how the word blasphemy changed after the adoption of the Trinity Doctrine. It used to be blasphemous
    to say there was other than “one God” now it is considered so if we say there is only “one God, and no other”

  7. I’m smiling as I write but I still can’t quite figure even your original point or this one.

    Can you say in one or two sentences what you are saying?

  8. Laymond, I see your site now and understand what you’re trying to say. Needless to say, we’re not going to figure out the Trinity or non-Trinity here in a few posts. So let’s both be uncommon men and live our born again lives loving God with everything in us and loving those around us. Deal?

  9. Laymond,

    Not really up for a conversation on the Trinity — too many other discussions going on. But this may be of some interest to you:

  10. Hi, T.

    Glad to have on the blog. And I like people who use names that are easy to spell. 🙂

  11. Jay, actually the fingers are an extension of the hand. God is not made up of parts.
    If you get a finger cut off is a hand still a hand. Not a convincing example.

  12. I left a more complete comment at the other post, to which you referred me.

    I wish I had known about your blog when you wrote that one.
    most lawyers are logical, we could probably talk.

  13. Laymond, We worship one God in Trinity.

    Gen. 1:2 “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

    Genesis 1:26 “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

    Genesis 3:22 “Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.”

    Genesis 11:7 “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

    Psalm 110:1 “The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”

    Isaiah 6:3 And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
    The whole earth is full of His glory!”

    Isaiah 6:8 “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: “ Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?”

    Isaiah 7:14 “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”

    Isaiah 9:6 “For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

    Isaiah 48:16 “Come near to Me, hear this: I have not spoken in secret from the beginning; From the time that it was, I was there. And now the Lord GOD and His Spirit Have sent Me.”

    Matthew 1:23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”

    John1:1-2 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”

    John 8:57-58 “Then the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.”

    John 7:37-39 “On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”

    John 14:15-18 “If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.”

    Romans 8:9-10 ‘But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”

    Romans 8:15 “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.”

    Romans 8:27 “Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.”

    Romans 9:5 “Of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.”

    Romans 15:30 “Now I beg you, brethren, through the Lord Jesus Christ, and through the love of the Spirit, that you strive together with me in prayers to God for me.”

    1 Corinthians 12:11 “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.”

    1 Corinthians 3:16 “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”

    2 Corinthians 13:14 “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

  14. Is part of your intent to detach baptism from justification? Isn’t justificaiton “in Christ”. And doesn’t the word “for” in Gal. 3:24ff link baptism with justificaiton (though not as its agent)? Is faith ever placed over against baptism in the NT? Does either mean anything apart from Christ, the cross, grace? Not sure I followed really your intent….but just thought I’d chime in. Blessings.

  15. Thanks Jay for allowing the scriptures to say what they say.

    Unless a Christian understands this important fact much of the Bible will continue to be a source of confusion. A justified sinner (a saint/Christian/believer) lives every day of his or her life on earth in two realities in relationship to God. 1st is the “positional” reality. This is our “standing” with God based wholly upon the merit of Jesus and not our own and we stand in that grace by faith. The 2nd is “practacle” reality. Although we have been and are being justified/saved and have a right standing with God by faith we still sin. Those who claim they have no sin are liars and are calling God a liar.

    My standing with God depends completely upon his declaration of my righteousness and because I am “being saved/sanctified”. When I commit a sin my standing is not shaken. I agree with God about my transgression (repent) and quickly forsake that sin the best I can and never worry about it again because God is not counting my sin against me, “all” of my sins were put on Christ.

    “Salvation” is like a big tent under which there is “justification”, “sanctification”, and “glorificaiton”. I cannot boast or claim any glory in any part of the process from dead sinner to seeing Christ face to face in a body like his fit for both heaven and earth. Salvation is of the Lord.


  16. Royce, in regard to the 2nd practical reality you mentioned…

    So how much like Christ do we really need to be on the practical side to show that indeed the 1st position IS our true position?

    Meaning, in most of your posts you SEEM to really lean toward the positional. I understand that most C of C don’t even understand position 1. They are always fearful, like my dad who takes the Lord’s supper by himself because he can’t find any fellow C of C brother whom He agrees with. So I can see why you would emphasize “Positional”….

    But scriptures teach OVER AND OVER that our true POSITION will be obvious in the practical outworking in our life.

    1John 2:6 Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.

    And John clearly says, that if sin is our master PRACTICALLY (not positionally), we are not in Christ.

    Just thought that was worth saying for the record… 🙂

    God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have CONFIDENCE on the day of JUDGMENT, because IN THIS WORLD WE ARE LIKE HIM.

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