What IS Legal Justification?
Many today are asking, “Just what is ‘legal justification’ and why it is important? Why is it receiving so much discussion both at the church theological level and in the pews?” In this study we shall investigate the revolutionary good news as it was presented to the leadership of the church at the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference by A.T. Jones and E.J. Waggoner. Legal justification (also called “forensic” justification) is far more encompassing than most people have realized. It is a life-changing message that will turn the world upside down when it is freely proclaimed. [download this document as a PDF file]
Since before the Protestant Reformation, thinking men and women have been discussing the vital question regarding the benefits of the sacrifice of Christ. What are these benefits? Who receives of these benefits and when are these benefits received — i.e. when is the individual justified? Are the benefits of the sacrifice extended only to the “elect of God” or did the sacrifice of Christ do something for the whole world (“elect” and “non-elect” alike)? Is legal justification merely the assignment of certain temporal benefits (as limited to the realm of this sin-cursed earth) that apply to everyone regardless of their individual submission and sustained commitment to God?1 Or did the sacrifice of Christ do something far greater for the whole world? What was indemnified through the sacrifice of Christ, and was it a full indemnity?
Martin Luther (1483-1546) is credited with providing the impetus for the full-fledged revolt against the Roman Catholic dogma on justification. Luther’s straight reading of the Bible compelled him to believe that Paul’s declaration, “the just shall live by faith,” was the fundamental element of the Gospel, needing no modification. To Luther, the Church’s additions of sacraments, penances, and indulgences were foreign to the Bible’s message of righteousness by faith. From this beginning other men would follow, attempting to clarify and systematize the doctrine of justification.
Luther held two opinions on what faith is: (1) an assent to some truthful proposition that the logical mind can comprehend; and (2) a total dependency on God for everything in this life and the next. Luther called the first worthless because it gives man nothing. The second, which he believed was a gift from God, was that faith which wrought out a personal experience within the believer. Luther taught that this faith opens the door for man to receive and appropriate the justification of Christ.
Luther saw true faith (the gift from God) as a powerful vehicle though which we obtain justification. But justification was always spoken of as needing to be “appropriated” and “received” before the individual was justified before God.
The justification by faith which Luther experienced within his soul was the personal experience of the believer standing in the continuous line of the Christian fellowship, who receives the assurance of the grace of God in his exercise of a personal faith,—an experience which comes from appropriating the work of Christ which he is able to do by that faith which is the gift of God.
We hold, on the other hand, that in true repentance faith lays hold on and appropriates to itself Christ’s satisfaction, and in so doing has something which it can oppose to the law’s accusations at the bar of God, and thus bring it to pass that we should be declared righteous.2
John Calvin’s (1509-1564) views on justification were substantially the same as Luther’s. Calvin
emphasized that justification was found only as one was united with Christ, and one is only united
to Christ by faith. However, Calvin wrestled with the idea of who were included in the “covenant
of promise” — who were the elect and who were the non-elect? Assuming the idea that “inclusion”
in the covenant was something external to the person introduced a limiting factor into the equation
of justification that accommodated Calvin’s views on election and predestination. Those who
believed proved by their “faith” that they were the ones God had predestined to justification and
Calvin’s conclusion was that:
We say, then, that Scripture clearly proves this much, that God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once for all those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction. We maintain that this counsel, as regards the elect, is founded on his free mercy, without any respect to human worth, while those whom he dooms to destruction are excluded from access to life by a just and blameless, but at the same time incomprehensible judgment. In regard to the elect, we regard calling as the evidence of election, and justification as another symbol of its manifestation, until it is fully accomplished by the attainment of glory. (Calvin’s Institutes , Book III, Chapter 21, section 7).
By the late 1800s, this idea of election had been confirmed by some Calvinist theologians using definitive language in referring to the eternal and external nature of the election:
It is also evident that the sinner’s justification need not wait until he is converted, nor until he has become conscious, nor even until he is born. This could not be so if justification depended upon something within him. Then he could not be justified before he existed and had done something. But if justification is not bound to anything in him, then this whole limitation must disappear and the Lord our God be sovereignly free to render this justification at any moment that He pleases. Hence the Sacred Scripture reveals justification as an eternal act of God, i.e., an act which is not limited by any moment in the human existence. It is for this reason that the child of God seeking to penetrate into that glorious and delightful reality of his justification, does not feel himself limited to the moment of his conversion, but feels that this blessedness flows to him from the eternal depths of the hidden life of God.
It should therefore openly be confessed, and without any abbreviation, that justification does not occur when we become conscious of it, but that, on the contrary, our justification was decided from eternity in the holy judgment-seat of our God.
… It does not spring from our consciousness, but it is mirrored in it, and hence must have being and stature in itself. Even an elect infant which dies in the cradle is declared just, though the knowledge or consciousness of its justification never penetrated its soul. And elect persons, converted, like the thief on the cross, with their last breath, can scarcely be sensible of their justification, and yet enter eternal life exclusively on the ground of their justification.3
Building on Luther’s work, Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) also attempted to form a clear
theological statement on what was accomplished at the Cross. Contrary to Calvin’s conclusion of
limited atonement, Arminius decided that God did indeed do something for the entire world,
however, it was only a provision that extended certain temporal benefits and spiritual opportunities
to all persons. Arminius claimed that Jesus died on behalf of all persons and that through His death,
salvation is available to all. In contrast to Calvinism, Arminianism claims that God places no limits
Thus Arminianism believes that through the beneficent grace of God the endowment of the Cross
that is capable of erasing the guilt of sin, is available for appropriation by every individual. It is
placed within the reach of all mankind, but each individual must “obtain” the provision and apply
it to their personal lives before it profits them. Hence, Arminius taught a universal atonement, but
limited application. The unlimited atonement is restrained in its legal effect. According to Arminius,
the atonement was intended by God to benefit all, but requires the action of the individual’s faith
before legal justification can be effected for that individual. Therefore, we are not legally justified
Neither Luther, nor Calvin, nor Arminius ever caught so much as a glimpse of the concept of legal
justification. They never comprehended the full depth of Christ’s sacrifice (partly because they
didn’t rightly comprehend the meaning of death itself).5 For all these reformers, great as their work
was in beginning to restore truth from the Bible and to remove the paganism that had crept into the
church during the millennium prior to the Reformation, they could not envision the entire picture
of Christ’s work for humanity. Scratching around in the dust on only one side of the justification
equation, and though using terminology related to the eternality and universality of the atonement,
In the providence and planning of God, it was all that was allotted for them to discover in their day. Prophecy must be fulfilled first, paving the road that would open people’s minds to the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14:6-12. The French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Millerite Movement as part of the Second Great Awakening must all come upon the scene before the final unveiling of the truth and power of Christ and His righteousness could be fully preached and appreciated.
In the early 1800s when God’s spirit was being poured out in world-wide evangelism, universalism rose up in opposition to the dispiriting theology of the Calvinistic schools. Preaching a universal salvation for all men was an attempt to inspire the individual with a positive idea about God and His love. Around 1833, Abraham Lincoln wrote an essay on “predestinated universal salvation” that criticized the orthodox doctrine of predestined election to endless punishment which was so much the focus of the Calvinistic churches.
Similar to Arminianism, Universalism holds that the substitutionary death of Christ unreservedly paid the penalty for the sins of the whole world. However, justification is an event that took place entirely in the past. Accomplished on the Cross, it abrogated sin’s penalty forever and is therefore irrelevant to individuals today. Universalists claim that God can be motivated only by His love for His creation, and therefore He is compelled to save everyone from eternal destruction regardless of their behavior, attitude, or particular belief. Their view is that if the omnipotent God does not want to, or is unable to save everyone, then He is not a God worth worshiping. This is a counterfeit justification. The counterfeit was widely preached just before E.J. Waggoner and A.T. Jones were called of God to preach the full power of God’s love as revealed in forensic justification and the everlasting covenant.
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