Gospel Herald

What IS Legal Justification?

Advancing Beyond the Reformation

It was within this theological environment of Calvin and Arminius’s limited effect of the atonement, and the completely unlimited salvation error of Universalism, that God sent His truth of justification. Did God, in Christ, do something that extended to the whole human race, regardless of the individual’s position of supposed “election”? Was this eternal act of God something more than the limited justification of the Calvinists as expounded by Kuyper in 1888? Did God’s love and forgiveness extend to the entire human race, declaring all persons legally justified through the atoning sacrifice of “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”? (Revelation 13:8).

In 1888 at the Minneapolis General Conference session, two young men presented a revolutionary position on justification. Because it embraced the Scriptural doctrine of the cleansing of the heavenly sanctuary, it was light-years beyond anything that the Reformer’s had ever dreamed of. The foundation of this position on justification is the covenant promise conceived in the mind of the Godhead before sin entered into this world.

Ardent Bible students, A.T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner had independently arrived at the same truth from Scripture on the consummate work of Christ and His righteousness. This is the truth they presented at that General Conference at Minneapolis in 1888. From his studies on the covenants, Waggoner had discovered that the everlasting (also known as “new”) covenant is all encompassing in its power to save lost humanity. The everlasting covenant is the Godhead’s promise to redeem from sin and restore the birthright possession to Adam’s race (Genesis 3:15; 15:6-21; Hebrews 6:13-
18; Ministry of Healing, p. 90).

… The earth, fresh and new from the hand of God, perfect in every respect, was given to man for a possession. Gen.1:27, 28, 31. Man sinned, and brought the curse upon himself. Christ has taken the whole curse, both of man and of all creation, upon Himself. He redeems the earth from the curse, that it may be the everlasting possession that God originally designed it to be; and He also redeems man from the curse, that he may be fitted for the possession of such an inheritance. This is the sum of the Gospel. “The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 6:23. This gift of eternal life is included in the promise of the inheritance, for God promised the land to Abraham and to his seed for “an everlasting possession.” Genesis 17:7, 8. It is an inheritance of righteousness, because the promise that Abraham should be heir of the world was through the righteousness of faith. Righteousness, eternal life, and a place in which to live eternally, — these are all in the promise, and they are all that could possibly be desired or given. …

The covenant and promise of God are one and the same thing. This is clearly seen from Galatians 3:17, where Paul asserts that to disannul the covenant would be to make void the promise. In Genesis 17 we read that God made a covenant with Abraham to give him the land of Canaan [by implication, the whole world] for an everlasting possession. Galatians 3:18 says that God gave it to him by promise. God’s covenants with men can be nothing else than promises to them. (Waggoner, The Glad Tidings, p. 70-71 [1972 edition]).

One may ask: How does this relate to the subject of legal justification? When Adam sinned, he forfeited his birthright possession, having sold it to Satan for that piece of fruit, placing a curse upon himself and the earth (Genesis 3:17-19). However, as Waggoner stated, “Christ has taken the whole curse, both of man and of all creation, upon Himself.” Christ’s assumption of our guilt (and our guilt’s consequences upon the whole earth) constitutes a legal action taken on behalf of all humanity. We were unable to act as our own representative. Christ stands before the violated Law of God with His righteousness, proclaiming His merits as our own. This is no legal fiction. “People are not simply counted righteous, but actually made righteous by the obedience of Christ, who is as righteous as He ever was.” (Waggoner on Romans, p. 102). It is the essence of Biblical redemption of possessions lost (whether that “possession” was land or liberty or life itself) as illustrated in the stories of the kinsman redeemer (see Leviticus 25:47-49; Ruth 4:1-8; Matthew 18:11). “The work of redeeming us and our inheritance, lost through sin, fell upon Him who is ‘near of kin’ unto us. It was to redeem us that He became our kinsman.” (E.G. White; Desire of Ages, p. 327).

But legal justification goes far deeper than just restoring the birthright possession lost through sin. “Do not forget as we proceed that the covenant and the promise are the same thing, and that it conveys land, even the whole earth made new to Abraham and his children. Remember also that since only righteousness will dwell in the new heavens and the new earth, the promise includes the making righteous of all who believe.” (Glad Tidings, p. 72).

Knowing that the Bible teaches that God will by no means clear the guilty (Exodus 34:7), some may be confounded by such a sweeping statement. How can God declare all of humanity legally justified before the Law? “It is true that God will by no means clear the guilty; He could not do that and still be God. But He does something far better: He removes the guilt, so that the one formerly guilty does not need to be cleared, — he is justified, and counted as though he never had sinned.” (Waggoner; Christ and His Righteousness, p. 64 [1892 edition]).

After quoting from Zechariah 3:1-5, Waggoner goes on to say: “Notice in the above account that the taking away of the filthy garments is the same as causing the iniquity to pass from the person. And so we find that when Christ covers us with the robe of His own righteousness, He does not furnish a cloak for sin, but takes the sin away. And this shows that forgiveness of sins is something more than a mere form, something more than a mere entry in the books of record in heaven, to the effect that the sin has been cancelled. The forgiveness of sins is a reality; it is something tangible, something that vitally affects the individual.” (ibid. p. 66).

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