Over the course of my journey as it relates to the idea of corporate justification, there was one verse that I kept coming back to. No matter how close I came to throwing out the whole idea, I couldn’t get this one verse out of my head. In many ways, it has been – and continues to be – my favorite passage in all of scripture, even setting aside its implications for corporate justification.
The verse is 2 Corinthians 5:14-15. There, Paul says that Christ’s love “compels” us – in other words, it pushes us forward, it motivates us, it gives us the impetus to live the Christian life.
Of course, many people find this idea to be very heart-warming and important. I have heard many people say that it is Christ’s love that does, indeed, “compel” us. “The realization that God loves us, He wants to forgive us, He values us,” some will say, “is very compelling.” But if Paul merely left it at that, it would be one thing. But he doesn’t simply say that Christ’s love “compels” us and then move on to the next topic. The very next word reveals there is a specific aspect of Christ’s love that compels us, “Because,” Paul says, “we judge thus . . . “
In other words, there is an element of Christ’s love that is particularly compelling. It is not simply the realization that God loves us, wants to forgive us, wants to have a relationship with us, that Paul finds so compelling. There is a particular revelation of that love that is what is so motivating to Paul.
And what is it? He continues, “Because we judge thus, that if one died for all, then all died.” The component of Christ’s love that Paul finds so compelling is that because Christ “died for all . . . all died.”
The honest student of scripture cannot get past this incredible declaration by Paul. Sadly, the King James Version, which so many love to quote from (and that has its place at times) fails significantly at bringing out the true meaning of what Paul says. And this mistranslation is one of the points that opponents of corporate justification appeal to in order to explain away the full power of Paul’s declaration. Instead of saying that “all died” when Christ died, the KJV renders it, “then were all dead.”
According to this translation, that which Paul finds so compelling about Christ’s love is that all of us “were dead.” I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time understanding what the realization that all of us were “dead” has to do with Christ’s love, let alone what is so compelling about it.
Fortunately, the Greek straightens the KJV out rather unambiguously. The Greek word is the same word and tense and form in both clauses of the sentence. Thus, just as Christ “died for all,” so, too, “all died.” The KJV cannot translate it “Christ died for all,” and then translate the exact same form of the word in the next breath as “dead.” It is extremely inconsistent.
Thus, what Paul finds so compelling about Christ’s love is that when He went to Calvary, not only did Christ die, but we died with Him – all of us. (Of course, I have had people try to tell me that the “all” who died “in Christ” in this verse are simply believers. But if we are to propose that Christ died “for all,” we cannot then limit the “all” who died “in Him” to only believers. It must be “everyone” who has ever been born – in fact, “the world,” as Paul goes onto explain in v. 19.)
But what are the implications of the idea that “all died” in Christ at Calvary? It’s very simple: since we all died “in Christ” at Calvary, our sins have already been forgiven and we need not ever face the second death ourselves in a literal way. In a way, when Christ took all of humanity to the cross, we all corporately suffered the consequences of sin’s wages “in Him.” This is why any of us can live, breathe, eat, or enjoy life. Whether we recognize it or not, we are alive today because Christ took the entire world to the cross.
Of course, as I mentioned in a previous post, no theology can be based on one text. But, thankfully, no such thing needs to be attempted. Contextually, as I have already briefly pointed out, it is clear that Paul is speaking of Christ’s corporate accomplishments. Just a few verses later he points out that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them . . . ” (v. 19).
But in order to get a firm understanding of this corporate justification idea, one must take a step back and recognize the framework in which this important concept is presented – especially in the writings of Paul. In Galatians 2:16, Paul makes it clear that we are not “justified by the works of the law but by the faith of Jesus.” Paul shares a similar idea in Romans 3:23-24 where, after declaring that “all have sinned,” he says in the next verse that we are “justified freely by His grace.” He then goes onto explain in v. 25 that, because of Christ’s faith, “in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed.”
This larger framework, upon which corporate justification rests, is what Paul calls “the faith of Jesus.” Simply put, God justifies the sinner, first and foremost, not because of our works, faith, or repentance, but because of Christ’s faith, works, and repentance. The reason Christ justifies us is because He has faith in us. The reason the world has been saved, including the individuals in that world, is because God looks upon us through the eyes of faith and sees what we can become by His grace as we respond to His faith. And God fulfilled the legal requirements – our death, “in Christ” – that was necessary to justify our continued existence.
There are some, I know, who are willing to accept this idea. They are willing to accept the idea that God saw within us the possibilities of redemption and, therefore, gave us a “second chance” or a “second probation.” They are willing to call this reality many things, but they refuse to call it “justification.”
The problem is, the Bible calls it justification. In fact, Paul, in Romans 5, calls it “justification of life” (v. 18). And the Greek of this phrase is unambiguous, reflecting the reality that, as most versions put it, this justification of life came to “all men.”
So what, exactly, does this mean, and what are the implications of corporate justification? It means that Christ has a legal right (remember: God needs to maintain His justice as well as be merciful) to treat us, not as we deserve, but with grace – regardless of our subjective response. It means that, where we should be condemned for our transgressions and meet the wages of our sins, Christ, instead, says to us, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Interestingly, Ellen White is unambiguous when she points out that “justification is the opposite of condemnation” (Christ Triumphant, p. 150). She then goes onto explain that God “forgives transgressions and sins for the sake of Jesus, who has become the propitiation for our sins.”
But notice: the woman caught in adultery never asked to not be condemned; she never asked to be forgiven or justified. It was completely of Christ’s initiative, received entirely by the grace of God. (I have had some people tell me that, though the text doesn’t say it explicitly, she “obviously” must have asked for forgiveness, else Jesus couldn’t have forgiven her! With all due respect, this is one of the craziest eisegetical inferences I have come across. If we are wanting to propose apocryphal and extrabiblical interpretations of Scripture, we may as well join the Mother of all extrabiblical interpreters.)
We see the same beautiful truth on Calvary, when Christ, looking down upon the soldiers who were gambling over His garments, cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). Again, no repentance, confession, contrition, or anything of the sort, was exercised by the soldiers. In fact, according to Jesus, they didn’t have the foggiest clue as to the wrong they were engaged in, let alone their need to repent of it. Yet Jesus, of His own initiative, extends forgiveness to them.
Of course, I have also heard people say that Jesus merely “asked” His Father to forgive them, but it doesn’t mean that God actually did forgive them without their confession or repentance. But are we to believe that God – whose heart and soul are completely intertwined with His Son’s, and who it was declared of by that same Son that “he who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9) – would not honor the request of His dying Son? Is this what we are supposed to believe – that God would turn a deaf ear to the Son who is fulfilling the very forgiveness-mission that He, God, sent Him on?
Admittedly, some will argue that all this is “legal fiction.” After all, what does God gain by declaring unrepentent, unconverted, and unconfessing people, to be “justified,” “righteous,” “forgiven”? Much, it turns out! For one, as already stated, it gives God the legal right to act towards us with that forgiveness and mercy. The reality is, all of us should be dead right now. We should have suffered the consequences of our transgressions long ago. But because of the fact that Christ was the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8), our sin-filled lives have been saved from the rightful penalty of those sins (remember, God has to maintain order in the universe and maintain His trustworthiness) and God can treat us the way He wants to treat us, having taken care of the justice (and mercy) part of His plan of salvation.
Secondly, according to the original passage we started with, this reality actually contains within it the very power that God desires to turn sin-filled lives into faith-filled lives. Instead of encouraging sinners to remain in their sins, the realization that God has already forgiven us, already justified us, already taken us to Calvary, actually “compels us” to “live for Him who died for [us] and rose again” (v. 15). It’s almost as if Paul anticipates the claim that corporate justification leads to antinomianism and preemptively counters the reader’s objection: “No,” he says, “God’s forgiveness doesn’t prevent people from repenting, it actually leads them to it” (see also Romans 2:4).
Could it be that our evangelistic efforts have actually be stunted because we tell people they have to do something first (repent, confess, etc.) before God can forgive them? It almost seems counterintuitive to suppose that when we express to a person that God has already given them something, they would then respond by asking for it. But the Bible declares this to be true, and I have found that my own experiences in life verify this as well. For when I realize how far a person has already gone in giving me something, I become very grateful, humbled, and appreciative.
But What About the Investigative Judgment?
Lastly, I want to address one of the biggest objections I have heard as it relates to the idea of corporate justification: it is proposed that corporate justification (or the idea that the whole world was forgiven at the cross) is antithetical to, and leads people to reject, the investigative judgment. After all, if my sins have already been forgiven, why would I repent of them? And, according to the Old Testament sanctuary model, only confessed sins went into the Most Holy Place and only Israel was judged; how can we thus say that, in theory, the whole world’s sins, having been forgiven, have gone into the Most Holy Place and that, therefore, the whole world is being judged in the investigative judgment? Isn’t it simply those who have, at one point, confessed Christ that are being judged before the second Advent?
Well, first, an anecdotal observation: I recently heard that one of Adventism’s biggest challengers to the doctrine of the investigative judgment supposedly remarked that if the church had embraced the idea of corporate justification, then he never would have turned his back on the investigative judgment. Of course, this is hearsay and I cannot substantiate this claim. But, at the very least, the circumstantial evidence does make one wonder about the cause-to-effect relationship.
After all, what we do know that this person did reject the doctrine of the investigative judgment and we do know that the official view of the church regarding justification is anti-corporate justification. Thus, could we not say that there is actually a causal link between the traditional view of justification and a rejection of the investigative judgment?
Because, purely anecdotally speaking, I do not know of any person who has embraced the idea of corporate justification who has rejected the investigative judgment. Though it is, obviously, a much smaller sample size, it can perhaps be argued that corporate justification actually ties a person more firmly to the investigative judgment than its rejection does.
Secondly, I want to move beyond anecdotes and address the actual philosophical concerns and links between corporate justification and the investigative judgment But with a caveat: this is still a work in progress for me and I am still working out some of the nuances and details of this issue. But I have personally come to a satisfactory place in my thinking as it relates to these two ideas. Though I have wondered about it in the past, I do believe these two concepts can co-exist and that one does not lead to the rejection of the other. I don’t feel they are inherently contradictory.
So let me just share a few brief thoughts about where my thinking is at this point:
1. For a while, I had a hard time fitting corporate justification into the sanctuary framework. The sanctuary does, after all, provide a model by which we can test any understanding of salvation against. The sanctuary, according to Ellen White, offers us a “complete system of truth” (Great Controversy, p. 423).
So how can I reconcile the idea that Christ justified and forgave the whole world at Calvary when, clearly, a person, according to the Old Testament sanctuary service, was only forgiven when he or she brought a lamb to the sanctuary and confessed his or her sins?
I struggled with this for a while until I came to an important realization. According to Deuteronomy 28, God instructed Moses that the priests should take two lambs and sacrifice them, “day by day, as a regular burnt offering. The one lamb you shall offer in the morning, the other lamb you shall offer in the evening” (vv. 3-4). These were known as the “daily” or “regular” sacrifices that were for the benefit of all Israel. Everyone benefited from these sacrifices, regardless of attitude. They served, in a way, as the basis for the “justification of life” for all Israel.
Admittedly, how this relates directly to a person’s individual acts of sin, I am not sure. But I also know that a person is not condemned or lost because of one sin, two sins, or a thousands sins. “The wrath of God,” Ellen White states, “is not declared against men merely because of the sins which they have committed, but for choosing to continue in a state of resistance” (Testimonies to Ministers, p. 74).
2. It must be kept in mind that the purpose of the investigative judgment is not to determine an individual’s destiny, anyway. It is not for God to figure out who should or should not be in heaven. God knows “those who are His” (2 Timothy 2:19). “Most assuredly I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment [Greek: judgment/condemnation], but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24).
The primary purpose of the judgment is to vindicate God and to reveal to the universe the true character of those who have been granted eternal life. It is, in some senses, a heavenly “audit” of God’s books, determining whether a person’s record matches their destiny.
3. In that sense, is it necessarily true that the investigative judgment cannot jive with corporate justification from the perspective that allegedly only those who have confessed theirs sins are judged before Christ returns? Won’t everyone ultimately be judged, whether they have confessed Christ at some point or not? In other words, it is proposed that corporate justification cannot be reconciled with the investigative judgment because, supposedly, the only people who are being judged in the investigative judgment are those who took on the name of Christ at some point and confessed their sins to go into the Most Holy Place.
But is this true? As I already asked: isn’t everyone judged at some point? While I would concede the point that the only sins that were cleansed from the Most Holy Place in the typical service were those sins which were first confessed by an individual and thus placed into the Most Holy Place, didn’t the Day of Atonement reach beyond the individual confessor and the local context?
Some of these questions are somewhat rhetorical as well – or, at least ones that I do not have a definite answer for at this point. But what I am simply demonstrating is that, perhaps, there is room to expand our understanding of the investigative judgment.
4. Some might propose that corporation justification minimizes, or even obliterates, Christ’s continued work of intercession in the heavenly sanctuary. After all, if we hint at the idea that justification was “completed” at the cross, doesn’t that remove the significance of Christ’s present work as high priest?
First of all, I would not necessarily say that corporate justification implies that God “finished” justification, sanctification, or even forgiveness, at the cross. As I have shared in a previous post
, the New Testament seems to present the idea that salvation is a process – and though it might be “completed” in some senses, it still is “incomplete” in other senses. Thus, while the Bible proposes that all of us were forgiven “at the cross,” it doesn’t necessarily follow that we will stay forgiven in an eschatological sense. God is not going to force anyone to stay
forgiven, just as the master in Matthew 18 did not force his servant to stay forgiven.
So, in some senses, Christ’s current high priestly ministry is for the purpose of continuing what He started for everyone at Calvary. Thus, the title I thought of recently, that I kind of like, is “inaugurated universal justification,” or some variation of the “inaugurated” theme. In other words, Christ “began” salvation, justification, forgiveness, for everyone. Everyone was, in reality, forgiven by Christ at the cross. But, since forgiveness is a process, Christ continues the work of trying to keep us “in Him” and forgiven.
Secondly, according to the Old Testament model, the primary goal of the high priest’s Day of Atonement ministry was to “cleanse” people from sin (see Leviticus 16:30), not to forgive them. So just because all may have been forgiven at the cross, it doesn’t diminish Christ’s Day of Atonement ministry because He is actually trying to cleanse people from their sins (ie., remove sin from their lives). So all can be forgiven, but it doesn’t mean that all will be cleansed from sin.
So these four reflections are ways in which I have reconciled, and continue to reconcile, the ideas of corporate justification and the investigative judgment. There is much more to explore on this subject, but I am truly grateful that God has brought forth this powerful truth about the plan of salvation.