Justification. What do you know about it?
It’s a fancy theological word that causes some people’s eyes to glaze over. Others are oblivious to its meaning. Still, others get very passionate about it.
I have made this particular subject a topic of study for many years. In fact, I think I have probably studied this topic more than any other topic. This doesn’t make me an expert on it at all, of course, but it simply reveals how important I think it is.
My views on the how, the when, the who, and so forth, have been somewhat of a roller coaster. I have also preached and written on it a great deal, both on this blog and for the magazine I edit, also called New England Pastor. I would dare say that more articles in that journal have probably been on this single topic than any other.
The reason I have “wasted” so much time and ink on it is because I have come to realize that one’s views on justification affect every view in theology. It is, to some degree, a systematic starting point and a defining concept.
There are many, of course, who think the topic can get too nuanced and semantical. This may be true, to some extent. However, as I have written elsewhere (in a post titled “Does God Care What is Said About Him?” on my Bangor Daily News blog), theology is not an exercise in the abstract that is irrelevant to life. Theology is about a Person; a Person who wishes for us to come to a more accurate and deeper understanding of Who He is – for the purpose of loving Him and others more. Christ’s ultimate wish is that we would be rooted and grounded in His love, and that we would love one another. But this cannot be done apart from theology, as if we could simply make up our minds to become more loving. If this were the case, our theology may as well be that of the Dark Ages, when Christianity as a whole subscribed to such dark doctrines as purgatory.
As I’ve studied the topic, I have come to subscribe to a brand of justification – which is to say, how God interacts to and relates with sinners – called “universal justification.” There are very few people who agree with this teaching. This breaks my heart. Not only do I find it to be completely true from a biblical and theological perspective, but I find that it gives a much richer and more beautiful picture of God – a picture that, perhaps as no other can, is capable of truly reconciling a sinner’s heart fully to God. This is, after all, what Paul essentially says in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, “For the love of Christ compels us because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died. And One died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.”
At the risk of writing a mini-dissertation, I would like to explain to you what this teaching is and how one arrives at it from a biblical perspective. Like I said, most people disagree with it, and will often present many texts (and Ellen White quotes) to counter it. This is fine. I don’t hold it against them. However, as I have studied the topic more I have come to realize that such individuals object to the teaching because they miss the proverbial “forest for the trees” and approach the topic with faulty presuppositions.
For a while, I struggled with whether the teaching was accurate or not, seeing those same trees as obstacles. It was only when I stepped back and saw the bigger picture – saw the whole forest – that the whole teaching became coherent, logical, and biblically sound.
What is the “forest” I am talking about, and those presuppositions that one must approach this subject with? They are, as far as I can tell, three-fold. Unless people who are discussing this topic can agree on these presuppositions, then it will be just an exercise in firing isolated Bible verses and Ellen White quotes at each other that will have no larger framework.
These are those three presuppositions:
1. The godhead has faith in humankind. Faith is one of God’s essential attributes. This is, first and foremost, what the New Testament authors mean when they talk about the “faith of Jesus” (see Rom 3:3; 3:21-26; Gal 2:16; Phil 3:9; Rev 14:12). We see this in Isaiah 5 when God says that He “expected” (Heb. qavah – to “wait,” “look for,” “expect,” “hope”) Israel to bring forth good grapes (vv. 2, 4, 7). We see it with Job, when God trusted and displayed confidence in Him that He would be able to stand tall for Him in the face of Satan’s onslaughts. We see it very explicitly from Ellen White, when she says stuff like, “Christ would never have given His life for the human race if He had not faith in the souls for whom He died” (Lift Him Up, p. 221).
God’s faith in humankind very logically extends to justification – and beyond. In Romans 3, for example, Paul says that the righteousness of God is revealed to those who believe through the “faith of Jesus.” That is, those who are living by faith can see God’s righteousness through Jesus’ faith. He then goes on to write, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being freely justified by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed.”
This passage cannot be plumbed enough. Paul says that “all have sinned,” but those same “all” have been “freely justified” by God’s grace. This is because God has faith in us – and precisely because He has faith in us, He sent Jesus to die for us, thus giving God the legal right to “pass over the sins that were previously committed.”
This is further solidified in Galatians 2:16 where Paul writes that “a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith of Jesus Christ.” This is what he also means when he says that by “one Man’s righteous act, the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life” (Romans 5:18). Precisely because God has faith in us, He sent Jesus to die for us, and, on the basis of faith – of what He saw we could become by His grace – and His act on Calvary, our lives are justified.
Christ tasted “death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:8) and thus met the legal demands for everyone. The wages of sin (Romans 6:23) were placed upon Jesus. No one has ever – nor should ever – experiences the wages of those sins. Thus, we have, in a literal sense, already been saved from the penalty of sin.
The corollary of this is that the Universe and Satan have no legal basis for feeling that humankind should be non-existent, even though we have sinned. Christ has already paid the debt for all humanity. In the words of Ellen White, “All have been redeemed” (Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 944). The demands of justice have been met.
Which leads to presupposition #2 – though, before going there, let me address an aside. This truth about Jesus’ faith presents challenges, to some extent, to the biblical interpreter when it comes to passages that talk about justification by faith. Many have assumed that anywhere the Bible talks about being justified “by faith,” the writer has our faith in mind. These texts are often presented as “slam dunks” for those who dispute the idea of universal justification.
This pulls back the curtain on the interpreter’s own presuppositions, however. And I would like to propose that those passages that speak about justification being “by faith” may actually have Christ’s faith in view, rather than ours – or, more than likely, both. Romans 5:1 is a great example: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul does not clarify whose faith he has in view, but I would argue that contextually it might make more sense to interpret him as referring to Christ. The very preceding words say that Christ was “raised because of our justification,” and then, again, in the verse itself, he says that we have peace “with God” not through our faith, but “through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus, Himself, is our peace (see Ephesians 2:14), not our faith. This was accomplished by faith at the cross.
2. God, the Universe, and the Bible, all think corporately first, individually second. Many struggle with this idea and would never dream of agreeing with it, I suppose. Yet it’s as true as the day is long. The Scriptural examples are legion.
The name “Adam,” to begin with, means not only “ground” but “mankind.” Adam is a representative of humankind.
When Achan stole from Jericho, and thus all of Israel suffered from it, God said, “Israel has sinned” (Joshua 7:11).
When Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rose up and rebelled against Moses and Aaron, God held all of Israel responsible, to the point that they cried out, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and You be angry with all the congregation?” (Numbers 16:22).
When the Jews returned from exile to Jerusalem, Nehemiah tells us that “they stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers” (Nehemiah 9:2).
Meanwhile, when Daniel was in Babylon, praying about the vision of the 2300 days, he repeats throughout his prayer, “We have sinned and committed iniquity” (Daniel 9:5, 8, 9, 10, 15).
On the other hand, God speaks to Israel through Amos, over 700 years after the Exodus, and says to them, “It was I who brought you out up from the land of Egypt, and led you forty years through the wilderness, to possess the land of the Amorite” (Amos 2:10).
Lastly, the author of Hebrews argues that Jesus’ priesthood is valid, even though He is not a Levite, because Levi “paid tithes . . . so to speak,” to Melchizedek, who Jesus’ priesthood was fashioned after. This, even though Levi lived over 150 years after Melchizedek. It makes sense, however, according to the God/Universe/Hebrew paradigm, because Levi paid those tithes “through Abraham” (Hebrews 7:9). Without the corporate concept as a presupposition, no conscientious reader would have accepted this argument in favor of Jesus’ priesthood.
These are just a few examples, demonstrating the ubiquity of the corporate concept throughout Scripture.
This concept has far-reaching implications, of course, but it has primary relevance to the topic of justification. It gives immediate context to Paul’s grand statement in 2 Corinthians 5:14, “One died for all, therefore, all died.” Christ’s death was universal in scope, corporately speaking. It wasn’t simply Him who went to the cross; He took all of humankind there as the “Second Adam” and our corporate representative.
We also see this reflected in Ephesians 2 where Paul declares that “even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ,” to the extent that we are now even sitting together “in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6).
This is because, from a universal perspective, Christ reversed the condemnation that Adam garnered for this planet. According to Job, each planet has a representative (see Job 1:6). They represent to the universe the character of each planet. What the universe sees in each representative is what is reality about the planet they represent. Ellen White is abundantly clear on this:
“Under God, Adam was to stand at the head of the earthly family . . . When Adam sinned, man broke away from the heaven-ordained center. A demon became the central power in the world” (Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 33).
“Adam’s disobedience to God’s commands brought the human family under the death penalty” (Signs of the Times, June 17, 1897).
“The sin of our first parents brought guilt and sorrow upon the world, and had it not been for the goodness and mercy of God, would have plunged the race into hopeless despair” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 61).
Because of Adam’s disobedience, the whole “human family” deserved the death penalty. People balk at this because they say, “How can the whole ‘human family’ be held responsible for a sin they were not involved with?” It’s very simple, however – as simple as A, B, C: if Adam and Eve had paid the penalty for their sin, there never would have been a human family to begin with. We never would have existed.
Fortunately, Christ, the Second Adam, took on our nature, walked over the ground where Adam fell, and reversed what Adam did – and His death, which was from “the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8), was effective all the way back to the beginning of time. And thus, Christ became our representative to the universe. When the universe looks as Christ, they see humankind. They see death for sin and what humanity is capable of.
Again, Ellen White:
“Christ was the representative of humanity. He had laid aside his glory, stepped down from his throne, clothed his divinity with humanity, that with his human arm He might encircle the race, and with his divine arm reach the throne of the Infinite. . . How grateful should we be for the privileges which Christ has gained for us in opening heaven before us. What hope does it give to man that the Father said to Christ, who represented humanity, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ In the Father’s acceptance of Christ in man‘s behalf, we are assured that through the merits of his Son, we may find access to God” (Bible Echo, February 1, 1893).
“As related to the first Adam, men receive from him nothing but guilt and the sentence of death. But Christ steps in and passes over the ground where Adam fell, enduring every test in man’s behalf. He redeems Adam’s disgraceful failure and fall by coming forth from the trial untarnished. This places man on vantage ground with God. (Manuscript Releases, vol. 9, p. 236).
The evidence is convincing. When God and the universe look at Christ, they see humanity. They see the penalty for sin paid for; they see a picture of what human beings are capable of by His grace. They certainly don’t hold our sins against us.
3. God creates reality; humans merely acknowledge it. This is an important distinction that may not be evident to most people initially. A person’s faith does not create reality or set into motion that which God has not already created. For example, in the beginning, God created light, and there was light. Whether or not a person believes it to be true is irrelevant. The objective reality of it is that there is light, regardless of my subjective belief or unbelief. This is a grand truth about God’s act of creation, of course, regardless of how many scientists disbelieve it.
Christ dying for the human race is another objective truth, regardless of my acknowledgment of it. That I might choose to believe it by faith doesn’t make it any more true or real than it already is. This is why the Hebrew word for “faith” in the Old Testament makes sense. It is the word “Amen,” which, simply translated, means “I agree” or “so let it be.” Thus, when God told Abraham that his descendants would be as the stars of heaven, Abraham responded by saying “Amen” (see Genesis 15:6).
Abraham’s saying “Amen” didn’t make God’s promise a reality anymore than my belief in the sun makes it a reality. So, too, whether I believe or disbelieve that Christ has realistically justified my life already doesn’t make it any more or less true.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone will be saved at last. It is simply to say that Christ has saved everyone from the penalty of sin (if He had not, none of us would be alive right now) and that He is seeking to save us all from the power and presence of sin. But He could only proceed with this second step after He first took care of the first step.
This beautiful truth is the only thing that is capable of melting our hearts to the point that God can change us fully into His image. Recognizing God’s vision of us, and how He creates by His faith, through His word, is the only reality powerful enough to make us completely selfless – and sinless. This is precisely why God “declares” the whole world righteous; because it is the means by which He actually makes us righteous. After all, “God . . . gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did” (Romans 4:17).