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On Justification by Faith

First the “Bad News”

By the time of Paul’s apostleship, Greek philosophy and Philo of Alexandria taught that “god” was not a wrathful god but rather an emotionless god not subject to wrath.(1) In that day and ours, a Holy God who has righteous anger towards sin is not a popular concept. In the setting of Romans 1-3, Paul counters this view and tells us that we are dealing with a God who expresses wrath against unrighteousness and that He is a God of righteous judgment. He then gives us the “bad news”, that is, not “the hearers of the law are just/righteous before God but the doers of the law shall be justified” and “none are righteous no not one.” How then shall we who are “children of wrath” escape the coming of judgment and wrath?(2)

Justification’s Foundation

The classical Protestant answer to this question is that God’s grace saves but it must save in a just way.(3) In love, the Godhead provided the means to redeem the “banished ones” through the atoning blood of Christ. For “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” and made peace and reconciliation through the blood of the cross.(4) In doing so, God upholds His Righteousness in which His Law is embedded. He demonstrates “his justice at the present time” even while justifying the ungodly that trust in Christ.(5) Christ’s sacrifice magnifies the law and forms the just grounds of our justification.

The Historical Meaning and Application of Justification

Luther when referring to the doctrine of justification by faith alone states, “If this doctrine be lost then is also the doctrine of truth, life, and salvation lost and gone.”(6)

What then is the meaning of the important biblical word justification? From the Greek root dik we witness forms that are used as nouns, verbs, and adjectives. OT Hebrew root sdq words share similar usages and meanings. No “normative” meaning of the root words is possible; but the usual equivalent words are found from either righteous/just. The best ultimate meaning is always to be discovered within the context of the specific text. For example, when referring to God, righteousness may be referring to His “faithfulness in saving” or to His “righteous judgments”, both of which have covenant salvific application to his people. When referring to man, we can see examples of both “inherent” and “reckoned righteousness.” In Philippians 3:8-9, Paul refers to his inherent righteousness “according to the law.” Yet, he states that it is incomplete when compared to Christ’s righteousness.

The Psalmist had said, “Do not enter into judgment with thy servant for in thy sight no man living shall be justified.” Likewise in Romans we discover Paul saying it is not possible for Abraham or ourselves to be just before God by our law keeping. Rather, we are told that there are none “just, righteous” no not one and “by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified.”(7) Paul here clarifies for us how Abraham and David, while inherently unrighteous, were “imputed/ reckoned/considered” righteous while trusting in God’s merciful forgiveness and covenant provision for their salvation. To be reckoned righteous is not to “have obtained” but to be “considered” in that state. Likewise, Christ was “reckoned” to be sin for us while having no sin within himself.(8)

Perhaps the major issue of the Protestant Reformation was how could one be just before God? The Protestant view was that by grace we are reckoned “righteous/just through faith alone” trusting in the “outside of us” obedience and merits of Christ for justification with God. Theologians call this imputed or “forensic justification.” The main debate of the Reformation lies here. Are we justified, “by a righteousness that is infused and inherent or by a righteousness that is imputed, which is not in us but in Him?” The Reformers held that we are “reckoned righteous” and not “made righteous” by biblical justification.(9)

Those who remember the 70’s and 80’s discussions on RBF in the Adventist church must acknowledge that “we” have always been reluctant to attribute righteousness by faith to “justification by faith alone.” So due to lack of uniformity on this issue we continued in the “uncertain and doubtsome faith” that the Reformers had complained of in the Roman church.(10)

I suggest our “discomfort” has always been that if we are “just/righteous by faith alone” we discount the need for holiness. Scripture does not require that we “grow” in diakaiosune/justification by faith but it does require that true believers grow in hagiosune/holiness (sanctification). Inward holiness does come through faith but never does it come by “faith alone.” Holiness, likewise is not an entirely “passive work” as it requires that we “put to death the ‘fleshly’ deeds of the body.”

Contra wise, righteousness by faith “alone” means that we are reckoned as righteous even though we are yet unholy because by faith I present Christ’s obedience done “under the law” to God. I am thus justified “apart from law” by Christ’s personal righteousness reckoned to me by faith.(11) “In Him”, I am “reckoned” as a “doer of the law.”

The Spirit of God is working in us to conform us in to the image of his son’s holiness but that is a work that will never be completed in this life. One person has correctly said, “The closer you come to Jesus, the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes.”(12)

Therefore, for “peace and joy” we must ever find perfection in Christ who is seated at the Father’s right hand for it is “by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”(13)


A frequent commenter on SPECTRUM, Patrick Travis writes from Oviedo, Fl. He is a retired dentist who holds a M.Div. Degree from Reformed Theological Seminary.

  1. Beven, Symbolism and Belief. London, 1938, p.185.
  2. Rom.2:5; 2:13; 3:10; Eph.2:1-3
  3. Belgic Confession. 1561, Article 20. (EGW shares this view of the atonement. DA. Pp.753, 756,762,834.)
  4. 1Cor.15:3; Isa. 53:5,11; Matt.26:28; Rom.5:9,10; 2Cor.5:18-20; Eph.1:4-9; Col.1:20; Heb.9:22; Heb.10:19, 20; 1Pet.1:18-20; 1 John 4:10; Rev.1:5; Rev.5:9; Rev.7:14.
  5. Rom.3:25,26; Rom.4:5; Rom.5:6.
  6. Luther. Commentary to the Galatians. Grand Rapids: Baker,1979. Preface Pp. xxiv, xxvii,225, 228, 364. (see also EGW comments on Luther and Justification he so “clearly taught.” GC. 253.)
  7. Ps.143:2; Rom.3:10,20.
  8. Rom.4:2-8; 2 Cor.5:19-21. (See Arndt and Gingrich. A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2nd ed., 1979. p.476. logizomai, which Paul uses ten times in Rom.4, means that one is “imputed, considered, reckoned, credited” as being righteous/just. This same word is used in the Septuagint in Ps.32:2.)
  9. Buchanan, James. The Doctrine of Justification. Bath: Bath Press (Banner of Truth Trust), 1997. p.142 (First printed in 1867. This is a must read for those interested in a serious study of Justification)
  10. Ibid. p.123 (Part of the Adventist debate always included the human nature of Christ and “perfectibility of the saints” prior to Christ coming. The historic Protestant understanding seemed too divisive. Consider “An Open Letter”, Ministry, June 1979. p.10.)
  11. Rom.5:17-19 ;Gal.4:4,5; Rom.3:21,22.
  12. White, E.G. Steps To Christ, p.64,65. (Consider 1 Jn.3:2)
  13. Rom.5:1; Heb.10:14 (NIV)

Art: Ike Okafor-Newsum, The Martin R. Delany Memorial Cross, 2000.

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