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Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness (5): Forgiveness and Justification Distinguished

Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness (5): Forgiveness and Justification Distinguished

By Martyn McGeown. Previous article in the series: Preaching Repentance and Forgiveness of Sins (4): Forgiveness of Sins.


In our last blog post, we began to distinguish between God's legal verdict of justification declaring us righteous in his sight and God's forgiving, remitting, or sending away our sins. We also indicated that we can speak of justification in different senses, so that there are multiple declarations of righteousness.

First, we can speak of eternal justification, which is the teaching that because God eternally views his people in Christ they are eternally righteous before him in his eternal decree. That aspect of justification has no explicit biblical support—it can be inferred—and it is not mentioned in the creeds. Herman Hoeksema taught eternal justification: 

In his eternal counsel God has ordained Christ as mediator and head of all the elect. Therefore, it must be true that God knew the elect as justified from all eternity. The elect do not become righteous before God in time by faith, but they are righteous in the tribunal of God from before the foundation of the earth. God beholds them in eternity not as sinners, but as perfectly righteous, as redeemed, as justified in Christ (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2 [Grandville, MI: RFPA, 2005], 95. 

Hoeksema quotes the Conclusions of Utrecht (the decisions of an important synod held in 1905) to show that eternal justification is a permissible doctrine in Reformed churches, although it does not receive the emphasis in Scripture or the creeds: “It must be maintained with equal firmness that we personally become partakers of this benefit only by a sincere faith” (ibid, 96).  The Westminster Confession of Faith, 11:4, teaches, “God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect; and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth in due time actually apply Christ unto them” (my italics). One of the problems with an emphasis upon eternal justification is that justification by faith becomes simply a realization that we were always justified, not an actual point in time when our legal status changed and we were declared righteous. This leads to the extreme view that we were always saved, never lost, which would be news to a man like Zacchaeus: “This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham: for the Son of man is come to seek and save that which was lost” (Luke 19:9-10). 

In this regard it is important to distinguish between time and eternity. In eternity God determined what would happen, what he would do, in time. For example, 1 Peter 1:19-20 speaks of Jesus “as of a lamb without blemish and without spot, who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but—Peter writes ‘but;’ the Holy Spirit inspires ‘but’!—was manifest in these last times for you.” Similarly, Paul writes, “[God] hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began, but—again, Paul writes ‘but;’ the Holy Spirit inspired ‘but’!—is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:9-10). God decreed that Jesus should suffer and die for his elect people, and therefore the cross was certain, as certain as God’s decree is certain. However, it was still necessary for Jesus actually to die in time and space in his human nature which he assumed at the incarnation. And it is still necessary that the Holy Spirit should apply the benefits of Christ’s atonement to the hearts and lives of individual elect sinners. God’s decree does not make time and history unnecessary or superfluous. God’s decree makes the decreed events essential and guarantees their accomplishment. To speak as a fool, if Jesus had not died, notwithstanding God’s decree that he should die, we could not be saved.

It is also true that in 2 Corinthians 5:20 “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.” In Christ the righteous basis for our pardon has been secured, and—may I even say ‘but’?—we come into the conscious possession of that pardon when we repent of our sins and believe in Jesus Christ. That is why in the next verse Paul urges his readers, who are Christians, “Be ye reconciled to God” (v. 21). There is a difference between the purchase of salvation by Christ on the cross and the Spirit’s application of salvation to the individual believer. Both are the works of God, and God is a God of order. “That men may be brought to believe… men are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified” (Canons 1:3). “Such as receive [the gospel], and embrace Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith, are by him delivered from the wrath of God and from destruction, and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them” (Canons 1:4). That faith is “the gift of God” and “proceeds from God’s eternal decree” (Canons 1:5-6). 

Second, we can speak—and here we are on firmer ground, since we have a text that explicitly teaches it—of justification at the cross and resurrection. Romans 4:25 says about Christ, “Who was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification.” In both cases the preposition “for” means “on account of.” Jesus was delivered to suffering, death, and to the wrath and curse of God on account of—because of—our offenses (our sins, our transgressions). Jesus was raised from the dead on account of—because of—our justification. Justification and, therefore, forgiveness of sins was secured for all of God’s elect people at the cross. Because of that, Jesus was raised from the dead. If justification had not been accomplished at the cross, Jesus would have remained in the tomb under the power of death. Paul does not in the same passage discount justification by faith, for he writes, “Now it was not for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; but for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus from the dead” (Rom. 4:23-24). So, there is a sense in which Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us in eternity, a sense in which his righteousness was imputed to us at the cross and resurrection, and a sense in which his righteousness is imputed to us when we believe (“if we believe on him”—v. 24). The Heidelberg Catechism speaks of Christ’s righteousness “which he had purchased for us by his death” (A 45) and of which he makes us partakers—by faith—by virtue of his resurrection. The Belgic Confession says that we become partakers of Christ’s righteousness “when we believe in him” (Art. 23).

We will look at justification by faith in the next blog post, God willing.

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