Whenever anyone says or hears that one “receives justification by faith,” the expression ought to immediately call for further explanation or else a question about how that makes any sense.
Because forensic verdicts are not simply received by faith. It is nonsense unless it is a shorthand for a more basic reality.
Think about it. We say that in justification God passes sentence on a sinner vindicating him as righteous–imputing the righteousness of Christ to him. It is a forensic, declaratory act. So how is faith ever necessary to receive a forensic verdict?
When God condemns the ungodly, does that forensic declaration only obtain to those who receive it by faith? Of course not. If you are summoned to appear before a judge, and he declares you guilty or not-guilty, your status does not depend on whether or not you believe the judge. The sentence is an objective reality. You don’t receive it by faith alone or with anything else. It simply makes no sense to even talk that way.
The Gospel tells us that objectively, in history, God has justified Jesus, overturning his condemnation by exalting him through resurrection. The reason that justifying verdict is received by faith is because it applies ultimately to Jesus, but not to him for himself. It applies to all who belong to him. We receive justification by faith because by faith we receive Jesus. While belief doesn’t matter to judicial verdicts, it is the ultimate issue when it comes to relationships. If we trust God as he offers himself in Jesus, no matter how much we have disobeyed and apart from any such consideration, we share in everything Jesus has. The condemnation we deserve is then already dealt with in the cross of Christ. The vindication we need is share with us in Christ’s resurrection.
But what bothers me is that the grammatical and logical need for this explanation seems so largely unfelt among Evangelicals, as far as I can tell. It is as if “righteousness received by faith” is some sort of mantra that no one bothers to actually think about. How else can I understand people resting in that sort of slogan as if it were self-explanatory? I realize that not everyone is called to be a theologian. But at the same time, if Christians are equipped only to pronounce a series of syllables that have no relationship to how words are actually used in the wider culture, then they are pretty much doomed to become increasingly insular and ineffective in outreach.
And the problem gets much more acute if that same group is told how precious the unintelligible slogan is, and how much the refusal of the world to accept this shibboleth test is a mark of their own depravity. We actually encourage pride in nonsense.
We receive the justifying verdict by faith because that is how we come to belong to Jesus, on whom the verdict was bestowed. The story of the justification of Jesus is essential to making any sense of justification by faith. An we should actually want it to make sense.
For further reading: Justification by union with Christ