BY MARK HORNE
Imagine two strangers who happen to be standing on the same subway train; we’ll call one Joe and the other Larry. Joe accidentally steps on the Larry’s foot so that he, in a flash of pain, thinking Joe did it intentionally, resorts to name calling and says something about Joe’s mother that he never should have said. Joe, who doesn’t even realize what he did to Larry, puts up his fists and is ready to argue with them rather than with words.
But then another man, who saw what happened and what is about to happen, comes between them. He explains to Joe that Larry is in pain and to Larry that Joe stepped on his foot accidentally. Both men calm down. Larry apologizes to Joe for what he said. Joe accepts his apology. Perhaps they shake hands. All is forgiven. Then Joe or Larry gets off at his exit and the two men never see each other again.
Notice that even though the two men are reconciled and even though sins are forgiven and even though each is reckoned righteous by the other, this incident is not a very good illustration of how sinners are justified before God. Even though the two men are rightly related to one another by the end of the story, their right relationship is virtually no relationship at all. They are still strangers to one another.
But when God justifies a sinner there is a great deal more going on that the mere declaration that there is no longer enmity between God and the person. If all we take into account is a bare declaration that the forgiven sinner now has right standing with God, that could, in theory, mean that they were not neutral toward one another. Perhaps you’ve met someone who claims to be righteous in God’s sight only by his faith in Jesus and his death and resurrection, but who never shows any evidence of seeing God as a friend, but only as some stranger who no longer holds his sins against him.
This simply is not sufficient. In the Epistle of James we read that Abraham’s faith, which received God’s declaration of righteousness, received a status not merely of “forgiven” or “not guilty” but of positive friendship. James quotes and comments on Genesis 15.6: “’Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God” (2.22).
The reason why the forgiveness of sins can never leave us in a neutral position to God is because sin never robbed us of a neutral position. On the contrary, human beings were created as God’s children (Acts 17.28). Adam was not merely God’s creature but also God’s son (Luke 3.38). When God forgives a sinner he restores him to be his son or daughter.
We see the distinction between some sort of bare forgiveness and restoration to the family in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11-32). The son comes to his senses as a result of the hunger pangs that are the consequence of his own sin. He needs food. His father has food, but he has cut himself off from his father by demanding his inheritance ahead of time (as much as telling his father that he wished he were dead). So the son comes up with a compromise situation. He will go to his father and beg to be allowed into the household but only as a hired servant because he has lost any right to claim the status of being the father’s son.
Of course, this concept of forgiveness is quite confused. If the father is to forgive the son, then how can he treat the son as a servant? Obviously making a son be a servant is a serious demotion. What the son seems to be asking is for his offense to be downgraded so it doesn’t mean absolute alienation from his father. The father should lower the the offense to something that allows the son on the father’s property as a hired servant, but doesn’t have to actually overlook the offense entirely and welcome him back to his status as a son in good standing. The son is basically saying, forgive me but don’t forgive me.
But the father has no such anemic idea of forgiveness. After all, if he is going to forgive the son at all, how could he not do so completely. He immediately clothes the prodigal as his son and welcomes him to the family table as an honored member.
And so it is with sinners who believe the gospel, that God sent his son to die for our sins and be raised for our justification. The only way we can ever be forgiven is by being united to Jesus which only happen by trusting in him as he is presented in the Gospel message. But if we belong to Jesus in that way, then we belong to the son who has not only been publicly declared righteous by his resurrection from the dead, but has also been raised to the right hand of God’s throne. Thus, if we belong to Jesus we too are received as sons and daughters in him. Indeed, we are kings and queens as well.
So when a sinner is declared righteous in God’s sight he is also, in that same declaration, pronounced to be God’s son. He is not merely no longer God’s enemy, but he is now God’s friend just as Abraham was. And if he is God’s friend, the only such category that exists for a human being to fill as God’s friend is God’s son or daughter. Justification—being declared right by God—is a judicial action which encompasses adoption—being declared God’s son or daughter. One without the other is simply unthinkable according to the Bible.
While it is possible to say that we are adopted because we are justified it is equally possible to say we are justified because we are adopted, just as the Apostle Paul teaches: “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galations 3.23-26). Ultimately adoption and justification are words expressing different perspective on God’s gracious verdict for sinners who trust in him as he is revealed in the good news about His Son, Jesus, the righteous one.