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Copyright © 2003

N. T. Wright and other “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP) theologians have been criticized and condemned for speaking of justification in various “tenses.” In fact, Wright typically begins discussions of justification with future justification and works his way back to the present. But this is hardly a novelty. While the Reformers were exactly right, over against Rome, to insist that justification is a forensic act or event, there is no question that justification cannot be reduced to a once-and-for-all event. We are justified at the beginning of the Christian life, but that is not the last time we step into God’s lawcourt. This is not Romish and does not make justification a process of moral transformation. It is always a forensic act, a momentary declaration.

Calvin recognized this truth in his Institutes. Not only does he position his discussion of sanctification before his discussion of justification, in order to demonstrate that both are equally necessary to salvation and that justification in some senses depends upon sanctification, but when he turns to his treatment of justification, he entitles one of the key chapters, “The Beginning of Justification and its Continual Progress” (III.14). If a ministerial candidate entitled a paper that way, or used that kind of language on an ordination exam, he’d be flunked without a second chance. But Calvin is not hedging on the forensic event character of justification here. Instead, he is taking of note of something Scripture plainly teaches. Calvin explains in II.14. 10:

Therefore, God does not, as many stupidly believe, once for all reckon to us as righteousness that forgiveness of sins concerning which we have spoken in order that, having obtained pardon for our past life, we may afterwards seek righteousness in the law; this would be only to lead us into false hope, to laugh at us, and mock us. For since no perfection can come to us so long as we are clothed in this flesh, and the law moreover announces death and judgment to all who do not maintain perfect righteousness in works, it will always have grounds for accusing and condemning us unless, on the contrary, God’s mercy counters it, and by continual forgiveness of sins repeatedly acquits us.

Calvin does not regard initial justification, received at the time of conversion, to be a complete justification. To be sure, all past sins up to that moment are forgiven, and we might even add that forgiveness of future sins is promised. (Calvin certainly includes future forgiveness as one of the promises included in the baptismal covenant. In IV.15.3, he says, “But we must realize that at whatever time we are baptized, we are once for all washed and purged for our whole life . . .”). One reason that initial justification cannot be final is that Calvin seems to think sins cannot be forgiven before they are actually committed in history. Calvin took history very seriously. He did not allow his strong belief in predestination to cancel out the significance of real historical events. He rejected notions such as “justification from eternity.” In fact, he insisted that all Christ did for his people was of no avail for them until they actually came to be united to him by a living faith. He believed in a real, personal transition from wrath to grace. He believed that once in a state of grace, God’s people had to persevere in faith to the end.

But if this is so, then we need the continual forgiveness Calvin speaks of. We need to be forgiven — continually justified — as we move through life, continually doing things that displease God. On the basis of 1 Jn. 1:9, I would suggest that each time we confess sin (whether privately, or perhaps especially in the weekly divine service), God forgives our sin anew and afresh. We are re-justified, so to speak. God passes a favorable verdict over us again and again, as often as necessary.

In the next section, Calvin bolsters his argument by pointing out that Paul’s two prooftexts for justification in Rom. 4 — Gen 15:6 and Ps. 32:1 — are probably not references to initial justification. Both Abraham and David had been walking in obedience for a long time when these declarations were made about or by them.

In section 12, Calvin goes on to say,

For if Christ’s righteousness, which as it alone is perfect alone can bear the sight of God, must appear in court on our behalf, and stand surety in judgment. Furnished with this righteousness, we obtain continual forgiveness of sins in faith. Covered with this purity, the sordidness and uncleanness of our imperfections are not ascribed to us but are hidden as if buried that they may not come into God’s judgment, until the hour arrives when, the old man slain and clearly destroyed in us, the divine goodness will receive us into blessed peace with the new Adam. There let us await the Day of the Lord in which, having received incorruptible bodies, we will be carried into the glory of the Heavenly Kingdom.

We can be assured of continual and even future justification because we are clothed with Christ’s righteousness, which continues to avail for us. At the last day, God’s judgment will take into account our works, not because they are meritorious and not because they have justifying value on their own. Rather, they will be, as Calvin says, “inferior causes” of our salvation:

The fact that Scripture shows that the good works of believers are reasons why the Lord benefits them is to be so understood as to allow what we have set forth before to stand unshaken: that the efficient cause of our salvation consists in God the Father’s love; the material cause in God the Son’s obedience; the instrumental cause in the Spirit’s illumination, that is, faith; the final cause, in the glory of God’s great generosity. These do not prevent the Lord from embracing works as inferior causes. But how does this come about? Those whom the Lord has destined by his mercy for the inheritance of eternal life he leads into possession of it, according to his ordinary dispensation, by means of good works (III.14.21).

While I am no fan of the Aristotelian “causes” scheme as a theological tool, Calvin’s point is plain enough. Works of faith-filled obedience, in a secondary way, cause our final justification and salvation. Works are the means through which we come into possession of eternal life. The path of obedience is the way we must trod if we are be justified at the last day. For Calvin, works are non-contributory instruments and non-meritorious conditions of final salvation.

In other words, works do not justify in their own right since they can never withstand the scrutiny of God’s inspection. But we will not be justified without them either. They are not merely evidential (e.g., proof of our faith), but even causal or instrumental (“means”) in our final salvation. Faith is the sole instrument of initial justification, but faith comes to be perfected by good works. At the last day, faith, as the solitary instrument of union with Christ, and obedience, as the fruit of our union with Christ, will be one and the same — distinguishable, yes, but separable, no. Calvin doesn’t explain exactly how this works, but we can be sure that he did not regard our works as meriting anything on their own or as having value outside of our union with Christ. God’s judgment and reward of our works takes place in the context of the covenant. He judges us as sons and daughters, not as slaves or strangers.

Calvin is not alone is tying works into our final justification. He is simply explicating any of several Pauline passages that claim final judgment will be according to works (e.g., Rom. 2:1-16, 2 Cor. 5:9-10, etc.). Paul teaches that only a working, loving faith has the hope of justification at the last day (Gal. 5:5-6). James teaches the same truth. James does not have in view final judgment in chapter 2 of his epistle, but he does not have in view in initial justification either. It is best to see the justification events he describes as paradigmatic anticipations of future judgment within history. The illustration of Abraham shows this: the good work which justified Abraham, along with his faith, came not at his first calling (Gen 12 or 15), but after he had been walking with the Lord many years (Gen. 22). God put Abraham to the test and he passed, receiving a favorable verdict because of his obedience. Likewise, Rahab’s faithful action showed her loyalty. God was pleased and passed judgment in her favor, foreshadowing the future, final verdict.

In the Reformed tradition, Calvin is in good company as well. In a study of Jonathan Edwards’ Trinitarian theology entitled The Supreme Harmony of All, Amy Plantinga Pauw quotes from Edwards’ miscellanies: “Even after conversion, the sentence of justification remains still to be passed, and the man remains in a state of probation for heaven [until his faith produces fruits of obedience.]” Further, she writes: “Fruits of obedience are intrinsic to saving faith, not merely external evidence for its existence,” citing another miscellany as proof: “Scripture is plain concerning faith, that the operative or practical nature of it is the life and soul of it.”

In contemporary Reformed theology, Sinclair Ferguson and Richard Gaffin have cautiously spoken of future justification. These scholars are basically hostile to the NPP but are driven by exegesis to acknowledge that our justification is not complete till the last day. Justification partakes of the same eschatological, already/not-yet dynamic as every other aspect of our salvation. So Wright and other NPP proponents should not be regarded as deviant or heretical simply because they speak of justification in the future tense. They are in step with the best of the Reformed tradition on this point, and more importantly, in tune with Scripture itself.

Copyright copy; 2003

3 Responses to “The Tenses of Justification”

  1. 1
    Lee Whitcomb Says:

    So many theologians (and those who think they are theologians) continue to mix forgiveness (the excusing of a fault) with justification a declaration that REMOVES the very charge against us “having nailed it to the cross”. Since the words forgive, forgave, forgiveness, and forgiven are in the Bible there seems to be a need to do something with them. Might I suggest that we throw them in the trash…. Those who use the word forgiveness and the word justification in the same senence are in error. When I was declared, by God, to be justified, that justification covered ALL my sins—past, present, and future. My next sin today, my sin tomorrow and for the rest of my life was on the cross over 2,000 years ago. When I sin it’s because I was trusting my FLESH rather that to TRUST God. God’s process of sanctification, however, will diminish the amount of sin in my life, but I’ll never know how much. Teaching forgiveness in any form is mixing Paul’s Gospel of grace with Peter’s Gospel of the Kingdom and That’s that!

  2. 2
    Asaph Says:

    I need to contemplate further the merit of the original article.
    However, it doesn’t require much reflection to respond to Lee’s comment.

    It’s both absurd and erroneous to recommend trashing words of forgiveness. We are to continue to “confess sins to one another”. Asking God to forgive our sins is part of the “Lord’s Prayer” (perhaps better designated, the “Disciples Prayer”, the model our Lord Jesus gave his disciples – and us – to pray to the Father. We continue appropriately to ask forgiveness for our sins as a way to honor our Forgiver and continue to recognize that He has in fact offered full forgiveness. Continuing to pursue forgiveness and reconciliation experientially heightens our dependence on God and worship of Him.

    Lee is also in error to pit Paul’s teachings against Peter’s. That is also misguided. Peter and Paul both testified to God’s kingdom of the gospel of grace through life in Jesus.

  3. 3
    Joseph Says:

    The fact alone that the penalty of all our sins were paid for in full allows the Holy Spirit to indwell a genuine believer which, unlike the saints under the old covenant, He is able to now seal Himself unto the day of redemption. This reality is due to the fact that the judgment on the cross has precluded the final judgment by removing the penalty of all sins in a believers life, That’s why there is therefore no condemnation for any in Christ Jesus and therefore the Holy Spirit is free to self seal His indwelling forever without any possibility of compromising God’s holiness. It’s never implied in scripture that it’s a conditional based habitation.

    However, it remains a fact that sin still does violate the nature of God. His removing the penalty of sin as well as being propitiated and reconciled with man does not change His very character and nature nor the character and nature of sin. Willful sin can and will always grieve and quench the Spirit. Yet this experience is exclusively for born again believers only since their relationship with God is under a different paradigm than unbelievers. Once saved a believer will always be eternally viewed by God as being perfect due to the righteous imputation (God’s accounting that we have had a legal transaction of Christ’s righteousness due exclusively to His bearing all our sins upon Himself) though we cannot actually see that completion yet by sight while still in this mortal body on earth. However, there is at present the new transition of a family relationship based on our union with Christ, whereas believers are once and for all justified since the initial moment that they first believed as well as God’s continual recognition of the same as He affirms that reality incorporated in His declaration whenever it is reflected in the peaceable fruits of righteousness we partake in. But we also still have the sin nature, for it has not yet been eradicated. Thus our ongoing communion with God our Father based on a familial relationship enabled by the Holy Spirit, is liable to become obstructed if we rebel or become arrogant. As His child He will ever make intercession for us but we also need to respond by a change of heart/mind. Our relationship to Him in terms of being His child will always remain intact, but our communion can be severed. We have been justified once and for all ever since the moment we first believed, but as well are being justified, by a continual witness of that reality when God recognizes our progressive experience of faith obedience which brings forth the peaceable fruit of His righteousness, a sweet savor.

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