JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH
T. PIERCE BROWN
To most of us, “salvation by faith” and “justification by faith” are synonymous. In many contexts they may be, but I want to examine the idea of justification by faith in a way I have seldom, if ever, seen done.
In Romans 3:19ff, we find Paul stating that no flesh can be justified by works of the law, but by a different system. When he speaks of the righteousness of God being manifested through the “faith of Jesus Christ,” in verse 22, he is not referring to our personal faith in Christ, but the system of faith which we call “the gospel plan of salvation,” spoken of in Jude 3 and Galatians 3:23. Of course, justification through that system is only promised to them that believe, as the rest of verse 22 says.
When Paul, in chapter 4, introduces the example of Abraham being justified by faith, many persons apparently assume that Abraham was in a lost condition — out of fellowship with God up to that point — and that his belief in the promise of God secured his forgiveness or salvation! Surely this can not be so if Genesis 12:1-7 and 13:4 have any relevance! When we find James 2:25 telling us that Rahab the harlot was justified by works, are we to assume that she was a sinner until she hid the spies and then God forgave her and saved her from her sin because of her works? Surely not! She illustrates that faith without works is dead, but any supposition that her good works removed her sin is unwarranted.
The truth is that although the Bible plainly teaches that salvation from sin comes to an alien sinner only through the merits of the blood of Christ when one properly demonstrates his faith in that blood by being buried by baptism into his death, and that now he stands justified, the term “justified” does not always mean “saved from sin.” A cursory examination of such passages as Matthew 11;19, Luke 7:29, 10:29, 16:15, and 1 Timothy 3:16 will surely convince anyone who cares to find out, that the basic idea of justification is “to declare right” in whatever context it is found. If a man is an alien sinner, and we are discussing how he can stand in the right relationship with God, of course he has to have his sins forgiven to stand completely justified. But this gives us no right to substitute some little “cute” expression of our own such as “justified” means “just as if I’d never sinned.” It is true that when I am justified from my sins, I am treated “just as if I’d never sinned,” but it is not because that is the meaning of the word. God Himself may be justified! Surely no one could assume it has anything to do with “as if he’d never sinned!”
In Genesis 15:6, when Abraham believed God and was justified (reckoned right), it has nothing to do with his being lost — out of fellowship with God — before this, and then being saved by faith only, or even at the point of faith! When Abraham offered his son on the altar (Genesis 22) and was justified by works (James 2:21), it does not mean that Abraham was lost — as an alien sinner is lost — until he offered his son, and then was saved by his works — that his sins were forgiven when he offered his son! It does illustrate that we must have an obedient faith to please God.
When God makes a statement of any truth, a man is justified in accepting that as true, although it may be difficult to believe. It is the right thing to do, and God reckons us to be doing right when we believe it — justified us. When God told Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, and Abraham believed him, although he considered his body as almost dead, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb (Romans4:28-29), he was justified in that belief. But that has nothing to do with his being saved from sin at that point!
If God never said for us to do anything, but simply made a statement for us to believe, we would be justified in believing what he said. But when he said to do something, whether it was to offer a son on an altar or take the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week, no man can stand justified in his sight without doing it!
When an alien sinner hears that God requires him to put his trust in Jesus, he is justified (reckoned to have done the right thing) when he does that. But he is not yet in Christ, redeemed by his blood, justified from sin! When he hears that he is required to repent, and he does that, it is reckoned unto him for righteousness, for he has done right. But he is not saved from sin at that point, even though every man who properly repents is justified in doing that! When he is told to “Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins” (Acts22:16), there is no way he can be justified in God’s sight without doing that. He must “obey from the heart that form of doctrine delivered unto him, being then made free from sin” (Romans6:17-18). At each step he was justified in doing what he did, for it was the right thing for him to do, but only at this step was he “justified from all things from which he could not be justified by the law of Moses” and given remission of sins (Acts 13:38-39).
Let us remember that when the context shows that it refers to an alien sinner standing in the right relationship with God, justification must involve the forgiveness of sin, for sin separates us from God. But when it is not in that context, it may be as if God were saying in the vernacular of the South, “I reckon you did just the right thing!”