Just and the Justifier

March 19, 2010

In my last article, comparing an Anabaptist view of justification with a Reformed view, I said this:

“So in one view I am justified when, by my works, my life mimics Christ’s righteousness; in the other view, I am justified when, by faith, Jesus’ righteousness becomes my righteousness.”

Another way of saying this is that in the later view, I am justified by imputation. I am not justified because of a righteousness that inheres in myself; rather, I am justified because someone else (Christ) was righteous, and the righteousness of that someone else is applied to me as though it were mine. Christ’s righteousness is imputed to me.

But an objection arises at this point. How can we say that God calls righteous that which is not righteous? God would not lie, the objection goes, and so it would be wrong to suppose that God would ever call me righteous unless I actually became righteous in reality.  I want to interact with that objection here.

Those who would raise this objection generally fit into two groups. One group will try all their lives to attain to justification through the unmitigated righteousness of their own works, hoping to eventually achieve a state of actual sinlessness; the other group is essentially the same, the only significant difference being that the people in this group say the grace of God plays a part in their attaining to a state of sinlessness. But both groups share a reluctance to consider themselves justified until they reach a state of actual sinlessness.

I see several problems with this objection, and with those views. But before I get to them, I want to agree with a part of the premise underlying the objection, and that is that God is just. God does not lie, God does not cheat — “the decrees of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:9). I vigorously affirm the perfect justice of God.

But in affirming God’s perfect justice, I am not arguing away from imputation; rather, I am affirming a premise given by the apostle Paul in his argument for imputation. And this leads to my first answer to the above objection: God’s perfect justice is the best single argument for justification through imputation. And that’s why Paul spends so much of the book of Romans developing that very argument.  In Romans 3:21-26, Paul says there is something that God did, which He had to do in order to be both just and a justifier of sinners. Now before we even talk about what God did to pull this off, we have to acknowledge that being both just and the justifier is a problem requiring a divine solution. God had to do something special in order to be both just and a justifier. Why is this? Well, precisely because of the objector’s premise — God doesn’t lie. No judge can set the guilty free and remain just, any more than He can declare the innocent to be guilty and remain just. God had to do something to make this work, and before He did it, there was something about the state of things that made His justice and His justification of sinful man in conflict with each other. This is Paul’s argument. According to God’s perfect justice He has judged us all to be sinners worthy of death; but because He loves us He is not desirous that we perish. But because He is just, He cannot simply sweep the sin under the carpet; so if God’s going to save any of us sinners without compromising His justice, something big has to happen. And this is the thing that Paul describes in Romans 3.

Now before we talk about what that thing is, we already have enough information to know what it is not. In other words, before we discover how God justifies the sinner, we already know how He doesn’t do it. He doesn’t do it by the law; for we are all guilty before the law, and the law requires that we die. But what is sin, but a violation of God’s law? Therefore we know that God does not justify the sinner by the sinner’s sinlessness. And this would be true whether that sinlessness is graciously attained to or not. Wait — go over that again — how do we know this? Well, if man were justified through sinlessness, then what about that arrangement would make it a problem for God to be both just and the justifier? What is there about righteousness-through-sinlessness that would require God’s special intervention to preserve God’s justness? It would already be a just arrangement at the face. Why would Paul even need to write this section of Romans 3? To ask it is to answer it; therefore we know that God does not justify a man by means of that man’s sinlessness.

But the objection has other problems as well, even if Romans 3 is completely ignored. Remember, the objector will maintain that justification comes by sinless living from here on out. God wipes the slate clean by forgiving past sins, the argument goes, and God continues to forgive future sin as we grow more and more holy, until eventually we grow right out of sin and become actually righteous, at which point we are declared righteous and justified. See? — no cheating on God’s part — we become righteous, and then He calls us righteous and justifies us. Perfect justice. But the problem is that this kind of justice cannot account for how the past sins were forgiven in the first place. If by the phrase “God doesn’t lie” you mean “God doesn’t call the unjust ‘just’,” then you must also mean “God doesn’t call the guilty ‘forgiven’.” The objection to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness on the grounds of God’s justice proves too much, because it rules out any kind of pardon whatsoever. This is not to say God isn’t just; rather, God’s justice does not mean what the objector thinks it means.  True text-book sinlessness has to start from the womb, and none of us can claim that kind of sinlessness, no matter how perfectly we live after our conversion. According to strict justice apart from imputation, even 40 years of sinless living after conversion, were it possible, still would not result in righteousness, because it provides no mechanism for forgiveness of past sins; and an appeal to God’s perfect justice only makes that point more emphatically.

And this leads to my third answer to the objection. Those who object to imputation really only want to object to half of it; they think of it as though it only flows in one direction. But it flows in both directions, and not even the objectors dare deny the other half of it. The problem is that the math by which they object to the one half excludes the other half as well. Here’s what I mean. At issue is whether or not Christ’s righteousness can be imputed to me, and the objectors object on the ground that imputation itself constitutes an act of injustice. When “God cannot lie” is raised as objection to imputation, it is implied that imputation is a form of lying. So here’s my question on this point: was God lying when He made Christ a curse for us? What about when He caused the chastisement of our peace to be on Christ? Was God acting unjustly when the wrath that was due us was directed toward Christ? When Christ died in my place by God’s sovereign decree, was that God’s unrighteousness at work, declaring the innocent to be guilty? Or, rather, did Christ not really bare my sins after all? This is absurdity! And yet, if imputation of Christ’s righteousness to me were an act of injustice, then so also wold be the imputation of my sin to Christ on the cross.

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” God be thanked and praised that He sent Christ to be the propitiation for our sins! “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”



10 Responses to “Just and the Justifier”

  1. I’m not even going to try to make myself coherent. I’m going to post a quote instead.

    “The Protestant response is to claim that God is speaking truly when He declares us just, because He performs an extrinsic relational transaction in which the merits of Christ are credited to our account, and the demerits of our sins are credited to Christ’s account. However, the problem with that position is that for a God from whom nothing is hidden, there can be no difference between what one is internally, and what is in one’s account. Necessarily, before the God of Truth, what is in one’s ‘account’ is always and only what one actually is. God cannot pretend that I am Christ or that Christ is me. God cannot pretend that my account is His, or that His account is mine. He always sees everything for exactly what it is, nothing more and nothing less. And therefore for a God of Truth, there can be no swapping of accounts. Because our ‘accounts’ are based on what we really are, the notion of account swapping presupposes that God is capable of deceiving Himself into thinking that Christ’s account is mine, and that my account is Christ’s. But a God of Truth cannot be deceived, and therefore there can be no swapping of accounts.

    When Protestants think about being inherently righteous, they tend not to think about agape, but about having perfectly kept every law, and not having any wayward thoughts. And they tend to think that that is impossible, and so find forensic imputation much more plausible and attractive than this [seemingly] impossible standard of perfect legal righteousness that God expects of us. So, for example, they find vices in themselves after baptism, and take that as evidence that they are in fact unrighteous, and that provides the attraction of simul iustus et peccator. Yet in Catholic doctrine the law is fulfilled by those having agape,44 and venial sins (by definition) do not remove agape from the soul. Our righteousness before God (as friends of God) is not determined by or effected by our venial sins. So, while at the Judgment we are judged for all that we have done in the body, yet, our justification only requires that we have agape. Not having the mortal-venial distinction makes many Protestants conceive of the Catholic life as one of losing justification many times a day. And that seems (rightly) ridiculous to them. But in Catholic doctrine it is agape by which we fulfill the law, and mortal sin (in which agape is lost) is not something we should (ordinarily) be committing on a daily basis.”


    You really can’t effectively argue against a position until you understand it.

  2. daddylong Says:


    So if a man has agape and has committed no mortal sins, does he need Christ?

  3. daddylong Says:


    Do venial sins constitute a violation of God’s law?

  4. I apologize for the tone of my last sentence. It was unnecessarily combative.

    The man who has agape and has committed no mortal sins needs God’s grace the same way Adam and Eve did before the fall. He needs grace to maintain agape because agape is not inherent in man, even sinless man, but is a gift of God.

    I do not know the answer to your second question. I don’t think in terms of law anymore. I can try to find out.

  5. daddylong Says:

    To the first question: You say that a man who has agape but has committed no mortal sins needs grace. Three things there. First, what form does that grace take; and second, is the giving of that grace a demonstration of justice?

    But (and third), my question was whether this person needs *Christ* specifically. What (if anything) in particular does *Christ* have to offer the man who has agape but has committed no mortal sins?

  6. daddylong Says:

    To the question of whether venial sins constitute a violation of God’s law: can you give me a typical example of a venial sin?

  7. I’m not sure what you mean by “form grace takes”. Could you explain?

    Is that grace a demonstration of justice? I have no idea because you’re talking again in terms of legalities and I’m thinking in a different paradigm. The best I can do is think, read more, and try to parse out the answer.

    Yes, the person who lives with agape and does not commit mortal sin needs Christ because he needs grace and all grace flows from Christ’s sacrifice.

    There is an explanation of the difference between mortal and venial sin at http://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/mortal_versus_venial.htm This also addresses whether venial sins are a violation of law. I would add to the author’s verses that demonstrate this 1 John 5:16-17 Especially verse 17 seems to be making the mortal/venial distinction.

  8. daddylong Says:

    Let us all stipulate that all men need grace, and that grace, whatever it is, somehow comes from Christ. What I want to know is this: in your view, what form does grace take, and in what way does it come from Christ? I will elaborate on those questions.

    “What form does grace take?” Grace is an undeserved gift, an unmerited favor. So, in the case of a man who has committed no mortal sin (or any other man for that matter), when you say he needs grace, what favor is being done to that man which he did not deserve? What does the grace look like? The answer I’m looking for might be in this form: “God’s grace is manifested to this man when God [ADD VERB HERE] to/for/on him.” Or something like that.

    Grace isn’t an all-purpose fairy dust; grace isn’t an ethereal concept with no shape. There is a thing being done by God to/for a man, which is gracious in nature. What is that thing, and what does Christ’s life and death have to do with it?

  9. Thanks for clarifying. I think I know what you’re asking now.

    Using your fill-in-the-blank answer: God’s grace is manifested to this man when God gives him agape. Because agape does not inhere in men (nor did it before the fall) if it is to be in a man at all, it must be put there by God, which is a gift of grace, all of which flows from the cross.

  10. daddylong Says:

    Why was Jesus’ death on the cross necessary in order for God to graciously bestow agape love on man? I asked in what way the grace bestowed to the venial-only sinner comes from Christ. You have reiterated *that* it flows from Christ. But in what way?

    Also — what about forgiveness? Isn’t forgiveness a manifestation of God’s grace to the man guilty of only venial sin, and didn’t that come by the cross?

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