For a series of philosophical, theological, and practical reasons, the medieval church came gradually to think that our justification (that is, our acceptance by a righteous God) is progressive. What the confessional Reformed and Lutheran churches call sanctification (that is, our gradual conformity to Christ), the medieval church came to think of as justification. This doctrine of progressive justification became the dogma of the Roman communion at the Council of Trent (Session 6, 1547). The confessional Protestants, however, rejected both the medieval consensus and Roman dogma on the authority of God’s word (sola scriptura). The Protestants, as distinct from both the Ana-baptists and Rome, confessed that justification is definitive and sanctification is progressive, that they are distinct (but related) benefits of God’s unconditional favor (sola gratia) received through faith alone (sola fide). The Protestant churches confessed that the moment one believes one is declared righteous on the basis of the imputation (crediting, reckoning) of Jesus’ perfect righteousness (meritum condignum) to the believer, received through faith alone.
In recent years, however, within ostensibly confessional Protestant circles, some have been advocating versions of a two-stage doctrine of justification. One version of this proposal is that we may be said to be justified initially by grace alone, through faith alone, but only finally justified on the basis of our sanctification. Some give the whole basis of our final justification to our inherent sanctification and righteousness, and others only part of the basis.
How does the Bible speak to this controversy? Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul did not write, “Since we have received the initial stage of justification ” The broader context makes such a reading untenable. Paul’s great point in Romans 4 is that Abraham was justified ”that is, counted righteous not on the basis of his works (his performance) but on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to him, received through faith alone (Rom. 4:1-7, 11, 16). Indeed, the last words of the chapter say:
In that context, the force of Paul’s ringing declaration in 5:1 cannot be missed by any who are willing to allow the text to speak for itself: “Therefore ” Paul uses a concluding particle. He is drawing a concluding inference on the basis of what he has already argued at length. God justifies the ungodly. This does not mean, as Pelagius and later Rome concluded, that God initially justifies those who are initially unsanctified. Rather, it means that God declares those who are inherently unsanctified, ungodly, to be righteous on the basis of Christ’s alien righteousness (iustitia aliena), which is extrinsic to the one being declared righteous. That righteousness, which is outside the justified, is the legal basis for God’s declaration. We know that is so because of the fact of Christ’s bodily resurrection. We know that Jesus was inherently righteous and worthy, because God raised him from the dead. Were he anything but perfectly righteous, his body would still be in the tomb and we would still be dead in sins, but Christ was raised and we were raised with him (Eph. 2:5-6). As S. M. Baugh translates these verses in the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary: Ephesians (Lexham Press, 2015), we were “co-raised” with him. We are “co-seated” with him in the heavenlies. Jesus’ righteousness for us is the proper basis for our justification because it meets the terms of righteousness. It is inherently worthy. That is why we call it “condign” (inherently worthy) and “merit.”
God’s favor to Abraham and to us is unconditioned by anything done by us or even in us. Abraham was declared righteous while he was still a Gentile ”before he was circumcised. He was justified after he was circumcised ”after he became a Jew. Abraham had done nothing. The law requires perfect obedience (Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10), which Abraham had not met and which he never would meet. Nevertheless, God declared him righteous. Therefore, Paul says, Abraham is the father of all believers ”of Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus the Messiah. It is after he has explained the basis for this doctrine in Genesis 15 and applied it to New Testament believers that he draws the great inference in Romans 5:1.
That is why he is able to say, “We have peace.” He does not say, “We shall have peace, after we have been sufficiently sanctified.” He does not say, “Peace with God has been inaugurated but shall be consummated later.” He says, “Therefore we have peace.” We are presently in the possession of peace with God. In Romans 8:1, he defines what it means to have peace with God: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” It is believers who are “in” Christ Jesus. It is believers who are united to Christ by God’s unconditional favor (grace) to sinners. He has made them alive, given them faith, and through that faith united believers to Christ. God is no longer angry with us, because Christ has satisfied the righteous divine wrath against sin and sinners. That is why Paul says that we who believe (that is, the justified) have peace with God ”he is reconciled to us “through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus is the expiation of our sins (1 Sam. 3:14 ASV) and the propitiation (Rom. 3:25).
The repeated, clear biblical teaching is that believers are now fully justified. It is a definitive declaration by God of a present and completed reality. Paul says, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). It is not that justification has been inaugurated now and is to be completed later any more than Jesus has been raised in stages. He has been raised. So, too, we are now justified. In Romans 5:9, Paul goes on to confirm, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood.” The connection of the temporal particle to the verb could hardly be clearer. It does not say “now and later” or “inaugurated now and consummated later.” What else must Paul say to make it clear? “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified” (1 Cor. 6:11). We have been “justified by his grace” (Titus 3:7).
Nowhere does Paul suggest that justification is in stages. It is always presented to us as a once-for-all declaration, a benefit received through faith alone. Sanctification is inaugurated. Sanctification is progressive. Sanctification is to be consummated, but our justification is complete. It is finished.
R. Scott Clark is professor of church history and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido. He is author of Recovering the Reformed Confession (P&R, 2008).