Justification: How God considers us right with him.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 May

The part of our salvation that kinda falls on us.

JUSTIFY 'dʒəs.tə.faɪ verb. Show or prove to be correct.
2. Make morally right [with God].
[Justification dʒəs.tə.fə'keɪ.ʃən noun.]

In our culture we tend to use the word “justify” to mean we have a good excuse for what we did. Say I took someone behind the church building and beat the daylights out of them. Ordinarily, and rightly, that’d get me tossed into jail for battery. When I stand before the judge I’d better have a really solid reason for my actions.

“He started it; I just finished it” might work for most people, ’cause it sounds badass. But it’s not legally gonna work. Outside of movies, the law doesn’t give free passes to badasses. Juries might, but there are a whole lot of those guys in prison. Nope; justification means I need a legal reason for why I shouldn’t be jailed or institutionalized for my behavior. Like I reasonably feared for my life otherwise. Only then might my act be justified, and I’d be declared not guilty, and free to go. Society might still have a problem with me though.

Now when it comes to sin, I am so guilty. I have no good excuse. Neither do you. Neither does anyone. Yeah, we all have accidental, unintentional, or omissive sins in our past. But we have even more sins which we totally meant to do. We weren’t out of our right minds; we weren’t backed into tragic moral choices; we weren’t predetermined by God to sin in order to fulfill some secret evil plan of his. We’re totally guilty. We have no excuse. We have no justification for our behavior.

But in Christianity, we’re not doing the justifying. God is. Ro 8.30 We’re not the ones defending why God oughta have a relationship with us, regardless of our awful, sinful behavior. God is justifying why he bothers with us—again, despite our unworthiness.

And it’s a really simple explanation: God is gracious. He forgives sin. Jesus died to totally, absolutely wipe out the sins of the whole world. 1Jn 2.2 Anybody can have a relationship with God! Our sinfulness is no barrier whatsoever. We might imagine so, ’cause he’s holy and we suck. But Jesus took care of that. Sin is defeated. We don’t need to do anything more. We’re forgiven.

So if everyone’s forgiven, why are some people saved, and some people aren’t, even though God wants to save everyone? 1Ti 2.4 Why does God have relationships with some individuals, and not others, even though he loves the world? Jn 3.16 Why doesn’t God just drag everyone to heaven, no matter how they kick and scream?

Well it’s not, as Calvinists insist, because God doesn’t wanna save everyone, doesn’t really love everybody, and limits his forgiveness to a select few. It’s because only one thing justifies God having a relationship with us: Whether we’re gonna respond, in any way, to such a relationship. Whether we’re gonna love him back.

The apostles distilled this idea to one word: Faith. I mean, people respond to God in all sorts of ways. Pagans pick and choose what they wanna believe he’s like, and what they don’t, and as a result don’t really follow him. Unbelievers don’t even try. But if we do try—if we trust God to love us, forgive our screw-ups, make up for our deficiencies with Christ, 1Jn 2.1-3 work with us, guide us, and glorify us Ro 8.30 —and y’know, God’ll accept faith in the tiniest of servings Lk 17.6 —we’re good. It justifies God’s interactivity in our lives; it won’t be time wasted! It’ll lead to our salvation.

So God’s made faith a condition of our relationship with him. No faith, no relationship. No relationship, no kingdom. Mt 7.22-23 Kinda important.

Sola fide.

There’s this story in Genesis where the LORD pointed out the stars to Avram ben Terakh, and told him he’d have that many descendants. Ge 15.5 Now, don’t take this literally, ’cause I’ve known a few fools who wanna point out there are trillions of stars and nowhere near that many humans. The idea was Avram would have a massive number of descendants. As he now does.

Avram’s response, and the LORD’s response back:

Genesis 15.6 KWL
Avram believed in the LORD, and to the LORD this was considered rightness.

In the New Testament, the apostles kept quoting this verse. To them it’s humanity’s entire basis of being right with God. It wasn’t because we earn or merit it. We totally don’t. Not even close.

But God doesn’t base our relationship on sinlessness or perfection. You might get that idea ’cause of how anti-sin God gets. Plenty of people make that mistake, and imagine they’re so dirty, God’ll turn away from them, utterly offended. Or, more kindly, lest they burst into flames from exposure to his pure goodness. But if that were true, nobody could have a relationship with God. Jesus’s appearance in Mary’s womb would’ve blown her up. (Or, if we borrow the Catholic idea that God made Mary sinless too, her appearance in her mother’s womb would’ve blown her mom up.) It’d also make it profoundly difficult for God to tell us anything. He’d leave a lot of exploded prophets in his wake.

The apostles kept quoting Genesis 15.6 because Avram—or as we tend to call him, Abraham—believed the LORD. Trusted God. Put faith in God. And to God, that’s all he wants to see in us. We can’t defeat sin without him, so God can hardly make that a prerequisite, can he? But the foundation of our relationship is solely that we have faith in him. That, God can work with.

Romans 4.1-8 KWL
1 So what’ll we say we found in our biological forefather Abraham?
2 If Abraham was right with God due to works, he has something to emphasize.
(Just not in front of God.)
3 What’s the scripture say? Abraham believed God,
“and to God this was considered rightness.” Ge 15.6
4 To the employee, wages aren’t considered a favor. They’re owed.
5 To the non-employee who believes in the one who turns the godless into the righteous:
Their belief is considered rightness.
6 Just like David says—the awesomeness of people
whom God considers right with him despite our works:
7 “How awesome: Their lawlessness was forgiven. Their sins were covered.
8 How awesome: A man whose sin the Lord never considers.” Ps 32.1-2

And the reverse is just as true: If we won’t trust God, a healthy relationship with him is impossible. He 11.6 It’s hard enough to have a relationship when one party can’t trust the other; but since God knows all, he actually doesn’t have to trust us, ’cause he knows what we’ll do regardless. But when we won’t trust him—when we keep acting as if, one of these days, we’ll discover our relationship with God was totally imaginary, so we’re never gonna depend on him that much; we’re always gonna hold back a bit, just in case—how’s that a viable relationship? How’s that any kind of relationship?

It’s not. The only basis of our relationship—the only way God justifies his interaction with us, and considers us worth his time and salvation—is our faith. If we don’t trust God, we don’t have God.

This is what the Protestant reformers meant by their slogan sola fide 'soʊ.lə 'fi.deɪ, Latin for “only faith.” The only thing which justifies us in God’s eyes is our faith. No faith, no justification, no God, no salvation.

Yeah, there are those Christians who mix up their solas and think sola fide has to do with salvation—that we’re saved by faith. It’s ’cause they mangle the meaning of “For by grace are ye saved through faith,” Ep 2.8 KJV and think through somehow means by. They also happen to have some really bizarre interpretations of what faith means. I discuss that elsewhere.

It boils down to this: We gotta have faith in God if we’re gonna have a saving relationship with him. Our works suck, so obviously they can’t maintain this relationship. But our faith in God means when we screw up as usual, we can still turn to him and get forgiven. We still trust him to save us. And he will.

God’s sole condition for our election.

God reveals himself to people, and expects a faith-filled response from us. If he gets it, great!—he’ll proceed to save us. If he doesn’t, try try again. But the one condition, the whole basis, of our saving relationship with God, must be our faith. We gotta respond.

Calvinists have a big, big problem with this idea. See, their interpretation of God’s sovereignty insists we don’t gotta respond: When God chooses people for saving, they’re saved. They have no say in the matter. They can’t resist his grace. He wants ’em, he gets ’em. It’s a relationship, but it’s more like the relationship between Google and my tablet: Android only does what it’s programmed to, and neither it nor me have any say in the matter.

So Calvinists insist upon unconditional election, the idea that before creation, God chooses, justifies, and saves people based on nothing but his own secret will. Has nothing to do with us, our actions, our beliefs, our merit, anything. ’Cause if it did… well, they’re pretty sure we can take credit for saving ourselves: “I’m saved because I have faith. It’s really my doing.”

True, it’s kinda stupid to imagine we saved ourselves by believing in God. It’s like a man claiming he saved himself because when the paramedics found him dying of a heart attack, he believed they could save them, so he didn’t push ’em away. Taking credit for his own rescue makes him sound like an arrogant jerk. He might believe his own story, and certain fools might even believe him too. But nobody else with half a brain does.

Regardless of the self-delusions of certain narcissists, Calvinists are still a little antsy about the idea of justification by faith. It makes it sound like there is a condition mixed up in our election and salvation: If we don’t respond in faith, we can bollix the whole deal. And if that’s so, it knocks down five of Calvinism’s six points.

  • ELECTION. Can’t be unconditional: Faith’s a condition.
  • SOVEREIGNTY. Can’t be absolute: In this case God doesn’t get his way.
  • GRACE. Can’t be irresistible: People can choose to not have faith.
  • ATONEMENT. Can’t be limited like they imagine: If God wants to apply atonement to more people than wanna accept it, he clearly isn’t doing the limiting.
  • PERSEVERANCE. Can’t be absolute: If people choose to have faith, what happens if they drop faith and leave?

So how do Calvinists deal with the idea? Simple: Redefine faith. Now it’s no longer our trusting response to God; now it’s an ability God grants us which enables us to even act like that in the first place. Faith, they insist, is God’s gift. 1Co 12.9 A fruit. Ge 5.22 Something we don’t have or do till God first installs it into us—which he does once he determines to save us.

Yeah, they’re interpreting those proof texts outside of their context. I’ll explain.

When faith’s described as a gift, it’s in the context of the Holy Spirit’s supernatural gifts. 1Co 12.4-11 The apostles weren’t writing about common faith, the human ability to trust people and things based on partial evidence. (Or sometimes, naïvely, none.)

Common faith is most often used outside a religious context. Like when you trust the supermarket isn’t selling you tainted food, or that your household appliances aren’t gonna give you a shock or catch fire, or that your house pets won’t eat you in your sleep. We assume it’s a special ability when we use it to trust that God exists, Christianity is true, and Jesus is Lord and coming back. It’s only special because of who we put our trust into: Faith in God is way more reliable than our faith in the supermarket, our appliances, and Mr. Whiskers. But all this stuff, religious and secular, is still faith.

Whereas supernatural faith, in the proper context of 1 Corinthians 12, is the Spirit-empowered ability to take giant leaps of faith when necessary to minister to people. Ordinarily when we hear from God, we double-check that stuff, like we were taught to. 1Th 5.21, 1Jn 4.1 But when there’s a dire need, we practice supernatural faith and act upon what we’re pretty sure the Spirit’s told us to do. And yeah, we might fail spectacularly, ’cause we don’t actually have that gift. But when we do, supernatural faith produces miracles and fruit, and spreads the gospel.

Now fruit. Faith’s a fruit of the Spirit, which is why Calvinists like to point to that passage on fruit Ga 5.22-25 and claim it’s more proof we can’t have faith unless God first grants it. But fruit’s not a gift! Fruit’s the consequence of a gift. In this case, it’s the gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s our response to the Holy Spirit working in our lives. It’s when our character traits, as a product of following the Spirit, gradually transform into God’s.

This out-of-context defense of unconditional election has the unfortunate side effect of really mangling what faith means. It’s why so many Christians think faith is the magical power to believe in goofy rubbish: “I believe this stuff because I ‘have faith.’ You don’t believe because you don’t ‘have faith.’” There’s so much wrong with that statement: Belief and faith are synonyms. And we believe because we know “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” He 11.1 KJV —we know enough about God to know he’s trustworthy. Or we don’t; we haven’t spent enough time with him yet, but we’re gonna take the risk. In either case faith is our response to who God is. Not a program God downloaded into our brains which grants us a new talent.

Back to Abraham. The LORD told Avram something profound: He was gonna have tons of descendants. He didn’t give Avram faith, but he did give him something to believe. So Avram—partly based on his previous God-experiences, partly based on what he’d heard about God from other sources, possibly based on his own hopes (hey, he had ’em; we all do; we’d be stupid to claim we don’t) —believed God. Faith was Avram’s response to God’s initiative.

And God’s response to Avram’s response was justification: Avram was his guy. Forever after he’d identify himself as “Abraham’s God.” Ge 28.13, Ex 3.6, Mk 12.26 God was all right with Avram; Abraham was all right with God.

Yeah, sometimes faith is hard. Sometimes trusting God is a struggle. As struggles go, it’s way easier than sinlessness. God wants us to work on a high standard of morals and obedience, but he knows better than to base our relationship on that. Instead he bases it on whether we can trust him. Even speck-sized faith will do.

But hang around God long enough, and our faith will hardly remain speck-sized.