The biblical gospel of salvation

What is righteousness by faith? Is it only forgiveness, or does it demand moral rectitude?

Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Salvation, or redemption, is the central concern of the Bible. Biblical history shows that the entire human race needs salvation, because sin as self-centeredness and rebellion against God is a universal phenomenon. Sin has damaged all human relationships: to our Creator, to other people, to our environment, and even our understanding of our own selves. The world has become self-destructive.

Full salvation, therefore, must provide not only divine pardon of sins but also the restoration of the moral image of God in the repentant believer, and ultimately the eternal redemption of mankind, including our bodies, and our God-given dominion, Planet Earth. The apostle Paul announces this total salvation in his astounding eschatological outlook in Romans 8. Corresponding to man's needs related to the past, the present, and the future are basically three aspects of the biblical message of salvation: justification, sanctification, and glorification. All these are comprehended in the unchanged and unchangeable gospel.

The Old Testament foundation of the gospel

To understand the meaning of justification, sanctification, and glorification, and their dynamic interrelationship, we need to grasp their roots in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Old Testament is the foundation of the New Testament gospel. Jesus and the New Testament writers continually appeal to the Old Testament to demonstrate the continuity of their gospel with God's previous revelations to Israel (see Matt. 5:17-19; Rom. 4:1-8; 1 Peter 1:15; James 2:21-26; Heb. 8). Paul declares that the Old Testament as a whole underlies and confirms his apostolic gospel of salvation: "But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify" (Rom. 3:21).*

The Hebrew Scriptures indeed announce that the righteousness of God is a gracious gift from God, offered to Jews and Gentiles in the person of the Messiah of Israel (see Isa. 11:1-12). The priests, prophets, and kings functioned only as divinely appointed types that prefigured the mission of the promised Redeemer. This Messiah will ultimately judge all nations and restore on earth a righteous society that will prosper in everlasting peace (Ps. 2; 72; Isa. 9:7; Jer. 23:5, 6). Essential to the prophetic faith of Israel was the expectation that the coming Messiah was sent by God first to suffer vicariously for "many" and to render His life as an atoning sacrifice, bearing an alien guilt and punishment (see Isa. 53:6, 10, 11; cf. Lev. 6:1-7). Through His self-sacrificing death, God would reconcile Himself with the world. More than that, the hope was expressed that God's righteous Servant would declare many righteous by taking their faults on Himself (see Isa. 53:11, Jerusalem). Thus "the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand" (Isa. 53:10).

The New Testament announces the fulfillment of this ancient hope of Israel. The gospel proclaims that Jesus Christ transcended all animal offerings by be coming at once the sacrificial victim and the officiating priest who now mediates righteousness and peace to all repentant Israelites and Gentiles (Acts 5:30, 31; Heb. 7:25).

Israel as the redeemed people of God

Israel experienced its liberation and exodus from Egypt's oppression as a divine salvation, remembered as the birth day of the nation, the time when they became the covenant people, the worshiping community of God (see Ex. 20:1). Moses taught Israel that the exodus salvation should serve as the abiding motivation for worshiping God and giving Him gratitude and obedience: "Then Moses and the priests, who are Levites, said to all Israel, 'Be silent, O Israel, and listen! You have now become the people of the Lord your God. Obey the Lord your God and follow his commands and decrees that I give you today' " (Deut. 27:9, 10).

God desired that His divine holiness would be reflected in the society of Israel. Indeed, God acknowledged the righteous conduct of Noah, Daniel, and Job (Eze. 14:14, 20; Gen. 6:9; Dan. 6:5, 22; Job 1:1, 8). Many Israelites loved the Lord with all their heart (Deut. 6:5) and obeyed all His commandments. His sacred law was engraved in their hearts: "It is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it" (Deut. 30:14). A righteous character was the condition for en trance into God's sanctuary on Zion (see Ps. 5; 15; 24). But who decided who among Israel belonged to the righteous or to the wicked?

Israel's sanctuary theology of salvation

The Levitical priests were commissioned to judge whether or not the life of a worshiper was acceptable to God (Ex. 22:7-11; Num. 5:11-15; Deut. 17:8-13; 21:5). The priests were to prohibit presumptuous sinners (the "wicked") from entering the sanctuary. Only righteous believers could enter "the gates of righteousness" (Ps. 118:19-21). Thus, who belonged among the righteous or who among the wicked was determined in the sanctuary. The officiating priest, by means of a prescribed formula, declared whether or not a sinner's presented sacrifice was without defect and acceptable in the sight of God (Lev. 1:3; 22:18,19, 21, 23-25).

The priest's judgment on the sacrificial animal was identified with the one making the sacrifice when the worshiper placed his hand on the head of the animal (Lev. 1:4; 4:3, 4, 13-15). Scripture makes clear the legal validity before God of the priestly judgments: "Your offering will be reckoned [verb: hashab] to you" (Num. 18:27); "that man shall be considered [hashab] guilty of bloodshed" (Lev. 17:4); "it will not be accepted. It will not be credited [hashab] to the one who offered it" (Lev. 7:18). God imputed righteousness to Abram on the basis of his expression of faith: "And he credited [hashab] it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). The Levitical priests, who served as God's mouthpiece, continued this declaration of imputed righteousness by ac cepting their sacrifices and ministering the atoning blood; they blessed the worshipers with the assurance of divine forgiveness (Lev. 17:11; 4:26, 31, 35).

Justification of a repentant Israel

The postexilic prophet Zechariah painted a dramatic picture of God's justification of a guilty Israel that sought His grace again (Zech. 3:1-7). A remnant of Israel had just returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. Joshua, the high priest, appeared before God and His angels, rep resenting Israel. Although Joshua, who had come dressed in dirty rags (cf. Isa. 64:6), was being accused by Satan of transgressing God's law, God nevertheless ordered that Joshua's filthy clothes be replaced, explaining: "See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you" (Zech. 3:4). Israel's new holiness is portrayed here as a righteousness judicially imputed by God. The Lord thus declared this new exodus people righteous.

The divine call to serve God forever immediately followed this justification: "If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these standing here" (verse 7). Divine justification is indivisibly connected with God's call to sanctification, which is augmented by His promise of glorification. Only by reflecting God's character in its religious and social life could Israel effectively bless all nations (see Zech. 8:13-17). Asaph wrote a striking description of the way the Israel of God could find external glory: "You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory" (Ps. 73:24).

Israel's moral character

The Old Covenant people received from God more than pardon for their sins. They also enjoyed deliverance from sin's defiling power. After confessing his sin, David prayed, "Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me" (Ps. 51:10). David received this reply from the Lord: "I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you" (Ps. 32:8). In Psalm 19 David asked God for both forgiving and keeping grace: "Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me" (Ps. 19:12, 13). This shows that God expected from the Israelites a sanctified life that was victorious over sin (see Ps. 119).

Israel's sanctuary liturgy made the Decalogue the touchstone of faith and acceptable worship (Ps. 50). l The Lord was not satisfied until His holy law was restored fully in Israel's heart and life (Ps. 37:31; 40:8; Jer. 31:33). On the basis of the power that delivered them from Egypt, God commanded Israel: "There fore be holy, because I am holy" (Lev. 11:45). He wants to develop a people who will reflect His holy image of righteousness.

The righteous ones in Israel were not absolutely sinless people who no longer needed forgiving grace or atonement. They were, rather, men and women who walked with God and remained within the covenant relationship with their Redeemer and fellow believers (Micah 6:8). When they fell into sin, they sincerely repented, confessing and restoring what they could, and then sought renewed victorious power in the sanctuary (Ps. 32; 51; Prov. 24:16; Micah 7:8, 9, 18, 19).

In short, the righteous ones were those spiritual Israelites who experienced the saving and sanctifying power of God (see Ps. 1; 19; 119).

"Perfect(ion)" in the Old Testament

The biblical idea of perfection has little to do with the speculative concepts of popular philosophies that define perfection either as the ethical ideal of moral virtues or of human reason, or as being in full harmony with the natural order. The term tamim ("perfect" or "perfection") occurs more than 130 times in the Old Testament, and is applied both to God and to His people. Tamim is used to describe a perfect covenant relationship be tween God and His chosen people.

Perfection, therefore, does not describe either God or humanity in isolation from the other. The biblical truth about perfection is thus perfection in action, always dealing with some definite historical situation in which God fulfills His covenant with His people.

In the Old Testament, God Himself is the norm of perfection, of righteousness, of holiness, truth, and mercy. Passages that deal directly with divine perfection, such as Deuteronomy 32:4, 2 Samuel 22:31, and Psalm 19:7, apply tamim to the dynamic self-revelation of God that saves Israel and keeps her saved: "His works are perfect," "His way is perfect," His Torah is perfect. The parallel phrases in these verses indicate that God's actions are perfect because they fulfill His promises of deliverance: "A faithful God who does no wrong" (Deut. 32:4); "He is a shield for all who take refuge in him" (2 Sam. 22:31); "reviving the soul" (Ps. 19:7).

God's perfection refers to His saving acts to establish and maintain fellowship with His covenant people. His perfection means His perfect or undivided will to save His people and to keep them saved, despite their unfaithfulness (Hosea 11:1-7; Eze. 16).

The prophet Micah calls such acts of God as the leading of Israel out of Egypt and safely into the land of promise the tsidqot Yahweh, the righteousnesses of the Lord (Micah 6:5), also translated as "the saving acts of the Lord" (RSV). Other Old Testament writers refer to these acts as "the triumphs" (Judges 5:11, RSV) or "the saving deeds of the Lord" (1 Sam. 12:7, RSV). In response to God's righteousness, His people are called to manifest human perfection in a perfect walk or communion with their Creator. Thus Noah was called "a righteous man, blameless [tamim] among the people of his time, and he walked with God" (Gen. 6:9). To Abram God said: "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless [tamim]" (Gen. 17:1). Job is described as "blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil" (Job 1:1; cf. verse 8). And Psalm 119:1 pronounces a blessing on those "whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord."

God gave mankind the seventh-day Sabbath so that people would never seek dignity or righteousness in themselves instead of in the lifegiving blessing of God's fellowship and in His divine rest. Thus, the Sabbath stands as the emblem of unity and continuity between God's plan of creation and His plan of redemp tion. The Old Testament never pictures human perfection as an essential sinlessness as such, but as full fellowship with God as the humble walk with God in which an individual daily receives forgiveness and keeping power for victorious living.

Salvation in the New Testament

In the New Testament, Christ called God's gracious acceptance of a repentant tax collector justification: "I tell you that this man, rather than the other [a Pharisee], went home justified before God" (Luke 18:14). Thus Jesus introduced the gospel of salvation as a message of God's gracious justification here and now for any repentant sinner. The central mes sage of Christ's parables is divine justification the process by which sinners are delivered from divine condemnation and acquitted in the heavenly judgment. The parables of the lost sheep (Matt. 18: 10-14), the lost son (Luke 15:11-32), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:21-35), and the wedding banquet with its gift of the wedding garment (Matt. 22:1-14) announce the surprising message that God accepts and justifies repentant sinners by His grace and mercy. Although Jesus employed the word justified only once in the Gospels, His message was basically the same as that of Paul: "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matt. 9:13).

From the start, Jesus announced that entering the kingdom of God was a present possibility, even a responsibility, for Israel (Matt. 11:11-13; 21:31; 23:13; Luke 11:52; 16:16). What was new in His teaching was that the kingdom of God was represented in Him, the Messiah King. Jesus' mission intended to realize both a present and a future salvation. He assured the repentant tax collector Zaccheus: "Today salvation has come to this house. . . . For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what is lost" (Luke 19:9, 10).

This seeking nature of God's fatherly will is illustrated in Jesus' parable of the lost son. When the wayward son returns to his father and begins to confess his sins, the father already has his arms around him and orders his servants, "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found" (Luke 15:22-24). Forgiveness of sins is more than a legal act. It means restoration to full fellowship with God as our Father.

Jesus revived the original motivation of obedience in the Torah. As Messiah, He summarized the Torah in its twofold love requirement: love to God and to one's neighbor (Matt. 22:34-40; cf. Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18). He even gave to these two love commandments an emphatic priority: "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matt. 22:40). He also extended the love commandment universally when He explained that out neighbor is anyone who needs our help (see Luke 10:25-37). But most of all, His unselfish, unlimited self-giving for others revealed a new quality of love.

Behind Christ's radical demand for love and moral purity (Matt. 5:21-48) lies His conviction that in Him the sovereign rule of God is present. In the believer's saving fellowship with Christ, His command, "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48, RSV), is not only an eschatological promise but also a gospel blessing to be applied here and now.

In summary, Jesus considered justification and forgiveness identical concepts that implied both the forensic restoration of the right relation with God and the immediate fruits of spiritual rebirth. By His example Christ further taught that the justified believer is under the obligation to live a life of sanctified love to the glory of God. To such He assured ultimate glorification: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God" (Matt. 5:8).

Christian faith and Hebrew faith

Paul considers Moses' statement that Abram believed in the Lord and that the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness (see Gen. 15:6) of fundamental importance. He unfolds its significance most sharply in his polemic against Pharisaic work-righteousness: "Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness" (Rom. 4:4, 5).

Paul stresses the personal character of the Christian's faith in God. This faith establishes a relationship of trust between the believer and God. Belief is not merely an intellectual assent. We fully believe only when we trust the Promiser with our heart, the seat of our will: "For man believes with his heart and so is justified" (Rom. 10:10, RSV).

The second striking feature of Paul's declaration in Romans 4:5 is that God justifies the wicked who believes. The wicked one obviously does not strive to achieve merits with God. However, in response to God's drawing power, he can sincerely repent and trust in the promise of God. Such faith is acceptable to the God of Israel and is reckoned, or credited, as righteousness. This is astounding news that releases the conscience from the burden of guilt before God and delivers sinners from efforts to achieve acceptance with God.

To demonstrate that his message is essentially the same as the teaching of Israel's faith and cultic worship the apostle refers to Psalm 32: "David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

'Blessed are they

whose transgressions are forgiven,

whose sins are covered.

'Blessed is the man

whose sin the Lord will never count against him' " (Rom. 4:6-8).

While David spoke of divine forgiveness as dismissal of guilt, Paul announces that forgiveness is equal to God's justification of the repentant sinner. He interprets the blessing that David received as God's act of crediting righteousness to him apart from works.

Paul intended his illustrations from Abraham and David to serve as examples of how divine justification is offered now in the new epoch of messianic time. The sinner can exercise faith in God as Creator and Redeemer now only if he acknowledges God's new act of creation the resurrection of Jesus and trusts in Him as Lord and Saviour. "The words it was credited to him' were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification" (Rom. 4:23-25).

This progression of thought represents the advance from Hebrew faith to Christian faith. Faith in the Lord becomes faith in Jesus as the Lord's Messiah. The New Testament doctrine of justification by God's grace through faith is therefore centered in the person and mission of Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah. Stated in theological terms, the New Testament's soteriology is based on its christology.

Paul's two appeals to Habbakuk 2:4 further confirm this conclusion. How he cites and applies Habakkuk's statement "the righteous will live by his faith" (Hebrew 'emunah, "faithfulness," "persevering faith") is instructive: "For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith' " (Rom. 1:17), or, translated otherwise, " 'He who through faith is righteous shall live' "(Rom. 1:17, RSV). "Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, 'The righteous will live by faith' " (Gal. 3:11), or, translated otherwise: "Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law; for 'He who through faith is righteous shall live'" (Gal. 3:11, RSV).

In these key statements Paul concentrates exclusively on the issue of how a person becomes righteous in the sight of God. He declares that no one can achieve such a righteousness by any effort to observe the law of God. "For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law" (Rom. 3:28, RSV). Not a person's earned righteousness, but God's graciously given righteousness, justifies the believer. The gospel of God is the message regarding His Son (see Rom. 1:1-4). The righteousness of Jesus Christ is God's righteousness, which is therefore revealed as a righteousness from God (see Rom. 1:17; cf. Phil. 3:9).

The believer can appropriate this gift only through faith "through faith for faith" (Rom. 1:17). This faith exists only as a response to the gospel. By faith in Christ a person is reckoned as righteous before God. The gospel of God is revealed as "the gospel of his Son" (Rom. 1:9). Faith in the God of Israel, therefore, is extended to faith in Christ Jesus.

This is not a switch from trust in a personal God to faith in a Christian creed, but an extension from trust in the Father to trust in the Son, within the Hebrew faith in the oneness of God. "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, 'Everyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.' For there is no difference be tween Jew and Gentile the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved' " (Rom. 10:9-13). Paul uses justification and salvation synonymously here, appealing to Isaiah and Joel to demonstrate the continuity of his message with the He brew Scriptures. Jesus' death and resurrection carry eschatological significance for Paul, that is, they deliver the believer from the wrath of God in the last judgment: "Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God" (Rom. 5:9, RSV). Jesus' resurrection is therefore essential for the Christian assurance of life eternal (see Rom. 4:25). The apostle thus transforms and renews Israel's emunah by identifying it with his vibrant trust and fervent hope in Jesus Christ (see Rom. 6:8; 1 Thess. 4:14). He can even refer to Christ and faith inter changeably (see Gal. 3:22-25). This emphasizes the Christ-centered character of the New Testament faith.

When Paul appeals to the faith of Abram, David, and Habakkuk as his examples of saving and justifying faith, he claims to exercise essentially the same trusting faith in Jesus Christ. One could say that Paul has baptized the Hebrew emunah so that it has become faith in Christ.

Paul has primarily focused his message to the Galatians and Romans not on how the righteous Christian should live (sanctification), but on the burning issue of how a person becomes righteous before God (justification). His argumentation demonstrates the essential continuity of Christian and Hebrew faith regarding God's justifying grace (cf. Rom. 3:21).

In Christ

For Paul the essence of Christian faith is to be "in Christ," and no longer "in Adam" (1 Cor. 15:22). Paul's theology is determined by the Hebrew concept of corporate personality, one person representing many before God. As Adam represented the entire human race and thus decided its relation to God, so God appointed Jesus Christ to represent sinful humanity as the second Adam (1 Cor. 15:21, 22, 45-49; Rom. 5:12-21). Paul summarizes the message of his gospel as follows: "We are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again" (2 Cor. 5:14, 15). For the apostle, in the reckoning of God the death of Christ meant the death of the entire human race corporately (see Rom. 5:12, 18, 19; cf. 1 John 2:2; 4:10).

"God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. . . . God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:19-21). Paul proclaimed that the forgiveness of our sins is based on God's act of reconciliation in the death of Christ. More precisely, God the Father ordained (Acts 2:23) that Christ be "made ... sin for us" (cf. Gal. 3:13), which can be understood best in the light of Isaiah 53. In fact, Paul seems to have written 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 on the basis of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and 50:6-10.

The divine participation in Christ's death makes God the active reconciler; He reconciled us not by politely ignoring His condemnation of sinful man, but by absorbing men's sin in Himself by not counting men's sins against them, thus restoring mankind into His favor in Christ. This divine purpose is expressed in these exceptional words: "so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).

The apostle thus declares that our reconciliation with God took place through an act of God in Christ. God counts Christ's death as ours and imputes His righteousness to us.

Paul's understanding of Christ's death can be explained best in terms of Hebrew thinking: Because Christ was free of sin (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21), His death was so meritorious before God that those who identify themselves with Him are free from the 'curse of the Law' (Gal. 3:13). 2 Through faith in Christ the believer accepts this identification with His body and seals his or her faith through baptism (Rom. 6:3-6). The believer is now reckoned as being in Christ, and he participates in the righteousness of God, both legally through justification and dynamically through a faith union with Christ.

Justification and sinning

From the start, some misunderstood Paul's gospel of justification by faith in Christ as if justification were merely a change of legal status before God that left the life and character of the believer untouched. Their major objection was that Paul taught the error of antinomianism by his legal fiction of justification. Paul was therefore accused of encouraging people to sin so that grace could abound (see Rom. 3:8; 6:1, 5). Many likewise object today, asking: If God justifies the wicked ones, what is the point of obeying the law of God?

Paul responds to the charge that his is an exclusively forensic doctrine of justification with a radical denial, "Absolutely not!" (Gal. 2:17; cf. Rom. 3:8; 6:2). If a Christian believer continues to sin after justification, he only proves to be a "law breaker" (Gal. 2:18). He cannot blame Christ for that lifestyle. Paul then refutes the false charges by explaining that justification by faith implies the actual death of the old self so that Christ might live in us: "For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God. ... I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:19, 20, RSV).

Genuine faith in Christ is sealed in the sacramental act of baptism when God incorporates the individual believer "into Christ Jesus," which means specifically incorporation into the death of Christ. Paul explains: "We died to sin. ... Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. . . . For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin" (Rom. 6:2-7).

The apostle roots the Christian's moral renewal in his or her faith union with Christ's historic death and burial. Through baptism the believer is incorporated into Christ's death and participates in the death of his or her own "body of sin." The sinful rule of self was put to an end on the cross of Christ. In baptism the believer "died with Christ" (Rom. 6:8) and thus "died to sin" (Rom. 6:2). God places the believer's new life under the lordship of the risen Christ; the same divine power, then, that resurrected Christ motivates that new life (see Rom. 8:11).

On the basis of this redemptive reality (the saving indicative) before God, Paul urges the Christian believer, "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires." "You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness." "The benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life" (Rom. 6:12, 18, 22). Paul urges Christians to consider themselves "dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:11). This involves a faith that apprehends, appropriates, and ap plies to the believer the event of salvation in Christ.3 By sharing Christ's death and resurrection power, the believer has radically and permanently changed. He is a "new creation" in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Paul focuses on this faith union with Christ as his conclusive argument that the justified believer will live a sanctified life before God and men. For the apostle, justification is not an abstract legal transaction. It is the reality of death to self and of new life with God. Paul complements his use of the legal metaphor with dramatic death-resurrection language (Rom. 5:17-19; 6:1-7; Gal. 3:16-29).

The apostle leaves no doubt about the moral righteousness of the new life lived by faith in Christ. Faith expresses itself in love (Gal. 5:6). He evaluates this living, fruitful faith as genuine fulfilment of the sacred law, acceptable and pleasing to God. He even concludes that this new obedience is the ultimate purpose of Christ's atoning death. He died and rose again that "the commandment of the law may find fulfilment in us, whose conduct, no longer under the control of our lower nature, is directed by the Spirit" (Rom. 8:4, NEB). Through the Spirit of Christ the New Covenant promise is more and more realized: the sacred law is inscribed and alive again in the hearts and minds of the children of God (Jer. 31:31-34; Eze. 36:26, 27; Heb. 8:8-12). Because Christ is the embodiment of both the law and the grace of God, "we are transfigured into His likeness, from splendour to splendour; such is the influence of the Lord who is Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18, NEB).

Sanctification and judgment

Justification by grace brings the fruits of peace with God and of God's love in the heart and of new hope for future glorification. "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us" (Rom. 5:1-5).

Divine justification brings immediate peace and reconciliation with God. This assurance of salvation is described also as the cleansing of our conscience that now knows the "full assurance of faith" and the unshakable hope for the promised inheritance (Heb. 9:14, 15; 10:22, 23). It is true, however, that Paul can also speak of justification as a future divine verdict in the last judgment. Some theologians have ignored or denied this eschatological aspect of Paul's theology, yet it forms a fundamental part of the New Testament message of salvation. In continuity with the Hebrew Scriptures, Paul declares concerning the last judgment: "God will give to each person ac cording to what he has done" (Rom. 2:6; cf. Ps. 62:12). "For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous" (Rom. 2:13).

The apostle is dealing here not with merely external law observance but with the internal commitment of grateful obedience; not with works of the law, but with the fruits of faith that are pleasing in God's sight. 4 Paul's idea of a future justification as the ultimate verdict of God is in harmony with Christ's declarations in Matthew 7:21; 25:34-40, and with those of James in James 1:22, 25; 2:12. Paul points to the Christian's future justification again in his letter to the Galatians: "But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope" (Gal. 5:5); or, translated more literally: "For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness" (RSV).

The righteousness Paul waits for with assurance is the final ratification or verdict of acquittal in the divine judgment. 5 What will count in that day is not works done to comply externally with the law, but works done in Christ; that is, works of faith through the Holy Spirit. Paul explains that faith in Christ is not ethically indifferent but is fruitful in love: "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love" (Gal. 5:6). "Keeping God's commands is what counts" (1 Cor. 7:19).

"A new creation" (Gal. 6:15) proves itself in the fruit of the Spirit, expressed as "love, joy, peace, patience/kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5:22, 23). Paul finally places the whole sanctified life in the scrutinizing light of the final judgment: "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up" (Gal. 6:7-9).

Paul is saying that the coming harvest—God's final verdict—will correspond to our moral sowing.

According to Paul, God will ultimately judge us according to the harvest of our appropriation and application of the gospel. Our thinking and acting shape our individual characters—for which we are held responsible. Growth in holiness and well-doing is the Christian's sacred responsibility (see Gal. 6:9; 2 Thess. 3:13; Titus 2:11-13; 2 Pet. 1:4-11;3:11, 18). The sanctified life will be taken as evidence of saving faith on the day of judgment (Rom. 2:7).

Consequently, present justification does not exempt the Christian from the final judgment. The justified believer is called to continue to "work out," that is, to actualize salvation in holy "fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). Working out salvation does not mean working for salvation, but making salvation practical. Justification must be demonstrated by a sanctified life that reveals deliverance from the bondage of sin and self.

The statement that Paul makes immediately following what he says about working out our salvation reveals that God generates in the believer both the will to live right and the effective power to do so: "for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil. 2:13). Because God energizes true believers constantly, they can respond to Him with moral rectitude. While the Christian's life will be "filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God" (Phil. 1:11), we need to realize that these fruits of good works are generated by God Himself: "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6; cf. Eph. 2:8-10).

* All texts in this article are from the NIV unless otherwise noted.

1. See in H. LaRondelle, Deliverance in the Psalms (Berrien Springs, Mich.: First Impressions, 1985), pp. 149-156.

2. See H. D. Betz, Galatians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), p. 151.

3. See Ivan T. Blazen, Death to Sin According to Romans 6:1-14 (Princeton, N.J., 1979), p. 383.

4. See C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, International Critical Commentary, vol. 1, p. 155; H. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1975), p. 180.

5. H. N. Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia, New International Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1965), p. 189.


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Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

February 1988

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