EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is part of an occasional series of commentaries examining and explaining the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention's confession of faith.
Martin Luther rediscovered the biblical teachings about justification and experienced liberation of his soul. James Boyce, the founder of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, commented on the importance of justification, "No doctrine of Scripture is more important than that of justification." Let us focus on justification through five truths.
First, the biblical language of justification functions as one of the key themes of Scripture. Justification and righteousness are synonymous terms. The verb "justify" translates the Greek term "dikaioo" which means, "to declare righteous." The noun "righteousness" translates the Greek term "dikaiousune." Notice that both "justify" and "righteousness" derive from the Greek root "dik-" meaning, "conforming to a standard." These New Testament terms point to the dilemma of justification. How can a righteous God bring individuals lacking conformity to His standard into a relationship with Himself?
Second, the legal courtroom provides the background for understanding the biblical concept of justification. God functions as the Judge in the courtroom. Individual human beings stand condemned before the righteous Judge because they did not conform to His standard. Whether an individual feels subjectively guilty, a sinner is objectively guilty. Paul contrasted the "ministry of condemnation" of the Mosaic Law with the "ministry of righteousness" of the New Covenant (2 Cor. 3:9). The opposite of justification, therefore, is condemnation (Rom. 5:18; 8:33-34). The Baptist Faith and Message properly defines justification from this courtroom background: "justification is God's gracious and full acquittal." God the Judge declares guilty sinners acquitted of guilt.
Third, the basis of God's declaration of sinners as "not guilty" is His own righteous character. The BF&M affirms that God acquits the sinner "upon principles of His righteousness." Justification is not "legal fiction" as some non-evangelicals claim. Neither does justification mean that God "makes right." God's declaration of "not guilty" does not violate His righteous character. A presidential pardon, in contrast, is an unprincipled acquittal. In a presidential pardon, the president declares a guilty individual as free from the penalty of the law. A mere pardon sets aside the rule of law; the guilty individual suffers no legal consequences for his or her actions. In justification, God upholds His holy righteousness in that He set forth the death of Christ as a "propitiation" for sins (Rom. 3:25). The one without sin bore the penalty of sin to bring humans into a right standing before God (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 3:18). Rather than the absence of penalty as in a writ of pardon, justification means that Christ bore our penalty. God does not abrogate, suspend, flout, nor alter His standard.
Fourth, in God's act of justification, a believer receives the gift of righteousness (Rom. 5:17). Generations ago, godly theologians called this "alien righteousness." Through a believer's union with Christ, described by Paul with the phrase "in Christ," God considers (reckons) a believer righteous because the righteousness of Christ has been imputed to the believer. The doctrine of imputation derives from a commercial, bookkeeping background. God exchanges the filthy rags of righteousness for the righteousness of Christ. Christ is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). This gift of righteousness excludes all boasting or self-righteousness (Rom. 3:27).
Fifth, in addition to a declaration of being legally free from the condemnation of the law, justification denotes receiving the positive favor and benefits of God. The BF&M states that through justification God brings "the believer unto a relationship of peace and favor with God." Paul details three benefits of justification in Romans 5:1-2. First, we enjoy peace with God-the state of enmity-has ended. Second, we stand (permanently) in a state of graceful access with God. Third, we rejoice in the hope of God's glory. In the New Testament, hope always points to the future. Rather than being fearful of the judgment day, a believer rejoices because in the glory of God because they already have received the end-time verdict-not guilty.
The 1678 Orthodox Creed of General (non-Calvinist) Baptists of England carefully analyzed justification. The agent (or efficient cause) of justification is God's free grace (Rom. 3:24). The ground (meritorious cause) of justification is the blood of Christ (Rom. 3:25). The material cause (the stuff of which something is made) of justification is Christ's active obedience. The essence (or formal cause) of justification is the imputation of Christ's obedience for us. The means (instrumental cause) of justification is faith. The purpose (final cause) of justification is God's glory and man's salvation.
Mark Rathel is associate professor of theology at The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville.
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