The Doctrine of Eternal Justification: A Critique
by Fred G. Zaspel
Justification is a pronouncement of righteousness. It is God’s “legal” or official declaration that a person stands “righteous” before him as judged by his law. This righteous standing is grounded in the person and work of Christ, the sinner’s substitute who took the sinner’s guilt to himself on the cross under the judgment of God and therefore satisfied the just demands of God against him. In turn, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the sinner, and he is given a new status, standing now before God free of all his sin and credited with all the righteousness of Christ. In short, Christ in his redemptive work is the meritorious cause of justification (solus Christus).
But exactly when this justification is applied to the elect is a question on which Reformed theologians have not always agreed. Traditionally and almost universally, Reformed theology has affirmed that sinners are justified / pronounced righteous before God upon faith in Christ. This is the well-known Reformation dogma, justification by faith alone (sola fide).
The doctrine of “eternal justification,” by contrast, affirms that God pronounces elect sinners righteous from eternity, that their justification is not made actual or complete in time but in eternity past. Though a given elect sinner is yet unregenerate and unbelieving, he is justified; and his coming to faith merely brings to him an awareness or realization of his eternal justification by God’s grace.
Eternal justification reasons from the standpoint of God’s eternal and electing decree. God chose a people to save and decreed that Christ the Son would come as their substitute and surety in anticipation of which the elect are pronounced righteous in Christ. They are “in Christ” from eternity by God’s decree and are therefore justified from eternity. Being “in Christ” from eternity they cannot be considered guilty but righteous before God based on the redemptive work of Christ.
Problems / Critique
That God decreed from eternity the justification of his elect cannot be denied. Yet several observations serve to militate conclusively against the doctrine of eternal justification.
First, justification is everywhere said to be “by faith” (pistei [simple dative of means], ek pisteos, epi pistei, dia pisteos; Rom. 1:16; 3:22, 26, 28, 30; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; Phil. 3:9; etc.). These expressions indicate plainly that faith is the instrumental (but not the meritorious) cause of justification. The meritorious cause of justification is the redemptive work of Christ. Faith is the means, the instrumental cause. Justification is by grace through faith. Paul emphasizes so repeatedly that God justifies the believing sinner that it can scarcely be missed. “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:22; cf. 4:11, 13; 10:6). “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). He was not justified before God by his works, but righteousness was credited to him through the instrument of faith. “With the heart you believe and are justified” (Rom. 10:10). “Through him everyone who believes is justified” (Acts 13:39). “So we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ” (Gal. 2:16). Righteousness is imputed not by works but by faith (Rom. 4:5). In order to obtain righteousness one must forsake all self-righteousness and turn in trust to Christ (Phil. 3:9-9). And on this listing of Biblical statements could go. The Biblical language pervasively speaks of justification in terms of a transaction that hinges on faith, and this language is rendered meaningless if, as advocates of eternal justification demand, it means that by faith the elect merely become conscious of a justification that was already theirs.
Closely related to this is the simple statement of Rom. 5:1 that peace with God comes as a result of justification by faith — “Having been justified by faith we have peace with God.” Similarly, Rom. 5:2 states that access into grace comes via faith, not by eternal decree — “through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” It is not that the already-justified person by faith merely becomes aware of his already-bestowed privileges but rather that these blessings (peace, access, etc.) are themselves attained by faith. These kinds of statements go much further than the doctrine of eternal justification can allow.
Nor is this a challenge to grace as though faith were a work for which the believer is rewarded, for “it is of faith that it might be by grace” (Rom. 4:16). Faith is simply the instrumental means. “The [justifying] righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13; 10:6) is the righteousness of Christ imputed to the elect by means of faith. The point is too obvious to mistake — justification comes to us by faith.
Similarly, because justification is by faith, justification is said also to follow calling in the ordo solutis (Rom. 8:30). Justification does not precede faith — it is granted to those who are called to faith.
Further, although Scripture does speak of us as “in Christ” from eternity, it also speaks of our union with Christ as an experience in time, when we believe. For example, In Rom. 16:5 Paul speaks of his “dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert in Asia to be in Christ” (aparche tes Asias eis Christon). Similarly in Rom. 16:7 he speaks of Andronicus and Junias “who were in Christ before me” (pro emou gegonan en Christon). These words are meaningless read on the grid of eternal justification. Unmistakably, union with Christ is experienced in time. Accordingly, in 2 Cor. 5:17 the apostle describes our union with Christ as the experience by which we become a new creation, the event at which time “old things pass away and all things become new.” Not until Saul of Tarsus turned away from his own merit to trust in Christ alone could he receive justifying righteousness and be found in Christ (Phil. 3:7-9). To be sure, none of this is to deny the fact that the elect are chosen in Christ from eternity. But it is to affirm that there is an in-time experiential aspect to our union with Christ that the doctrine of eternal justification cannot accommodate.
Moreover, the New Testament plainly describes all unbelievers as “condemned already” (Jn. 3:18; cf. 3:36). “Just as” all the non-elect, believers were themselves children of wrath (Eph. 2:1-3) and are therefore brands snatched from the fire that apart from faith would have been their end (Zech. 3:2). Before faith the elect are guilty, condemned, and the objects of God’s wrath. That is to say, they are not yet justified. God justifies the believing sinner (Rom. 4:5). Once again, peace with God comes via faith (Rom. 5:1).
That God decreed the justification of his elect from eternity cannot be denied. But if election is made the sole grid through which justification is understood, rather than allowing that doctrine to be exposed in its own Biblical framework, then many Biblical statements will be twisted and forced into a mold that cannot fit them. The Biblical writers everywhere speak of even elect (unbelieving) sinners as guilty, condemned, and ungodly, of justification in terms of a transaction that hinges on faith, and of union with Christ as experienced at conversion. Until the sinner is united to Christ by faith he is not yet freed from condemnation (Rom. 5:1).
The justification of God’s elect is 1) decreed in eternity, 2) accomplished in time by Christ blood, and 3) applied to individual experience through faith. If these distinctions are confused the Biblical doctrine of justification will be distorted.