There Is Only One Stage Of Justification

Δικαιωθέντες οὖν ἐκ πίστεως εἰρήνην ἔχομεν πρὸς τὸν θεὸν
διὰ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (Rom 5:1)

For a series of philosophical, theological, and practical reasons the medieval church came gradually to think that our justification, i.e., our acceptance with God as righteous, is progressive. What the confessional Reformed and Lutheran churches call sanctification, i.e., 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 Anabaptists 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 the Augsburg Confession (1530), art. 4, the Lutherans confessed:

Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for 2]Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.

In the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Reformed confessed:

21. What is true faith?

True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.


56. What do you believe concerning the “forgiveness of sins”?

That God, for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, nor the sinful nature with which I have to struggle all my life long; but graciously imputes to me the righteousness of Christ, that I may nevermore come into condemnation.


60. How are you righteous before God?

Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.

One finds precisely the same doctrine in the Belgic Confession (art. 22–24). Article 24 even adds, “for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works” [emphasis added] to make it perfectly clear that sanctification is the fruit and evidence of our justification and salvation and not the ground or instrument. Westminster Confession ch. 11 explicitly says that we are now presently and completely justified  before God by grace alone, through faith alone.

1. Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.

NB: “not for anything wrought in them,” i.e., sanctification nor “done by them,” i.e., works or obedience.  As I have shown before, the Reformed do not have two stages of justification. We teach justification in this life and vindication at the judgment.

In contrast, for Rome, there are said to be two stages of justification, initial and final. According to Rome, one is justified initially in baptism but only finally after sanctification. Ordinarily, justification is sanctification and it is progressive. Ordinarily no one is justified in this life. The early Anabaptists also rejected the Protestant confession of justification.

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.

At least two confessional Reformed ecclesiastical bodies have spoken to this very issue. In 2007 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America adopted this language:

The view that justification is in any way based on our works, or that the so-called “final verdict of justification” is based on anything other than the perfect obedience and satisfaction of Christ received through faith alone, is contrary to the Westminster Standards.

In the same year the Synod of the United Reformed Churches adopted as “pastoral advice” Nine Points against the self-described Federal Vision movement. Synod rejects the errors of those:

9. who teach that there is a separate and final justification grounded partly upon righteousness or sanctity inherent in the Christian (HC 52; BC 37).

The Biblical basis for these ecclesiastical actions is clear and solid. In Romans 5:1, God’s Word says, “Therefore (οὖν) since we have been justified (Δικαιωθέντες) by faith (ἐκ πίστεως), we have peace (εἰρήνην ἔχομεν) with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul did not write, “since we have received the initial stage of justification…”. The broader context make such a reading untenable. Paul’s great point in Romans 4 is that Abraham was justified, i.e., 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 (vv. 23–25) say:

But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification (ESV).

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 (Rom 3:9). 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 Steve Baugh translates these verses in his commentary on Ephesians, 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 not conditioned by anything done by us or even by anything done in us. Abraham was declared righteous (justified) while he was still a Gentile, i.e., before he was circumcised and he was justified after he was circumcised, i.e., when he became a Jew. He was justified before he had done anything. He was justified as a Gentile and as a Jew. Thus, Paul says, he us the father of all Christians, Jew and Gentile alike (Rom 4:10–11).

The law requires perfect obedience (Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10), which test Abraham had not met and which he never would meet. Nevertheless, God declared him righteous. 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 that “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, i.e., the justified, have peace with God, i.e., he is reconciled to us, “through (διὰ) 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, as confessed by the Reformed churches, 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 (δικαιοῦσθαι) 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 (δικαιωθέντες νῦν) by his blood…”. The connection of the temporal particle νῦν 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 (ἐδικαιώθητε)” (1 Cor 6:11). We have been “justified (δικαιωθέντες) 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.

Doubtless there are many places where a two-stage doctrine of justification will be welcomed but it should not be welcomed among those who treasure the Reformed confession of the Word of God.

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  1. Benjamin Keach, The Marrow of True Justification: The Biblical Doctrine of Justification Without Works, Solid Ground Books, Birmingham, Alabama USA, 2007, p 80—”None have an evangelical righteousness, but those who are justified before they have it. Christ is our legal righteousness by a proper imputation of His righteousness to us, and only then is there evangelical righteousness.”

    “Once we are justified, we need not inquire how a man is justified after he is justified. God has not appointed this personal evangelical righteousness, in order to our Justification before Him. By that righteousness of Christ which is out of us, though imputed to us, the Justice of God is satisfied; therefore all Works done by us, or inherent in us, are excluded in our Justification before God..”

  2. As the heart or the hinge of salvation, justification IS salvation. Praise the Lord. Thankful for the shared Protestant heritage of this crucial doctrine.

    But the Lutherans monkey a bit with justification too, only in the other direction. (Of all the doctrines…!). They have an initial, universal justification, and then an historical (and more particular) justification.

    Oh right, and then a justified person can abandon the grace of that historical justification, and still go to hell.


    Just so, according to the gnesio.. All in hell were justified “in Christ.” Some in hell were justified “in Christ,” and “in history;” then they still threw away all blessing, and are now lost forever.

    Everyone in hell is saved, some more than others. Riiiight, not exactly the “objective assurance” I was looking for.

    Still love you guys, tho.

    • I suppose you’re right, RSC, near as I can tell. It is a long debate within the Lutheran branch of the Reformation; with the (relatively) large-conservative branches on the American scene apparently defining for their ministers what is the “confessionally (1589 Concordia) acceptable” view, namely the universal objective justification view, paired with personal subjective justification in history.

      When I say “define,” there seems to be willingness to discipline ministers who are not sufficiently subdued or private in their contrary opinion. Which, in my estimate, shows how important it is to so many Lutherans to avoid even the smell of Calvinism passed on them (Dan.3:27). But you already wrote about that “boundary marker.” So, every last soul’s got to be forgiven, even those in hell…

      Still love those guys (one way street).

    • Once justified always justified. I had to leave Lutheranism, no perseverance of the saints.

  3. Yes, what a relief to hear this heresy so effectively dealt with, when people like John Piper et al are perilously close to falling over this fatal precipice & the many with them. – Doesn’t the adamic human heart just LOVE having something to do, to ‘pay our way’ to God!

  4. Well said Scott
    One time justification seems to be on the outer with many Reformed scholars. Thanks for being one of the few holding the line.

  5. Scott: Good Lord’s Day morning to you brother. Thanks for this glorious and needful exegesis. Question: Above you state (emphases added), “Abraham was declared righteous while he was still a Gentile, i.e., before he was circumcised. He was justified **after** he was circumcised, i.e., **after** he became a Jew.” Did you intend “before” rather than “after” in the two places above? Thanks again, Alex Burroughs

  6. A good essay with a minor error of attribution – It is the 2007 report on Federal vision of the PCA General Assembly. Not sure that the other PCUSA even cares.

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