In the American criminal justice system, for many charges, after one has been arrested and booked (photographed for a “mug shot,” fingerprinted, and paperwork completed) one goes to jail to await a preliminary hearing and after that a trial of the charge. The only way to be released from jail is to “post bond.” That is the process of paying a percentage of a substantial sum of money to the court as a guarantee that the person charged will appear as needed for hearings and especially for the trial.
A person out of jail on bail, who has been charged with a crime, is in a legal limbo. Legall is still innocent but a cloud hangs over his head. He has been charged but he has not been either convicted or cleared. He is waiting for a future adjudication of his case. He is still subject to criminal penalties (e.g., fines) and punishment e.g., prison or even death).
Anyone who has ever been through the crimnal justice system can testify to the anxiety such a state ordinarily creates. The process is typically slow and difficult. As God’s ministers of civil justice (see Rom 13) police officers ordinarily do great work under difficult and frequently dangerous circumstances. As officers of the court prosecutors and defense attorneys are sworn to seek justice and to protect civil liberties but mistakes happen. To become a defendant is no game.
It is useful to have some idea of the rudiments of the justice system in order to appreciate what God’s Word means when it says that believers in the Lord Jesus Christ have been “justified.” It means to be declared righteous, to have met the requirements of God’s holy law. Paul has this legal (forensic) context in view when he writes, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified (Rom 2:13; ESV). The law must be satisfied. It is a covenant of works. It says, “do this and live” (Luke 10:28) or “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17).
Paul says, however, that none of us has met or can meet that test (Rom 3:20). The only way to be declared righteous is by God’s free imputation (reckoning, crediting) to us of the perfect performance of another, Jesus the law-keeper (Rom 3:24). The only way to come into possession of that staus is through faith (trusting, resting in, receiving) in Christ as the only Savior. This is why we speak of justification and salvation from sin and judgment as coming by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). This is why Paul says that believers have been justified “apart from the works of the law” (Rom 3:28). Our performance of the law does not enter into our right standing now or ever.
To make his case Paul appeals to Abraham (Rom 4:3), who was justified by grace alone, through faith alone as a Gentile and as a Jew. Only Jesus has ever been declared righteous on the basis of his personal performance of the law.
Thus, Paul’s announcement of the justification of believers is momentous: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1; ESV). The basis of this once-for-all declaration about us is Christ’s obedience for us, credited to us. The only instrument by which we receive that righteousness is faith.
This is the consistent testimony of Scripture. Our justification is final now. It is never presented as “initial” nor as provisional. This brings us back to bail. When a defendant is out of jail in bail he us awaiting trial. His status is temporary and provisional. Bail can be revoked for cause. If he is arrested again or if he gives the court reason to think he might be a flight risk, bail can be revoked. In any event, he is not justified.
This is just one of the several problems with any two-stage scheme, any program whereby believers are said to be initially justified but awaiting a final adjudication by works. Any such scheme necessarily means that a believer is not really and truly justified here and now. We are still under the law, the covenant of works, for our final standing with God.
The good news is that Christ fulfilled the covenant of works for us and that fulfillment is ours by faith alone. His obedience is sufficient. Faith is the adequate instrument to take possession of that status.
At the judgment we shall not be judged again. We confess:
Q. 52. What comfort is it to thee that “Christ shall come again to judge the quick and the dead”?
A. That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same person, who before offered himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as judge from heaven: who shall cast all his and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall translate me with all his chosen ones to himself, into heavenly joys and glory.
We are not nervously awaiting a final adjudication. We are not on probation. Our salvation is not provisional. It is not retained nor maintained nor continued by good works. It is “apart from the works of the law.”
Give thanks today and seek to grow in sanctity and in consequent love and good works not in order to pass a final test but in union with him who has passed the test for us, who is at work in us.
Praise Christ that we are not just out on bail.