Believers Are Not Out On Bail

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.

28 comments

  1. A great analogy. Thanks. Reading George Smeaton recently, one realizes how such ‘damnable heresies’ as (the oxy-moronic) provisional justification are never new, but merely appear in more modern clothes, from new mouths.

    • I must have messed up. I meant to reply to Allan’s comment:

      “A great analogy. Thanks. Reading George Smeaton recently, one realizes how such ‘damnable heresies’ as (the oxy-moronic) provisional justification are never new, but merely appear in more modern clothes, from new mouths.”

      I wasn’t sure if he meant Smeaton was opposed to Initial Justification or if he had taught it.

  2. That truly is good news! Thanks Dr Clark. One question I have regarding the judgement…Hebrews 9:27 says,

    “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment“

    How is this verse best understood? Since the verdict for believers is already rendered at the moment of justification, is this a different judgement for Christians than the judgement for unbelievers? Or do both believers & unbelievers go through this judgement after death – but Christians go through clothed in Christ’s righteousness vs. unbelievers going through in their own righteousness?

    • So is there a separate judgement where Christians receive their rewards or whatever? Or is all part of the same judgement? I’m still a little confused about how all this plays out in Scripture.

    • Belgic Confession art 37:

      Article 37: The Last Judgment
      Finally we believe, according to God’s Word, that when the time appointed by the Lord is come (which is unknown to all creatures) and the number of the elect is complete, our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, bodily and visibly, as he ascended, with great glory and majesty, to declare himself the judge of the living and the dead. He will burn this old world, in fire and flame, in order to cleanse it.

      Then all human creatures will appear in person before the great judge—men, women, and children, who have lived from the beginning until the end of the world.

      They will be summoned there by the voice of the archangel and by the sound of the divine trumpet. For all those who died before that time will be raised from the earth, their spirits being joined and united with their own bodies in which they lived. And as for those who are still alive, they will not die like the others but will be changed “in the twinkling of an eye” from “corruptible to incorruptible.”

      Then “the books” (that is, the consciences) will be opened, and the dead will be judged according to the things they did in the world, whether good or evil. Indeed, all people will give account of all the idle words they have spoken, which the world regards as only playing games. And then the secrets and hypocrisies of men will be publicly uncovered in the sight of all.

      Therefore, with good reason the thought of this judgment is horrible and dreadful to wicked and evil people. But it is very pleasant and a great comfort to the righteous and elect, since their total redemption will then be accomplished. They will then receive the fruits of their labor and of the trouble they have suffered; their innocence will be openly recognized by all; and they will see the terrible vengeance that God will bring on the evil ones who tyrannized, oppressed, and tormented them in this world.

      The evil ones will be convicted by the witness of their own consciences, and shall be made immortal—but only to be tormented in the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

      In contrast, the faithful and elect will be crowned with glory and honor. The Son of God will “confess their names” before God his Father and the holy and elect angels; all tears will be “wiped from their eyes”; and their cause—at present condemned as heretical and evil by many judges and civil officers—will be acknowledged as the “cause of the Son of God.”

      And as a gracious reward the Lord will make them possess a glory such as the heart of man could never imagine.

      So we look forward to that great day with longing in order to enjoy fully the promises of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

  3. Josh, in my opinion, you just nailed it your last sentence! Christians are vindicated as perfectly righteous, just as truly as Christ is righteous, because Christ has suffered the wrath of God for their sins, and when they trusted in Christ, they were imputed, or credited with His perfect righteousness. Of course, they are also clothed in the spotless robe of the lamb. Scripture has many beautiful pictures of this such as the garments that God made to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve, the properly and improperly dressed guests at the wedding feast, and most interestingly in the narrative of Jacob and Esau, where Jacob receives Esau’s blessing, by being mistaken for the first born, because he came to his father dressed in animal skins that covered his real identity!

  4. Since we are all wicked sinners by nature, the thought of the judgment might seem absolutely terrifying as it is described in the Belgic Confession. Notice that those that are described as evil sinners are convicted by the open book of their own consciences, their sins have never been dealt with. Christians have a clean conscience, that has been cleansed from the acts that lead to death by the blood of Christ. “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance–now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” Heb. 9:11-15 That is why those who trust in Christ can look foreword to the last day, to receive rewards and not punishment.

    • Another reason the whole 2 stage/final justification according to works scheme doesn’t make sense…believers, we are told in Scripture, go to be with Christ *before* the judgement on the last day. For example, the thief on the cross was told by Jesus “today you will be with me in paradise”. How could he be in paradise with Christ when he hasn’t had his fruit analyzed yet to make sure it is “sufficient” to prove his faith was actually saving faith? 🤔

  5. This is good. The legal analogy also provides the concept of double jeopardy; so is our human system better than God’s righteous judgement? The amazing feature of grace is that we are acquitted in the past, at the cross, for those things which we have not even yet committed as of this moment. Amazing! Perhaps an exploration of the application of the concept of diplomatic immunity is warranted; shall one violate the laws of a foreign nation that immunity may be exercised? By no means!

  6. “Shall we sin that grace may abound? By no means, how shall we who are dead to sin live any longer therein?” Rom. 6:1-2 God’s undeserved foregiveness, His great love to us in giving us His Son, sets us free, not to go on sinning, but in the light of this stunning demonstration of love to us, to respond to Him in love and gratitude by striving to obey His law, not out of a servile fear of the final judgment, but as loving sons who cry, “Abba, Father.”

  7. Thank you Dr. Clark for this article. I am an elder in a small rural ECO Presbyterian Church in central Pennsylvania and teach an adult Sunday School class. We have been watching R.C. Sproul’s series on Luther and the Reformation. Your articles have been very affirming on what I believe is the hope of the gospel that Paul exhorts us not to be moved away from. This particular article on criminal justice and bail was a wonderful way of illustrating the central teaching of Justification. I have forwarded it to my daughter Laura who is a professor in criminology and criminal justice at Shippensburg University here in Pennsylvania though she did her doctorate work at Arizona State University. I am always emailing her such good articles to encourage her in her faith and I know this is one that she will really connect with. I really enjoy your thoughts have been a partner with the White Horse Inn for quite a few years. Keep standing firm for it is a great encouragement to many of us. The Lord bless you.

  8. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you so much for all the posts lately confirming that justification before God and all of salvation is recieved through faith alone. While I certainly agree that no one will be justified before GOD by works of the law, I do see christians being justified before MEN by works in scripture. When James says that Abraham was justified by his works I take this as he was shown before men to have a true and genuine faith by his works. Can it be that this is what our fellow reformed brothers have in mind when talking about the final judgement? I give no cover to Piper for his comments and I really dislike the terms “final” or “double” justification . I believe “final justication” gives the impression that our salvation is in jeopardy until we prove it by works at the final judgement and “double justification” gives the impression
    we are justified twice before God, once by faith and another time by works . That being said can the final judgement be a justification before MEN that shows that our faith was genuine and that rewards us for that living faith? After reading quotes by John Calvin and Thomas Goodwin they seem to acknowledge two different kinds of Justification (one coram deo and the other before men) and the final judgement seems to fall into the second kind of justification since we have already been Justified before God when we first believed. Does this make sense or am I misunderstanding something?

  9. Russ, WE are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. That means considered, or accepted by God. Our FAITH is considered or accepted as real before men when we do good works, so our claim to faith is described as justified before men. The final judgment is before God, it is not a judgment before men. If that final judgment is on the basis of works, while the first one is on the basis of faith. it can have a different verdict than the declaration of righteous through faith in Christ alone. After all, how many works are enough, and just how good must they be? Then the first justification through faith is uselss and we can never have any assurance of salvation in this life.

  10. Russ, the reason the moralists, like Romanists, Piper, Fuller, Shepherd, Baxter, FV, NPP and others want to insist on a final salvation that depends on the evidence of our works is because they think that if we are uncertain about our final right standing before God, it will make us do more good works out of a fear of being denied by God at the final judgment. According to them, it is salvation, not rewards, that is at stake at the final judgment. We all agree that God will reward the good works of the elect on the last day, and if that was all the moralists were trying to affirm, there would be no disagreement. Many of them talk about a conditional covenant of grace, which means grace and works are needed for final salvation. They call themselves Reformed, but they are actually denying the solas of the Reformstion.

    • Thanks Angela,
      I certainly agree with you that the moralist want us to be uncertain of our salvation so we work harder. This is a gross error. We should be preaching the gospel freely , knowing that our works come from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. The FV and Shepardites are wrong about justification, sanctification, election, sacraments, and many other things. In no way am I advocating their teaching of final justification. What I am questioning is if the final judgement is only before God? For the unbeliever they will be judged according to their works being found naked and without righteousness of Christ. The Christian will be found in Christ and our spirit wrought works will be rewarded graciously. There seems to be a kind of justification of our works as showing our true faith for all to see.

    • Hey Russ,
      I think the difference is that Piper claims that our works are evidence -not only before men- but also before Christ. On judgement day, Piper says, Christians will stand with the unbelievers in Christ’s courtroom and will have our works examined by Jesus himself. Jesus (not only men) is looking for evidence that our faith is real and this is what determines our eternal fate.

      https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/what-happens-when-you-die-all-appear-before-the-judgment-seat-of-christ

  11. Russ, I think you have a kind of unusual way of using the word, justification. I think it might be less confusing to use the word, vindication in referring to the what happens to believers on the last day. To say, justification is to say there is a second judgment, which as you say, is wrong. Believers are judged and justified by Christ’s righteousness credited to them when they believe, so they do not undergo a second judgment. They are resurrected to glory, dressed in the spotless robe of the Lamb. That is a vindication of who they are for all to see. The nomists use the word, justification precisely because they want to suspend our right standing before God until we are judged a second time, making our justification by grace, through faith when we put our trust in Christ only provisional and subject to being overturned at the final judgment, depending on the evidence of our works. Our works justify our claim that we are Christians only in this life because others judge us based on our behaviour. That is the justification before men.

    • Thanks Josh and Angela,
      Piper is not reformed. He is baptist. I totally disagree with what he said regarding the 5 solas and final salvation. When I stated that some of our reformed brothers are referring to the final judgement as a justification before men I was talking about our friends over at Calvinist International. I love Brad Mason and he has been very helpful throughout this debate. I really liked his post on Johannes Wollebius. You may be right Angela when you say I have a funny way of using the word justification and that vindication should be used. I guess I just see scripture and the reformers use the word justification in different senses.

    • Hi Russ,

      In this article “The Benefits of Christ: Double Justification in Protestant Theology Before the Westminster Assembly,” Anthony T. Selvaggio, ed., The Faith Once Delivered: Celebrating the Legacy of Reformed Systematic Theology and the Westminster Assembly (Essays in Honor of Dr. Wayne Spear). (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 107–34, I addressed the history of the doctrine of “double justification.”

      Briefly, in 1518 and 1519 Luther began teaching that there is a justification before God sola gratia, sola fide and “justification” before men by works. There was also a Romanist version of double justification (never officially adopted by the Roman communion) whereby we were said to be justified partly on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and partly on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity and good works. This was the Romanist position at Regensburg contra the Protestants.

      For more on this see: https://heidelblog.net/2017/11/regensburg-and-regensburg-ii-trying-to-reconcile-irreconcilable-differences-on-justification/

      As Angela noted, because of the inherent ambiguity of this twofold use of justification, the Reformed began to speak of justification to refer to the once-for-all declaration by God of our right standing with him for Christ’s sake alone, through faith alone. They began to speak of “vindication” to refer to the declaration by God that what was declared really is true.

      https://heidelblog.net/2013/08/justification-and-vindication/

  12. Thanks Dr. Clark,
    This is very helpful. So while the reformed do acknowledge two kinds of justification in scripture we use the term vindication when speaking of justification before men. This does seem to avoid a great deal of confusion. Excellent! Thanks to everyone for clarifying this for me. I do believe some of the posts by our brothers at Calvinist International are correct when explaining the final judgement but would avoid a lot of confusion if they used the term vindication instead of double justification.

  13. Came across this quote from Calvin while reading through the Institutes. He clearly defines justification differently than Piper…

    “Justification, moreover, we thus define: The sinner being admitted into communion with Christ is, for his sake, reconciled to God; when purged by his blood he obtains the remission of sins, and clothed with righteousness, just as if it were his own, stands secure before the judgement-seat of heaven.”

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