John Murray: Justification Is Still The Article Of The Standing Or Falling Of The Church

This is what is meant when we insist that justification is forensic. It has to do with a judgment given, declared, pronounced; it is judicial or juridical or forensic. The main point of such terms is to distinguish between the kind of action which justification involves and the kind of action in regeneration. Regeneration is an act of God in us; justification is an act of God with respect to us. The distinction is like that of the distinction between the act of a surgeon and the act of a judge. The surgeon, when he removes an inward cancer, does something in us. That is not what a judge does—he gives a verdict regarding our judicial status. If we are innocent he declares accordingly.

The purity of the gospel is bound up with the recognition of this distinction. If justification is confused with regeneration or sanctification, then the door is opened for the perversion of the gospel at its center. Justification is still the article of the standing or falling church.

John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 127–28 (HT: Mike Mattingly Jr)

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Justification is God’s declaration of what we are considered to be because we are credited with Christ’s own righteousness, imputed to us, when we rest our hope for acceptance with God, in Him alone. Regeneration begins with God given faith in Him alone, and continues as a process by which the indwelling Holy Spirit conforms our character to that of Christ. Obedience to God’s perfect, holy, righteous law is what God demands as the condition of fellowship with Him. That is what Christ provides in justification. The process of sanctification in regeneration, by the Spirit, makes that actually true of us, to be fully realized at the resurrection. It is all of grace, by God’s providing. In deep gratitude, and confidence that this is true of us, we can declare that we love God’s holy law as our means of acceptance with Him, because of Christ’s finished work. It is so beautifully pictured when God alone passed through the slaughtered animal pieces, pledging to perform all of the stipulations and suffer the death curse in our place, all while Abraham was in a helpless stupor. Both Circumcision and Baptism given to helpless infants, as signs of the Covenant, picture this, and they seal this promise to the believer. The Lord’s Supper confirms that His broken body and shed blood are really for me. His name is Wonderful!

  2. I certainly think it’s fine, as far as it goes, to show that famous people in the past whom we respect also believe that justification is still the article of the standing or falling of the church, and give reasons that sound like “otherwise, we might be in danger” of this or that, in Murray’s words, that “the door is opened for” bad things.

    However, this, like taking vitamins, is not the impelling thing that comes across in the Arminian warning system, or even in the teaching of Jesus to settle quickly with your opponent in court.

    We’re the victim of the use of a stronger metaphor of warning, because of unbelief. The response to knowing there’s a future court date for us is not as visceral as the response to the claim that we need a therapy for our health, or that we need to save our our home from fire.

    In other words, the notices of the immediate crisis tend to take precedence in our “actionables” list over notices of a future crisis. To help recover the proper immediacy of the impact of justification we need to hear something about “the axe is already laid at the root of the trees.” It is unbelief that is the greatest enemy of seeing the importance of justification. Unbelief about the environment of justice which surrounds every moral agent. Every moral agent, every doer of good or evil, is a tree against which God’s justice sits like an axe. That’s why justification must be exalted over “therapeutic moral deism.”

  3. Failure the understand justification as a declaration of God’s eternal judgment of us as righteous for Christ’s sake alone, and our works of sanctification as necessary fruit in the ongoing process of regeneration, is the underlying cause of neonomianism or moralism. The moralists always want to make the fruits and evidence of a person who is justified, the cause of a final justification. To do this they must modify the demands of the law to allow for less than perfect obedience, and they must deny that Christ is our all sufficient Savior. This is what Rome taught and what the Reformers denied. But in the current justification controversy we have people like Norman Shepherd, John Piper, Covenant Moralists formerly known as the Federal Vision, and others who claim to be Reformed, but really are returning to the Romanist perversion of the gospel. This perversion of the gospel turns it on its head, making our works co-instrumental in our justification. It effectively teaches that our imperfect works merit our final acceptance with God. ” Oh foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” Gal. 3

  4. God forbid, William Duncan, any espousal on my part of the Federal Vision second justification, or any kind of second justification like N.T. Wright’s. Christians will not be passive spectators, however, but participants in the judgment, in and with Christ (1 Cor 6:1). Romans 14:10-12 also refers to the giving account by all of us including Paul. The knowledge that we will give an account is very conducive to preparatory times.

    • If I can put it this way, our relationship to God’s judgment is like our interest in the world when life-or-death issues have been dealt with: we can go forth in it; if our major concern, that we have passed from death, to life (Jn 5:24), has been granted us in our justification, that doesn’t mean that judgment day has nothing that is related to us: we will be involved in the judgment of the world, and of angels, 1 Cor 6. God the Father has committed all judgment to the Son, and we are in Him, not just waiting for the event to pass.

      For too long, the fact that judgment day is to come has implied a false disjunction of possible responses among Christians: either to fear it because of our own lack of assurance of salvation in Christ; or to just say we skip it because of our own assurance of salvation in Christ. But interest in judgment is not confined to just the depictions of the coastlands rejoicing in it, which people telescope into salvation from sin. Judgment is dwelled on by Jesus in rejoicing terms: when He tells the disciples that they will sit on twelve thrones judging the tribes of Israel, it is not merely a metaphor for their forgiveness! That compendium of events in which God will prevail when He is judged, and be justified in His words, is a glorious thing coming.

  5. The passage in Romans 14 deals with Christian Liberty. We are not to judge one another over matters that are indifferent, such as eating certain foods, celebrating certain days, like Christmas or Easter. Before God, such matters are issues of personal conscience before God, but we must not make them a new law to bind the conscience of others. This passage does not teach a final justification based on our works. The believer is judged and declared eternally righteous for Christ’s sake the moment he trusts only in Christ for his righteousness before God. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Rom. 8:1 Believers will be vindicated, not judged on the last day. They were already judged and declared eternally righteous the moment they put their trust in Christ alone. “Or do you not know that the saints will not only judge the world but we are to judge angels? How much more then, in matters pertaining to this life.” I Cor. 6:2-3

  6. Quote: ‘The response to knowing there’s a future court date for us, is not as visceral as the response to the claim that we need a therapy for our health, or that we need to save our our home from fire.’ (unquote)
    How true this is, and this indicates the current apostate worldliness of perhaps millions of professed ‘Christians’, as shown by the thousands attending weekly upon each of the health, wealth & success’ hireling preachers. The apostles’ doctrine contrarily, was all about the Parousia, and the judgment to come.

    • The Apostles’ message was about Christ, the One promised by God has come. “But to you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings.” Malachi 4:2 Malachi promises a judgement on all of those who do not honor God, but healing of the fatal wound that Satan inflicted on us in the garden if we trust in God’s promised One. That wound is healed by trusting in the righteousness of Christ credited to us. For those who trust in Him there is no terror in the coming judgment of the world. “Therefore, with good reason the thought of this judgment is horrible and dreadful to wicked people. But it is very pleasant and a great comfort to the righteous and elect, since their total redemption will then be accomplished….the faithful and elect will be crowned with glory and honor….So we look forward to that great day with longing in order to enjoy fully the promises of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” Belgic Confession 37

  7. There is of course also a huge practicality, as opposed to mere academic knowledge, in the justification achieved by the imputation of the righteousness of our Lord, Jesus Christ and that is the accessibility of God when we come to Him in prayer. No longer do we need the priest or any other man to intervene for us with God. We may pray: “Our Father…”. Only because we are justified before God in Jesus Christ may we stand before Him.

    • Amen! When we trust in Christ alone, we are clothed in His righteousness that has been imputed to us. God sees us as perfectly righteous as His own Son, that is why we are accepted by God, who is perfectly righteous and holy, because He has declared us, judged us, justified us to be as perfectly righteous and holy as His Son, our representative. Christ is our high priest and our prayers are acceptable to the Father through the Son. Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:1-19

  8. The common excuse that is made for moralism is that it is the cure for easy believism. The moralists want to encourage us to do good works, or else! Fear of final damnation is supposed to make us do good works out of fear of judgment. In doing this they destroy the gospel by turning the covenant of grace into a covenant of works. They want to put us under a slavish bondage to obey the law as a way of, do this and live. Adams transgression made that impossible for us. That is why God sent His Son, that we should believe this and live. Gal. 4:30 “the son of the slave woman will not share the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” The moralists are teaching a false gospel that will lead those to eternal damnation who are deceived by it, because they are looking to their own righteousness rather than to Christ.

    A person who believes in Christ for salvation, can only do so by a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit who is now indwelling them and gradually conforming their character to the image of Christ. That is regeneration. It will show itself through love to God and neighbor aka striving to obey God’s law! The moralist is trying to make the unregenerate behave in order be saved. I am afraid Christ will tell them, “depart from me, I never knew you!” Even though they cry Lord, Lord, and plead their good works.” The only way to deal with easy believism is to preach the true gospel. Only the truly regenerate will ever do good works. Works done out of fear so that we do them to save ourselves, are not a free response of trust in Christ, but rather they are sins that are rewarded by damnation. That is what I see as the terrible tragedy of the current justification controversy.

  9. One of my first pastors always admonished us with; “Define your terms.” And I did not realize for a long time that while my definition of regeneration came from “You must be born again” and “By the Word of truth, begat He us.” etc., others used regeneration to describe what I term as sanctification. These definitions come from denominational cultures, or theological ‘streams’, and when we cross these boundaries, these misunderstandings can occur.

    • The way I understand it is that regeneration means to become alive by the indwelling Spirit, aka born again, the moment we believe in Christ as our Savior, which is also when we are declared righteous in Christ or justified. Because we are alive in the Spirit, we do not remain static, but rather we will grow and develop according to God’s purpose in giving us this life in the Spirit, to conform our character to the image of Christ who is the perfect keeper of the law, and by whose perfect obedience imputed to us we are counted righteous in justification. Sanctification is the setting apart for God’s purposes. The process of regeneration first sets us apart by justification and then produces a new character that makes the declaration of righteousness actually true of us. At the resurrection that process of sanctification through regeneration will be complete, and our character will have been transformed so that we are perfectly obedient to the law, like Christ! In effect regeneration is the reversal of the death curse pronounced on Adam!!!

  10. Thank you Matt. I am deeply concerned that the issue of how we understand justification is the most important doctrine of the Christian faith. The Reformers called it the hinge on which the Church stands or falls. Confusion about it gives rise to moralism. Moralism is a false gospel that denies that Christ is a complete Savior but that our works will be brought foreword so that Christians will be judged on their faith and their works on the last day. Even some of the commenters above seem to suggest this. If it is true that Christians will have to give an account of their lives, to be judged by God on the last day, then that would deny that they were eternally justified the moment they put their trust in Christ alone. If we have a final judgment to face on the last day, then that declaration of justification can not be depended upon!!!! God forbid! Because then we can have no assurance of salvation!

  11. When Jesus explained John the Baptist’s ministry of repentance, the sinners ‘justified God’, whereas the works-salvation self-justifying Pharisees would not. David similarly justified God when he admitted before Nathan; “I have sinned against the Lord”. If we confess our sins He is faithful, and also just, in forgiving our sins and cleansing us from all guilt. This is the way the Spirit brings to us the justification won for us by the Lamb of God.

    • Actually, the only condition of salvation is that we trust in the obedience of Christ alone for our justification. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone and in Christ alone. Repentance is a fruit or evidence that we have been saved, it is not a condition of salvation. We are only sorry for our sins when we realize that Christ’s righteousness alone can save us, and only when we trust in Him alone. That was the issue in the Marrow controversy! The church had erred by making repentance a condition of justification. That effectively made justification depend on something we do rather than on what Christ alone has done for us. Repentance is a response or fruit of saving faith but it in no way is a ground or instrument for salvation.

  12. I would like to add that distinguishing justification from sanctification is absolutely crucial to salvation, because we are not saved by our works, but we are not saved without them! As Luther stresses, when we talk about justification, we must totally ignore the demands of the law and look only to Christ and trust in Him alone. But the person who truly believes is now indwelled by the Holy Spirit and that will result in repentance, a changed life that demonstrates an overwhelming motivation to please God by obeying Him. God reveals to us, in the Decalogue, how we are to do just that. The believer will stumble and fall often in this life, but he will press on, looking foreword the Day of the Lord when the transformation of his character, into the image of Christ, will be complete and he will join Him in glory! The truly justified believer has no need to fear that he will face a final judgment. He was already judged and justified the moment he believed and trusted in Christ alone. On the Day of the Lord that fact will be vidicated by his glorification!

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