18. Is justification an act that takes place once and for all, or an act that can be repeated?
a) The Roman Catholic church makes a distinction between a first and a second justification. The first consists in the infusion of habitual grace, by which original sin is suppressed and expelled (see above). The formal cause of the second justification is to be sought in good works that man himself performs. This is a confusion of sanctification and justification, and makes the fruits of the former meritorious. As justification becomes sanctification, so sanctification again becomes justification in the hands of Rome—naturally, a legalistic justification.
b) Also among those who hold to a sound doctrine of justification, a difference of opinion is prevalent concerning the question whether justification can be repeated. Some think that justification repeatedly follows each confession of sin, and so explain this repeated justification with respect to what is said about the forgiveness of the sins of believers. Others—and they are the majority of the Reformed theologians—hold that justification is an actus individuus et simul totus, that is, an indivisible act that occurs only once. This latter view is certainly the only tenable one, and for the following reasons:
1. Scripture itself nowhere says that the judicial act of God, which it calls justification, would be capable of repetition. Rather, it always presents justification as occurring at one point in time. As there is one predestination, one calling, one glorification, so there is also only one justification, and this stands between the other acts of the order of salvation (Rom 8:30), of which it is certain and generally agreed that they occur but once.
2. The idea of sonship implies that we cannot lose the state of justification once we have obtained it. A son can certainly sin and transgress against his father, but he does not therefore cease to be a son. By adoption as children, the legal position of believers in relation to God is loosed once for all from their own doing and working. Note: not their moral position but their legal position. A believer remains under the moral law, and for him every transgression of it is sin, which must be confessed. But his status before God is no longer determined by those things.
3. If justification must be constantly repeated, then it is not clear how a sinner could ever come to be in a state of being justified. In each fraction of a second a new sin is committed; there is never a sinless moment in the life of believers. They are therefore, according to this view, repeatedly outside of justification and never within it. Their life is a matter of constantly becoming justified and never being justified. This differs considerably from the situation of one justified as that is portrayed for us by Scripture in Romans 5:1 and 8:33–34.
4. It will naturally not do to say that one does not need a new justification for all sins committed after the first justification, but only for those that occur in the consciousness and so are confessed. The consciousness of sin can never be made such a basis for distinguishing. One could with as much right maintain that in the so-called first justification all those sins were forgiven that appear in the consciousness.
5. One might say that it is an absurd idea that future sins, which are not yet committed, would be forgiven. But this idea contains nothing absurd if one only considers that for the Judge who pronounces forgiveness, the record of sins, their guilt, does not lie hidden in the darkness of the future but in the full light of His divine omniscience. Furthermore, it cannot be more absurd to forgive sins in advance than to atone for sins in advance. The latter has taken place in Christ. He bore millions of sins that were not yet perpetrated and for which the perpetrators were not yet in existence. This is possible because for God’s eternal view all that, too, was present.
6. The testimony of Scripture is that all our sins are forgiven by the imputation of the merits of Christ (Col 2:13), that nothing more can be charged against the elect of God (John 5:24; Rom 8:33–34; cf. also 5:1, according to which there is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus). The same thing holds for the second aspect of justification. Not a part of the rights is granted to us, but at once in their entirety. In Ephesians 1:3, it is said that we are blessed with all spiritual blessings in Christ. Also, it is completely unthinkable that the one Christ, who surely becomes ours in justification, would only be imparted to us by degrees and in parts. We receive Him completely, and therefore our justification must be complete from the outset.
Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr., trans. Richard B. Gaffin Jr., vol. 4 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012–2016), 157–59 (HT: Peter Bell).
Thanks for this very informative explanation!