Continuance in Justification by C. John Miller, 11 April 1979

Continuance in Justification by C. John Miller, 11 April 1979

I wish to affirm that faith alone is the exclusive means for the believer’s continuance in justification. In the divine act of initial justification, faith alone obtains God’s once-and-for-all pardon and free acceptance. The same is true for justification as an ongoing manifestation in the life of the believer. My sins that are daily confessed are pardoned through faith without any addition of works.

There is a clear biblical rationale for this continued preeminence of faith in receiving forgiveness throughout your life. There is an inseparable connection between Christ alone and faith alone. Faith alone is just my way of taking nothing from myself and all from Christ. The ground or procuring cause of forgiveness is always and only the priestly sacrifice of Christ, and faith is always and only the sole means or instrumental cause for claiming His blood and righteousness for our acquittal before the throne of the Highest.

Your own conscience as a Christian readily confirms this conclusion. When you daily confess your sins, do you remind God of your course of covenantal obedience as a cause of acquittal? I think not. You claim in all humility the blood of Christ as your sole hope. In the presence of the Most High you deny that your good works could give you an interest in His favor. You acknowledge that apart from the justifying work of Christ your best efforts are filled with evil. In doing this, you act by faith alone — which is simply to say you look away from yourself to Christ alone.

Compelling Scriptural support for this attitude is found in Philippians 3. Paul is here speaking as a Christian man, not as someone coming to Christ for the first time. His choice of language is intriguing, almost paradoxical. You might almost sum up verses 4 through 11 as Paul portrays himself as laboring intensively not to rest in his own labors. According to him, everything that he had by way of gain from his law-keeping has gone overboard, tossed over by the Apostle’s own hands (v. 7). That is the past. But Paul did not see his struggle with Judaism and the way of law-keeping as a mere phase of his past. Instead, he sees the works-righteousness of Judaism as, in the words of G. C. Berkouwer, “a symptom of the threat to grace inherent in man’s sinful self-importance.”[1] As such, then, the struggle against law-works goes on in Paul’s ongoing life as a man of God. In vs. 8 the battle against works is in the present. Paul says: “Yes, what is more, I certainly do count all things to be sheer loss because of the all-surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I suffer the loss of all these things, and I am still counting them refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (William Hendriksen’s translation). Knowing the deceitful way of man’s arrogant heart, Paul makes it the first order of business in the present (and the future too) not to run after anything but “the righteousness from God which depends on faith” (v. 9 RSV). In this matter of justification paradoxically he labors not to have “a righteousness of my own” (v. 9). The idea is that Paul does not trust himself. He gives all his attention to making sure that he may not be drawn away by “man’s sinful self-importance” to build a record of achievement sufficient to earn a stake in his justification.

The matter can be made even clearer by looking at Paul’s citation of the examples of Abraham and David in Romans 4:1-8. It seems certain that both men were believers and already justified by grace at this time. The citation of Genesis 15:6 in vs. 3 indicates that Abraham had been a believer for some years, and the quotation from Ps. 32 of David’s experience is unquestionably the statement of faith of a man already a believer and therefore already a justified person.

Now considering that Paul is speaking to believers, note the direction of Paul’s reasoning. He argues that Abraham was acquitted through faith altogether apart from works done by him. Verse 2 introduces the subject: “For if Abraham was justified by works, he hath whereof to glory, but not toward God” (ARV). Verse 5 then draws the conclusion: “and to the one who does not work but trusts in Him who justifies the ungodly, His faith is credited to Him for righteousness.” The opposition between faith and works here is obvious. This faith-works dichotomy is found in the life of the believer whenever justification (pardon of sins and acceptance with God) is in view.

The same line of thought is applied by Paul to David with equal vigor. He writes: “So also David pronounces a blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness without works” (vs. 6). This “without works” is the same as saying nothing from man but all from God. Or to state the issue more precisely, Paul is teaching that even the noblest believing men — Abraham and David — cannot rely upon their good works for their justification. Whenever the specific concern is the acquittal of sinners against the charge of sin, the only condition is that of faith.

My purpose, then, is to affirm that always in justification understood as remission of sins we must see works and faith as in opposition. I am persuaded that this is the Reformed way. Among the continental Reformed, of the seventeenth century, Ludovicus Crocius (1636) states flatly: “So not only are those works excluded from the act of justification, which are emitted before faith and conversion, but also those which proceed from faith (my italics).[2] Gulielmus Bucanus (1609) is so zealous to exclude all works from justification that he concludes: “As regards justification faith is purely a passive thing, bringing nothing of ours to conciliate God, but receiving from Christ what we lack (my italics).[3]

Francisco’s Burmannus (1699) sums it all up this: “Indeed faith is so opposed to works in this matter that it even excludes itself if it is considered as a work. Although regarded by itself it is a work, in justification it is not regarded after this manner but purely as an instrumental work” (my italics).[4]

In the British tradition, Anthony Burgess, prominent member of the Westminster Assembly, states: “That distinction of faith justifying … which is lively and working, but not AS lively and working; is not trifling …” He adds: “Neither is this justification by faith alone, excluding the conditionality of works to be applied to our justification at first only, but as continued; so that from first to last, we are justified all along by faith …” (my italics). He concludes: “… The righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, not faith to works” (Rom 1:17).[5]

Speaking for the Independents, John Owen also writes:

“Some say that, on our part, the continuation of this state of our justification depends on the condition of good works; that is, that they are of the same consideration and use with faith itself herein. In our justification, itself there is, they will grant, somewhat peculiar unto faith; but as to the continuation of our justification, faith and works have the same influence unto it; yea, some seem to ascribe it distinctly unto works in an especial manner, with this only proviso, that they be done in faith. For my part I cannot understand that the continuance of our justification hath any other dependencies than hath our justification itself. As faith alone is required unto the one, so faith alone is required unto the other, although its operations and effects in the discharge of its duty and office in justification and the confutation of it, are diverse …”[6]

But James Buchanan, successor to Thomas Chalmers in the chair of divinity at New College in Edinburgh, is even stronger in maintaining that in the relationship to justification works and faith are opposed. He is of the view that the pride even of believing man is sufficient to turn the fruits of the Spirit into law works. He reasons that “the same works” can be described from two standpoints. From the standpoint of the “fruits of sanctification,” they are “an odor of a sweet smell, holy, acceptable to God,” but from the standpoint of the ground of our justification, or as forming any part of our TITLE to that inheritance, they are to be utterly rejected, and treated as ‘dung’ and ‘filthy rags’ with reference to that end.”[7]

Perhaps better than anyone else Calvin puts it all together. Speaking in the Institutes of the opposition between faith and works, he says that it is necessary to reject the position of even “the sounder Schoolmen.” They grant that “the beginning of justification” consists in the sinner’s being “freely delivered from condemnation.” On this point “there is no controversy between us.” Where we differ is that these “sounder Schoolmen” teach that “the regenerate man … being once reconciled to God by means of Christ … is afterwards deemed righteous by his good works and is accepted in consideration of them.”[8]

By contrast, Calvin says that throughout our lives “We must hold fast” our trust in Christ, not in our works. To prove his point, he turns to Romans 4 and its citation of Abraham and David. He reasons along lines that I have already expressed in this work. Concerning Abraham, Calvin writes:

“Abraham had long served God with a pure heart and performed that obedience of the Law which a mortal man is able to perform: yet his righteousness still consisted in faith. Hence, we infer, according to the reasoning of Paul, that it was not of works. In like manner, when the prophet says, ‘The just shall live by his faith’ (Hab. ii. 4), he is not speaking of the wicked and profane, whom the Lord justifies by converting them to the faith: his discourse is directed to believers, and life is promised to them by faith.”[9]

In the same context, Calvin also says of the citation of Psalm 32:1-2 by Paul in Romans 4:7-8:

“It is certain that David is not speaking of the ungodly, but of believers such as himself was, because he was giving utterance to the feelings of his own mind. Therefore, we must have this blessedness not only once, but must hold it fast during our whole lives (my italics). Moreover, the message of free reconciliation with God is not promulgated for one or two days but is declared to be perpetual in the church (2 Cor. v. 18). Hence believers have not even to the end of life any other righteousness than that which is there described. Christ ever remains a Mediator to reconcile the Father to us, and there is a perpetual efficacy in his death — vix., ablution, satisfaction, expiation; in short, perfect obedience, by which all our iniquities are covered. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul says not that the beginning of salvation is of grace, but ‘by grace’ are ye saved,’ ‘not of works, lest any man should boast’” (Eph. 2:8-9).[10]

After spending several more pages explaining why the better Schoolmen are mistaken, Calvin drives the final nail. In the continuance of justification, these theologians talk about the “partial righteousness” of the believer and the gift of “accepting grace” which makes up for its incompleteness. As far as Calvin is concerned this is stuff and nonsense. They forget that the law of God always demands absolute righteousness of the believer as well as the unbeliever, “the only righteousness acknowledged in heaven being the perfect righteousness of the law.”[11] For this reason even the best works of the believer have no place as a cause or condition of our justification. At this point Calvin’s writing exhibits unusual energy and intensity of conviction. He wishes to allow no loophole for works. He seizes the language most familiar to the Schoolmen — that of Aristotle’s four causes. Concerning the efficient cause, we can find nothing of works here. This can only be “the mercy and free love of the heavenly Father toward us.” The material cause cannot be works but Christ and His righteousness. The final cause “is the demonstration of the divine righteousness and the praise of His goodness.” No works here. And the instrumental cause? That can never be works “but faith.” The nail has gone home. Now nothing is loose. Faith guarantees that it is of grace in the Christian life. It is clear why Calvin in the Institutes puts justification by faith in the section dealing with the Christian life. He wants “the saints” to know that for grace to be all in all for them “the blessing of justification is possessed by faith alone.”[12]

My purpose, then, is to affirm that always in justification understood as remission of sins we must keep faith and works in opposition. The sole condition for continuing in justification from sins is faith alone. For the Reformed, Calvin says the matter is not negotiable. It is the biblical way, issuing from the vision of the majesty of God. When we lift our eyes to the King on high, our good works always dissolve into nothingness. In awe, we cry: “Enter not into judgment with thy servant” (Psalm 143:2). Concerning the comprehensive salvation of the believer, we insist upon the necessity of good works with all vigor. But in this specific matter of forgiveness and acceptance with God in relationship to Christ’s priestly office, we must hold unwaveringly to faith alone. This must be as true of the believer from the moment he first trusts in Christ to the moment of his death. He is ever in danger of converting the fruits of the Spirit into legal works presented to the Father as a good record warranting acceptance.

Among Christian leaders this temptation is the most common one. Because their position and religious activity, they often stand well in the eyes of men. Then gradually they feel “justified” before public opinion by their performance and attainments. From this human self-evaluation it is but a small step to self-elevation before God. When this happens, the conscience begins to be troubled, and confession of sin becomes oppressive and half-hearted (Lam 1:14). The wheels of life go heavy in the sand, with the result that a great deal of churning about produces very little (Psalm 39:11), work and worship become increasingly mechanical, and the spirit is left restless and unsatisfied even in the midst of intense Christian activity (Heb. 9:14). Day and night the hand of God is heavy upon the believer, and he may experience physical sickness in this state (Psalm 32:3,4).

Once at a pastor’s conference, I met a young man who described himself along these lines. He explained that when he first entered the ministry God put an unusual blessing upon his life and work. Under his guidance, every part of the church life proved to be fruitful. This brought him great joy. But after two years something went wrong, first with himself, then with the congregation. He was mystified. Where did the power of the Spirit go? Why did He [God] withdraw a large measure of the blessing?

The young pastor suggested an answer: pride. To this insight, I added a question: “Do you suppose that somehow you began to offer your good works and accomplishments to God as a basis for your justification?” I explained the matter much as it is set forth in this chapter. To my astonishment, he looked as though he had been cut to the heart by a dagger. In a moment he burst into tears.

After leaving him alone for a couple of hours, I returned to my even greater astonishment and found him with joy unlike anything I had ever seen before in a minister. He had been through deep waters but had landed on the rock of Psalm 32 and Romans 3-4. “Of course,” he explained, in effect, “I was already a Christian. But through my self-righteousness and pride I was leaning heavily on my own record for my relationship with God.” He concluded that this was partly unconscious. He had no idea that he had for all practical purposes abandoned justification by faith alone and mixed in work as part of his hope of acceptance with God.

But does this suggest that there is more than one justification? Are we to conclude that Abraham, David, and our young pastor were justified twice? Not at all. I find no evidence in Scripture for repeated justifications. But the Bible does teach that real pardon does continue to take place after the first and final imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner through the conditionality of faith alone. The initial act of definitive or absolute justification brought into being an unalterable relationship. Further remission of sins is the effect and consequence of that first imputation. Subsequent forgiveness is, then, through faith alone as an application of that initial act of justification. It is not a second and different act of justification.

So further pardon is not a repeated justification. The Scriptures know nothing of the shakiness and doubts that go with the schemes of multiple justifications. At the same time, subsequent pardon is not reduced to a charge by the initial declaration of forgiveness by God. It is all too easy for us to think that justification via imputation is a cold, dead legal issue, settled forever is some remote heavenly courtroom. This caricature is just close enough to the truth to be dangerously misleading. In fact, justification is a final legal pronouncement settled in heaven. But what has happened in much so-called Christian thinking is the acceptance of the devil’s own distortion. “Once-for-all” is bent so as to mean “far-off”, “inert”, and “inapplicable”. Carried a step further, this partly unconscious trend expresses itself in the mental attitude that it is somehow doctrinally unsound to confess sins too heartily and feelingly — or daringly to believe that they have been completely removed by the blood of Christ. At bottom, the idea is: why ask for something you already have as a justified Christian?

Finally, this caricature of justification by faith alone ends up either turning the confession of sins into a meaningless routine or causing confession to God through Christ to cease altogether. After all, the man thinks: Am I not already forgiven? Are not my sins already under the blood?

But such careless presumption is not the way faith. Faith knows that further pardon is no charade. It is actual. When we confess our sins in Jesus’ name by faith alone, we must know that they are truly forgiven for His dear sake alone. The conscience as the courtroom of the soul is really set at rest altogether apart from any other conditionality than faith in Christ. Through such trust the accuser of the brethren is really cast down. What we are now enjoying as believers is the application of that justification to our present struggle against our sins. In this intense warfare it is of the greatest encouragement to know that the blood of a righteous high priest is forever mine and that in the midst of many sins I can daily claim it as my sure hope before the heavenly Father.

Some brothers will be sincerely troubled by this teaching, in many instances because they are distressed by lack of reverence today for God and His laws. They especially are concerned by what they see as downplaying the cost of discipleship in much contemporary evangelism. As a consequence, they want the necessity of obedience to be kept up front in our message. Faith alone, therefore, sounds like easy-believism and salvation without discipleship. Though I share this concern, I am equally concerned that this motivation not lead us to confuse different kinds of necessities. For example, there is a necessity involved in the forgiveness of others, in daily repentance, and in new obedience in general. But this is a different kind of necessity, a different kind of conditionality, from that which we have been speaking. It is a necessity of obedience to Christ’s prophetic and kingly offices, the necessity of evidence establishing the reality of my faith in Him. But the necessity or conditionality in relationship to justification and the continuance in it is of a unique kind. Faith can do something that no other Christian grace can do. It is able to embrace Christ and His forgiving mercy. Humble faith can do that. When the justified person is guilty of sin, when his conscience presses hard upon him bringing him to the edge of despair, then faith can effectively plead Christ’s priestly sacrifice. It brings a fresh cleaning of guilt before God and a renewed experience of His justifying grace. This is both a sweet comfort and a powerful jolt to our pride.

If the church of God and the individual believer are to walk in freedom, then we must keep this distinction clear. Otherwise, we are in danger of blurring the nature of the gospel itself. We do not want to forget that we must exercise repentance and new obedience. But this above all must be remembered: when it comes to the remission of sins, God requires only one thing — faith alone embracing Christ alone.

[1] Faith and Justification (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1954), p. 78.

[2] Cited in Heinrich Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics: Set Out and Illustrated from the Sources (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), p. 554.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Anthony Burgess, Original Sin (1659), from unnumbered pages in the postscript. So also John Ball, Treatise of the Covenant of Grace (1645), p. 20, Ball says that faith and works are inseparably joined in the person being redeemed but that in “the matter of justification and salvation in the covenant” they are opposed. I am indebted to Mr. David Lachman for both of these quotations.

[6] John Owen, Justification by Faith, (Grand Rapids: Sovereign Grace Pub. Co., reprint), Ch. V.

[7] James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification: An Outline of Its History in the Church and of Its Exposition from Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House: reprint 1955), pp. 363–64.

[8] Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Company, 1958), BK III, Ch. XIV, Sec. 11.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., Bk. III, Ch. XIV, Secs. 11–13.

[12] Ibid, Bk. III, Ch. XIV, Sec. 17.

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