Justified Now and Forever
Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.
In affirming that God continues to forgive the sins of those who are justified, the Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of their being in "the state of justification." This state is one from which "they can never fall" (11.5). This mode of expression points to the present significance that justification has for believersits ongoing, even daily relevance for our lives.
This language also raises a related question, as important as it is vitally practical: how is it that those already justified are sustained in that state and kept from falling away from it? What is it that keeps us from losing our justification and assures us that we will not? For it is apparent that if our justification does not result in a state of our being permanently and irrevocably justified, then our salvation at best remains uncertain and beset with anxiety.
In a similar vein, Calvin, in the course of his lengthy treatment of justification in book 3 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, entitles chapter 14, "The Beginning of Justification and Its Continual Progress." There he also writes, "Therefore, we must have this blessedness [justification] not just once but must hold to it throughout life" (3.14.11).
How, then, does justification relate to the present and ongoing circumstances of the believer's life? A number of passages in God's Word address this question, particularly as it is prompted by the historical and confessional materials just noted. One such passage is Romans 8:33-34. In the rest of this article, I will focus on this passage, because the answer it gives is as encouraging as it is decisive. (It is cited as a proof text in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church's version of the Westminster Confession of Faith in support of the statement about continuing in the state of justification. The Westminster divines did not include this passage among their proof texts, but they certainly could have. Proof texts are not intended to be exhaustive.)
Romans 8 peaks in verses 38-39, answering the rhetorical questions in verse 31 that begin the chapter's final section: "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?" In the second of these questions, "for us" and "against us" have legal, or forensic, overtones. They suggest a judicial proceeding, one that is taking place in the present. This judicial scenario is clear in the related questions at the beginning of verses 33 and 34: "Who shall bring any charge against God's elect?... Who is to condemn?" Plainly, issues that concern justification are at stake here.
These questions receive their answer in the latter halves of these two verses, where verse 34b is best understood as reinforcing and explaining verse 33b (a synthetic parallelism). First, we are told in verse 33b, "It is God who justifies." That is decisive, the bottom line; it settles the issue.
Verse 34b explains God's justifying activity as it is in view here. "Christ Jesus," Paul says, "is the one who diedmore than that, who was raisedwho is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us." Christ and God's work through him explain that God is the one who justifies.
Notice how, according to verse 34, Christ is said to be crucial for justification and its maintenance. His death is mentioned first, and our reaction may be, "Yes, of course. Christ died for our sins, so that we might be justified." Paul has already made that abundantly clear in Romansfor instance, back in 3:24-26 and 5:9, 18-19. There is also an unmistakable reference to this in our passage: "he who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all" (8:32). The obedience of Christ, culminating in his propitiatory death for sin, is the righteousness that grounds the believer's justification.
But here, speaking of Christ's work as it relates to our justification, Paul does not stop with Christ's death. "More than that ...," he continues (vs. 34). More than his death, he says, is involved in our justificationand is even necessary for it. Paul goes on to speak of Christ's resurrection, with its enduring consequences. He points his readers to what is presently the case, and, in this passage at least, emphasizes that present realitythe continuing intercessory presence of the resurrected Christ at God's right hand "for us" (vs. 34). Relevant to our justification is not only what Christ has done in the past on earth, as absolutely crucial as that is, but also what he is doing for you and me now, today, in heaven.
According to this passage, then, justification is bound up with Christ's ongoing intercessory presence. Our remaining in "the state of justification," our not being separated from the love of God in Christ, not even by death or whatever the future brings (vss. 38-39), depends upon this continuing and unfailing intercession. Christ, exalted to God's right hand, is there the permanently efficacious exhibition of that finished and perfect righteousness that is ours, because, as Paul makes clear elsewhere, it has already been imputed to us once for all and so continues to be reckoned as ours.
Christ's presence in that place of ultimate and final judgment, as the righteousness which he "became for us ... from God" (1 Cor. 1:30 NKJV), is the answer, ever effective, to any charge brought against already justified believers. Most assuredly, as Paul declares in Romans 8:1, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." But the Evil One, the tempter that he is, and all who conspire with him never tire of challenging and even trying, if they could, to destroy that reality and its settled certainty. Perhaps we ourselves may yield to the temptation to doubt it. But, Paul assures the church, who Christ now is at the right hand of God "for us" permanently refutes and nullifies every challenge against, and so all doubts about, our justification. And that "answer" is provided, in his infinite love for us, by God the Father himself (Rom. 8:32).
Christ is the living and abiding embodiment of the righteousness that has been irrevocably imputed to believers. As such, he continues to sustain in their justified state those whom God has already predestined and justified (vss. 29-30). And he does that sustaining work with unwavering faithfulness, just as he has ever since each of those elect was first united to him by faith. Because of his intercession, they cannot and will not ever fall from the state of justification.
Of interest are some of the citations of Romans 8:33-34 elsewhere in our standards. In Larger Catechism 77, the passage supports the statement that justification "doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation" (emphasis added). And in Larger Catechism 55 the passage establishes the truth that Christ's present intercession for believers is effective in "answering all accusations against them."
Another passage cited by the Confession of Faith, 11.5, is Luke 22:32. There, shortly before going to the cross, Jesus assures Peter, "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail." We know how effective that prayer was. Despite his grievous lack of faith when he denied Jesus, ultimately Peter's faith did not fail.
Hebrews 7:25 tells us that Jesus "is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them." In light of Romans 8:33-34 and this passage in Hebrews, we can be sure that what Jesus did on earth in praying for Peter he is doing now in interceding for all believers. Our triumphant Savior-King knows full well, better than we do, that "the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." Jesus knows that that "someone" is not the world, at least in the first place, but the church, those for whom the tempter-accuser is "your adversary" (1 Pet. 5:8). But Jesus is interceding for us, and so Satan and his hosts do not devour us. Our faith, our justifying faith, does not fail.
So, then, why is it that you won't and in fact can't cease being justified, that you can't lose your justification, that you "can never fall from the state of justification"? Because of your election? Yes, of course. That's indicated in Romans 8:29 and is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture. Because of Christ's perfect righteousness imputed to you once for all by faith alone? Again, of course. Nothing could be clearer from Paul's teaching in Romans and elsewhere.
But you cannot lose your justification alsoand this is no less essentialbecause Christ is presently at God's right hand, continuing there to intercede for you. Our justification, our continuing infallibly in "the state of justification," Romans 8:33-34 teaches, depends not only on what Christ has done for us in the past, but also on what he is doing for us now and will do for us and all believers until he comes again. Our justification is unshakably secure because Jesus Christ, as our ever faithful and now interceding high priest, is "the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb. 13:8).
The author, an OP minister, teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary. Unless otherwise indicated, his Bible quotations are from the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2007.