Can we lose our justification?
May 20, 2015
Can justification ever be revoked if someone is justified? There are many reasons why this is impossible. I want to offer two (and perhaps some others in a future post). First, because we are justified by faith alone. Second, because of the nature of Christ's intercession.
That sinners are justified by faith alone is a key aspect of the biblical Reformed doctrine of justification. Interestingly, Martin Luther may never have called justification the article by which the church stands or falls, even though the concept is clearly found in his writings. I am still looking for a primary source that proves that Luther is the originator of the phrase, but the saying may still have come from him. For example, William Eyre refers to justification as "articulus stantis aut cadentis Ecclesiae, as Luther calls it." As a result, Richard John Neuhaus wrongly argues that the 'stands or falls' phrase did not originate until the eighteenth century.
The term "by faith alone" (sola fide) originated with Luther, though the idea is much older. In his German translation of Romans 3:28, Luther added the word allein ("alone"), rendering "justified by faith" as "justified by faith alone."
Owen speaks of and defends justification by faith alone by noting:
"That it is faith alone which on our part is required to interest us in that righteousness, or whereby we comply with God's grant and communication of it, or receive it unto our use and benefit; for although this faith is in itself the radical principle of all obedience...yet, as we are justified by it, its act and duty is such, or of that nature, as that no other grace, duty, or work, can be associated with it, or be of any consideration."
Owen's argument for faith alone is fivefold.
First, in the New Testament justifying faith is most frequently expressed as "receiving." Only faith can receive Christ, "and what it receives is the cause of our justification" (John 1:12). Moreover, even the grace of God and righteousness itself, "as the efficient and material cause of our justification, are received also."
Second, "faith is expressed by looking" (John 3:14-15). By looking upon Christ alone "the nature of faith is expressed" and is therefore "exclusive of all other graces and duties whatever."
Third, faith denotes coming to Christ (Matt. 11:28). "To come unto Christ for life and salvation, is to believe on him unto the justification of life; but no other grace or duty is a coming unto Christ: and therefore have they no place in justification."
Fourth, faith is expressed by "fleeing for refuge" (Heb. 6:18):
"For herein it is supposed that he who believes is antecedently thereunto convinced of his lost condition, and that if he abide therein he must perish eternally; that he hath nothing of himself whereby he may be delivered from it; that he must betake himself unto somewhat else for relief; that unto this end he considers Christ as set before him, and proposed unto him in the promise of the gospel; that he judges this to be a holy, a safe way, for his deliverance and acceptance with God."
Finally, the terms by which faith is expressed in the Old Testament are "leaning on God...or Christ...resting on God...cleaving unto the Lord...as also by trusting, hoping, and waiting." Those who acted on this type of faith "declare themselves to be lost, hopeless, helpless, desolate, poor, orphans; whereon they place all their hope and expectation on God alone."
Owen is aware that the Scriptures do not explicitly say "justification is by faith alone." However, he points out that "faith alone" is implied in the words "by faith in his blood"; for "faith respecting the blood of Christ as that whereby propitiation was made for sin,--in which respect alone the apostle affirms that we are justified through faith--admits of no association with any other graces or duties."
The doctrine of justification by faith alone is a theological doctrine rooted in the Scriptures. But the doctrine itself requires not a proof-text here and there, but good and necessary consequence. Some may be sheepish about "good and necessary consequence" (cf. Matt. 22:32) when it comes to baptizing babies, but that principle of interpretation is vital to the "alone" in how we are justified.
If we were not justified by faith alone, we would have some other "qualification" which would then bring our state of justification into doubt. If justification is not at once complete, but rather in need of a second justification, "no man can be justified in this world" (Owen).
The second reason a justified sinner will always remain justified is because of Christ's intercession. The application of Christ's life and death relate to his intercession. But the difference between Christ's death and his intercession is that Reformed theologians call his death "medium impetrationis, that is, the means of procurement or obtaining it for us; but his intercession, medium applicationis, the means of applying all unto us" (Goodwin).
Therefore, the justification of the ungodly depends on Christ's intercession. In fact, the continuation of our justification depends on the continuing of Christ's intercession since his intercession is the "virtual continuation of his sacrifice" (Goodwin).
In layman's terms, this simply means that for a sinner who is justified to lose his or her justification, Christ would have to relinquish his office as priest. So, pastorally speaking, we can say: you will lose your justification when Christ decides he doesn't want to be a high priest.
Though Christ's death happened once, "yet is it done over every moment, for it is continued by acts of free Grace, and so renewed actually every moment" (Goodwin). Thus Christ is infinitely more interested in maintaining the justification of his people than they can ever be.
After all, the Father has made a declaration, and Christ wants to honour his Father's declaration by being the faithful, sympathetic high priest that he has been called to be.