23 July 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Some scholars maintain that ‘justification’ and ‘pardon’ are synonymous. For example, Sanday and Headlam wrote that justification ‘is simply Forgiveness, Free Forgiveness’, while more recently Professor Jeremias has insisted that ‘justification is forgiveness, nothing but forgiveness’. But surely this cannot be so. Pardon is negative, the remission of a penalty or debt; justification is positive, the bestowal of a righteous status, the sinner’s reinstatement in the favour and fellowship of God. Sir Marcus Loane has written: ‘The voice that spells forgiveness will say: “You may go; you have been let off the penalty which your sin deserves.” But the verdict which means acceptance (sc. justification) will say: “You may come; you are welcome to all my love and my presence.”’ C.H.Hodge clarifies the difference further by developing the antithesis between condemnation and justification. ‘To condemn is not merely to punish, but to declare the accused guilty or worthy of punishment; and justification is not merely to remit that punishment, but to declare that punishment cannot be justly inflicted… Pardon and Justification therefore are essentially distinct. The one is the remission of punishment, the other is a declaration that no ground for the infliction of punishment exists.
If justification is not pardon, neither is it sanctification. To justify is to declare or pronounce righteous, not to make righteous. This was the nub of the sixteenth-century debate over justification. The Roman Catholic view, as expressed at the Council of Trent (1545-64), was that justification takes place at baptism, and that the baptized person is not only cleansed from sin but simultaneously infused with a new, supernatural righteousness. One can understand the motive which led to this insistence. It was the fear that a mere declaration of righteousness would leave the person concerned unrenewed and unrighteous, and might even encourage persistence in sinning (antinomianism). This was, of course, the precise criticism which was levelled at Paul (6:1, 15). It led him to expostulate in the most vigorous manner that baptized Christians have both died to sin (so that they cannot possibly live in it any longer) and risen to a new life in Christ. Put a little differently, justification (a new status) and regeneration (a new heart), although not identical, are simultaneous. Every justified believer has also been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and so put on the road to progressive holiness. To quote Calvin, ‘no one can put on the righteousness of Christ without regeneration’. Again, ‘the apostle maintains that those who imagine that Christ bestows free justification upon us without imparting newness of life shamefully rend Christ asunder’.
An important fresh turn in this Roman Catholic-Protestant debate was taken by Professor Hans Hung in 1957, when his dialogue with Karl Barth entitled *Justification* was published. He agreed both that justification is a divine declaration and that we are justified by faith alone. But he also insisted that God’s words are always efficacious, so that whatever he pronounces comes immediately into being. Therefore, when God says to somebody, ‘You are just,’ ‘the sinner *is* just, really and truly, outwardly and inwardly, wholly and completely… In brief, God’s *declaration* of justice is…at the same time and in the same act a *making just*’. Thus justification is ‘the single act which simultaneously declares just and makes just’. There is a dangerous ambiguity here, however. What does Hans Kung mean by ‘just’? If he means *legally* just, put right with God, then indeed we become immediately what God declares us to be. But if he means *morally* just, renewed, holy, then God’s declaration does not immediately secure this, but only initiates it. For this is not justification but sanctification, which is a continuous lifelong process. This is the point which C.K.Barrett is making when he claims that to justify does signify to make righteous, but that ‘”righteous” does not mean “virtuous”, but “right”, “clear” “acquitted” in God’s court’.
Reverting now to the text of Romans, and in particular to verses 24-26, Paul teaches three basic truths about justification – first its source, where it originates; secondly its ground, on what it rests; and thirdly its means, how it is received.