Dear Brother David,
I have read the “theological debate” over the issue of WHEN God justified His people, and I have looked at your questions raised against any who espouse belief in eternal justification. As you may well know, when it comes to the various positions on this subject there are both true believers whose view does not deny God’s grace and Christ’s righteousness as the only ground of salvation, and heretics who either deny the means of salvation in time, the ground of justification being the righteousness of Christ imputed alone and not faith, or they deny what the Scriptures state clearly concerning the OT saints who were justified before God before Christ came in time to redeem all the elect from their sins. I know there are true believers who hold to each position: justification from eternity, justification at the cross, and justification at faith. But if they are true believers they make certain that Christ’s righteousness imputed is the one and only GROUND of justification and not God-given faith. They also do not deny that what God has purposed in eternity must have its fulfillment in time, nor do they deny that God uses His appointed means to bring those whom He has chosen and whom He has justified to a spiritual and saving union with Christ by faith. I believe a lot of the problem that exists among true believers in this matter is a lack of understanding of what each other means by their terms, and a lack of understanding of eternity, time, and immutability.
Consider eternity, time, and immutability. We are all so inadequate to think, understand, and express issues of eternity and immutability. We are creatures of time, and we cannot think or see things outside of this limitation. God, however, is not subject to time, and He views all things from the perspective of eternity. Also, God never, never changes. His mind and His purpose never change. So whatever we believe concerning God justifying His people in Christ, we cannot hold any view that portrays God as subject to time or as being mutable. The Bible tells us rhetorically – “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? IT IS GOD THAT JUSTIFIETH” (Romans 8:33). An understanding of Biblical justification lies in Who God is, how God sees things, and how God thinks of His people. Justification BEFORE GOD is what takes place in God’s court of justice, even before this takes place in man’s court of conscience.
The Bible also tells us – “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us” (Romans 8:34). The ground upon which God chose His people and justifies them is what the Lord Jesus Christ accomplished in time by His death on the cross. Christ did this great and necessary work as the Representative, Surety, Substitute, and Redeemer of God’s elect who were chosen IN CHRIST before the foundation of the world. We must ask ourselves – WHEN WAS CHRIST MADE TO BE THE SURETY OF GOD’S ELECT? The Bible tells us that Christ is the Surety of the everlasting covenant of grace. What is a surety? It is one who takes responsibility to pay the debt of another. How can a surety do this legally and honorably? The only way he can do this legally and honorably is by His willingness to have the debt of their sins imputed to Him.
Another issue we need to understand if we are to understand how we are to view this matter is this – What does it mean in the Bible to be IN Christ? I believe the Bible reveals three ways that the elect of God are IN Christ:
Whether or not one believes the imputation of sin to Christ took place when He was made to be Surety of His people (and understand that we really cannot restrict this to time, but we have no ability to speak of it apart from time) or three days or a nano-second before He went to the cross is not, in and of itself, a Gospel issue. We know that Christ went to the cross as the Surety of His people having their sins imputed to Him for which He died. Also, whether one believes that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to God’s elect took place when Christ was made our Surety or a nano-second before God brings us to faith is not, in and of itself, a Gospel issue. We know that where God imputes Christ’s righteousness to a sinner, that sinner will, at some time appointed by God, be brought under the true Gospel and given spiritual life by the Holy Spirit and brought to faith in Christ.
One other issue before I get to the list of questions you raised. Were God’s elect ever under the sentence of God’s wrath? I do not believe they were. But a lot of what we think on this matter depends on how we define the term “God’s wrath.” I believe that God’s wrath can only be defined by what Christ alone suffered on the cross for the sins of His sheep. God’s elect fell in Adam into sin and death. But before Adam fell, we were chosen by God IN CHRIST to be “vessels of mercy, which He had afore prepared unto glory.” Yes, we fell in Adam and we are born spiritually dead in trespasses and sins, but we did not fall out of Christ LEGALLY. We sin all our lives, and we deserve and have earned God’s wrath. By nature (as we are naturally born in sin) we are no better off that the children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). Our standing before God is described thus – “But God, Who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come He might shew the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-7). And who are the vessels of mercy as opposed to the children of wrath? They are those who are brought by God to believe in Christ as opposed to those who live their lives and die in unbelief – “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36).
Were the elect ever married to the law prior to being legally baptized into Christ’s death?
When you say “legally baptized into Christ’s death,” what do you mean by this? Our legal baptism (being placed into) the death of Christ refers to our legal union with Him in His death (Rom. 6:3-7). Being “married to the law” refers to our spiritual state of being dead in trespasses and sins. There is always a difference between our LEGAL STANDING BEFORE GOD and our SPIRITUAL STATE IN THIS WORLD. For example, as true believers, we give evidence of a PERFECT LEGAL STANDING BEFORE GOD BECAUSE OF CHRIST’S RIGHTEOUSNESS IMPUTED TO US (Rom. 6:7), but our SPIRITUAL STATE IS STILL AS SINNERS (IMPERFECT) SAVED BY GOD’S GRACE (Rom. 7:14-25). All the elect were LEGALLY given to Christ as their Surety in God’s electing grace before the foundation of the world. They were all LEGALLY redeemed by Christ, their Surety, when He died on the cross and established the ground of their justification. “Married to the law” has to do with our spiritual state of being dead in trespasses and sins and seeking salvation by our works of the law. When God the Holy Spirit gives us spiritual life and faith, we are “married to another” (the Lord Jesus Christ) “that we should bring forth fruit unto God” (Rom. 7:4). “Married to the law” is the same as being “servants of sin” (Rom. 6:17). Married to Christ is the same as being “servants of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18).
Were the elect ever dead in their sins and trespasses prior to being legally united to Christ’s death?
Again, “LEGALLY united to Christ’s death” refers to our death IN HIM as He stood as our Surety, Substitute, and Redeemer (Rom. 6:3-6). We were born into a spiritually dead state in trespasses as sins due to our fall in Adam.
If the elect were always legally baptized into Christ’s death, then how can the apostle say to his readers, “how shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Romans 6:2) Don’t you have to first be in sin before you can then later no longer live in it?
Again, you are confusing the believer’s LEGAL standing with his natural SPIRITUAL state as dead in trespasses and sins and then made alive unto God in the new birth. This is why passages like Romans 6 are so important for our understanding of Biblical truth. How are we dead to sin? LEGALLY, but not SPIRITUALLY as it pertains to perfection within. Our LEGAL death to sin lies in our LEGAL union with Christ (Rom. 6:11). Christ died unto sins that were imputed to Him LEGALLY. He had no spiritual contamination of sin within. So we are to account ourselves to be dead to sin in the same way that Christ died unto sin – LEGALLY. However, as to our SPIRITUAL state, naturally we are spiritually dead. In the new birth we are made spiritually alive by God Who brings us to faith in Christ, but we are still not dead to the remaining influence, corruption, and contamination of sin within our flesh.
Did Christ’s legal status ever change? Was He always legally guilty for His people’s sins? Or was He legally guilty only for a brief period of time?
He was guilty before God based on the elect’s sins imputed to Him. He went to the cross and died to satisfy justice and work out perfect righteousness. He died, was buried, and arose on the third day. He ascended unto the Father and sat down on the right hand of God. He ever lives to make intercession for us. He now resides with the Father without sin. All this suggests CHANGE, doesn’t it? But Christ did all of this as GODMAN – God in human flesh without sin. This is a great mystery for us. The Bible tells us that He, as eternal and infinite God, united Himself with a human body and was born. It tells us that He grew in wisdom and stature. We could go on and on and not be able to grasp the glorious majesty and miracle of God manifests in the flesh. Here is what we know. As God (in His divine nature) HE NEVER CHANGED. As perfect man (in His human nature) He did change. We know that for a time He was forsaken by the Father because of sin. But then He was resurrected from the dead and received up unto glory. We know also that He is “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8). We also know that God Himself states – “For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed” (Malachi 3:6). God tells us, that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with Whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17). I believe the way God sees me today is the way He has always seen me in Christ. How to explain this? I do not know!
If Christ’s legal status changed, and He is the covenant representative of His elect, then why wouldn’t their legal status also change?
I refer you again to the answer I gave in Question #4. But, we must understand that what change He went through by Himself can only be attributed to His holy humanity but considered as an act of His entire Person. It was always sure and certain that He would accomplish what God had purposed from the beginning. There was no possibility of Him failing.
Was there a period of time in which Christ was dead for His people’s sins and not yet resurrected?
God cannot die, but this Person Who is God did die. Death can only be attributed to His holy humanity, but it was an act of His entire Person. How do we explain this? We cannot.
Were the elect ever in the flesh and not in the Spirit?
Again, yes. This refers to their SPIRITUAL STATE IN SIN AND DEATH.
Were the elect always legally baptized into Christ’s death?
God has always viewed His elect legally IN CHRIST and based upon His death for them legally. Consider, if you are one of God’s elect, when did God ever view you LEGALLY outside of Christ? Did God view you in Christ before the foundation of the world as a vessel of mercy, only to stop viewing you in Christ and start viewing you in Adam when you fell in Adam? I don’t believe this would be a Biblical view of things. This does not mean that the elect did not fall in Adam into the state of sin and death, even to the point of deserving death and hell. But they did not fall out of Christ.
If there is only one legal union, then why does the apostle say in Romans 16:7 “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me”?
I believe I have shown that the LEGAL UNION of God’s people with Christ refers to their being chosen in Him to be their Surety and in their redemption by Him on the cross. But the passage you cite here is not talking about a person’s LEGAL union with Christ. It is talking about being united to Christ (being in Christ) by God-given faith in Christ (Galatians 3:26-29). Paul is simply saying that Andronicus and Junia were brought by God to believe in Christ before he was converted to Christ and brought to faith in Him (Galatians 1:15-16).
Who is the “we” and the “us” in verses like Ephesians 1:3 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”? Is the we and the us a reference to all the elect from all points in history without distinction? Or are they instead referring specifically to the apostle himself, as well as his first readers?
The context shows clearly that this describes all of God’s elect as they stand LEGALLY in Christ. And they will stand in Christ SPIRITUALLY when God blesses them with spiritual life and faith.
Was Abraham born justified, or was there a period of time in which he was not justified before he was justified?
Again, this depends on how you view the issue of justification. All who believe eternal justification view this the same as they view God’s grace of election. Both are in view of Christ and based on His blood and righteousness which He would come in time and accomplish for His elect. Their election and justification would be evidenced in their new birth – faith in Christ and repentance of dead works. If you say that there was “a period of time in which he was not justified before he was justified?”, then you must realize you are saying that there was a period of time that his sins were not imputed to Christ, that Christ’s righteousness was not imputed to him, and that, even though he was a vessel of mercy marked out by God for salvation, he was also sentenced to be condemned to eternal death by God.
Therefore, when God did justify Abraham, did God change His mind towards Abraham? I don’t believe the cross of Christ or our God-given faith in Christ changed God’s mind towards us. I believe the cross of Christ and our God-given faith in Christ reveals what God’s mind always was, has been, and always will be towards us. Either way, none of this is accomplished without the merits of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us and all of it brings the assurance of God bringing us to hear the Gospel and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
I hope and pray, David, that this will give you some food for thought and begin a profitable and edifying discussion between all of us as believers. I also would refer you to the article written by Brother John Pedersen which is a very well-written treatment of this issue. I agree with him on this and can say, as he wrote,
Justification from eternity? Yes.
Justification at the cross? Yes.
Justification by faith? Yes.