In anticipation of part two of “When Was Abraham Justified?” and particularly the explication of what exactly Genesis 15:6 means if it does not designate the point at which Abraham was converted and justified, I’d like to bring up the related issue of the frequency of forensic justification before God. Most evangelicals today speak of justification as a one-time act that takes place at the moment when saving faith is first exercised. This declaration is unique, unalterable, and unrepeatable.1
I was surprised a year or two ago to find out that Luther and Calvin didn’t see it quite that way, or at least didn’t always express it that way. Rather, they acknowledged the necessity of thinking of justification as an ongoing and continual experience and perhaps a repeated occurrence. This is to be carefully distinguished from a process whereby the justified individual becomes progressively more justified than he was before, increasing in his righteous status. Luther and Calvin both affirm that the believing sinner is just as forensically righteous when he first believes as he ever will be. The real issue is whether justification should be considered a one-time, unrepeatable act whereby God imputes Christ’s righteousness once and for all to the believer’s account or whether it should be connected to faith as often as it is exercised so that the believer may be said to be justified repeatedly.2
While we finds hints of the concept of a repeated or continual justification in Luther and Calvin, it is most clearly set forth in Brakel. The italics in the quoted text below is mine and is added for emphasis.
Here are two selections from Luther:
The adversaries do not want to admit this. Therefore they laugh when we say that faith justifies and yet sin remains. For they do not believe that incredible magnitude of God’s power and mercy beyond all mercy. He who is righteous is willing to concede this, but he who is not righteous wants to consider himself righteous. This imputation is not something of no consequence, but is greater than the whole world and all the holy angels. Reason does not see this, for there is a kind of neglect of the Word of God. But we should give thanks to God, I say, because we have such a Savior who is able to cover us and to count our sin as nothing. For God’s mercy is pardoning and love is meanwhile forgiving, and God really takes sin in such a way that it does not remain sin, because he begins materially to purge and to forgive completely. On no condition is sin a passing phase, but we are justified daily by the unmerited forgiveness of sins and by the justification of God’s mercy. Sin remains, then, perpetually in this life, until the hour of the last judgment comes and then at last we shall be made perfectly righteous. For this is not a game or delusion, that we say, “Sins are forgiven by faith and only cling to us, because that newness of life has miraculously begun.” In short, the term “to be justified” means that a man is considered righteous.3
The imputation of God is greater than pure justification. For justification is the greatest, because it does not impute the sin which remains in human nature, as if it did not exist, but rather it shows that righteousness exists on account of Christ. Faith perceives that the love of God conceals sins. The mercy of God thus makes nothing out of all sin, just as he created all things out of nothing. We are urged by reason and knowledge of philosophy to attain to a knowledge of the gospel. Daily we sin, daily we are continually justified, just as a doctor is forced to heal sickness day by day until it is cured.4
Here are two selections from Calvin:
It is certain that David [in Psalm 32] is not speaking of the ungodly but of believers such as he himself was, because he was giving utterance to the feelings of his own mind. Therefore we must have this blessedness not once only, but must hold it fast during our whole lives.5 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. 5:18, 19). Hence believers have not even to the end of life any other righteousness than that which is there described.6
Abram was justified by faith many years after he had been called by God . . . . It therefore follows, that even to the end of life, we are led towards the eternal kingdom of God by the righteousness of faith. On which point many are too grossly deceived. For they grant, indeed, that the righteousness which is freely bestowed upon sinners and offered to the unworthy is received by faith alone; but they restrict this to a moment of time, so that he who at the first obtained justification by faith, may afterwards be justified by good works. By this method, faith is nothing else than the beginning of righteousness, whereas righteousness itself consists in a continual course of works. But they who thus trifle must be altogether insane. For if the angelical uprightness of Abram faithfully cultivated through so many years, in one uniform course, did not prevent him from fleeing to faith, for the sake of obtaining righteousness; where upon earth besides will such perfection be found, as may stand in God’s sight? Therefore, by a consideration of the time in which this was said to Abram, we certainly gather, that the righteousness of works is not to be substituted for the righteousness of faith, in any such way, that one should perfect what the other has begun; but that holy men are only justified by faith, as long as they live in the world. If any one object, that Abram previously believed God, when he followed Him at His call, and committed himself to His direction and guardianship, the solution is ready; that we are not here told when Abram first began to be justified, or to believe in God; but that in this one place it is declared, or related, how he had been justified through his whole life. For if Moses had spoken thus immediately on Abram’s first vocation, the cavil of which I have spoken would have been more specious; namely, that the righteousness of faith was only initial (so to speak) and not perpetual. But now since after such great progress, he is still said to be justified by faith, it thence easily appears that the saints are justified freely even unto death. I confess, indeed, that after the faithful are born again by the Spirit of God, the method of justifying differs, in some respect, from the former. For God reconciles to himself those who are born only of the flesh, and who are destitute of all good; and since he finds nothing in them except a dreadful mass of evils, he counts them just, by imputation. But those to whom he has imparted the Spirit of holiness and righteousness, he embraces with his gifts. Nevertheless, in order that their good works may please God, it is necessary that these works themselves should be justified by gratuitous imputation; but some evil is always inherent in them. Meanwhile, however, this is a settled point, that men are justified before God by believing not by working; while they obtain grace by faith, because they are unable to deserve a reward by works. . . . The righteousness even of the most perfect characters perpetually consists in faith; since Abram, with all the excellency of his virtues, after his daily and even remarkable service of God, was, nevertheless, justified by faith.7
This concept is most explicit in Brakel:
God justifies man by faith, and thus justification is God’s judicial pronouncement toward man. This sentence is not only pronounced once upon the first act of faith, but is made as frequently and as often as man exercises faith in Christ unto justification. This is not an assurance that they are justified once and for all, but it constitutes an actual and daily act of forgiveness.8
The justification which occurs upon the first act of faith, and which occurs time and again after that, each time includes the forgiveness of sins—sins to be committed subsequently virtualiter, that is, as far as virtue and efficacy are concerned; thus declaring that they would also each time be forgiven actualiter, that is, actually. However, sins cannot be forgiven in actuality prior to being committed.9
Thus the basis for all their abominable and carnal propositions is a misconception and abuse of the doctrine of justification. They therefore answer the question presented above by stating that justification does not occur frequently and daily, but that it has occurred once and for all.
Having said this by way of preface, we shall now proceed to prove the following truth: Justification from eternity, at the time of Christ’s death, or upon the first act of faith, did not take place so as to exclude daily justification in reference to committed sins.10
If you are aware of others who spoke (or speak) this way about justification, please share in the comments.
Several observations can be made:
- One could argue that Calvin and Luther have in mind merely the ongoing experience of being righteous before God, which is always connected to faith alone, rather than justification itself being repeated. But it must be admitted that Luther and Calvin are not so careful as modern-day evangelicals to speak of justification only in terms of conversion. In fact, I think it would not be an entirely accurate reflection of the Reformers’ conception of justification to speak of it as we customarily do.
- What may be implicit in Calvin and Luther is unmistakably explicit in Brakel, who makes it clear that it is not the mere experience of justification that is repeated, but the very act itself.
- In all three the focus on forgiveness of sins is predominant (i.e., rather than focusing on the corresponding imputation of Christ’s righteousness). The logic is something like this: since forgiveness of sins is an ongoing reality and since justification includes the forgiveness of sins, it is necessary, then, to see justification at least in this sense as being a daily act.
Perhaps this raises more questions than it answers. Good. That was largely my intent. I will try to tie up the loose ends in my part two of “When Was Abraham Justified?”
Update: Dane Ortlund points out this quote from William Fenner:
We must use the assurance of faith in applying the blood of Christ; we must labor to purge and cleanse our consciences with it. If we find that we have sinned, we must run presently [at once] to the blood of Christ to wash away our sin. We must not let the wound fester or exulcerate, but presently get it healed. . . . As we sin daily, so he justifies daily, and we must daily go to him for it. . . . We must every day eye the brazen serpent. Justification is an everrunning fountain, and therefore we cannot look to have all the water at once. . . . O let us sue out every day a daily pardon. . . . Let us not sleep one night without a new pardon. Better sleep in a house full of adders and venomous beasts than sleep in one sin. O then be sure with the day to clear the sins of the day: Then shall our consciences have true peace. ((A Treatise of Conscience, in Works, 1651 ed., 108–9. Quoted in J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life Wheaton: Crossway, 1994, 115. I’ve modernized the English spelling.))
- Surely justification by works, about which James speaks, and future justification should also be brought into the discussion at this point, but I must resist heading in that direction—at least for now. ↩
- At the heart of this question are the meanings of and relationship between justification and imputation, which take shape in these two main issues: (1) whether justification is a declaration of righteousness to be distinguished from imputation or whether imputation is a subset of justification (or perhaps whether they are identical), and (2) whether imputation is best viewed as an accounting term of crediting (which would suggest one-time and unrepeatable) or whether it carries the idea of reckoning or considering (which would lend itself to repeated occurrences. ↩
- LW, 34:167. ↩
- LW, 34:191. ↩
- Editor’s Note: In these days of “crisis evangelism,” and of crisis “decisions for Christ” upon which professing Christians so often rest their lifelong confidence concerning their possession and assurance of eternal life, this point is in great need of being stressed. Calvin most assuredly speaks frequently of conversion and of initial entrance into Christ’s kingdom as a definite act, but he does not (as so many in our day appear to do) stop there! Rather, he stresses that, just as the regenerate man is initially reconciled to God by faith, so he continues throughout his entire lifetime to have imputed to him the forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of Christ by faith. This emphasis, then, upon the Christian life as a life of faith (rather than merely one initial step of faith), a life of reconciliation and forgiveness (rather than merely one initial experience of reconciliation), a life of justification (rather than merely one initial act of justification) is very important for a proper understanding of many of Calvin’s terms, concepts, and constructions. ↩
- ICR, trans. and ed. Beveridge, III, xiv, 11. ↩
- “Genesis 15:6,” Genesis, Calvin’s Commentaries. ↩
- The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 2:358. ↩
- Ibid., 2:378. ↩
- Ibid., 2:380. ↩