Justification By Faith: Historical Versus Biblical

By Joseph R Holder

Is our eternal justification solely by the merits and grace of Jesus Christ? If so, where does justification by faith come into the picture? In this edition of Gospel Gleanings, Elder Joe Holder examines the concept in light of scripture, rather than Reformed or Arminian tradition. ~Editor

Gospel Gleanings: July 8, 2007

Dear Friends,

Sadly the history of Christianity is riddled with examples of sincere Christians adopting terms that do not appear in Scripture, as well as redefining terms that do appear in Scripture, but with a revised definition not supported by or in harmony with Scripture. I suspect that the original Reformation use of “justification by faith” was intended to distinguish the Reformers’ view of justification from the Roman Catholic Church’s view of justification by works. If so, its intent was to affirm justification not by human works. When I read the Reformers and consider their backgrounds and the time in which they lived, I deeply respect and admire them. However, they do not—and must not—become the third testament in my/our Bible. They were not inspired. Their writings and beliefs were not without error or flaw. Scripture requires us to judge them, no less than our own ideas, by the faithful and exclusive rule of Scripture alone, or as they might have expressed the idea in Latin Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone.

In our day it is as non-descript to refer to one’s theological beliefs as “Reformed” as to refer to them as “Baptist.” Neither term is a unifying and consistent term that describes a single theological belief. I find it fascinating in our time that the typical “Reformed” believer will freely voice polarizing hostility against the theological beliefs of James Arminius, but, upon careful examination, their own beliefs produce precisely the same outcome as the beliefs of Arminius’ followers. Both systems as taught today predict exactly the same number of people being eventually saved. In some cases more radical Reformation theology actually predicts far fewer people being saved than Arminian theology.

Many years ago I realized that the Reformation theological use of “justification by faith,” at least in its current use, is distinctly different from the Bible’s use of that term. This week’s study examines that distinction and seeks to reaffirm the Biblical view of both our legal or “forensic” justification in Jesus alone and our cognitive, experiential justification by faith that relates to our knowledge and belief of the truth of the gospel regarding the work of Jesus on our behalf.

God bless,
Joe Holder

Justification by Faith: Historical Versus Biblical

I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen. (Romans 9:1-5)

Clarification of the distinction between the historical and the Biblical views of justification by faith, I believe, lies at the heart of Paul’s rather abrupt change of mood between the eighth and ninth chapters of Romans. In this chapter we will examine some of the major themes of this term, justification by faith, from the Reformed-historical and from the Biblical perspective.


While I do not suggest that all theologians who identify themselves with “Reformed theology” or with the Protestant Reformation hold to the view described, I do suggest that the view outlined below is representative of a significant majority of “Reformed” believers. I will suggest in this chapter that the view in question hopelessly confuses our legal standing before God because of the atonement and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ with the cognitive personal experience of that truth when one believes in Jesus. I will make the case that Scripture distinguishes these two events in the life of one of God’s elect children, rather than confusing them or treating them as if they were one and the same event.

Regardless of the interpretation one makes of our justification, most New Testament linguistic authorities are agreed that the New Testament term “justify” in any of its various forms is equivalent to the act of a judge in a legal trial when he declares or announces his verdict. Thus a generally accepted definition of the term “justified” is “declared righteous.” It is my belief that our righteous legal standing, herein referred to as “forensic justification,” is based wholly on the atoning work of Christ and was officially “declared” from heaven’s Judge by and at Jesus’ resurrection from the grave (Romans 4:25). Further it is my belief that when a regenerate elect person comes to believe in Jesus and His perfect work of atonement and justification, that he/she experiences the conscious, or cognitive, sense of comfort that stands on the legal fact of our forensic justification in and by Christ. Thus the forensic aspects of our justification occurred simultaneously for all of God’s elect at Jesus’ resurrection. However, experiential or cognitive awareness and comfort in that truth is individually experienced only to the extent of our individual belief in Christ and our understanding of the gospel truth of His finished work. Our experience of justification, justification by faith, relies on our prior forensic justification in Christ, but our forensic justification in Christ does not depend on our experiential or cognitive awareness.

Consider this brief quote from a respected Reformed web site (identified in the footnote).

Election precedes Regeneration; Regeneration (new birth) precedes faith. When God regenerates you, faith is born in your soul. You are enabled to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ and you are justified (declared righteous forensically based on the merits of Christ on your behalf).(1)

Much of this quote is altogether Biblical from my personal perspective, but its conclusion violates its beginning. I believe Scripture clearly teaches that election is individual and personal, a primary tenet of Biblical election that many who claim to believe in it reject in our time, favoring what they describe as “class election” (God chose Jesus as His elect. Then all who by their cooperation with God put themselves into Jesus become elect as a class of people in Him. This view makes God’s election reactive to the human decision, despite its claim to embrace Biblical election.). I also believe that election necessarily precedes regeneration. Paul described our being in Christ as a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), not as a new evolution, and not as a synergetic “theistic evolution” event in which evolution occurs but under God’s control and direction. Jesus clearly affirmed this truth in His conversation with Nicodemus (early verses in the third chapter of John’s gospel), repeatedly making the point that no one possesses the ability either to see or to enter the kingdom of God prior to regeneration. By His choice of the analogy of “birth” to this new family relationship with God, Jesus affirmed that we do not control, initiate, or serve as instruments in the life-imparting processes of regeneration, the new birth in which God imparts eternal, spiritual life into an individual, making one who previously was an alien and an enemy to God now a member of God’s spiritual family.

I also affirm that regeneration, the new birth, precedes faith. In Galatians 5:22-23 Paul lists nine terms that describe the “fruit” of the Spirit, among them “faith.” If faith is the fruit of the Holy Spirit, it stands to reason that faith cannot cause the Holy Spirit to indwell someone, and it also stands to reason that an individual cannot have or exercise faith prior to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Thus I agree with the statement that “When God regenerates you, faith is born in your soul. You are enabled to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ.” In regeneration God imparts the ability to believe in Jesus. He doesn’t predestinate our belief, but He does indeed enable it by the attributes of spiritual life and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

The point of my disagreement with this quote appears in its closing. When the author defines “…you are justified,” he adds a parenthesis to define precisely what he means by justification, “…declared righteous forensically….” In other words the writer believes that our belief in Jesus is integral and inseparable from our “forensic” or legal standing of justification with God. According to the logical sequence outlined in this quote, however brief the time, we have the illogical and unbiblical situation of an individual who is elected, regenerated, and endowed with faith, but not yet forensically justified! This view clearly violates the Biblical order of forensic justification, as well as the Biblical description of the spiritual state of the person who believes in Jesus.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.(John 5:24, KJV)

Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him. (1 John 5:1, KJV)

Notice in John 5:24 that, according to Jesus, the hearing believer already possesses eternal life and has already passed from death to life. Are we to believe from Jesus’ words that such a person remains yet forensically unjustified? First John 5:1 affirms the same truth; the believer in Jesus is already born of God. Are we to believe that someone who has been born of God, even for a nano-second remains forensically unjustified? Advocates of this errant doctrine typically associate the new birth with one’s hearing and believing the gospel, so they typically compress the process into a very brief span of time as well as affirming that every person who is elected will hear and believe the gospel.

Further when dealing with “forensic justification,” Paul attributes our justification, our “forensic justification,” to the work of Jesus in the atonement. For example, Romans 4:25 affirms our justification as having occurred and having thus been declared, the technical “forensic” or legal meaning of “justification,” at the resurrection of Jesus, not at the time of our belief. In Romans 3:24 Paul affirms this truth by attributing our justification (surely our “forensic” justification) to divine grace “…through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” not through our belief in Jesus or our hearing of the gospel.

The author of the above quote cites a number of passages that supposedly support his thesis of forensic justification, among them the whole fourth chapter of Romans for his view of justification. However, Paul builds his reasoning throughout the fourth chapter of Romans on two Old Testament saints, Abraham and David. He quotes Genesis 15:6, “And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness,” and he quotes Psalm 32:1-2, “A Psalm of David, Maschil. Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.” (Psalm 32:1-2, KJV).

A study of Genesis 15:6 will clearly indicate that Abraham was a man of faith, a “Hall of Fame” man of faith, beginning with his leaving Ur of the Chaldees years earlier, likely more than a decade earlier. Thus Genesis 15:6 cannot—and is not—the first act of Abraham’s “saving faith,” a favorite term of those who hold to the historical-Reformed view of forensic justification by faith. Likewise, a thorough study of the complete text of the thirty-second Psalm will reveal a sin-conscious, sin-sick believer in God—I believe David himself, likely between the time of his sin with Bathsheba and Nathan’s confrontation of him for that sin—not an unregenerate person or a regenerated but not yet “forensically justified” person, the illogical view of the historical-Reformed view.

The Biblical View

Our “Forensic” Justification

I believe the best place in the Bible to understand the correct view of justification by faith is the fourth chapter of Romans. Based on the two Old Testament passages cited above and quoted by Paul at the beginning of this chapter, justification by faith is not forensic justification, but rather it refers to our experiential justification, the experience of a regenerated elect person who has already received the impartation of forensic justification immediately and inseparably in the new birth. The justifying event occurred in the death and resurrection of Jesus. At that time God as the eternal moral Judge of the universe pounded the gavel and announced His verdict; all for whom Jesus died, all of His elect or chosen people for all time, were declared free of sin and wholly innocent, the technical meaning of the New Testament term “justified.” The legal event was completed at Jesus’ resurrection. It does not await our belief in Jesus to become “forensic justification.” In the new birth God imparts His eternal life to us, a state that is inseparable from our present legal standing in the Lord Jesus Christ. We notice from Paul (Ephesians 1:4) that from the election event prior to God’s creation of the material universe all of His beloved elect people were identified in the Lord Jesus Christ. Our becoming identified in Jesus did not begin either with our new birth or with our belief in Jesus. In God’s eternal saving purpose we were chosen in Jesus before the events recorded in the first chapter of Genesis. Thus God accomplished our forensic justification when Jesus died for our sins, and declared the fact by and at Jesus’ resurrection. Our forensic justification, the verdict of heaven’s court, occurred at Jesus’ resurrection, and it occurred then for all of God’s elect.

Justification by Faith

Based on both Genesis 15:6 and on Psalm 32:1-2, our “justification by faith” as taught by Paul in the fourth chapter of Romans does not refer to our forensic justification, but to our experiential justification. Had the author of the above quote distinguished our forensic justification from our experiential justification, I would wholeheartedly agree with his thesis. His failure to make this distinction creates a hopeless confusion between the legal work of Jesus on our behalf and the accompanying forensic work of the Father for our justification and our personal sense or experience of that justification when we believe in Jesus. Paul’s choice of Old Testament passages to teach justification by faith in the fourth chapter of Romans clearly rejects the confused view that merges our forensic justification with our experience of that justification when we believe in Jesus. Hebrews 11:8 affirms that Abraham’s walk of exemplary faith began with his leaving Ur, not ten to fifteen years later in Genesis 15:6. (If Paul wrote the Hebrew letter as many New Testament scholars believe, his personal testimony affirms the existence of Abraham’s faith at least as far back in his life as his departure from Ur.) Simply stated Genesis 15:6 occurred over a decade too late to be Abraham’s initial act of faith, or, as the advocates of the historical view often describe it his act of “saving faith.” When confronted with the devastating impact of Hebrews 11:8 on their view, advocates of a human-centric (even if divinely caused) view that integrates our forensic justification with our experiential justification by faith will typically outright reject Hebrews 11:8, referring to Abraham’s walk of faith from his leaving Ur till the Genesis 15:6 event as “inferior faith, not rising to the quality of ‘saving faith.’” Let’s get this perfectly clear in our minds. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews contains a mixture of both inferior and superlative faith? Thus we see the extreme strategies to which very sincere believers will go to defend a view of justification that they attempt to impute into Scripture, but distinctly a view that does not grow out of Scripture.

Likewise Paul’s use of the thirty-second Psalm refutes the idea that the man who wrote the psalm and described his struggle with sin therein was a calloused unregenerate sinner. Read the psalm in its entirety, carefully taking note of the author’s intense struggle with his convicted conscience and his conclusion in which he confessed his sin and rejoiced to experience His loving Father’s forgiveness. Then read David’s prayer of confession and his plea for forgiveness after Nathan confronted him (Psalm 51) and take note of the multiple parallels between these two passages. I suggest the likelihood that Psalm 32 records David’s assessment of his own experience many years after his confession and prayer for God’s forgiveness (Psalm 51). If this be the case, from the time of David’s sin until Nathan’s confrontation, David struggled with a painfully convicting conscience for his sinful actions in the Uriah-Bathsheba affair. The conclusion in Psalm 32 praises God for forgiveness and healing, his realization of the depth of God’s loving forgiveness toward him.

Thus justification by faith in Scripture deals with our coming to understand God’s forensic justification of His elect and His loving work of grace that saves us from our sins and makes us His children, a state that Paul affirms in the closing verses of the eighth chapter of Romans is an inseparable state.

What does this have to do with Romans 9:1?

I suggest for your consideration that the specific Jews to whom Paul refers in Romans 9:1 with soul-rending grief were in fact regenerated, elect, and beloved Jews who had fully received the blessing of forensic justification but who failed to believe in Jesus and thus failed to experience the incredible joys of justification by faith. Why do I reach this conclusion? Paul takes me there. Let me explain.

1. In Romans 9:4-5 he describes these people with too many terms—and terms too specific—to refer merely to racial, cultural, or religious Jews.

2. In Romans 10: 2 he affirms that they have a zeal of God, not a trait that we can Biblically associate with unregenerate, non-elect people.

3. In Romans 10:6-8 Paul tells us (in his use of first person pronouns) that the “righteousness of faith” presently dwells in them. It already resides in their hearts.

4. And in Romans 11:28 Paul describes these people as being “…enemies for your sakes…” in reference to the gospel, but yet also as “…beloved for the fathers’ sakes.” These people were both beloved of God and yet enemies of the gospel. They were justified forensically but they were distinctly not justified by faith. In the ninth chapter Paul specifically relates God’s election to Jacob, one of the three patriarchal “fathers” of the nation of Israel, so he “closes the loop” in this passage by applying this double emphasis of their present state, beloved and yet enemies of the gospel. In the analogy of election in the ninth chapter Paul builds his case for election on God’s love for Jacob, not on Jacob’s deserving it. Likewise Paul’s identifying these Jews with one of the three patriarchal fathers of the Jewish people (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) affirms his thesis that they were in fact numbered in God’s chosen or elected people, but they were distinctly not manifesting any evidence of justification by faith in Christ. For this reason Paul grieves; they are indeed beloved of God and numbered among His elect children, but their rejection of Jesus as God Incarnate shut them off from the temporal blessings of justification by faith in Christ.

Little Zion Primitive Baptist Church
16434 Woodruff
Bellflower, California

Worship service each Sunday 10:30 A. M.
Joseph R. Holder Pastor

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