If Justification is Immutable…
Despite being well-supported in Scripture, the doctrine of the loss of justification is not widely held in the contemporary Evangelical-Reformed community. Instead, most believe and teach that justification is a one-time, legal declaration by God. Contemporary theologians explain that once the decree of “justified” has been declared it cannot be revoked regardless of a person’s future actions.
The idea that justification can be lost is a minority view among Reformed Evangelicals, but that does not necessarily make it wrong. All theologians understand that the majority of Christendom is not always right. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that when it comes to theology, the majority is more often in the wrong. Examples of this from history abound: only eight people made it onto Noah’s ark, the majority of the Old Testament Jews were apostate, Roman Catholics certainly outnumbered Protestants at the beginning of the Reformation, etc.
The point is that every doctrine, even if widely accepted and even doctrines which are at the core of the Reformed faith must be put to biblical test. Our goal throughout this series is to demonstrate that Scripture does not teach justification as a one-time, merely forensic declaration, but that it is a righteous and forgiven state before God which can be lost due to unrepentant sin. Justification is gained by grace through faith alone, but must be maintained through faithfulness. This doctrine is solidly supported through biblical theology and its support from systematic theology is just as sound.
Recently, we published an article highlighting twenty three Scripture passages which teach, imply or warn that a person can lose his justification. That article was followed up with a post about why it is consistent with both Scripture and Calvinistic soteriology to say that one can lose his justification, but that salvation cannot be lost. The doctrine of the loss of justification provides a framework that adds great depth and consistency to the theological unity of Scripture. On the other hand, the more commonly held position that justification is an immutable (unable to be changed) result of a one-time expression of faith causes theological problems throughout the Bible, in fact, the belief in an immutable state of justification undermines many orthodox doctrines. Here are a few:
If justification is immutable, then the doctrine of sola fide is destroyed.
All throughout the New Testament, we find examples of individuals who fall away or are warned about the possibility of falling away (Luke 8:13; Romans 4:5; Timothy 4:9-10; Hebrews 6:6). When asked about these examples, most Reformed theologians respond by explaining that the fact that these individuals fell away indicates that they were never justified in the first place. It is said that people such as this never exercised “saving faith,” that they possessed only “head knowledge without heart knowledge” or some similar idea. Because these theologians assume (without biblical support) that justification is immutable, there is no danger for a person who is truly justified via this true, saving or real faith (as opposed to surface, shallow or intellectual faith).
What these theologians fail to realize is that by using this argument, they undermine the doctrine of sola fide. Scripture is clear that the entrance into justification is by faith alone and the barest minimum of faith is enough to justify (Luke 17:6). There is no biblical distinction made between “faith” and “saving faith” or between “head” and “heart” knowledge. Nowhere do we find biblical authors teaching that justification comes about only if a person really, really, really believes. In this regard, those who hold to the doctrine of the loss of justification are far more consistent in regards to sola fide than that those who believe that it is immutable.
The theologians who believe that justification is a permanent result of an initial expression of true, saving, heartfelt or genuine faith are implying that a person can express faith and be baptized into the church, but that because their faith was lacking in some nebulous, subjective way, God secretly refuses to justify them. This is NOT sola fide.
If justification is immutable, then church discipline is an empty threat with no realistic consequences.
An immutable justification means that the removal from the covenant community (the final step of the process of church discipline) has no teeth. In fact, if one who has been excommunicated retains his justification, church discipline might actually seem like a better situation for the person who has been removed from the church. If justification remains intact, life without membership in the covenant community might actually be attractive to some folks. To eventually go to heaven without enjoying potlucks in the basement or having to deal with the interpersonal relationship stresses that come with church participation seems like a pretty good deal!
However, despite what some may say, Scripture makes it clear that there is no justification available to a person who is outside of the local biblical church. Thus, the only conclusion that we can make is that one who is removed from the covenant community has lost his justification. The belief in an immutable justification is logically inconsistent because it creates a class of believers who are on the “outs” with God’s people, but yet somehow still “in” with God. This is biblically impossible. All believers will be in a biblical, visible, local church – the Body of Christ (Acts 2:38-41; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; Ephesians 1:23). The person who is not in the visible, local church cannot be a believer and is therefore, not reconciled to God – i.e. not justified.
If justification is immutable, then obedience becomes optional.
Every single redemptive covenant between God and man has included the obligation to full compliance and faithful obedience on the part of the people of God (Genesis 2:15-17; Exodus 24:7; Jeremiah 7:1-7) and that includes the New Covenant (John 14:23). This commitment to faithfully obey all that God has commanded is the minimum requirement for the people of God – not as a means of earning or meriting justification (Galatians 3:11) – but as a means to maintain that state of justification. If were impossible to lose justification, then there would be no obligation for obedience. This is Paul’s point in Romans 6:1-11: one who has entered justification through faith must now die to sin.
Most popular teaching amongst evangelicals cannot ignore the existence of the commands to obedience in Scripture, but because they believe justification is immutable, they call believers to obedience only when that obedience is motivated by gratitude or love. In this scenario, obedience is merely a fruit of justification, but has no bearing on that continued state of justification. Since there is no possibility of losing justification, commands to obey are reduced to being nice but optional.
While Scripture prominently includes gratitude and love as legitimate motivation for obedience, but they are not the primary motivation for faithfulness. The most common and strongest reason for faithfulness is eternal life versus eternal death. For instance, look at Christ’s words in Mark 9:43-48, He says that it is an absolute imperative to take drastic action against sin in our lives, not because we love God, but because if we do not, we risk an eternity in hell. This does not exclude the motive of love, but if a believer did not have the hope of eternal life, would he still obey and/or love God?
All throughout the Gospels, the motivations that Christ gives for obedience overwhelmingly fall into two categories: either the reward of abundant life (John 10:10) or eternal punishment (Matthew 6:14). Our perseverance in faithful obedience all the way to the end will maintain our justification and result in eternal life. The refusal to maintain justification will result in damnation (Deuteronomy 6:2; Nehemiah 9:29; Matthew 19:17; John 3:36; Hebrews 12:9).
If justification is immutable, then apostasy is a myth.
How can one apostatize if the state of justification cannot be lost? According to modern popular theology, a person is either justified permanently or he was never justified in the first place. The problem is that this then makes apostasy into a hypothetical occurrence with no basis in reality. In this system, a person who is justified cannot fall away and a person who falls away was never justified in the first place, therefore no one can fall away from anything. So then why is apostasy even mentioned in Scripture? Can a person fall away from non-faith? The person who does not have justification cannot lose something that he does not have and the person who has justification cannot lose it . . . Who exactly is being warned?
The only logical – or should we say theological – reason for the biblical warnings is that apostasy is another way to say “loss of justification” and the loss of justification is very real possibility for individuals who exist within that state.
We find examples all through Scripture of individuals who are threatened with apostasy as well as people who actually do apostatize. One of the most compelling passages on the reality of apostasy is in the letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 where we find warnings of the following:
The removal of a lampstand (Revelation 2:5)
Injury via the second death (Revelation 2:11)
That Christ might “war against” them (Revelation 2:16)
Church members being struck dead (Revelation 2:23)
That Christ might come at them like a thief (Revelation 3:3)
Soiled garments (Revelation 3:4)
Being blotted out of the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5)
One’s crown being seized (Revelation 3:11)
Being spewed out of the mouth of God (Revelation 3:16)
All seven churches were warned in a general way about the danger of falling away and five were singled out and told that they were in an advanced position of risk. These are letters to true churches, not false churches; therefore, their justification must have been intact at the time of the writing of Revelation. There is no sense in which Christ was telling them that they did not have justification; He was telling the churches that they might lose it.
Those who hold to the immutability of justification are then left with only two options regarding the warnings in Revelation 2 and 3:
Option #1: These are woodenly literal and physical warnings. Meaning that Christ was going to remove an actual lampstand from the church at Ephesus or that God was planning to physically spit out the church at Laodicea, but their justification would remain intact. In other words, these threats have no spiritual consequences.
Option #2: Since no one can ever fall away or apostatize, these warnings are merely hypothetical.
The former is a ridiculous solution when compared with the latter, but neither is biblical. The warnings of apostasy in Revelation and the rest of Scripture are not mythical. These warnings are given by way of metaphorical language in order to communicate a literal truth: if these churches continued in sin, heresy or compromise, the result was going to be apostasy and the loss of justification.
If justification is immutable, then there is no reason for the Church to exist.
One of the roles of a biblical church is to define the parameters by which we both gain and maintain our justification. These parameters or limits of justification are based on the church’s interpretation of Scripture as the pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). It is the church who has been given the power and responsibility to both “bind” and “loose” (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5). The church provides ongoing evaluation and accountability for the genuineness of our faith. And the church is the repository of the signs or sacraments which are necessary for the maintenance of a right relationship with God (Hebrews 10:19-27).
If an immutable justification were the result of a one-time act of faith, then an ongoing commitment and fellowship in a local body of believers is nonsense with no real spiritual importance. Under the idea of immutable justification, the church becomes a social club for people who want affirmation and who have nothing better to do on Sunday mornings. Without the possibility of the loss of justification, the church truly becomes an empty formality with no real power. Those who hold to a one-time, permanent justification are teaching that church is nice, but if it doesn’t work for you, your justification and salvation are secure.
In fact, we see this doctrine at work today as a large majority of pastors believe their purpose is to simply to tell people over and over that they are justified without respect to that person’s relationship to the church or to the commands of God. These Bible teachers say: just believe in your justification and all will be well. Words such as these bear a strong resemblance to the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day who said, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” In the New Testament Paul tells us that there will men such as this in latter times as well: “While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.”(1 Thessalonians 5:3) That theme is also taken up by Peter: “They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” (2 Peter 2:19)
When the role of the church in justification is mentioned, there are many who respond by saying that their justification is the result of their being “in Christ” and by “in Christ” they mean some sort of mystical or metaphysical union with the person of Christ. However, if “in Christ” is biblically defined, this idea only serves to increase the role played by the church in justification because “in Christ” has a very specific New Testament meaning, that of “In the visible, local church.” (Biblically speaking, a person cannot be in the universal church without being in the local, visible church.) Since the church is the Body of Christ, a person cannot be “in Christ” unless he is in the church.
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. – Colossians 1:24
And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. – Ephesians 1:22-23
For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. – Ephesians 5:23
We know from Romans 8:1 that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ and this is a wonderful truth on the positive side. However, it implies that there is condemnation in store for those who are outside of Christ. Since in Christ is the same as in the church, it is theologically valid to say: there is justification for those who are in the church and there is no justification for those who are outside the church. Therefore, the entrance into the covenant community equals justification and the removal from the covenant community equals the loss of justification.
If justification is immutable, then a large number of the parables of Jesus are pointless.
For example, justification is a right state before God and includes forgiveness (among other things). This state is clearly not immutable in the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35 where Jesus tells the story of a servant who owed a large debt to his master. But instead of throwing the servant in prison, which was his legal right, the master had mercy and forgave the entire debt. Immediately afterward, the servant tracked down one of his own debtors and aggressively demanded repayment of the debt to the point of having that debtor thrown into prison. As the story goes, when the master heard what happened, he had the unforgiving servant imprisoned.
The point of this parable is the clear teaching that a person can be in a place of forgiveness with God, but if that person refuses to forgive in turn, that place or state of forgiveness will be lost.
A host of Christ’s parables present individuals who initially occupy a state of grace (justification), but who are later removed from that state of favor due to a lack of faithful obedience or perseverance on the part of that individual. Parables which teach or imply the loss of justification include the following: the Vine and branches, the man who lacked a wedding garment, the parable of the soils, the parable of the vineyard tenants, the prodigal son, the ten virgins and the parable of the talents.
Jesus offered cleansing and forgiveness (justification) through Himself alone, but warned throughout His earthly ministry that this justification could be lost. The Pharisees had been graciously born into a state of justification by virtue of being born the children of Abraham, but Christ warned them that this state of justification could change:
They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did. – John 8:39
Just a few verses earlier, Christ had said:
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:31-32
We come into justification by faith alone, we continue in justification by faithfulness. If we are unfaithful, we will lose our justification; this is a clear and consistent interpretation of at least seven of the parables of Jesus. Somewhat ironically, the assumption of an immutable justification was one of the errors made by the Pharisees and most of the Jews. However, if we operate under the same assumption, the parables of Christ become nice little moral stories instead of grave warnings of eternal judgment.
If justification is immutable, then pastors and churches are liars.
I John 5:13 tells us that we can be confident in our possession of eternal life. But since most pastors and churches characterize those who fall away as never having had justification in the first place and we cannot know who might or might not fall away, pastors should never speak of a person as being justified for fear of being shown to be a liar.
Yet we find the Apostle Paul doing exactly that in 1 Corinthians 6:11 where he tells the Corinthian believers that they are justified. If Paul believed that justification were immutable, he would have had no reason in the future to relay any biblical commands or to exhort those believers to be reconciled to God, right? If they were permanently justified in 1 Corinthians 6:11, any future reconciliation would be pointless, right?
Paul does exactly that in 2 Corinthians 5:20 where he begs the Corinthians to “be reconciled to God” and then in the next chapter, he tells them that “now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Paul knew that the Corinthian believers were justified in his first letter, but by the time he wrote his final letter to this church, they had lost this state of justification because of persistent sin.
Was Paul lying with biblical warrant in his first letter? No. A person who exercises faith and enters the covenant is justified, plain and simple. But he will not be saved if he does not remain faithful to that covenant. Paul believed and taught the doctrine of the loss of justification.
If justification is immutable, then the marriage covenant is irrelevant to salvation.
Throughout Scripture, God’s relationship to His people is the marriage covenant. The principles of human marriage as given in Scripture are the same as the principles of our marriage with Him.
Two people enter into a marriage by simply making vows of fidelity and they are no less married five minutes or fifty years after making those vows. However, both understand that they are submitting to the obligation of faithfulness for the rest of their lives. One’s faithfulness in a marriage is never seen as a payment or as earning the blessings of marriage. But that does not change the fact that a marriage covenant is bi-lateral and can be broken by unfaithfulness on the part of one of the parties (Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; 1 Corinthians 7:12-16).
God’s redemptive relationships with His people have always been governed by these principles. Under the Old Covenant, God called Israel His wife (Isaiah 54:5), when they were unfaithful, He called them a whore (Jeremiah 3:6-10) and eventually He divorced His wife, Israel (Revelation 5:1-14, The Transfer of the Kingdom from the Jews to the Church). Likewise, God’s relationship with His people under the New Covenant is governed by the same marriage covenant, but this time we enter by faith and baptism, not ethnicity and circumcision. The obligation to covenant faithfulness is still the same – not as a means to earn or merit a right relationship with God – but as the way in which we maintain that relationship.
The reason that much of Christianity has so many problems is because people are being taught that they can be unfaithful and yet remain married to God. It is a grave error to assume we can be unfaithful to Christ without consequences. Unfaithfulness will destroy our marriage covenant with Christ just as surely as unfaithfulness will destroy an earthly marriage.
If justification is immutable, then the final judgment according to deeds is a kangaroo court.
Is the final judgment a rubber stamp of approval or disapproval? Is the final judgment just an empty exercise, a mere formality? Or will our faithfulness really be judged? Were Jesus, John, Paul and Peter serious when they wrote or said the following?
I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak. – Matthew 12:36
For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. – Matthew 16:27
But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. – Romans 2:5-8
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. – Romans 8:13
So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. – Romans 14:12
Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. – 1 Corinthians 4:5
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. – 2 Corinthians 5:10
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God. – 2 Thessalonians 1:5
And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. – Hebrews 4:13
And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile. – 1 Peter 1:17
For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? – 1 Peter 4:17
And I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. – Revelation 2:23
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. – Revelation 20:12-13
If those passages are not enough to prove that the final judgment will be a real evaluation of faithfulness, then you are on the verge of questioning the veracity of Scripture.
There are some who believe that the final judgment will only consider whether a person had “faith” or not, but Matthew 7:21-23 tells us that this judgment will evaluate more than just belief. There will be many at the final judgment who have intellectual faith – they believe in Christ – but they will be condemned because they were “workers of lawlessness” and did not “do the will” of the Father. They were selective instead of comprehensive in their obedience. The final judgment will be an evaluation of whether or not a person demonstrated faithfulness in their marriage to God.
Entrance into a saving relationship with Christ is one of the easiest and simplest, but most important acts that a person can undertake. Scripture makes it clear that justification is a free gift given on the basis of faith, but once given that gift, a person must persevere in faithfulness all the way to the end. Christ warns that it is important to understand the gravity and scope of this decision because one who does not follow through in this commitment cannot be a disciple (Luke 14:26-33).
When many people understand the obligation that is necessary for the maintenance of justification, they wonder if covenant faithfulness is possible. This concern is not a new one for the people of God and while covenant faithfulness requires discipline (1 Timothy 4:7), denial (Luke 9:23) and self-control (Acts 24:25), it is possible for one who has the Holy Spirit (John 16:7; Romans 8:27) and who seeks God with his whole heart (Jeremiah 29:13).
The great blessing is that we can maintain faithfulness to the covenant! God has provided a way to Him that is possible. Moses told Israel that God’s commandments were “not too hard for you, neither is it far off . . . the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14) The Apostle Paul quoted from Deuteronomy in order to make the very same point in Romans 10:6-10: “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.” Finally, the writer of Hebrews tells his readers that, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Hebrews 12:4)
Through the enabling of the Holy Spirit and the support of the covenant community, it is possible for the believer to remain faithful the covenant all the way to the end in order to receive the promise of eternal life.
Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.
For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.
For, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”
But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. – Hebrews 10:35-39