Grace, Justification, and Election
Part II: Justification

Related Posts: Why Covenants? ; Grace ; Election ; Faith and Charity ; Justification and Salvation

The word justify can mean (1) innocence before the law, (2) reconciliation with God, and (3) to be shown to be correct (vindication). Unless otherwise stated the word justification is used in the sense of (1), innocence before the law.

The term justification generally can be thought of as the language of the courts. For example, if the outcome of a trial is decided in your favor you have been justified. This is the context which Isaiah uses:

All the nations have gathered together so that the peoples may be assembled. Who among them can declare this and proclaim to us the former things? Let them present their witnesses that they may be justified, Or let them hear and say, “It is true.” (NASB, Isa. 43:9)

The opposite of justification is condemnation: “by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37; See also Alma 41:15).

In the Mormon view works alone cannot justify us. The reason is partly due to our unsteadiness.

AND thus we can behold how false, and also the unsteadiness of the hearts of the children of men; yea…how quick to do iniquity, and how slow to do good, are the children of men,…how quick to boast, and do all manner of that which is iniquity; and how slow are they to remember the Lord their God, and to give ear unto his counsels, yea, how slow to walk in wisdom’s paths!
(Hel. 12:1-5)

At one moment we repent and obey, and in the next we sin. Consequently, “no man is justified by the law in the sight of God” (Gal. 3:11, compare 2 Nephi 2:5). Or in the words of Lehi, “by the law men are cut off…[and] perish from that which is good” (2 Nephi 2:5).

We know that obedience cannot remove the stain of sin. If we live our entire life righteously and commit only one sin we cannot be saved, “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Therefore, if I do 50 bad things and 51 good things the scales of justice do not tip in my favor. Only repentance can free us from the law’s condemnation; and forgiveness is freely available to those who are willing to repent.

Repentance and justification
Another meaning of justification is reconciliation with God. Luke 18:11-14 reads,

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

The publican was justified because he sought true repentance and desired to live according to God’s commandments. (Apparently the boasting which the Pharisee demonstrated was common.) Those who truly humble themselves before God naturally desire to be obedient. These are they who are justified with God--this has been described as a right relationship with God. “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (ESV, Rom. 4:2). Abraham was indeed obedient to God’s commandments, but his justification did not come by works alone. Just as the Pharisee who fasted twice a week, did not commit adultery, and paid tithes was not justified by his works. To be justified we must “acknowledge [our] unworthiness before God at all times” (Alma 38:14) and continually repent. The word for this effort is penitent.[1] “Thus, none but the truly penitent are saved” (Alma 42:24).[2] [3]

Justification as a “right relationship” (reconciliation) and justification as innocence before the law are inseparable. One describes humility before God; the other describes one’s standing in regard to his law.

Justice and mercy
Since justification is linked to our standing before God in relation to his law we must also consider the law of justice and mercy. Since mercy through the atonement of Christ brings freedom from eternal punishment, atonement is then part of justification.

And thus we see that all mankind were fallen, and they were in the grasp of justice; yea, the justice of God, which consigned them forever to be cut off from his presence. And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also. (Alma 42:14-15)

This is consistent with what was said above: those who acknowledge their unworthiness before God and seek repentance are justified. Only in this way will the atonement satisfy the demands of justice, and only then will the penitent sinner be innocent before the law and be reconciled to God.

Works of the law
For some people obedience means nothing more than blindly following tradition. But righteous obedience is motivated by love: “this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3).

Paul poses then answers the question, “Where is boasting then? It is excluded.” He then asks, “By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.” That is, being proud of our obedience is excluded by the necessity of having faith. “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:27-28). “The deeds of the law” is a phrase that expresses the deeds required by the law--the external forms of obedience. Those who are obedient only to the deeds of the law “are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27). Jesus condemns this hypocrisy:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. (NIV, Matt. 23:23)

The crime of esteeming “the deeds of the law” more than the purpose of the law was so pervasive that it provoked Jesus’ emotive cry against the Pharisees and teachers of the law: “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (NIV, Matt. 23:33). As Jesus said, we must practice the latter without neglecting the former. Mercy and justice are not “deeds of the law.” But rather, attempts to be merciful and just are reflections of our love and respect for others, and for God; they are reflections of a good conscience.

The necessity of having faith-centered obedience and abandoning blind, and sometimes hypocritical, obedience is conveyed by Paul’s statement: “a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (NKJV, Rom. 3:28). That is, justification is something separate and apart from the external forms of worship. If we do not “[neglect] the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness,” then justification is through faith. Had Israel obeyed the law of Moses with the love of God, rather than list obedience, they could have been justified by their faith (Rom. 9:31-32).

More on justification
There are two good reasons justification is not through obedience to commandments. Firstly, it is impossible to be totally obedient, thus all are guilty. Secondly, our obedience is an obligation that cannot free us from condemnation--good deeds to not wipe out bad ones. But there is also a third: “I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them,” said King Benjamin (Mosiah 4:29; compare Acts 13:39). The law doesn’t list every possible way to break a commandment, and therefore perfect obedience to a list of commandments is insufficient to be innocent before the law--just think of all the ways it is possible not to love thy neighbor. Innocence comes only through Christ’s atonement.

Obedience in faith is necessary
Since faith can be thought of as a principle of action it precedes righteous action and is always coupled to righteous obedience (James 2:26). Here are several examples. (All italics mine.) “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice…By faith Noah…prepared an ark… By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out…obeyed; and he went out…By faith he sojourned in the land of promise. By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac…By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid three months of his parents” (Heb. 11). We know that Abraham “believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). We also know that “the devils also believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). So Abraham is not believing in God passively, but believing and keeping the commandments. “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God” (Rom. 8:14).

[For Abraham], contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, “So shall your descendants be.” And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. And therefore “it was accounted to him for righteousness.” (NKJV, Rom. 4:18-22)

Just as unbelief is coupled to disobedience, faith is coupled to a desire and an effort to be obedient--it does not say that Abraham believed God and spent his time in riotous living. Though he and his wife were too old to have children, Abraham believed that God could deliver what was promised to him and continued in obedience. Had this not been so, Abraham’s faith would not have been “accounted to him for righteousness” (Gal. 3:6; italics mine).

Divine approbation
There is another sense of the word justification. If one’s actions or decisions are shown to be wise we can say they were justified, or shown to be correct. This is the sense of “wisdom is justified of her children” (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:35). Or as it reads in the ALT: “wisdom was justified [or, vindicated] by her children” (brackets and italics original). It is also the sense of “justifying the righteous, by giving him according to his righteousness” (2 Chron. 6:23). (The ESV reads, “vindicating the righteous.”)

James taught that “Abraham our father [was] justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?” (James 2:21-22). Abraham was tested in that he was commanded to sacrifice his “only son.” In bringing his son to the sacrificial altar he demonstrated his willingness to be obedient to all God’s commandments. After which God said to Abraham:

because thou hast done this thing…I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice. (Gen. 22:16-18)[4]

Abraham was justified in that his obedience was shown (through the blessing he received) to be righteous.

Final thoughts
We must first do all that we can do, then grace will be given: “Believe in Christ, and…be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23; italics mine). Doing “all we can do” is necessary to receiving forgiveness, and it is forgiveness in Christ Jesus that justifies us before the law. So works are necessary to justification through their necessity to forgiveness.[5] Repentance sometimes requires restitution.[6]

Exodus 23:7 reads, “for [God] will not justify the wicked.” And 2 Chronicles 6:23 says, “Then hear thou from heaven, and do, and judge thy servants, by [punishing] the wicked, by recompensing his way upon his own head.” This seems to be a direct contradiction of Romans 4:5 which reads, “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” This is clarified by the JST: “But to him that seeketh not to be justified by the law of works, but believeth on him who justifieth not the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” And finally, “ye are justified of faith and works, through grace” (JST, Rom. 4:16).

In LDS beliefs works are a necessary part of God’s plan of salvation. But understanding our obligations to God, that God is never indebted to us, that obedience does not wipe out sin, and that all blessings including salvation are a gift, clarifies the meaning of the phrase “by grace ye are saved.”

Statements from notable Protestants
regarding justification

What follows are some statements about justification. The following quotations were taken from A. W. Pink’s book, “The Doctrine of Justification,” chapter two.

“We simply explain justification to be an acceptance by which God receives us into His favour and esteems us as righteous persons; and we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ…Justification, therefore, is no other than an acquittal from guilt of him who was accused, as though his innocence has been proved. Since God, therefore, justifies us through the mediation of Christ, He acquits us, not by an admission of our personal innocence, but by an imputation of righteousness; so that we, who are unrighteous in ourselves, are considered as righteous in Christ” (John Calvin, 1559).

“What is justification? Answer: Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which He pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in His sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone” (Westminster Catechism, 1643).

A. W. Pink wrote the following about justification: “It is not that God treats as righteous one who is not actually so (that would be fiction), but that He actually constitutes the believer so, not by infusing a holy nature in his heart, but by reckoning the obedience of Christ to his account. Christ’s obedience is legally transferred to him so that he is now rightly and justly regarded as righteous by the Diving Law” (A. W. Pink, “The Doctrine of Justification,” chapter 5; parenthesis original).

Those who believe in justification by faith alone use the following scriptures to support their view. Romans 4:5, God “justifieth the ungodly.” (Note, the JST reads “justifieth not the ungodly.”) And those who have accepted Christ are “now justified by his blood” (Rom. 5:9; italics mine) and “have been justified by faith” (Rom. 5:1; italics mine). And “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28). They also interpret James 2:24, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only,” to mean that works are an effect of faith. “[Paul] speaks of our persons being justified before God, [James] speaks of our faith being justified before men…Thus we see that our persons are justified before God by faith, but our faith is justified before men by works” (Matthew Henery’s Commentary on the Bible). It is true that James speaks of the effects of faith before men: “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works” (Jas. 2:18; italics mine).

Theologian William Barclay writes,

“[Justification] means that God treats sinners as if they had not been sinners at all. Instead of treating them as criminals to be obliterated, God treats them as children to be loved. That is what justification means. It means that God treats us not as his enemies but as his friends…That is the very essence of the Gospel.

“That means that to be justified is to enter into a new relationship with God, a relationship of love and confidence and friendship…Justification (dikaiosune) is the right relationship between God and human beings. The person who is just (dikaios) is someone who is in this right relationship, and – here is the supreme point – who is in it not because of anything that he or she has done, but because of what God has done. Such people are in this right relationship not because they have meticulously performed the works of the law, but because in utter faith they have cast themselves on the amazing mercy and love of God. (William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans, p. 27; italics original).

It is only fair to point out that not every Protestant writer would go so far as to say, “Christ’s obedience is legally transferred to [the sinners account].” Barclay’s statement is impresumptuous: justification comes “because in utter faith they have cast themselves on the amazing mercy and love of God.”

I must admit, I cannot find a scripture that says the righteousness of one person is reckoned to another. The following quote is taken from Vincent’s Word Studies, commentary on Romans 4:5. It is quoted exactly as given:

“Observe that the believer's own faith is reckoned as righteousness. ‘In no passage in Paul’s writings or in other parts of the New Testament, where the phrase to reckon for or the verb to reckon alone is used, is there a declaration that anything belonging to one person is imputed, accounted, or reckoned to another, or a formal statement that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers’ (President Dwight, ‘Notes on Meyer’).”

Our differences in belief can be made evident by comparing passages from the Joseph Smith Translation with the King James Version. The strikeouts indicate things removed and the brackets indicate things added.

Rom. 4:5 But to him that worketh not [seeketh not to be justified by the law of works], but believeth on him that justifieth [not] the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.

Rom. 4:6 Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without [the law of] works,

Rom. 4:16 Therefore it is [ye are justified] of faith [and works], that it might be by [through] grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all,

Rom. 8:8 So then they that are in [after] the flesh cannot please God.

Rom. 8:30 Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified [sanctified]: and whom he justified [sanctified], them he also glorified.

End Notes____________________________
[1] Penitent: “Suffering pain or sorrow of heart on account of sins, crimes or offenses; contrite; sincerely affected by a sense of guilt and resolving on amendment of life” (Webster’s 1828 Dictionary).

Contrite: “Literally, worn or bruised. Hence, broken-hearted for sin; deeply affected with grief and sorrow for having offended God; humble; penitent; as a contrite sinner” (Ibid.).

[2] We can imagine that Abraham’s humility was not unlike Nephi’s who said,

O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted. (2 Nephi 4:17-19)

[3] Recall that after a woman of ill repute anointed Jesus’ feet with oil and washed them with her tears, the Pharisees complained saying, “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.” Jesus answered by saying, “Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven…Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.” The point is that we all need much repentance, and if we repent a lot we are forgiven a lot: “as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me” (Mosiah 26:30). But if we repent little we are forgiven little and our love and gratitude to God is equally small: “to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” But those who seek repentance are blessed of God. This woman had “wash his feet with [her] tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.” She had a testimony that Jesus could forgive sins and by her sorrow and actions sought true repentance. But only after she had performed those works did Jesus say, “Thy sins are forgiven.”

[4] This act was the final test for Abraham to receive a guarantee that he would inherit eternal life. Elder Bruce R. McConkie said,

“By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord,” was the language used by Deity in giving the promise of eternal life “unto Abraham.” (Gen. 22:15-16.) That is, God swore with an oath in his own name that Abraham would be saved, which divine assertion absolutely guaranteed the eventuality. Abraham’s calling and election was thus made sure. (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Vol. 3, p. 164)

[This act of being sealed up unto eternal life is] when the ratifying seal of approval is placed upon someone whose calling and election is thereby made sure -- because there are no more conditions to be met by the obedient person. (Ibid. p. 336)

[5] Paul wrote to the Romans, “if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10:9-10). They key to understanding the meaning is found in two things. In the phrase “with the heart a man believeth unto righteousness.” Righteousness requires obedience with faith. And “if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” Paul is speaking to people who are already making an effort to be obedient to God, but were relying on “the deeds of the law” for their salvation. Faith needed to be added to their effort. As Paul put it, “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (HCSB, Gal. 3:2).

[6] From the Book of Mormon we know that after many of the Lamanites were converted to the Gospel they buried their weapons of war. Their king explained it in this way: “since it has been all that we could do…to repent of all our sins and the many murders which we have committed, and to get God to take them away from our hearts, for it was all we could do to repent sufficiently before God that he would take away our stain” (Alma 24:11; italics mine). Their justification (innocence before the law) necessitated faith that Christ can forgive sins and an effort to make restitution.

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