Justification: You Have It All, But You Always Need More
Do you know the paradox about the beloved who has the complete love of her lover? She has it all, but she always needs more. She is still in need of his love, not just reminders of his love. So as he continually tells her, I love you; he gives her more. It is the same with the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ. The Gospel reveals and proclaims an already existing complete justification of the sinner for the sake of Christ's atonement on the cross. To be justified means to be declared righteous in the forgiveness that is ours in the crucified Christ. It is a done deal, and by faith, we have it all. Nevertheless, while we live with this forgiveness and righteousness of Christ as total and complete realities, we are always in need of more.
For many Christians, justification is understood as a one-time pronouncement by God that happened when you got saved and began your life in Christ. In turn, the forgiveness of Christ becomes a done deal, and the dominant focus of the Christian life shifts to channeling your gratitude and the power of the Spirit into achieving greater obedience. Jesus did his part, it’s now your turn.
When this happens, the astonishing reality that Christ pardons wretched sinners fades into the background of daily Christian concern as attention turns to absorbing law-oriented principles for daily living and gaining a more significant victory over sinful habits. Justification and forgiveness become a distant memory of something God once did, because you once needed them, way back when you first got saved. Yet when sin continues to rear its head, in both small or large ways, this understanding produces spiritual burnout and doubts. Some have even wondered if they are still forgiven and imagined that perhaps they might need to get saved again.
Believers need to be taught otherwise about God's justification of sinners and how His continual bestowal of forgiveness feeds and builds up our life in Christ. We need more than distant memories of a God who was, at one time, gracious to us. And, reminders are not good enough. Christians remain sinners who continually sin. Because they continually sin much, they continually need to be forgiven much. Christians are saved sinners who need to receive over and over the Word of grace that bestows God’s forgiveness. Yes, you have it all, but you always need more! Note how Luther expressed this in his Large Catechism:
Toward forgiveness is directed everything that is to be preached concerning the sacraments and, in short, the entire Gospel and all the duties of Christianity. Forgiveness is needed constantly, for although God's grace has been won by Christ, and holiness has been wrought by the Holy Spirit through God's Word in the unity of the Christian Church, yet because we are encumbered with our flesh we are never without sin.
The Gospel does more than teach unbelievers new information about salvation and remind believers of old information about salvation. It declares righteousness to all sinners as a past reality, it reveals that same righteousness of Christ as a present reality and bestows it unconditionally again and again without any if or when clauses. Interjecting the word, if, makes everything conditional; and the word, when, implies it does not exist already. God’s forgiveness for the sake of Christ is entirely anchored in the external Word of promise, not in anything that we may experience in our life in Christ. What you hear is what you get, and you get it in your hearing.
Moreover, we are justified by grace through faith alone, apart from any required experience. Our experience in this life will continue to be punctuated by sinful wretchedness from within and without. For this reason, while we are completely justified in our baptism, we continually are in need of receiving God's justification so that our faith and life in Christ may not die but grow and mature. Indeed, it is the saving Word of justification that continually sanctifies the Christian as a lifelong renewing work.
As the continual love of the lover sustains and builds up the trust and love of the beloved, so also God's Word of pardon does more than just remind us that we were forgiven in Christ. It creates, sustains, and matures faith and life in Christ, and it empowers all of our works of love that serve Christ through our neighbors. In other words, God's justification sanctifies the believer.* Exhorting good works does not produce or increase them. They are empowered and increased only by the continual impact of God’s Word of forgiveness as we live and grow in Christ.
Justification and sanctification are articles of faith. They are God's secrets held in Heaven but revealed and bestowed again and again as our Lord nurtures and comforts us with His Gospel and Sacraments. The Gospel of God’s unconditional bestowed righteousness is His I love you to wretched sinners like you and me. We have it all, but we are always in need of more! Got it?
*For a more extensive treatment of How God’s Word of justification sanctifies the believer and empowers all good works, readers are encouraged to read Chapters 4,5, and 8 in Christian Life: Cross or Glory?
Dr. Steven A. Hein currently serves as Director of The Concordia Institute for Christian Studies, an organization that offers auxiliary educational services to pastors and church gatherings across the country and in West Africa. He also serves as an affiliate professor at The Institute of Lutheran Theology and Colorado Christian University.
This book offers a radically different perspective from that of many best-selling authors concerning how the Christian should measure and evaluate travel along God’s path of righteousness.