Contrary to the teaching of Roman Catholicism (and even some nominal Protestants), justification is not a process that occurs over time, or something that occurs in two or more stages. It is a once-for-all act of God, and this means that every true believer in Christ has full assurance of salvation.
Once for All, By Christ Alone
Justification occurs only once, and it can never be lost (Hebrews 10:14). As we discussed in a previous article, justification is not a process but a forensic (law-court) act of God. We are justified - declared righteous based on the merits of Christ - once for all time (e.g., Romans 5:1-2; Galatians 2:16; Hebrews 9:28, 10:2; 1 Peter 3:18). As we also noted previously, the once-for-all character of justification is indicated by the very nature and use of the word dikaoo (to declare righteous) throughout the New Testament. The believer's state of justification is always spoken of in the original language as a present state, and in the passive voice (something that has been done to the believer, not something the believer does or cooperates in).
Justification vs. Sanctification
Progressive sanctification, which is a process, is different from justification. It is those who have been justified who are being sanctified (John 17:17, Ephesians 3:16-19, Colossians 1:9-14). Our sanctification earns no saving merit with God (Romans 4:5-6, Titus 3:5). At the last day, Christ will place at His right hand those who have been justified, and whose sanctified works bear witness to the fact that they were already justified at their conversion (Matthew 25:31-46).
The Error of Mingling Justification and Sanctification
Today even some nominally Protestant teachers are joining Roman Catholicism in un-Biblically mixing the doctrines of justification and sanctification, and therefore creating the monstrosity of a doctrine of justification by faith plus works. For example, Christian Reformed minister Norman Shepherd asserts that "abiding in Christ by keeping his commandments" (John 15:5, 10; 1 John 3:13, 24) [is] necessary for continuing in the state of justification" and "the personal godliness of the believer is also necessary for his justification in the judgment of the last day."1 He also teaches that "the Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, 'the doers of the Law will be justified,' is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are no persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified," and he speaks of "final justification" at the Last Judgment.2
Such false teaching leaves man without any possibility of assurance of salvation. It teaches that justification is not a once-for-all judicial act of God, but unfinished business whose outcome depends on the believer's obedience. It teaches that justification is not brought about solely by the unilateral action of God. In this false gospel, the sinner does not come to God empty-handed, either at conversion or at the Judgment, because faith is not mere belief. Faith, according to this pseudo-gospel, is really faithfulness. The saving faith (belief) that Scripture declares to be the sole instrument of justification must be embellished by good works.
This false gospel teaches that God's "not guilty" verdict remains an open question until the Day of Judgment. On that day, say the false teachers, the Lord Jesus Christ will not at the outset openly acknowledge those who were declared not guilty at their conversion, by placing them at His right hand and giving them the inheritance of the kingdom that is rightfully theirs in Him. No, this false teaching asserts that Jesus will evaluate men's works on the Last Day for the purpose of making the final decision about their eternal destiny.
Additionally, Roman Catholicism teaches that water baptism is required for justification (and a vocal segment of nominal Protestants are agreeing). Rome teaches that union with Christ through baptism is the way of salvation and the means of redemption, and it condemns those who teach otherwise.3 Rome teaches that baptism marks the transition from death to life, and that baptism effects union with Christ, "a permanent community of man with God."4 Rome teaches that justification "cannot, according to Christ's precept, be effected except at the fountain of regeneration, that is, by the baptism of water." Rome says that baptism confers sanctification, and that no distinction can be made between justification and sanctification. The Vatican condemns those who teach such a distinction.5 Rome teaches a "first justification" at baptism as well as a "final justification" at the Last Judgment in which believers lay claim to entry into the kingdom of Heaven based on their works plus Christ's.6
Authentic Christianity in Contrast
Romans 2:13 is often used by those who teach justification by faith plus works to support their false view: "For not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified." But their argument is not supported by context. Romans 2:13 is part of the Apostle Paul's inspired argument, beginning in chapter one and extending through chapter five, which says that no man can keep the law, and therefore Christ's perfect law-keeping must be imputed to believers in order for them to be justified before God - and that this is exactly what God has done in Christ.
Praise God, believers can rest assured that justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, is theirs now in all its fullness, and is sure for all eternity. It is because of this assurance of the love of God in Christ that believers shall have "boldness in the day of judgment" (1 John 4:17).
1. Norman Shepherd, Thirty-four Theses on Justification in Relation to Faith, Repentance, and Good Works, theses 22 and 23; privately published by the author, 1978; reproduced by his permission at www.hornes.org/theologia/content/norman_shepherd/the_34_theses.htm (as viewed on 10/16/08).
2. Thirty-four Theses
3. "Baptism" in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton, 1907; 2003 Online Edition at www.newadvent.org/cathen/); Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, 1974), 356.
4. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 251.
5. "Justification" in The Catholic Encyclopedia.
6. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 251, 264.