Many people, including me, have equated the gospel with the doctrine of justification. We’ve been taught that to be justified (forgiven) is God’s entire redemptive plan.
But I’ve learned that using “justified” interchangeably with “saved” is much like using “page” interchangeably with “book.”
So, what makes a person right with God?
Two Human Views
Is it justification? In this view, God simply declares us right, provided we confess various doctrines of sin and atonement. Redemption is thus about future eligibility to reside in heaven rather than where we live now; and it leaves the soul still fragmented, conflicted within itself and at odds with God’s character and nature. It saves some vague piece of the person, leaving the “real” person stuck in ruin.
It also bypasses judgment as if forgiven people are exempt. The danger is that when we all stand before God on Judgment Day, He won’t merely check our minds for agreement with certain doctrines. He’ll look at the whole person—the inner and outer self—because He’ll look at the soul.
Is it deeds, then? Generosity? Kindness? In this view, activities like feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, or working to end war make a person right with God. But atheists can treat people kindly, murderers can be generous, and even peace activists can be belligerent people.
Pharisees were meticulously deed-oriented, but they had not a whiff of God’s nature in them—hardly right with God. The danger is that on Judgment Day, God won’t merely look at behavior and ignore what sort of people we are inside.
Salvation is, simply, new life—a changed life lived intentionally with God in His kingdom. It begins at some point (childhood, adolescence, adulthood, whatever) and continues eternally as that life is lived through the ages. Justification is God’s offer/action that makes new life possible and available to us. Taking Him up on that offer requires our action and involvement.
In the broadest sense, to be right with God is to love God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul; and to love your neighbors as yourself. “Do this and you will live” (Luk. 10:28) because it involves all aspects of the person.
Obviously, there are more details on how to do this, so Jesus gave step-by-step instructions in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet no one can do this 100% of the time because none of us is flawless. That’s where justification comes in.
Justification is possible because of Jesus’ resurrection (not his crucifixion, as we commonly hear). “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” (Rom. 4:25) Now, this doesn’t mean we just ride Jesus’ coattails into new life.
A new creation in Christ doesn’t mean a completed creation in Christ. No one expects physical newborns to be as adept as adults, so why would spiritual re-birth instantly create a fully mended soul, transformed and right with God? That isn’t what Scripture says.
So we’re back to a working relationship with the divine (see Part 1). Our sovereign God isn’t an alien or distant God! On the contrary, He chooses to work in partnership with man.
With divine grace, patience, and blood to cover us as we learn, old errors in thought, will, and deed can be corrected by following Christ’s own thoughts, will, and deeds, i.e., the Way. All five areas of the soul are in a state of restoration, right with God.
“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (Jhn. 10:10) “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luk. 9:25)