Friday, September 26, 2008

Calvary Justifies Life: Justification and the Great Controversy

by Paul E. Penno

The subject of temporary, universal justification of life for all men is one of the big ideas which God invites us to wrap our minds around. God’s government is under an all-out assault from Satan in an ideological warfare of ideas to annihilate it.

When God commanded Adam not to eat of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, . . . for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die (Gen. 2:17),[i] it is true that Adam died spiritually; but more profoundly, God told the truth and He had reference to literal, physical, eternal death. Adam sinned and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Why wasn’t Adam struck dead?

The reason is that before the creation of the world, God, the Father and God, the Son made a promise—or covenant to one another—as they were planning the creation of free-will agents to live in an environment of God’s love on the earth. The Son pledged Himself as Surety for man, should he choose to sin. Since the first man, Adam, was the head of the new race of intelligent beings, should he sin, Satan would demand that sinning Adam receive his just reward by instant death.

God’s ways are always just and true. He must legitimize sinning man’s survival of eternal death. He did this on the basis of the everlasting covenant between the Father and the Son. God justified the existence of fallen man by means of the last Adam, Jesus Christ. God’s government justified the existence of sinful man on the pledged Lamb’s death for sin from the foundation of the world. “Ye were . . . redeemed . . . with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:18-20).[ii]

No society or government can exist without the rule of law and a court system to adjudicate and administer the law. God’s government is no exception. It is not by sheer despotic force that God maintains sinful man’s existence in the eyes of sentient cosmic beings, angels, and demonic principalities and powers. It is some form of democracy which acclaims and perceives that He is acting upon the rule of law and yet dealing mercifully with the erring, giving them a second probation because of their representative Head.

Why did Christ teach Nicodemus the truth of the most well-beloved and memorized verse in all of the Bible, John 3:16? It must have been because of a deep theological misunderstanding which Nicodemus had regarding God’s dealings with the world. Jesus told him, “For God so loved the world.”

Nicodemus believed, as did all the religious leaders and elite of Judaism, that God’s covenant with Israel meant that they were the only elect ones for salvation. Nicodemus was the Calvinist of his day. Only the Jews were predestined for eternal life. All the Gentiles were predestined for damnation and destruction.

This theology continues to this day in the great systems of religion, including Catholicism and Protestantism. Its Protestant representatives are Presbyterians, Reformed Baptists, Reformed Church, etc.

The other evangelical counterpoint to this is Arminianism, which arose during the seventeenth century in Europe, and which saw the universal dimensions of Christ’s death for the world. It teaches that Christ’s death was sufficient to embrace everyone, but it is not effective until faith is exercised by the recipient. In other words, Christ offers salvation to all. The atoning sacrifice is an atonement for sin, provided one believes. So there is prevenient grace and means by which God has of reaching mankind with the gospel of Jesus Christ. But man must choose to believe the provisional gift. This might be expressed in terms of showing a genuine proffer of building a relationship with God.

However, Jesus taught the pure truth to Nicodemus when He said, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). Christ is God’s gift to the world. This gift has a legal basis in that Christ has been constituted Head of the race; and this gift is voluntary in that Christ, of His own volition, and motivated by love, pledged Himself as Surety for sinners.

Christ uses a legal term to indicate what this means for the world. “For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17). If the world had been condemned by God in sending His Son, then it would have been instantly destroyed for its sin. But it does not stand in a judicial state of condemnation, because it is not condemned. The extent of this Divine judicial action embraces the totality of the world.

Jesus went on to teach, however, that the present, individual choices with respect to God’s gift of Christ, short-circuits God’s pardon. “He that believeth on Him is not condemned: but He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). Thus, the future day of judgment for the unbeliever becomes a present reality of condemnation. Nevertheless, the probationer continues to live briefly by the gracious life of God given to him or her; and at any time prior to death or the coming of Christ, one may choose life in the Son (see John 3:36).

The epistle to the Romans contains the teaching of God’s universal justification for the existence of all sinful life. Notice that the first half of Romans 3:23 contains the word “all” which is understood as the subject of the last half of the sentence. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; [the “all” are] being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23, 24). It isn’t difficult to see that without exception, everyone born into the world has sinned. It is the “all [who] have sinned” that are “being justified.” This, of course, is a legal term meaning pardoned from sin on the basis of a redemptive price paid by Christ. As an objective legal reality, all human life is acquitted from sin because of the redemption of the cross.

“Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). The “ungodly” are the impiously wicked. This is the natural inheritance from Adam of all who come into the world. But “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). There is no need to emphasize that the class of “sinners” involves all for whom Christ died.

Furthermore, “When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son” (vs. 10). So the whole class of sinners, as enemies of God, were “reconciled,” (past tense), “by the death of His Son.” The notion of enemies being in a state of hostility toward God requires a legal settlement of hostilities, as well as a pathway to experience a restoration of peace. God has set forth the judicial peace at Calvary. This initiates the road map to experience peace by which we are “being reconciled” to God and “shall be saved by His life” (vs. 10).

Paul forthrightly states the objective, legal setting-right of the race in Rom. 5:18: “Therefore as by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation [katakrima is the punishment of eternal death]; even so by the righteousness of one, the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” Adam’s one sin was judged (vs. 16) by God, and he was pronounced guilty for his personal sin. But since he was the fountainhead of the whole human family and could only pass on to his descendants that which was in him, “all men” receive “condemnation” (i.e., the punishment, meaning eternal death).

However, Adam’s one offence is reversed by “the righteousness of one” which is “upon all men unto justification of life” (vs. 18).[iii] There is a reference here to “one act of righteousness” [see margin of KJV]; that is, one judgment or decision. Obviously it was the Divine judgment against sin, which act was publicly displayed before the world at the cross. He received the punishment for all the world’s sin. The Divine wrath against sin was executed upon Christ.

The cross was not done in a corner. Satan saw it. The angels beheld their beloved commander crucified. Our human representatives were there as eyewitnesses. It has been recorded as a witness for eternity in the Sacred Word. By means of the cross of Christ, it came “upon all men unto justification of life” (vs. 18). All of human life, both in the past, present, and future, exists because it is justified by the cross. Calvary justifies the existence of all life. So when reference is made to “justification of life,” it is a specific Scriptural term for the legal reality of legitimizing, from God’s standpoint in His government, and because of the great controversy with Satan, why He has given a second probation to sinful mankind. And this temporary probationary life of each individual is a real pardon from sin whether he or she is a believer or an unbeliever. It is a reality that goes far beyond the enjoyment of bread, food, family, loving relationships, a semblance of societal bliss, an accommodation of living within laws of social respect, etc. It goes far beyond making it possible for God to treat sinners in Christ as though they had never sinned. It is a fundamental answer to Satan’s charges to destroy sinners immediately if God’s government is one of law and order.

The cross of Christ is the legal justification for the existence of life on this earth in the face of sin. It adequately explains how God can maintain the temporal existence of sinners in view of the accusations of Satan that He must execute the punishment due sinners, which is eternal death.

The story is told of a prisoner who sat in his death cell awaiting execution. One day a clergyman bearing a message from the governor came to see the prisoner. As the clergyman entered the prisoner’s cell, the prisoner shouted, “I don’t want to see you. I need none of your prayers.”

“But,” the minister insisted, “I have a message for you from the governor.”

When he handed the prisoner an envelope, the convict shouted, “Take it away! I don’t want to hear anything from him, either.”

Greatly disappointed, the minister left with the message still in his pocket. Later the warden told the prisoner, “The message you refused from the governor contained your pardon!”

It is said that when he was executed, the prisoner’s last words were: “I’m dying not because I murdered a man, but because I refused a pardon.”

[i] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the King James Version.

[ii] See also E. J. Waggoner, “Studies in Romans. The Free Gift,” The Signs of the Times, 12 March 1896, 164, 165: “There is no exception here. As the condemnation came upon all, so the justification comes upon all. Christ has tasted death for every man. He has given himself for all. Nay, he has given himself to every man. The free gift has come upon all. The fact that it is a free gift is evidence that there is no exception. If it came upon only those who have some special qualification, then it would not be a free gift. It is a fact, therefore, plainly stated in the Bible, that the gift of righteousness and life in Christ has come to every man on earth. There is not the slightest reason why every man that has ever lived should not be saved unto eternal life, except that they would not have it.”

[iii] See Ibid.

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