The Three Stages of Justification (2)
Our experience of
justification makes us
one with God for
As we saw in the previous Note in this series, Romans 3 deals with the fact of our justification by faith in Christ, while Romans 4 deals with our experience of justification as we follow the Lord. The fact of our justification meets our need, whereas our experience of justification is for the sake of God’s purpose. (See “The Three Stages of Justification,” Part 1)
These three stages in our experience of justification are illustrated in the New Testament by Abraham’s experience with his son.
The first stage is our initial believing in Christ, when we are made righteous before God. This is pictured at the beginning of Romans 4, with Abraham believing God’s promise that he would have a son. As a result, he was counted as righteous by God:
Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.
— Romans 4:3
Although Abraham was now justified before God, and had the promise that he would have a son, this alone was not sufficient for God to carry out His purpose through him. For that Abraham needed to actually have a son.
And so, at the end of Romans 4, Paul is no longer speaking merely of God’s promise to Abraham, but of Abraham at the time when the son was born, “since he was about a hundred years old” (Rom. 4:19; cf. Gen. 17:1, 18:10).
That son was, of course, Isaac, who in the Bible is a very clear type of Christ (Matt. 1:1). So, whereas the initial stage of our experience has to do with our positional justification before God, this second stage is a matter of our dispositional justification; it means that now something of Christ is coming forth from within us, just as Isaac came forth from within Abraham:
Therefore, “it was also credited to him as righteousness.”
— Romans 4:22, NASB
Whenever we have an experience of Christ coming forth from within us, we will also have a deep sense of how pleased God is with us, and of how much we are accepted by Him in the Beloved (Eph. 1:6, NKJV; cf. Gal. 1:15-16, 2:20, Matt. 3:17, 17:5).
And just as God was able to fulfill His purpose in Abraham’s life only through the birth of Isaac, so He can fulfill His purpose in our lives only when something of Christ is produced through us.
But there is still another, and deeper, stage of justification for us to experience. This is not seen Romans 4, but in James 2:
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?
This is at a still later stage in the life of Abraham. Now Abraham not only had a son; he offered that son, whom he treasured above all else, and on whom all his hopes were set, back to God.
Some have supposed there is a conflict between what James and Paul say regarding justification. However, if we properly distinguish between the fact of justification and our experience of it, there is no problem at all; rather, we see that what James says adds to what Paul says.
The experience, as always in the New Testament, is based upon the fact, but the fact that we see in Romans 3 and at the beginning of Romans 4 should help bring us into the experience, which we see at the end of Romans 4 and in James 2.
The fact of justification truly is “once-for-all,” but the experience is in stages, the last of which is seen in James 2.
And while the fact is apart from any work we do, the experience surely does involve our works, as James 2 makes clear.
That is, the work Abraham did in offering up Isaac speaks of how we must not hold on to any of the spiritual blessings God gives us as things we value in themselves. Rather, when God calls us to put them on the altar, we must offer them back to Him.
And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God.
In the same way, when we offer the blessing God gives us back to Him, it shows we are fully for Him and for His desire, not merely for the things He gives us. Such an offering is the fulfillment of our experience of justification, for it means that now we have been fully brought back to God, out of the fall, to be one with Him for His purpose.
In our next Note in this series we will see in a more specific way how this relates to the fulfillment of God’s purpose.
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— 27 April 2022 —