A Biblical Perspective of Justification

Key issue: as noted below, the Greek verb dikaioō (“to justify”) does not have the lexical meaning of, “to make righteous,” as if the sinner is subjectively made righteousness (as in Catholicism). On the contrary, it denotes a declarative act of God pronouncing the guilty sinner innocent (cf. note 4 below).

The Apostle Paul’s epistle to the church at Galatia was specifically an anti-Judaizer polemic. Paul was very concerned as to the pervading heresy of the Judaizers. The Judaizers taught that “faith in Christ” was not enough. Hence, one had to add the Old Testament ordinances, especially circumcision, and the keeping of the ethical and ceremonial laws, to the finished work of Christ:

Some men came from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom [Law] of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1; cf. Gal. 2:1ff.).

This kind of teaching, in the apostles’ mind, was not a doctrinal on the rim issue. By teaching that man must co-operate with God’s grace by adding works (any works) to his faith, the Judaizers stripped Jesus’ atonement of its efficacy. So toxic was the works/salvation doctrine of the Judaizers that the apostle wasted no time (from his opening statement) in sharply anathematizing (i.e., pronouncing a divine curse) men and even angels from heaven who might promulgate it:

I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed [anathema]! As we have said, before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! (Gal. 1:6-9; emphasis added).

Paul never gets tired impressing to the Galatians: justification is through faith alone; i.e., faith apart from, without, modifications or additions of works:

knowing the a man is not justified by the works [ex ergōn, lit. “from works”] of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified (Gal. 2:16; emphasis added).

You foolish Galatians, who as bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you; did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? . . . Even Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS (Gal. 3:1-3, 6; emphasis added).Paul further declares that it is dia tēs pisteōs (lit. “through the faith”) alone that enables one to be adopted as a son of God.

For you are all sons of God through faith [dia tēs pisteōs] in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized [i.e., unified, see above] into Christ have clothed yourself with [eis] Christ (Gal. 3:26-27; emphasis added).

Romans 4:4-8

It becomes increasingly clear as one works through the Pauline corpus that salvation by grace alone through faith alone is clearly the theological starting point for the apostle. Scripture is clear: the righteousness of Christ is the sole ground of justification (man excluded), and the sole means is faith alone apart from works. There is no shortage of passages that that clearly define this divine truth. Since a detailed analysis of each passage is beyond the scope of this work, it is enough to highlight a few where this grand them of justification by faith is presented. For example, in Romans 4:4-8, we read

Now to the one who works, his wages are not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessings on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “BLESSED ARE THOSE WHOSE LAWLESS DEEDS HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN, AND WHOSE SINS HAVE BEEN COVERED. BLESSED IS THE MAN WHOSE SIN THE LORD WILL NOT TAKE INTO ACCOUNT” (NASB).

Consider the following:

1. In verse 4, Paul explains that wages from works are not credited as a gift or a favor; but “what is due.” The literal rendering is even clearer: “Now the working one, the reward is not reckoned [or “imputed,” logizetai] according to grace [charin, Paul’s normal word for “grace”], but according to debt [misthos].” In other words, if an employer, after giving a paycheck to the employee, says, “Thanks a lot, here is your gift,” the employee would object stating that he or she “earned” (worked for) those wages! Exactly the argument Paul makes here: wages are the result or reward from works (viz. “what is due.”). In verse 5, he contrasts “wages” that one earns by works, with being “credited” or imputed as righteousness by faith (or “belief”) alone—apart from additions or modifications. This contrast cannot be missed: works vs. faith.

2. Paul presents a contrast between the working man as seen above and the man who does not work, but has faith: “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him . . . his faith is credited as righteousness.” The same participle is used for both verses 4 and 5. But Paul inserts a negation in verse 5:

v. 4: tō de ergazomenō (lit. “but the one working”).

v. 5: tō de mē ergazomenō (lit. “but the not working one”).

It is God, Paul says, “who justifies the ungodly.” The righteousness of Christ was imputed to the sinner’s account when they were justified and the sinner’s sins were imputed to Christ in His sacrificial death upon the cross over 2,000 years ago (cf. Rom. 5:8-10; 2 Cor. 5:19-21).

3. In verse 6, Paul now shows that David understood that “God credits righteousness apart from works [chōris ergōn; emphasis added].” Thus, verse 6 literally reads: “Blessed is the man to whom God imputes or credits righteousness without works [theos logizetai dikaiosunen choris ergon].” Again, Paul does not here limit works only to “works of the Law” (a Catholic assertion). Please note once again, Paul does not even here the phrase ho nomos (“the law”), but ergōn (“works”)—any works (cf. Rom. 5:1; Eph.2:8; 2 Thess. 2:13; Titus 3:5-7).

To avoid the plain and straightforwardness of Romans 4:4ff., some would appeal to Ephesians 2:10 (“created . . . for good works”). However, in the Ephesians passage Paul is simply teaching that salvation is chariti, (“by grace”), and dia pisteōs (“through faith”), and ouk ex ergōn (lit. “not from works”; 2:9). Hence, works are the result (not the cause) of genuine faith (as pointed out above). The Apostle James draws the same point: genuine faith does not result in a deedless life.

4. Then Paul quotes David (Psalm 32:1-2) in verses 7 and 8: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.” When the sinner is justified through faith, he or she is legally declared: not guilty![1] Justification is a one-time declarative act in which God pronounces the sinner just or righteous. God does not count their trespasses against them (cf. 2 Cor. 5:19). Note the strong and specific language that Paul uses in verse 8. “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account” (emphasis added).

Many times the full import of particular passages is lost in translations, which is the case here. In first century Greek, there were several ways to negate (i.e., to say “no”) something. Each way had its own, to some extent, nuance. The strongest possible way, however, to deny or negate a future possibility was to use the double negative (ou mē) followed by an aorist subjunctive verb (i.e., generally, a verb of possibility). This construction was only used about eighty–five times in the New Testament. In verse 8, Paul uses this construction: “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account [ou mē logisētai; emphasis added].” The NIV reads, “whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” Paul is denying that there is even a possibility (due to the aorist subjunctive verb logisētai [“take into account” or “count”]) that the Lord will count sins against the one justified. This same construction (i.e., double negative + the aorist subjunctive) is used in John 10:28:

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them and they follow me and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish [ou mē apolōntai]; and no one can snatch them out of my hand (vv. 27-28; emphasis added; cf. Deut. 32:39).[2]

There is not, Jesus says emphatically, even a possibility, of His sheep ever perishing. Jesus uses the double negative construction to emphasize that the eternal life that He gives is not dependent on man’s self-determination, for man can fail. But rather, eternal life is the promise to those who He has justified, to those whose sins will never be counted against them, to those who have been imputed with the righteousness of Christ to their account. They are declared righteous and they, by no means, will ever perish—not even a possibility!

To be sure, the Apostle Paul saw justification as an essential and fundamental to true biblical Christianity. To deny justification through faith alone (viz. without additions or modifications) was the same as denying the deity of Christ! This is clearly seen in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. As we have seen above, the main purpose of Paul’s letter was to pointedly refute the heresy of the Judaizers (cf. Acts 15:1ff.; Gal. 1:6ff.). To add to God’s work—is to add to Scripture. “Who,” Paul rhetorically asks, “will bring a charge against God’s elect? . . . who is the one who condemns? . .” (Rom. 8:33-34).[3] Therefore, how can anyone undo the work of God? It is God alone, who declares the sinner eternally righteous, and hence justified.

 

Romans 5:1

Therefore having been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1).

Paul constantly taught that justification comes not by works, formulas, or laws, but rather, a man is declared rightness before God through faith alone. Paul was theologically precise as to how the sinner is justified before the presence of God. Notice first that the sinner having been justified has peace with God. The participle dikaiōthentes, translated “having been justified,” is the aorist passive of dikaioō.[4] Grammatically, the aorist here tells us that the action of the participle dikaiōthentes (“having been justified”) was a past action (as rendered in most translations). Furthermore, the participle is in the passive voice. This indicates that the action of being justified was not by the sinner in any way (otherwise the verb would be in the active voice), but rather the justification was done to the sinner, in the past, which was solely a divine act of God (cf. Rom. 8:33). Thus, the ones having been justified now “have [echomen][5] peace [eirēnēn][6] with God [pros ton theon]” (emphasis added).

It is not the action or work of the sinner, which then results in justification, rather, Paul, simply affirms it is ek pisteōs (“through faith”). This is important to realize, that if Paul thought that “water baptism” or “works” were an aspect or a requirement of justification, he could have easily modified the clause to say, “Therefore since we have been justified by faith, baptism, and works, then let us have peace with God” (as in UPCI soteriology). Hence, “faith alone” is simply faith without additions or modifications. Justification is never deemed as a reward for meritorious works or performance, rather it is said to be a gift,[7] which cannot be earned. Paul was clear and consistent in all of his letters: justification is through faith alone, “apart from” works, any works. This is wonderful news. By faith alone the one God regenerated (“made alive”) has been legally declared righteous (justified) in the sight of God, whereby has present active and continuous peace, that is, final and permanent reconciliation and fellowship with God. In his solid exegesis of Romans, Wuest can say of this beautiful passage:

The word “therefore” reaches back to the contents of chapter four—therefore being justified, not by works (1-8), not by ordinances (9-12), not by obedience (13-25), but by faith, we have peace. The first three never give peace to the soul. Faith does . . . The context is didactic. It contains definite statements of fact. It is highly doctrinal in nature. It has to do with a sinner’s standing before God in point of law, not his experience. As Denney [James Denney, D. D.] says; “The justified have peace with God, . . . His wrath (1:18) no longer threatens them; they are accepted in Christ. It is not a change in their feelings which is indicated, but a change in God’s relation to them.[8]

Paul announces to the Christians at Ephesus: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8; emphasis added). “If it is by grace,” Paul says, “it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom. 11:6). Contrary to a faith + works = salvation soteriology, which groups such as the ICC, UPCI, LDS, JWs, Catholic Church, etc. hold to, Scripture presents that justification is through faith alone without any mention of additions or modifications such as the necessity of water baptism: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” the jailer asked, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31). 

How are sins forgiven? Scripture is clear:

Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes on Him receives forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:43; emphasis added).

Let us pause and think; why is it that over and over the New Testament teaches that eternal salvation is explicitly tied to faith or belief alone with no mention of water baptism if, in fact, water baptism was essential to one’s salvation?[9] Paul’s own statement refutes the notion that water baptism was an indispensable means of salvation: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel. . . .” (1 Cor. 1:17).

Water Baptism: a Deed of Righteousness

In Scripture, water baptism is defined as an “act” or deed “to fulfill [not to receive] righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). Yet, Paul clearly refutes this idea:

He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior (Titus 3:5-6; emphasis added).

Again, the question to a Mormon or Roman Catholic (or any baptismal regenerationist whose church denies justification by faith alone) is this: “Can one walk in your church and be saved by faith/belief in Christ Jesus alone, without being water baptized in the name of Jesus?”[10] For these groups mention above, the answer is categorically: No. The most important issue that every man must deal with can be summed up in this question: “How is a man justified before God?” Is that not the question of the ages, from the first man to the present? How can man be reconciled to God? How can man be declared not guilty in the sight of a perfect God? I think we would do well to allow Jesus Christ, the authority on the matter, to answer:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).

Before leaving this verse, it would be wise to breathe in the grammatical significance of the words of Christ. Starting with the first clause: “He who hears [akouōn] My word, and believes [pisteuōn] Him who sent Me. . . .” The participle akouōn (“who hears”) is in the present tense, and the active voice. The participle pisteuōn (“believes”) is a present active participle. Note that both participles verbs are in the present tense, literally: “the one hearing and the one believing.”

Then the phrase: “has eternal life.” The verb echei (“has”) is the singular present active indicative of echō. The indicative mood of the verb indicates a clear presentation of certainty that the event will happen (i.e., “eternal life”). And because echei is in the present tense, it indicates that the one believing (apart from any works) possesses de facto eternal life presently and continuously. For this reason, those (the believing ones) will never come into God’s wrath and judgment (see John 10:28).

We now come to the last clause of the passage: “but has passed out of death into life.” The Greek verb metabebēken (“has passed”) is a perfect tense.[11] The perfect tense indicates a completed action that normally occurred in the past, which has continuous results into the present.[12] Hence, the reason as to why the one believing “does not come into judgment” is because he “has passed out” of perfectly, completely spiritual death. Therefore, the full force of what Jesus was literally saying can be translated:

He who presently and continuously hears My word and believes Me (who I am), I promise that he will presently and continuously possess, without end, eternal life, that is, salvation. And he will never come into condemnation. He has, in times past, been called to be declared righteous (justified) and then to be glorified, whereby passing out of death into life.[13]

Christian water baptism is never even a subject of discussion in John’s gospel. The main theme of the apostle was (a) the full deity of Jesus Christ (e.g., 1:1; 18, 8:24, 58; 20:28; etc.) and (b) eternal life/salvation (e.g., 1:12; 3:16; 6:37-40, 47; 10:27-29; etc.). Never once in John’s gospel is salvation connected to Christian water baptism. Salvation is exclusively by faith/belief alone. If water baptism were in fact an indispensable means of salvation as baptismal regenerationists teaches, you would think that John or Jesus would have taught it—at least once. That water baptism, circumcision, ordinances, rituals, ceremonial or ethical old covenant laws, or any works for that matter, adds (or is a part of) to one’s justification places one firmly under the anathema of the apostle: cursed by God. In the end, looking at all the non-Christian cults and world religions we do find doctrinal harmony on at least two points. The first, of course, is that they all reject Jesus Christ as eternal God, that is, they deny the doctrine of the Trinity in some way or other. And second, they all attack and deny the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Hence, they add some kind of creaturely work to their system of salvation.

Yes indeed, it is difficult for mere man to comprehend that through faith alone God freely justifies the sinner. However, we cannot rely on our faulty emotions to test truth. For, in spite of, our limited, finite, conventional wisdom and understanding, the Apostle Paul, who wrote as the Holy Spirit enabled him, declares:

Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works. . . . (Rom. 4:4-6; emphasis added; cf. John 6:47; 10:28-29; Rom. 5:1; 8:1; Eph. 2:8).

The Final Question

How is a man justified before God whereby his sins are forgiven? The baptismal regenerationists’ response is clear: repentance, water baptism (and for the UPCI: baptized in the name of Jesus” with the evidence of speaking in tongues),[14] and living by strict biblical obedience, and only to those is salvation achieved. In sharp contrast, Scripture does tell us clearly how a man is justified before God: “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes on Him receives forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43; emphasis added).

Therefore having been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1; emphasis added).

NOTES

[1] In Romans 8:28ff., Paul employs legal terms to underscore the status of the justified: “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect?” (v. 33); “Who is the one who will condemn?” (v. 34); “who [Jesus] also intercedes for us” (v. 34). These terms (“charge,” “condemn,” and “intercedes”) were used in court proceedings in the first century. Hence, Paul’s Roman audience would have understood clearly, as to what he was communicating.

[2] Jesus also uses the same construction in John 6:37: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out [ou mē ekbalō; emphasis added].”

[3] Cf. n. 35 above.

[4] The term “righteous” and “just” are translated form the same Greek word: dikaios (adj.), dikaiosunē (noun), and the dikaioō (verb). The noun dikaiosunē simply means the “quality or state of judicial correctness with focus on redemptive action, righteousness” (Walter Bauer’s, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., ed. and rev. by Frederick W. Danker [Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000], 247). Commenting on forensic nature of the term in the OT, Protestant apologist James R. White notes:

In the Old Testament, the term “to justify” is often used in the judicial sense, that is, in the context of the court of law [e.g., Exod. 23:7; Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; Isa. 5:23]. . . . Because the doctrine of justification by faith says justification is something God does based upon the work of Christ: it is a forensic declaration, not something that involves a subjective change of the believer (James R. White, The God who Justifies [Bethany House, 2001], 77, 79).

It should also be noted that the verb dikaioō does not mean, “to make” righteous as if the sinner is subjectively made righteousness (as in Catholicism). On the contrary, it denotes a declarative act of God pronouncing the guilty sinner innocent. As Lutheran scholar Leon Morris rightly explains:

How can the death of Christ change the verdict on sinners from “Guilty” to Innocent”? Some have said in effect, “It is by changing the guilty, by transforming them so that they are no longer bad people, but good ones. No one will want to minimize the transformation that takes place in a true conversion or to obscure the fact that this is an important part of being a Christian. However, such a transformation does not fit the justification terminology. It is sometimes argued that the verb normally translated “to justify” (dikiaoō) means “to make righteous” rather than “to declare righteous.” But this agrees neither with the word’s formation nor with its usage. Verbs ending in–oō and referring to moral qualities have a declarative sense; they do not mean “to make—.” And the usage is never for the transformation of the accused; it always refers to a declaration of his innocence (Leon Morris, New Testament Theology, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986], 70).

[5] The verb echomen (“have”) is the present active indicative of echō. However, there is a textual variant concerning echomen (omicron [echomen] or omega [echōmen]?). Note that the majority rendering is the hortatory subjunctive echōmen (“let us have peace”). Even though the subjunctive is possible, I do not see it as contextually probable. Moreover, all the evidence considered suggests the present indicative as the greater witness (cf. Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition, [New York: United Bible Societies, 1994], 169-70; James R. White, The God who Justifies [Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2001], 237, n. 8). Greek exegete Kenneth Wuest explains further:

The context is didactic. It contains definite statements of facts. It is highly doctrinal in nature. It has to do with the sinners standing before God in point of law, not his experience. . . . Furthermore, there is a difference between having peace with God and having the peace of God in the heart. The first has to do with justification and the second with sanctification. The first is the result of a legal standing, the second, the result of the work of the Holy Spirit. The first is static, never fluctuates, the second changes from hour to hour. The first, every Christian has, the second, every Christian may have. The first, every Christian has as a result of justification. What sense would there be in exhorting Christians to have peace when they already possess it? The entire context is one of justification. Paul does not reach the subject of sanctification until 5:12-21 where he speaks of positional sanctification and 6:1-8:27 where he deals with progressive sanctification (Wuest, Romans in the Greek New Testament, 76-77).

[6] The peace is the present possession of all who have been justified. The peace is the blessed result of what true justification is: abiding shalom with God Himself. No more enmity, no more hostility!

[7] Eternal life is never classified in the NT as misthon (“a reward” to the elect; cf. Rom. 4:4), but always as charisma (“a gift”).

[8] Wuest, Romans in the Greek New Testament, 75-76.

[9] E.g., John 1:12; 3:16; 5:24; 6:47; Acts 10:43; 16:30-31; Romans 4:4-11; 5:1; 10:9-13; Galatians 3:2-3; Ephesians 2:8; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5-7; and 1 John 5:1, 11-13.

[10] Note, other than water baptism, “in the name of Jesus,” the UPCI teaches its followers that unless they speak in tongues they do not have the Holy Spirit and hence NO salvation. Their assertion is usually derived solely from the narrative accounts in Acts. It should be noted however that there are only three explicit references of the tongues phenomena in Acts: 2:1-4; 10:44-48; and 19:6. It is a hermeneutical error to take a narrative and force it to become a teaching. This violates the hermeneutical principle of the priority of didactic as defined in this chapter above. In point of fact, we read in the Acts account of many converts who were water baptized or said to have been “filled” with the Spirit and yet no mention of tongues (e.g., 2:37-41; 4:31; 6:3-6; 11:24). In fact, there are at least forty times that the Bible mentioned people as being “filled with,” “baptized in,” “fallen upon by,” “come upon by”, “poured upon by” the Spirit, and only three verses explicitly mention tongues (cf. Beisner, “Jesus Only” Churches, 64).In Ephesians 5:18 the Apostle Paul commands to “be filled with the Spirit” (en pneumati). However, grammatically en (“with”) followed by the dative case pneumati (“Spirit”) does not indicate content, but rather means (cf. Wallace, Beyond the Basics, 162, 372-75).

Hence: “be filled by means of the Spirit.” Further, Paul then characterizes the results of being filled: “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks . . . subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” Grammatically, these characteristics above are participles of result. Hence, they indicate the results of being filled by means of the Spirit—wherein tongues are not mentioned. The point is that Scripture knows nothing of the idea that the sole evidence of being filled, baptized, indwelled, empowered, etc. with/by the Holy Spirit is the gift of speaking in tongues. If tongues were the sole evidence, then Paul would not have taught that the gift of tongues is not bestowed on all (cf. 1 Cor. 12:30; note here the negation mē: “all do not [] speak in tongues” (emphasis added). The negation expects a negative answer: “No.” Hence, this passage is of no comfort for those who insist that Paul there was speaking of a different tongue, not the “gift.” Paul nowhere in his letters makes this distinction. Further, Paul taught that “all” Christians were baptized (by Christ) by means of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; note the double usage of pantes [“all”]).

[11] Specifically, metabebēken is the perfect active indicative of metabainō.

[12] The perfect tense “indicates a completed action whose effects are felt in the present. The action normally occurred in the past” (William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993], 218-19). It denotes a “present state resulting from a past action” (Harold J. Greenly, A Concise Exegetical Grammar of New Testament Greek, 5th ed. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986], 50). The import of the perfect tense can be seen in 1 John 4:2: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus has come [elēluthota] in the flesh is from God.” Thus, verb translated “has come” (elēluthota) is in the perfect tense; literally: “has come and remains in the flesh.” John’s letters (1 and 2), as with Paul’s letter to the Colossians, were a pointed refutation against the Docetic Gnostics (cf. chap. 2, n. 27) who denied that Jesus became flesh. Hence, John’s main refutation was made clear: Jesus has come and even remains (utilizing the perfect tense, elēluthota) in the flesh forever more (cf. 2 John 7).

[13] See also John 6:47; 1 John 5:12 where the present active indicative echei is utilized to indicate the certainty of one’s salvation.

[14] Ibid.

At the start of John 10, Jesus draws a sharp contrast between false teachers (viz. false shepherds) and Himself—the true Shepherd that protects His sheep and gives them eternal life.[1] In verse 15, however, Christ makes another very theologically significant statement pertaining to the definiteness and specific purpose of the atonement—that is, who it is for whom He died: “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down My life for the sheep” (huper tōn probatōn, lit., “on behalf of [or “for the sake of”] the sheep”): Biblically, the atonement served to satisfy or, more precisely, “propitiate” (hilasmos)[2] the Father.

huper (“on behalf of”)

In this passage, the Greek preposition huper (meaning “on behalf of,” or “instead of”) was used to express the actual and literal “substitutionary” or vicarious death of Christ—i.e., a substitutionary atonement. Koinē Greek,[3] unlike English, is a very defined language, a language of precision. Accordingly, prepositions (along with other parts of grammar) have a great significance in biblical exegesis (i.e., critical interpretation). In many passages where the atonement is in view, the NT authors chose the preposition huper to indicate that Jesus’ cross-work was a literal and definite substitution. Note the following passages where huper is used to clearly indicate this:

Romans 8:32: “[the Father] delivered [paredōken; i.e., ‘delivered up for sacrifice’] Him over for [huper] us all.”

Galatians 1:4: “who gave Himself for [huper] our sins” (cf. 3:13).

Ephesians 5:25: “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for [heauton paredōken huper] her” (lit., “He delivered Himself up for sacrifice on behalf of His church—in their place”).

In addition to huper, the preposition anti, which is semantically similar, is used at places such as Mark 10:45 to stress the nature and intention of Jesus’ substitutionary work: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for [lutron anti, lit., “ransom in the place of”] many.”[4]

Returning back to our text, John 10:15, it must be clearly emphasized: Jesus says that He specifically died for His sheep. His death did not make men “savable,” but rather His death secured and guaranteed the salvation of those whom He intended to save—His sheep: it was a definite atonement. The Scriptures clearly particularize who it is for whom Christ died.

The atoning cross-work of God the Son was not a vague non-specific universal work for which no one is actually (only potentially) atoned, but rather it was definite and according His perfect sovereignty and pleasure of His will (cf. Eph. 1:4-5, 11).

The death of Christ was an actual substitutionary atonement in which Christ literally and fully paid the penalty for sin, bore the curse, dies the death that our sins deserved, propitiating the Father, fully and perfectly satisfying divine justice. Either Jesus’ death achieved an actual propitiation (see note 2 above) literally averting wrath actually paying for sins, or it did not.

Universal Atonement?

In opposition to definite atonement is the majority view of the church (as well as the Roman Catholic Church): universal atonement. That is, that Jesus’ death merely made men “savable,” a “potential” salvation—for it did not “actually” secure salvation for anybody. In this view, (a) His cross-work did not actually redeem anyone in particular and (b) it reduces the atonement to a universal possibility that is actuated only when certain conditions (viz. the faith-act) are met. In other words, His death potentially redeemed or atoned for every single person, but an actual redemption is dependent on man’s free choice.[5]

PROBLEM: To preach, as most evangelists do, that Jesus died (thus, atoned) for “every single person” that ever lived (as a universal atonement teaches) implies the doctrine of universalism (i.e., every person will be saved). For if Jesus’ sacrifice really did achieve the forgiveness of the sins of every single person and produced an actual propitiation[6] on their behalf, then, all would be saved (universalism). There would by absolutely no biblical basis whatsoever for any to go to hell, divine justice would have been perfectly satisfied—and wouldn’t make any difference whether one accepts or rejects Christ: For if “all sins” means “all sins,” then even the sin of rejection would fully be paid (unless one asserts that Christ propitiated, forgave, and paid for 99% of the sins of all men). Clearly, universal atonement is unbiblical.

The biblical position is definite atonement: Christ infallibly saves every single one of those for whom He laid down His life—“and I lay down My life for My sheep.” He substituted Himself on their behalf, in their place. His cross-work perfectly secured salvation for them—it did not make salvation a possibility, but rather it actually saved those for whom He died. The blood of Christ is sufficient to save all men, but efficacious to those for whom the atonement was intended: All that the Father gives Me will come to Me . . . all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it[7] up on the last day. . . . No one can come to Me unless the Father . . . draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:37, 39, 44).

His atonement was definite. Christ not die potentially for those who might believe, but rather He died specifically to “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). This is the very heart of the gospel—God actually redeems men “from every tribe, language, people, and nation” granting them salvation apart from works (cf. Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 1:9).

In Acts 16:6-7, Paul and his companions on their second missionary journey, were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia. As a result, the gospel spread westward into Europe, not eastward toward Asia, thus, at that time, many Asians died never hearing of Christ.[8] Hence, hearing the gospel is controlled by the providential sovereignty of God. It is inconceivable then to assume that God sent His Son to save people who, by the direction of His own providence, never hear the gospel in order that they may believe and be saved (cf. Luke 10:21-22; John 5:21; Rom. 9:3-6, 13, 16; 11:5-7, 28).

Jesus said that He gave His “life for His sheep,” “a ransom for many” in which He “delivered Himself up for sacrifice on behalf of His church” (John 10:15; Mark 10:45; Eph. 5:25).]

“God has chosen you [heilato][9] from the beginning for salvation. . . .” For He has “saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus. . . .” (2 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 1:9; cf. Acts 13:48; 1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 2:8).

NOTES

[1] John 10:28 reads: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from My hand.” This is one of the clearest affirmations regarding the nature of justification in terms of the promise of eternal salvation. The clause “they will never perish” (ou mē apolōntai) is a double negative followed by an aorist subjunctive also called an emphatic negative. It is the strongest way in Greek to deny or negate a future possibility. It is used only about 85 times in the NT. The clause literally reads: “never never [ou mē], not even a possibility, perish” (often used where salvation is in view, e.g., John 6:35, 37; Rom. 4:8; see Gk.).

[2] The term “propitiate” (hilasmos) means, in simple terms, “to placate” or “appease.” Theologically, when Scripture says that Jesus is our “propitiation” (1 John 2:2), it indicates that through His death our sins (as Christians) were not only forgiven, but divine anger, the very wrath of the Father was turned away: The Son’s atoning sacrifice placated the Father. Many today downplay the aspect of the Father’s wrath by suggesting that hilasmos merely means forgiveness of sin (“expiation”)—removing the lexical meaning from the word for the sake of presenting God as an all-loving-no-wrath kind of God. Of course, that is a distortion of the biblical presentation of the love of God. In saying that though, the term also does not define God as ill-tempered always desiring to deal swiftly and hurtfully with His human subjects unless they appease Him by gifts and offerings, as hilasmos is defined in pagan literature (cf. Homer’s The Iliad). The wrath of God is holy justice dealing righteously against sin. It was because of His infallible love, grace, and mercy that God sent His Son as the atoning sacrifice that satisfied holy justice. That is why hilasmos can be translated as “propitiation,” not “expiation,” which would denote only forgiveness or the removal of the penalty sin without any implication of turning away wrath and placating the Father. The fact is, hilasmos carries two ideas: 1) cleansing or forgiving sins and 2) removing or averting wrath. Hence, Jesus is said to be our “Advocate” in the proceeding verse (note: 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 are the only places where hilasmos appears in the NT). Thus, an appropriate English equivalent of hilasmos is “propitiation.” Note the prefix “pro” denoting that the satisfaction was made before the Father. But because of the complexity of the term “propitiation” some opt to use “atoning sacrifice” (e.g., NIV, NET, etc.), which sufficiently communicates the meaning.

[3] The NT was written in Koinē (“common”) Greek.

[4] Matthew 20:28 reads identical to Mark 10:45 (lutron anti pollōn [lit., “as a ransom on behalf [or “in the place”] of many”; cf. Isa. 53:11). After careful lexical and linguistic study regarding the preposition anti, Greek scholar, Daniel Wallace, concludes:

the evidence appears to be overwhelmingly in favor of viewing a)nti\ [anti] in Matt. 20:28/Mark 10:45 as meaning in the place of and very possibly with the secondary meaning in exchange for. . . . (GGBB, 367).

[5] In this view, man, not God, is sovereign over his own eternal destiny. Further, this notion sees the initial faith-act as the very cause or ground of justification—making “faith” itself a meritorious work that one must do to earn justification. However, grammatically, never in Scripture is “faith” said to be the cause of justification, rather it is always said to be the very instrument God uses to justify (cf. Rom. 4:4-8; 5:1; Eph. 2:8; 2 Tim. 1:9).

[6] The Greek reads in 1 John 2:2: kai autos hilasmos estin (lit., “and He propitiation is”). Note that the verb estin (“is”) is in the present, not the future tense. Thus, Christ is (not potentially) the literal and real atoning sacrifice that averted God’s wrath.

[7] Rather than using the masculine pronoun auton, “him,” the neuter pronoun auto (“it”) is used here. The neuter describes the elect (i.e., the ones that the Father gives to the Son) as a whole or, as F. F. Bruce says, “the sum-total.”

[8] But eventually, the gospel was preached in Asia (cf. Acts 19:10).

[9] The term heilato (has chosen you) is an aorist middle indicative (lit., “chose for Himself”). The middle voice indicates that the subject (God) is both the agent and the doer of the action upon Himself, or for His own advantage. Literally, “God chose for Himself (heilato) from the beginning (aparchēn) those for salvation [eis sōtēpian]. . . .” (cf. Acts 13:48).