It is amazing sometimes how quickly fortunes can change. We are often reminded of this through the sudden rise and fall of some of the most powerful and great people in history. One thinks of Napoleon, who rose from obscurity to become the ruler of Europe, only then to be decisively defeated and exiled, first to Elba and then to Saint Helena where he died six years later.
Another example is Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was a chief advisor to King Henry VIII. Under Henry, Cromwell rose to the height of power, but only to come crashing down. The contrast in his fortunes cannot be more pronounced: by 1539, he was principal secretary, vicar general, lord privy seal, and lord chancellor (among other offices). But just one year later, he was beheaded after falling out of favor with his king. Cromwell rose to meteoric heights of prominence and power, only to find himself in the Tower of London awaiting his execution in 1540. Now if there is anything such examples tell us it is this: earthly power may have its privileges, but it cannot guarantee those who hold it security and permanence.
Now the reason I bring up such examples is this: can a Christian rise and fall like this? More specifically, can a Christian get justified and then through sin lose his or her justification?
There are a number of reasons we might be prompted to ask this question. One reason might come from personal experience. Over the past few years, we have been hearing more and more about people who were once high profile Christians and yet who have recently gone through a deconversion process, jettisoning their faith for the more popular and easy-going secularism of our day. And I have no doubt that as Christianity becomes more and more unpopular, we are going to see more and more so-called deconversion stories. But a burning question that arises from such accounts is this: were such people genuine Christians to begin with? It certainly seems like they were, at least in some cases. If they refuse to repent and return to Christ, what then? Do they lose their salvation?
Another reason we might ask this question comes from the issues prompted by Biblical texts such as Matthew 6:12, and 1 John 1:9. These texts seem to imply that forgiveness of sin is contingent upon confession; which seems to imply that every time we sin we come under condemnation again until we confess our sins. This would mean that justification is an ongoing process, and would mean that we can lose it and gain it back many times, perhaps even during a single day!
Another category of texts that calls into question the security of the believer are those passages that talk about falling from grace (Gal. 5:4), or those who sin willfully after they have received the knowledge of the truth, for whom there is no more sacrifice for sins (Heb. 10:26-31; cf. 6:4-6). These texts are often taken to refer to people who have been saved and then through apostasy lose their salvation.
I am going to argue this morning that those who have embraced Christ with true faith cannot lose their justification and salvation. In particular, I am going to give you six reasons why I believe that justification is a declaration that will never be repeated or repealed. I then want to address passages like 1 John 1:9 that seem to militate against the position I am arguing for (though I am going to save the general apostasy issue and the Hebrews passages for a later message). Finally, I want to speak to the reason why this is so important. We are not playing at idle speculations here; rather, these are matters of tremendous consequence in our lives.
Six Reasons I believe justification is a one-time declaration that will never be repealed.
1. The absolute nature of the statement in Rom. 8:1 points to this reality.
If Paul believed that we can lose our justified status before God, it’s hard to see why he would have made such an absolute statement as this: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” Now suppose it is the case that Christians can lose their salvation. Suppose that every time we sin we lose our justified status and remain unjustified until we confess our sins and repent. If this were the case, the statement of verse 1 is little more than cold comfort. The fact of the matter is that in that case the truth of this verse would provide not comfort but fear in the believer as he or she was constantly re-evaluating their position with respect to God. It would not create peaceful assurance but around-the-clock introspection.
This clearly is not what the apostle intended, is it? When we look forward to verses 31-39 and the exultation of confidence so clearly enunciated in those verses, and the fact that the truths of verses 1-30 are meant to feed that exultation, we cannot for a moment give in to the notion that justification is something so easily lost. To make continued justification depend upon continual confession and repentance is even worse: it is like putting ice-skates on a person who is walking across a narrow metal beam a thousand feet in the air. I don’t think Paul intends for the believer to sweat their way to heaven, but that is exactly what will come of our journey if we allow justification to lose its permanence.
2. The qualifying phrase “for those who are in Christ Jesus” points to the security of the believer.
Now I can imagine that some will say, “Yes, you have no condemnation as long as you are in Christ. But it is possible to become out of Christ, even for those who are now in Christ.” However, such an argument will not stand the scrutiny of the larger context of Romans. According to the apostle, to be “in Christ” is not a state into which we move in and out of. For one thing, he precludes this possibility in Rom. 5:1-2: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Being in Christ is a “grace in which we stand.” This points up to the fact that union with Christ is a permanent, rather than a temporary, state.
Later in Romans 5, Paul makes this argument: “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (5:17). In other words, just as surely as our connection to Adam results in death, even so our union with Christ will inevitably (“much more”) result in justification and eternal life. Our union with Christ is never presented as something which can be broken. On the contrary, it is always presented as that which is at the foundation of all our spiritual privileges and security. This phrase is not meant to qualify away the security of our justified status before God; rather, it is meant to ground it.
3. The word “now” in Rom. 8:1 indicates that at the present time in a believer’s life there is no condemnation.
If it were possible to lose one’s justification, how could we ever know that we were justified? The word “now” would become meaningless. We would never know whether or not we were justified, because we could never be absolutely sure that we had settled all our accounts with God. For example, Paul makes this observation in another place: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor. 4:3-4). Now, if it is true that a failure to confess my sins results in a coming back under condemnation, how could we ever know that we are justified? Paul’s observation here would then be terrifying: we would never know now, and could never know in fact until the Day of Judgment. In that case, the believer would never be able to be at peace. There would be absolutely no hope that could be derived from Rom. 8:1. What is interesting, is that even though Paul makes the observation that he could never know with certainty whether or not he was sin-free, this did not seem to bother him. Why? Surely because his hope was not in himself but in Christ and what he had done for him.
4. That justification is a one-time and final declaration is indicated in the passages that refer to justification as a past event.
For example, in Rom. 5:1, Paul writes, “Therefore being justified” (KJV), or “having been justified, we have peace with God” (ESV). Justification is never referred to in Paul’s writings as a continual process, but rather as a once-for-all, permanent declaration.
Imputation is also seen to be this way. Referring to Abraham as the example for believers in all times, Paul asks when righteousness was imputed to him: “How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised” (Rom. 4:10). Now as we saw in our consideration of that chapter, imputation of righteousness was another way Paul talked about justification by the righteousness of God. If it were possible to move in and out of a state of justification, it would have been so with Abraham. However, Paul speaks of his justification as happening at a specific point in time; namely, before he was circumcised. That argument makes no sense if justification is in fact an on-going process.
Romans 8:30 also bears this out: “…and those whom he [God] justified he also glorified.” This way of referring to justification in the past tense makes most sense if justification is both a one-time event as well as a permanent event, and one that secures the final inheritance. There is no on-going justification here, nor a justification that, once gained, can be lost.
5. The context of Romans 8:1 bears this out.
The whole chapter is dedicated to establishing the security of the believer. To refer once again to the words of John Stott, it begins with no condemnation and ends with no separation. It is no mistake that Paul works out his argument in this way. Justification is the first plank in his argument to establish this. It would be strange, therefore, if our righteous status before God could be lost.
Imagine working through the argument of this mighty chapter in terms of climbing a ladder. At the top, the unshakable confidence in the believer’s relationship with God. Now, climb up these rungs, verse by verse, to the top. However, the way some people interpret this chapter, it would be like some of the rungs are loose and can come off. You try to climb up only to put your weight on a rung that will not bear it and you fall down. Surely that is not how the apostle intends the argument of this chapter to run!
6. The express statement of John 5:24 precludes justification as a process.
The first five arguments have come straight out of Romans. I think that’s important because you always want to interpret a text in light of its context. However, my understanding of Scripture is that ultimately one Author is behind it. Paul’s words were never meant and cannot contradict the words of Christ. So I come now to his words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (Jn. 5:24). This not only refers to the coming judgment, but also to present condemnation (cf. Jn. 3:18, 36). The believer does not and will not come into judgment. They have passed from death to life. Surely, to read this statement as consistent with the idea that we can fall in and out of grace is a contradiction. For then you would have examples of people who did believe and yet (whether through unconfessed sin or apostasy) did eventually come into judgment. The clearest way to take our Lord’s words is to mean that the believer is now and will ever remain justified before God.
Do Jesus and John contradict Paul?
How does Mt. 6:14 and 1 Jn. 1:9 square with this? The latter verse reads, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This at first blush seems to imply that forgiveness of sins (and therefore justification) is an ongoing process. However, we know that neither Jesus nor John can be contradicting Paul because, as we’ve seen, they both ratify Paul’s argument in John 5:24.
The way we should take passages like the ones above is by making a distinction between the two ways in which we relate to God. One way is as subject to Lawgiver and King. The other way is as son or daughter to Father. When the apostle is writing about justification in Romans, he is referring primarily to the creature-Creator, subject-King relationship with have with God. As rebels, we have incurred God’s holy and just wrath. We are condemned and deserve judgment. However, Christ has come and died for our sins so that God’s just wrath has fallen on him instead of on us. As a result, those who are united to Christ by faith can be justified and completely and fully forgiven.
But this is not all. God not only justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5), he also adopts them into his family, as Rom. 8:14-17 points out. This establishes a new and different relationship, that of child to Father. We have now moved from the legal to the familial context. Now we all know that the ways in which we might relate to a king is different than the way we relate to a father. Even so, the terms of 1 Jn. 1:9 and Mt. 6:14 deal with our relationship to God as Father rather than as King. The terms and the context of Mt. 6:14 bears this out: “Our Father, which art in heaven…” (6:9); “if you forgive others … your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (6:14).
Now, in our relationship with God as children of God, sin is still a problem, but not in the same sense it was before we began to relate to God in this way. Before we were justified, we were under condemnation. But that is no longer the reality, as our text points out. However, that does not mean that sin doesn’t affect our relationship with God. Sin affects our fellowship with God, though not our status as children. A child may sin against their parent and lose the open display of affection from the parent for a time, without the parent ever feeling any the less committed or loving towards their child. Even so, God never lets go of his children; but he can and does withhold his familial blessing and fellowship when we sin and refuse to repent.
This is clearly the point of 1 Jn. 1:9. In fact, the whole point of this chapter is how the believer may have fellowship with God so that our joy may be complete (1 Jn. 1:3-4). How do we do that? By walking in the light (ver. 7), and the way we walk in the light is by confessing our sins and being cleansed from all our unrighteousness (ver. 9). This is not about being re-justified; it is about being restored to the joy of fellowship with God on the already established and permanent relationship to him through his Son Jesus Christ.
So what difference does this make?
First of all, let me point out what this does not allow us to say.
It is not allow us to say that a justified believer may live any way they like. Paul has already precluded this possibility in Romans 6. Those who are united to Christ by faith are not only justified, they are also sanctified. And this sanctification is not just positional; it works its way out in very real and concrete ways in their lives.
It also does not mean that a believer can never lose a feeling sense of their forgiven and accepted status with God. This can be lost, as we have seen, either by sin, or by failing to properly take hold of the hope presented to us in the promises of the gospel, or even by God withdrawing his felt presence from us for a time in order to test us (cf. Isa. 50:10).
But what practical effect should this truth have upon us? I close with three brief suggestions.
First, it can save us from despair in the battle against our sins. The doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ enables the kind of hopefulness we meet with in Ps. 130:3-4: “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” As we’ve pointed out before, the Christian only fights forgiven sins. It is with us as with the prodigal son: God is not against penitent believers, he is for them (Lk. 15:11, ff.; Rom. 8:31).
Second, it should make us loving and longsuffering people. For if we have been forgiven freely, and as ungodly, how can we not extend forgiveness in kind to others? First, to our family and friends, then to the church, and finally to the lost.
Third, the knowledge of this reality should give us tremendous freedom, even to the point of being willing to risk everything in this life for the sake of Christ, knowing that we are eternally secure. Whatever we may lose here, nothing can touch our hope in Christ. Whatever uncertainties are before us in this world, this at least is most certain: God is eternally for us and will therefore work all things for our good either in this world or the next.