Justification Is the Gate, Not the Garden

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

The glories of Christ are not limited to the glories of his work in justification. In fact, justification is a golden key to the inexhaustible treasures of divine glory. Training Christians that justification is the crescendo of our praises trains them to stop at the door of the palace. But they were not meant to stop. They were meant to pass through. They were meant to rove freely through innumerable rooms which house the beauties of God.

And the rooms are literally innumerable. That is the meaning of the infiniteness of God. And that is why it will take eternity to see all of these treasure-filled rooms. Justification is the key to every room. No admittance without it. But the key is not the room. The door is not the palace. The price is not the prize. The cross is not the crown. The glorious performance of redemption is not the Person or his riches. “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). To God!

Even More Glories

One whole section of the palace of divine glory is called the sector of sanctification. Wonders and beauties of divine work are on display there. The biblical map that guides our minds through this sector is far more expansive than the parts of the map that lead us into the wonders of justification. The gate requires less space than the garden.

Jesus did not die so that we would pitch our tents on Calvary. He died to fill the world — this one and the new one — with his reflected holiness. He died to open the door of personal and universal sanctification. He died so that we would not be incinerated by the glory of God, but rather spend eternity reflecting it with joy. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). The glory of justification serves the unending glories of sanctification.

Therefore, making the magnificence of justification the constant crescendo of life or preaching or worship or meditation or study has the effect of diminishing our experience of the vastness of the glories Christ died to reveal. I’ll give an example from my own recent studies.

Who Is “the Righteous”?

Suppose I read Psalm 34:15 (“The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry”), and suppose I draw this conclusion, “Since there is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10), this cannot apply to David, the author, or to imperfect believers.” So, I conclude, it refers prophetically to the true David, to Jesus, the only “righteous one” (1 John 2:1). And then I bring my meditation to a crescendo, rejoicing that God’s eyes look in favor on Christ, which means that in him I am safe.

If I do that, I will have muted the point of Psalm 34:15 that the apostle Peter picks up when he quotes the Psalm in 1 Peter 3:12. Peter does not use David’s words to show that righteousness is impossible. He uses them precisely to motivate the righteous use of the tongue in returning good for evil, and in seeking peace.

He has just given the command to Christians, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless . . .” (1 Peter 3:9). He follows this immediately with a ground clause as motivation: “. . . because to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” In other words, Christians are to love their enemies (as Jesus said), and part of their motivation (not all of it) is that they will obtain a blessing if they do.

Then Peter quotes Psalm 34 as a warrant for this kind of motivation for such righteous behavior. He begins the quotation with “for.” And the way the quote from Psalm 34 works is that it models the kind of motivation he just used: Return good for evil, in order that you may obtain a blessing.

For “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Peter 3:9–12, quoting Psalm 34:12–16)

The point of the Psalm in Peter’s argument is to underline Peter’s way of motivating righteousness. Peter had said that if you return good for evil, you will obtain a blessing (1 Peter 3:9). Psalm 34 says that if you want to see good days, keep your tongue from evil. Or, if you want God’s eyes on you, then do righteousness. Or, if you don’t want God to turn his face away, don’t do evil.

This seems to be almost the exact opposite use of Psalm 34:15 that I made of it in my hypothetical example (None can do righteousness, so thank God for justification by faith alone).

Almost the exact opposite.

The exact opposite would be justification by works. That is not what Peter is teaching. He has already said in 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” We don’t “live to righteousness” and then get the benefits of the cross. No. It’s the other way around. First, Jesus bears my sins in his body, and then I am given the power for real righteous behavior. Real enemy love. Real transformation. Real use of the tongue to bless others rather than revile them.

Peter is not teaching justification by works. He is teaching works by justification. He is teaching that, when you are born again (1 Peter 1:23), and Jesus has carried your sins in his body (1 Peter 2:24), you are not only ransomed from the guilt of your sins, you were also “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18). New ways were bought for you by the blood of Jesus, not just forgiveness for old ways. Justification leads not just to a new status of perfection in Christ, but also to a pattern of life in the world. Imputed righteousness leads to enacted righteousness. Not perfection. For now, we only have perfection by imputation. But justification does lead to real change — so real, and so certain, that Peter can say that the blessing of God comes because of it.

Relief of Guilt and Release of Love

So, one of the effects of using Psalm 34:15 as an immediate springboard to justification (because “there is none righteous, no not one”) is that Peter’s understanding of this Psalm is missed. In fact, the depth and grandeur of the glory of justification itself is truncated in the very act of making it so prominent. This is true because justification is not mainly for the relief of our guilt but for the release of our love. The relief of our guilt is essential. An essential means. Without it, we would not be able to love our enemy or return good for evil.

Imputed righteousness by faith alone is precious not mainly because it frees us from condemnation, but mainly because it brings us to God. It brings the Christ-glorifying Holy Spirit. It frees us legally, psychologically, and emotionally to live to God. Imputed righteousness leads us to praise not only the justification of the ungodly, but the omnipotent, blood-bought transformation of the ungodly. This too was bought by the blood. And its privileges in God’s palace — and its discoveries of God’s treasures, and its reflections of God’s glories in the world — go on forever and ever. Because of the imputation of God’s righteousness in Christ, the blood-bought saints will be filled with the active, beautiful fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God (Philippians 1:11).

The glories of this divine achievement in the Christian life do not end with justification. They begin with justification. Justification is not the crescendo of the symphony of God’s glory in the Christian life; it is the creation of the symphony. The map of Scripture is vast with the glories that flow from justification. The ten thousand paths of biblical truth do not lead to the justification as goal, but to justification as gate. And beyond it, and by means of it, the treasures of Christ and the glories of God are inexhaustible.

Peter did not misuse Psalm 34:15. He showed us the true way into the fullness of the glories of life in God — the glories of both the door and the “unsearchable riches” of the palace.