If you are in Christ, you have been justified — eternally, irreversibly, gloriously.
God has spoken his everlasting sentence over your soul. Through faith alone (Romans 5:1), on the basis of the death and life of Jesus Christ alone (Romans 5:9), you are not guilty, but righteous; not hell-bound, but heaven-bound; not condemned, but justified. You need no longer wonder what judgment day holds. Though men, devils, and a disordered conscience may accuse, there is therefore now no condemnation for you (Romans 8:1). Let your soul sigh with relief: you have been justified.
And yet, surprising though it may sound, you also will be justified. As the apostle of justification himself writes, “Through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5) — a statement that seems to suggest some future dimension to the righteousness God reckons to us in Christ. In him, we have righteousness, and we hope for righteousness; we have been justified, and we will be justified.
For many, I suspect, the future dimension of justification startles us at first, like a constellation we’d never noticed before. But rightly understood, it makes the sky of our heavenly hope burn all the brighter.
Salvation Already — and Not Yet
To say we both have been and will be justified may sound like double-talk. How can justification happen in both the past and future tense? But the New Testament authors, and Paul especially, talk this way all the time.
- We have been adopted (Romans 8:14–16) — and we will be (Romans 8:23).
- We have been resurrected (Ephesians 2:4–6) — and we will be (1 Corinthians 15:22).
- We have been redeemed (Colossians 1:13–14) — and we will be (Ephesians 4:30).
- We have been sanctified (1 Corinthians 1:2) — and we will be (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
- We can even say we have been glorified (Romans 8:30; 2 Corinthians 3:18) — and we will be (Colossians 3:4).
“If you are in Christ, you have been justified — eternally, irreversibly, gloriously.”
We tend to cast the benefits of salvation in chronological order: we have been justified, we are being sanctified, and we will be glorified, for example. But as Sinclair Ferguson writes, “We cannot think of, or enjoy, the blessings of the gospel either isolated from each other or separated from the Benefactor himself” (The Holy Spirit, 102). In other words, the benefits of salvation are less like links in an abstract chain and more like spokes attached to the hub of Christ himself (see Saved by Grace, 16, for a helpful visual). “Every spiritual blessing” lives in Christ (Ephesians 1:3), and because we ourselves are in Christ, every spiritual blessing in one sense is already ours.
And in another sense, every spiritual blessing is not yet ours. “In the New Testament,” Ferguson continues, “there remains a yet-to-be consummated aspect to every facet of salvation” (102–3) — justification included.
Speaking of future justification calls for care, of course. So much of justification’s power lies in the past tense. “We have been justified” (Romans 5:1), Paul says — and he means it. And yet, some future dimension of justification awaits.
We have already noted, for example, Paul’s words in Galatians 5:5: “We ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” We might also mention Paul’s teaching (echoing Jesus) that everyone, believers included, “will stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10; see also 2 Corinthians 5:10). If God’s justifying verdict were only past, why would Christians need to appear at God’s judgment seat? More than that, we have another biblical clue that justification is, in one sense, still future — a clue that may seem surprising: our bodies still decay and die.
In the beginning, Paul reminds us, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12). Death is not the natural end to life’s natural process. Death is penalty and punishment, the unnatural end to life under sin. Every headstone stands as a silent witness to God’s judicial sentence over sinful man: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
In other words, death is the just end of the unjustified. And though, in Christ, we really have been justified, we still die as if we haven’t been, as if we were still under the same sentence of condemnation. Our bodies, “dead because of sin” (Romans 8:10), await the day when we who have received “the free gift of righteousness” will “reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17).
Raised and Justified
The connection between death and condemnation deepens the darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Every drop of blood from the cross, and then every hour in the tomb, seemed to confirm the Pharisees’ claim that “this man is a sinner” (John 9:24). “As long as he remained in a state of death,” Richard Gaffin writes, “the righteous character of his work, the efficacy of his obedience unto death remained in question, in fact, was implicitly denied” (Resurrection and Redemption, 121). If the stone had never rolled away, Jesus would have remained slain among the unjustified.
But the stone did roll away, such that Paul can sing, “He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit” (1 Timothy 3:16). The word vindicated here is the same word for justified, suggesting that, in a sense, Jesus’s Spirit-wrought resurrection served to justify him — to declare to all that the so-called “sinner” on the cross was in truth “the Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14). Despite his enemies’ slander, Jesus never sinned. Therefore, Peter says, “It was not possible for him to be held by [death]” (Acts 2:24). Death, unable to imprison a sinless man, was forced to bow before Christ’s resurrected feet.
Resurrection, then, testifies that the Genesis 3 death sentence no longer rests over a person, that he or she is now in the right with God, and therefore fit to dwell with him in the land of the living. In Christ, of course, we too have been resurrected (Ephesians 2:4–6) — but only in spirit, not yet in body. Which means our justification is both already and not yet. As Gaffin writes,
As believers are already raised with Christ, they have been justified; as they are not yet resurrected, they are still to be justified. . . . “The outer man,” subject to decay and wasting, mortal and destined for death, still awaits justification in some sense. (By Faith, Not by Sight, 98–99)
For now, God’s justifying verdict lies veiled beneath our bent and broken bodies. But one day, “when the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:54), our justification will become plain to all.
Our Cosmic Acquittal
The Westminster Shorter Catechism helps us picture that day: “At the resurrection, believers being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment” (answer to question 38).
God has already “acknowledged and acquitted” us on the basis of Jesus’s death and resurrection. But he has not yet done so “openly.” As Dane Ortlund writes, “The open manifestation and vindication of already justified sinners is not yet placarded before a hostile world” (“Inaugurated Glorification,” 119). For now, we live in a world that opposes and denies our justification. The devil still accuses us. Conscience unfairly condemns us. Our bodies wrinkle, weaken, and eventually die under the death penalty of sin. But not so forever.
On the day of judgment, we will stand before God and all the world, our risen bodies testifying that we are no longer dust destined for dust, but glory headed for glory (1 Corinthians 15:48–49). The “accuser of our brothers” (Revelation 12:10) will have his mouth shut, finally and forever. Conscience will no longer clamor; enemies will no longer slander. And most importantly, God himself, having already claimed us in Christ, will trumpet his righteous pleasure as far as east is from the west (Matthew 25:21). Openly and publicly, he will justify us.
That future day will not serve as a second justification, as if the first were somehow tentative and uncertain. Nor will it rest on any other basis than Christ alone — though Spirit-wrought good works will play their role as public witnesses of saving faith (2 Corinthians 5:10). That day will simply consummate the justification God has already declared over us in Christ. The song ringing in our hearts will resound throughout the cosmos (Romans 5:5).
We Eagerly Wait
In the galaxy of our heavenly hope, here is a star to see and savor. We will not only be raised, saved, adopted, and welcomed home on the last day; we also will be openly justified. Oh to say with the apostle Paul, “We ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5).
“We will not only be raised, saved, adopted, and welcomed home on the last day; we also will be openly justified.”
Paul himself tells us how to join him in his eager waiting: “Through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait . . .” Doug Moo summarizes Paul’s meaning: “It is by appropriating and living out of the power of the Spirit that believers confidently wait for the ultimate confirmation of their righteous status before God” (Galatians, 329). One day, the Spirit will raise our buried bones, sew joint and sinew back together, and present us for public justification, as the universe watches. In the meantime, the same Spirit grows our confidence for that day by slowly making us more righteous now.
We will never become perfectly righteous in this world. Far from it. But the only people who “eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” are those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” to fill our words and deeds, our thoughts and feelings (Matthew 5:6). And so, as long as we live here, walking in a broken body upon a broken earth, we strive for righteousness, waiting for the day when God will openly crown us with the righteousness already ours in Christ.