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What IS Legal or Forensic Justification?

"For He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." 1 John 2:2.

"For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men." Titus 2:11.

"For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God who is Saviour of all men, especially of those that believe." 1 Timothy 4:10.

Many today are asking, "Just what is 'legal justification' and why it is important? Why is it receiving so much discussion both at the church theological level and in the pews?" In this study we shall investigate the revolutionary good news as it was presented to the leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church at the 1888 Minneapolis General Conference, by A.T. Jones and E.J. Waggoner. Legal justification (also called "forensic" justification) is far more encompassing than most people have realized. It is a life-changing message that will turn the world upside down when it is freely proclaimed. [download this document as a PDF file]

Subsection Directory:

  1. Reformation Views
  2. Advancing Beyond the Reformation
  3. Universality of the Gift of Christ's Life
  4. Forgiveness Extended Before Adam Asked
  1. All Are Predestined to Eternal Life
  2. Justification Includes Eternal Life
  3. Irresistible Grace?
  4. Final Implications


Since before the Protestant Reformation, thinking men and women have been discussing the vital question regarding the benefits of the sacrifice of Christ. What are these benefits? Who receives of these benefits and when are these benefits received — i.e. when is the individual justified? Are the benefits of the sacrifice extended only to the "elect of God" or did the sacrifice of Christ do something for the whole world ("elect" and "non-elect" alike)? Is legal justification merely the assignment of certain temporal benefits (as limited to the realm of this sin-cursed earth) that apply to everyone regardless of their individual submission and sustained commitment to God? [1]

Or did the sacrifice of Christ do something far greater for the whole world? What was indemnified through the sacrifice of Christ, and was it a full indemnity?

Reformation Views

Martin Luther (1483-1546) is credited with providing the impetus for the full-fledged revolt against the Roman Catholic dogma on justification. Luther's straight reading of the Bible compelled him to believe that Paul's declaration, "the just shall live by faith," was the fundamental element of the Gospel, needing no modification. To Luther, the Church'squo;s additions of sacraments, penances, and indulgences were foreign to the Bible'squo;s message of righteousness by faith. From this beginning other men would follow, attempting to clarify and systematize the doctrine of justification.

John Calvin's (1509-1564) views on justification were substantially the same as Luther'squo;s. However, Calvin wrestled with the idea of who were included in the "covenant of promise" — who were the elect and who were the non-elect? Expanding Luther'squo;s premise, Calvin emphasized that justification was found only as one was united with Christ, and one is only united to Christ by faith. Assuming that position introduced a limiting factor into the equation of justification that accommodated Calvin'squo;s views on election and predestination. Those who believed were the ones God had predestined to justification and eternal life; unbelief or apostasy was a sure sign of eternal unelection.

Calvin's conclusion was that:

We say, then, that Scripture clearly proves this much, that God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once for all those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction. We maintain that this counsel, as regards the elect, is founded on his free mercy, without any respect to human worth, while those whom he dooms to destruction are excluded from access to life by a just and blameless, but at the same time incomprehensible judgment. In regard to the elect, we regard calling as the evidence of election, and justification as another symbol of its manifestation, until it is fully accomplished by the attainment of glory. (Calvin's Institutes [1559], Book III, Chapter 21, section 7).

Building on Calvin's work, Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) also attempted to form a clear theological statement on what was accomplished at the Cross. Contrary to Calvin'squo;s conclusion of limited atonement, Arminius decided that God did indeed do something for the entire world, however, it was only a provision that extended certain temporal benefits and spiritual opportunities to all persons. Arminius claimed that Jesus died on behalf of all persons and that through His death, salvation is available to all. In contrast to Calvinism, Arminianism claims that God places no limits upon who can believe and bring themselves into a salvific relationship with God. Arminius regarded Christ's death as the legal payment for sin for all persons, but viewed it as limited only to those who respond and claim the payment made in their behalf.

Thus Arminianism believes that through the beneficent grace of God the endowment of the Cross that is capable of erasing the guilt of sin, is available for appropriation by every individual. It is placed within the reach of all mankind, but each individual must "obtain" the provision and apply it to their personal lives before it profits them. Hence, Arminius taught a universal atonement, but limited application. The unlimited atonement is restrained in its legal effect. The atonement was intended by God to benefit all, but requires the action of the individual'squo;s faith before legal justification can be effected for that individual. Therefore, we are not legally justified until after we believe. According to Arminius, "God regards no one in Christ unless they are engrafted in him by faith."[2]

A third Protestant position on justification was formulated in the 18th century. Similar to Arminianism, Universalism holds that the substitutionary death of Christ unreservedly paid the penalty for the sins of the whole world. However, justification is an event that took place entirely in the past. Accomplished on the Cross, it abrogated the penalty forever and is therefore irrelevant to individuals today. Universalists claim that God can be motivated only by His love for His creation, and therefore He is compelled to save everyone from eternal destruction. Their view is that if the omnipotent God does not want to, or is unable to save everyone, then He is not a God worth worshiping.


1. "Temporal benefits" are variously and broadly defined by theologians, ranging from the basics of food, water and air to breathe, to benefits such as personal honor, fame, riches, enjoyments, and health. Some contrast temporal benefits with the temporal consequences of sin, thus claiming that the benefits are those that arise from living a righteous life, these being the blessing of fellowshipping with like believers, pleasant opportunities arising from a family managed under the influence of Christian principles, to the enjoyment of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in ones life as He teaches, guides and illuminates. These are all distinguished from "spiritual benefits" which are defined as justification, regeneration (or sanctification), redemption from the death penalty, and eventually, glorification. [return to text]

2. "For God chooses no one unto eternal life except in Christ, who prepared it by his own blood for them who should believe on his name. From this it seems to follow that, since God regards no one in Christ unless they are engrafted in him by faith, election is peculiar to believers, and the phrase 'certain men,' in the definition, refers to believers. For Christ is a means of salvation to no one unless he is apprehended by faith. Therefore, that phrase 'in Christ' marks the meritorious cause by which grace and glory are prepared, and the existence of the elect in him, without which they could not be elected in him." Jacobus Arminius, Writings, III:311 [return to text]

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