When we speak about ‘the order of salvation’, we are referring to something that is very personal. ‘The order of salvation’ is an old-fashioned term, but it signifies something that is crucial for each of us. How do I come into contact with the living God? How does he contact me? What is my destination in this life? What is Jesus doing for me and in me?
These are not general questions that you can discuss without getting too involved in the matter, such as questions about the weather. No. They are questions that touch on the foundation of my existence. Who am I really? Who is God? Why did Christ come on the earth? What does the message of the Bible have to do with my own life?
These are deeply personal, existential questions. God himself raises them by means of his Word and wants to answer them. The answers that he gives are intended to change my own life. Talking about ‘the order of salvation’ makes no sense at all without this personal framework and this personal involvement. We are not talking about abstract concepts, but about a living reality: the life of God in all its fullness, in relation to my own fragile and empty life. How does God’s salvation come to me? To put it another way: how does the Saviour and Redeemer, Jesus Christ, become my Saviour and Redeemer in time and for eternity?
God as Righteous Creator and Judge
The Acts of the Apostles describes how, not long after his conversion on the way to Damascus, the apostle Paul is working as a traveling missionary. He travels from place to place, from city to city in what are now Turkey and Greece. He tells a story, a message about Jesus, the Messiah, and he expects a response from his listeners. We may listen to that message too.
Acts 17 describes how Paul came to Athens, the famous cultural capital of Greece. At a certain point he goes to the market place, the Areopagus, where philosophers are accustomed to debate each other. Paul does not begin his address by speaking about Jesus, but about God. ‘I see that you are very religious’, says Paul to the Greeks who are gathered there. ‘But you don’t know the true God! The true God doesn’t live in temples such as you have. He is the God who made the earth and everything in it. He is the Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t need us, but we do need him! He gives us all life and breath and everything. We are all dependent on him’ (Acts 17:22-25, paraphrase)
Paul speaks first about God. He is not talking about a god that we, human beings, invent, a human projection, an idea developed by human beings about gods and the divine. No. He speaks about the true, living God, the great Creator of the cosmos, who made everything on earth and governs it. God, the Creator, is not far away, but close to us. Paul says, ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28a).
Very clearly Paul criticizes the temples and statues of the Greeks. He says to them: ‘The living God is someone other that the statues that I see here. You have to change. You have to think in a very different way about God. Everyone must repent and turn to the true God. For God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world with justice. He will do that through a man whom he has appointed for that purpose: Jesus. And God has provided indisputable proof of that for all people by raising him from the dead’ (Acts 17:30-31, paraphrase).
Paul is saying to the people of Athens, ‘Listen up everybody: God the Creator is God the Judge through Jesus Christ. God, the righteous Creator, is going to deliver a righteous [just] judgment in the future. We know that for certain because Jesus rose from the dead’. That is how Paul spoke that day.
Later, in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, the letter that we call ‘Romans’, he also talks about God, the Creator and Judge. In fact, that’s how he begins his letter. Chapter 1 says: God made us, but we have all become makers and worshipers of idols. We worship something that we have made ourselves instead of the true God. God the Creator does not allow it. Chapter 2 says: God is coming to judge the world. He will punish all sin and disobedience. For God the Creator is God the righteous Judge through Jesus Christ. There is going to be a day of righteous judgment by God, who is righteous.
God, our Creator, stipulated that all people who do not acknowledge him, must die and be eternally separated from God (Rom 1:32). A day is coming on which God will indeed judge all people. In Rom 2:5-6, Paul writes to people who think that things are not so bad: ‘But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will give to each person according to what he has done”’. And who will carry out that judgment? Paul provides the answer in Rom 2:16: ‘. . . God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares’.
God is the Creator, but we have turned our backs on him and have made idols in our thoughts and by our hands in the form of statues. That is why he is so angry with us. As Creator and thus as owner and Judge of the world, he lays the punishment of his wrath on the world. And on the day when Jesus returns, God will reveal his final verdict. All people will hear that they will receive the sentence of eternal death. For it is clear from the Old Testament: there is no one who is righteous, not even one person (Rom 3:10, which quotes Ps 14:3). That is why the whole world is guilty before God (Rom 3:19). That will be clear to everyone on the last day. We face a horrible future. Is there really no way out?
God as Righteous Saviour
Paul explains what he proclaimed in Athens in his letter to the Romans. The living God is righteous in his judgment. And that judgment is: we, human beings, deserve eternal death.
Only when you understand that, only when you personally accept that as the truth about the living God and also about yourself, will the rest of Paul’s message be able to capture your attention. Only if I accept that God is a God who is righteous in his judgment, is it possible that I also accept that God can rescue me from ‘the coming wrath’ (1 Thess 1:10). Only when you see how dark it is, can you appreciate the appearance of the morning star. Only against the backdrop of black velvet, can a pearl glitter as it should. For there is an inseparable connection between the God who is the righteous Judge and the God who can rescue me through Jesus Christ.
In Romans Paul says: all people, Gentiles and Jews are hopeless cases. All of us fell so deeply into sin that we all deserve God’s eternal punishment. But Jesus the Messiah came right into the middle of this hopeless situation. He came for the world, for Jews and Gentiles. And what he did is unimaginable, but true. Jesus caused the wrath of God that hung like a sword of Damocles above the head of all humanity, to fall on himself. He, who was God and man, he who was without sin, took the punishment that we deserve on himself. He died, in the fullest and broadest sense, in the place of all persons who were going to believe in him.
When we, human beings, confront God, we are meeting our Judge, who rightly condemns us as people who rebelled against him. His righteous judgment is: You deserve death. But, says Paul in Rom 3, that is not God’s last word. That does not conclude his righteousness. Paul puts it like this in Rom 3:21: ‘But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify’. In other words, God remains true to himself when he condemns us justly. The law that he gave us describes the condemnation that transgressors of that law deserve. But God had another plan apart from the law, by which he could nevertheless acquit people, while at the same time he preserved his own righteousness. There is a righteousness of God that can rescue us through Jesus Christ!
It is clear that this righteousness of God, as distinct from God’s righteousness as Judge, works in such a way that sinful, rebellious people are again acceptable to him. It is also clear that this righteousness is directly related to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Paul writes in Rom 3:25: ‘God presented him [Jesus Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement… in his blood’. Thus, the sacrificial death of Jesus has made forgiveness of sins possible. Jesus the Messiah is the Saviour who came to give his life as a sacrifice, so that all people who believe in him no longer have to be punished by God.
Paul is saying that this representation of Christ as a sacrifice of atonement demonstrates God’s righteousness. Through the ages, God had promised that he would save his people through the Messiah whom he would send. God is true to this promise. That is also righteousness! Not a righteousness that condemns us, but a righteousness that acquits believers of all guilt. It is righteousness; indeed, it is justification [being made just] through Jesus Christ.
In Rom 3:26 Paul says: God demonstrates this justice [righteousness]. He declares believers in Jesus Christ to be people who are free from sin. Not because they have become perfect people, but because Jesus has undergone the punishment for their sins. And even more important is that we who believe are so united with Christ that when God looks at us, he no longer sees our sins, but Jesus’ own perfect life. Not only is there forgiveness of sins, but also a positive putting on of Christ’s own justice, like an item of clothing. In this unexpected, surprising way we are again brought into contact with God, not the God who condemns us, but the God who adopts us as his own children. The demand of his punishing justice is fulfilled because Christ died and the fruit of his saving justice is given to us. It is a wonder of God’s grace; hope in the middle of our hopeless existence; light in the darkness! It is peace with God.
Paul makes it very clear that this new situation is thanks only to God’s grace, his undeserved favour. What could and can we do to escape our punishment? Nothing, nothing at all. But God wants to rescue people. He took the initiative. He sent his own Son. And now he declares that whoever believes in Jesus Christ is declared righteous. People have not achieved this. It is God’s gift to a world in distress. Jews and Gentiles can be acquitted through faith in Christ. Grace is not something we can earn, but something that is freely given to us. Our new relationship with God is not something that we have achieved, but is the result of his love for us. Paul’s doctrine about justification therefore rebuts all attempts of people, Jews and Gentiles, to earn something with God. But Paul says, human achievements are worthless. God’s grace rescues us, only his grace!
Rom 3:24 says this so clearly: we ‘are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ’.
So when we speak of justification, we imply that God’s grace triumphs!
The Order of Salvation and Justification
Later in the same letter to the Romans, Paul speaks about the gold chain of God’s grace that saves us. It is a grace that goes back into eternity and lives on into all eternity. Paul writes the following in Rom 8:30: ‘[the people] he [God] predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified’.
God has ‘predestined’ people. That means that he chose specific persons beforehand to be saved. Not because they were any better than other people, but solely out of his love for them. These ‘he also called’. That is, he sends the Gospel, the message about Jesus Christ to these people and by that Word he calls them to faith. And ‘those he called, he also justified’. These people, chosen and called, are also justified. Although they are sinners, they are declared to be without sin in Jesus Christ. And ‘those he justified, he also glorified’. It is so certain that these people will be glorified in the future, in both soul and body, and be made immortal, that Paul speaks in the past tense, as if they are already glorified. When God wants to save us, he does it thoroughly and forever!
That is how we may speak about the place of justification in God’s plan of salvation for people. This justification did not just fall out of the sky; it is very much part of God’s plan to save a people for himself: a people destined for a new earth, under a new heaven. It is a people won by Christ’s suffering on the cross. They are chosen, called, and justified. And therefore they have a fixed destiny: resurrection from the dead and a life with God for eternity.
Justification and Sanctification
Justification is a change in our status, not of our hearts. People who are justified are still sinners, as Paul makes clear in his letters. But they are not just sinners. Through the working of the Holy Spirit they become new people, with a new orientation, indeed, with new hearts! We no longer live ‘according to [our] sinful nature’, we no longer live under the dominion of sin, but ‘according to the Spirit’. Paul writes in Rom 8 that we are in the sphere of influence of the Holy Spirit. And we may now live in and according to this Spirit (Rom 8:4). We have been born anew and may live ‘by the Spirit’ (Rom 8:13). Justification is something different than living by the Spirit, but only those who are justified can live by the Spirit!
That is why Paul’s teaching about justification is not a threat to a holy life. When you have received Christ’s justice, you will want to follow your Master, not to earn something with God, but in thankfulness and filled by the Spirit.
Later we shall speak more about justification. But for now we can conclude by underscoring the certainty that when God chooses, calls, and justifies us, he will also ensure that we shall live for him, both now and later!
- H. Ridderbos, ‘De openbaring van de gerechtigheid Gods’, in H. Ridderbos, Paulus: ontwerp van zijn theologie (Kampen: 1966), pp. 171-96.
- W.H. Velema, ‘De rechtvaardiging’, in J. van Genderen and W.H. Velema, Beknopte Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (Kampen: 1992), pp. 552-86.