When we speak of the “order of salvation” in this series, we are dealing with something that is very personal. We are using a somewhat old-fashioned theological term, “the order of salvation”, yet it means something that is crucial for each one of us. How do I enter in a relationship with the living God? How does he reach me? What is the destination in my life? What is Christ doing for me, and in me?
These are not simple general questions that can be discussed from a safe distance, similar to how we speak of the weather. No, these are questions that touch the essence of my existence. Who am I actually? Who is God? Why did Christ come to this earth? What does the message of the Bible have to do with my life?
These are profoundly personal, existential questions that God engenders and that God answers by means of his own Word. The answers he provides change my own life. Without this personal framework and involvement, speaking about “the order of salvation” would be futile. We are not dealing with abstract concepts, but with a living reality, with the life of God in all his fullness in relation to my own fragile life with all its emptiness. How does God’s salvation come to me? In other words, how does the Saviour, Jesus Christ, become my Saviour, in time and for all eternity?
God as Righteous Creator and Judge⤒🔗
After Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, the book of Acts shows us the apostle as a travelling missionary. He travels from one place to the next, from town to town in what is now Turkey and Greece. He tells a story, a message about Jesus, the Messiah, and he calls the people to a response. We may listen along to that message.
In Acts 17 we read how Paul arrives in Athens, the famous cultural capital of Greece. On a certain day he goes to the market place, the Areopagus, where we find a long tradition of philosophers debating with each other. Paul does not start his discourse immediately about Jesus, but about God. “I perceive that in every way you are very religious,” says Paul to the Greeks gathered there. “But do you know what? You do not know the true God! The true God does not live in temples like you have. He is the God who made the world and everything in it. He is the Lord of heaven and earth, and he does not live in man-made temples. He does not need us, but we need him! He provides life and breath, yes, everything. We depend totally on him” (paraphrase of Acts 17:22-25).
Paul speaks in the first place about God. A God, not one whom we think up ourselves. No human projection, no self-conceived idea of men about gods and everything divine. But the true and living God, the great Creator of the universe, who made everything on earth and who governs it. God, the Creator, who is not a long distance away, but near us. Paul says, “In him we live and move and have our being” (v. 28a).
Paul expresses a very clear critique on the temples and the statutes of the Greeks. He tells them, “The living God is different from the statutes I see everywhere. You need to change. You need to think very differently about God. Everyone needs to repent before the true God. Because God has determined a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness. He is going to bring this about through one man whom he has destined for that purpose, Jesus. And God has provided the necessary proof to all people by raising Jesus from the dead” (paraphrase of Acts 17:30, 31).
Paul is saying here to the people of Athens, “Listen up, everyone. God the Creator is God the Judge through Jesus Christ. A righteous judgment is coming in the future, by God the righteous Creator. We are fully assured of it because Jesus rose from the dead.” That is how Paul preached that da
Later, when Paul is writing a letter to the Christians in Rome, he also deals with God, the Creator and Judge. In fact, that is how Paul begins the letter to the Romans. Chapter one: God has made us, but we have all become makers and worshippers of idols. We worship something that we made ourselves, instead of the true God. God the Creator does not allow this. Chapter two: God comes to judge the world. He will punish all sin and disobedience. For God the Creator is God the righteous Judge through Jesus Christ. A day of righteous judgment is coming, by God who is righteous.
God, our Creator, has demanded that all people who do not recognize and acknowledge him must die and be eternally separated from God (Rom. 1:32). A day is coming when God will indeed judge all men. In Romans 2:5, 6 Paul writes against the opinion of these people who thought that it would not be all that bad: “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. He will render to each one according to his works.” And who will execute that judgment? Paul gives the answer, “God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 2:16).
God is the Creator, but we as his people have turned our back to him and made idols with images or thoughts. Therefore he is furious with us. As Creator, and therefore as Owner and Judge of the world, he lays the punishment of his wrath upon the world. One day, when Jesus will return, God will voice his very last verdict. All people will get to hear that they receive the eternal death penalty. For it is clear in the Old Testament: “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10, referencing Psalm 14). Therefore the whole world is guilty and accountable to God (Rom. 3:19). On the last day it will be clear to each and every one. We are heading toward a black future. Is there really no escape?
God as Righteous Judge←⤒🔗
What Paul proclaimed in Athens, he explains in his letter to the Romans. The living God is righteous in his judgment. And that judgment is: we deserve eternal death.
It is only when you see this, only when you personally accept this as the truth about the living God and also about yourself, that the remainder of Paul’s message will continue to excite you. Only when I accept that God is a God who is righteous and just in his sentence will it become possible that I also accept how God can save me from his coming wrath (see 1 Thess. 1:10). Only when you realize how dark it is, will you be able to appreciate the appearance of the Morningstar. Only against the background of that black velvet will the pearl sparkle, as it should. There is an inseparable connection between the God who is the just Judge, and the God who is able to save me through Jesus Christ.
Paul says in his letter to the Romans: all people, gentiles as well as Jews, are hopeless cases. We all have fallen into sin in such a way that we all deserve God’s eternal punishment. But in the midst of this hopeless situation Jesus the Messiah has come. He has come for the world, for Jews and non-Jews. And what he has done is beyond imagination, yet true. God’s punishment, which was hanging like a sword of Damocles above the head of all humanity, that sword Jesus allows to come down on himself. He, who was God and man, who was without sin, has taken upon himself the punishment that we deserved. He died, in the fullest and broadest sense of the word, in the place of them who would believe in him.
When we confront God, then this is an encounter with our Judge, who sentences us properly as people who have risen up in rebellion against him. His just verdict is: you all deserve death. But, says Paul in Romans 3, that is not God’s last word. And it is not the end of his righteousness. This is how Paul puts it in words in Romans 3:21, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.” In other words, God remains faithful to himself when he judges us justly. The law he has given us describes the judgment, which the trespassers of that law deserve. But aside from this God has had a plan whereby he can yet declare people as acquitted, while retaining his own righteousness. There is a justice from God that can save us, through Jesus Christ!
It is clear that the righteousness of God, different from God’s justice as Judge, works in such a way that rebellious people are again acceptable to him. It is also clear that this righteousness is in direct correlation to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, as Paul writes, “Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood...” (Rom. 3:25). Through the sacrificial death of Jesus forgiveness of sins is now possible. Jesus the Messiah is the Saviour who came to give his life as a sacrifice, so that people who believe in him would no longer need to be punished by God.
Paul is saying here: this representation of Christ as the means of atonement shows us God’s righteousness. A righteousness of God which he had promised throughout the ages; that he would save his people by the Messiah he would send. God is true to his promise. That too is righteousness! Not a righteousness that condemns us, but a righteousness that acquits believers from all guilt. Justification, yes: being made righteous, through Jesus Christ.
Paul says, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time” (Rom. 3:26). God declares believers in Jesus Christ as people who are free from sin. Not because they have become perfect people, but because Jesus underwent the punishment for their sin. And even more: we who believe are being united in Christ in such a way that when God looks at us he no longer sees our sin, but Christ’s own perfect life. There is not only forgiveness of our sin, but positively also a situation where we are clothed with Christ’s own righteousness, as with a garment. In this unexpected and surprising way we are again brought into a relationship with God, not as the God who condemns us but as the God who adopts us as his own children. The demand of his punishing righteousness is fulfilled, because Christ died, while the fruit of his saving justice is passed on to us. It is a miracle of God’s grace! Hope, in the midst of the hopelessness of our existence! Light in the midst of darkness! Peace with God.
It is very clear to Paul that we owe this new situation only thanks to God’s grace, his unmerited favour. What could we, what can we do to escape our punishment? Nothing; absolutely nothing. However, God wanted to save people. He took the initiative and sent his own Son. And now he says that whoever believes in Christ will be declared justified. That is not an achievement from our side. That is God’s gift, God’s present to a world in need. Jews and non-Jews can be acquitted through faith in Christ. Grace is not something that can be earned, but something that is given to us for free. Our new relationship with God is not something that we have accomplished, but the result of his love for us. Paul’s teaching about our justification is therefore the answer to all attempts of people, Jews or non-Jews, to achieve anything before God. Paul wants to say that human feats are of no value. God’s grace saves us, his grace alone!
Romans 3:24 says it so powerfully, “We are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” When you mention “justification”, you say simultaneously, “God’s grace is conquering!”
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 to eternity, and that continues to live for all eternity. In Romans 8:30 Paul writes, “And those [people] whom he [God] predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
“God has predestined people”. In other words, God has before chosen particular people to be saved. Not because they are any better than others, but motivated purely by his love for them. “These he also called”. God sends these people the gospel, the message about Jesus Christ, 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 still sinners, they are being declared to be without sin in Jesus Christ. “And those he justified he also glorified”. It is so sure that these people will be glorified in the future, perfected and made immortal in body and soul, that Paul speaks as if they have been glorified already, in the past tense. When God wants to save us, he does it profoundly and permanently!
This is how we may speak about the place of justification in God’s plan of salvation for all people. Justification is not something that falls from the sky, but clearly it has to do with God’s plan to save a people for himself. A people, destined for a new earth under a new heaven. A people gained through Christ’s suffering on the cross. Chosen, called, justified, and therefore with the sure destination: the resurrection from the dead and a life with God, forever.
Justification and Sanctification←⤒🔗
Justification is a change of our status, not of our hearts. People who have been justified remain sinners, according to Paul in his letters. But not sinners unreservedly. Through the activity of the Holy Spirit they become new people with a new orientation, yes, with new hearts! We are no longer “‘in the flesh”, we no longer live under the dominion of sin, but we are “in the Spirit”, in the force field of the Holy Spirit, writes Paul in Romans 8. We may “walk” according to this Spirit (Rom. 8:4). We are born anew and may live “by the Spirit” (8:13). Only justified people can live like this!
That is why Paul’s teaching about our justification is no threat to a holy life. Anyone who has received Christ’s righteousness wants to imitate his Master. Not to achieve anything with God, but out of gratitude, being filled with the Spirit.
Later in this series you will hear more about our sanctification. We may conclude this chapter in the certainty that when God chooses us, calls us, and justifies us, he will also take care that we live unto him — both now and forever!
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