A Legal Guilt

Discussion in 'Essays & Journals' started by Taylor, Feb 26, 2012.

  1. Taylor

    Taylor EdChat™ PhD

    Oct 13, 2010
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    Legal Guilt
    by Taylor V. Smith


    When asked, most Christians will readily affirm that justification before God is not based upon works. Instead, they will reply that men are saved from the guilt of sin only by grace, through faith, using as their argument Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Indeed, the doctrine of justification by ‘faith alone’ – in Latin, sola fide – is identified by historians as the foremost cause of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.[1] However, this author is convinced that many evangelicals who lay claim to this doctrine either do not truly believe its premise, or do not understand the true meaning of sola fide. Evidence of this is shown by the way that many evangelical Christians approach the subject of sin.

    Many modern churches teach that, when Christians sin, they ought to repent and ask for forgiveness. This is surely true, for Jesus taught his followers to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12) Yet, it is the reason that these churches teach repentance that refutes the very basis of justification by faith alone.

    One verse commonly presented with regards to the subject of sin is Psalms 66:18: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” Many churches will use this verse and similar verses to argue that Christians cannot approach the Lord until they have repented, for their sin has distanced them from His ear. In other words, when Christians sin, they become flawed before God and must be forgiven before God will hear them. Though this belief may sound customary and reasonable, this is actually a very dangerous belief to maintain for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the denial of the doctrine of sola fide.

    Although Christians should and must repent before approaching God, it is not because they have become flawed before Him. This author will argue herein that, whenever Christians do sin, they do not regain a flawed standing, or a ‘legal guilt’, before God, such as they possessed before they became believers. Furthermore, he will briefly explore what does, in fact, happen when Christians sin.

    What Is Justification?

    Before a proper case can be made against the acquisition of legal guilt, the true meaning of justification must be explained. Justification, as John Murray aptly explains, is “a constructive act whereby the righteousness of Christ is imputed to our account and we are accordingly accepted as righteous in God’s sight.”[2] This definition emphasizes two separate actions that take place during justification: 1) the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to a man’s own account, and 2) the affirmation of God whereby He declares this man to be righteous. Both of these points merit further exploration.

    First of all, justification involves an act of God called “imputation.” John Piper describes imputation as “the act in which God counts sinners to be righteousness through their faith in Christ on the basis of Christ’s perfect ‘blood and righteousness,’ specifically the righteousness that Christ accomplished by his perfect obedience in life and death.”[3] In order for God to declare a man righteous, this man must first, in fact, be righteous. Yet, as Romans 3:10 says, “As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one.’” Thus, no man can stand by his own righteousness, but must trust in the righteousness of Christ. Romans 5:19 reveals, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” Therefore, the act whereby God counts Christ’s righteousness as belonging to a man is the act of imputation – the first point of justification.

    Secondly, once a man had been made righteous in Christ, God declares him to be righteous. God worked through Christ’s sacrifice “that we might become the righteousness of God in Him [Christ].” (II Corinthians 5:21) Therefore, once Christ’s righteousness has been accredited to this man, he becomes the righteousness of God, and is declared by God to be such. This is the second point of justification.

    Justification is attained, according to the Bible, whenever a man believes in the gospel of Jesus. (Ac. 13:39) Although mankind is condemned to death by sin, through justification a man can receive Christ’s work on the cross for the retribution of God’s justice. Romans 5:1 teaches that it is justification that is able, at last, to bring a man peace with God: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    Therefore, justification by faith alone – sola fide – means that a man, by faith, receives freely the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and is accordingly declared by God to be righteous in His sight.

    Justification is Not Based upon Works

    The first argument in repudiation of the belief that Christians can, once again, gain legal guilt before God, is based upon the truth that justification is not based upon works.

    Romans 5:18 states that, “through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification.” This verse emphasizes two important points: first, that it was Christ’s act of righteousness that resulted in justification, and second, that justification came to all men through a free gift. The fact that it was Christ’s work that produced justification shows lucidly that a man’s work has no part to play in the justification process. Justification is the work of Christ, not man. Furthermore, according to this passage, justification came to all men freely. It did not require men to work in order to attain it. In fact, justification comes only by faith in Christ. (Ac. 13:39)

    Yet, if a man who has attained justification through faith did nothing to receive it, how can he, then, do anything to refute it? If he can, indeed, do some work to reverse his justification, then justification is based on works. However, because justification is not based on works, neither can any work of man take away his legal righteousness before God.

    One danger found in the belief that man’s works can undo his justification is that it denies the completeness of Christ’s sacrifice. The Bible teaches that Christ die once and for all. (I Pet. 3:18) The Bible says in Hebrews 9:25-28 that Christ entered in the presence of God for us "not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with the blood of another – He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself…so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many."

    Christ died once to put away sin. Thus, if a Christian again acquires legal guilt for sin, who will come to die for him again? Furthermore, if sin was not overcome by Christ’s death on the cross, then His sacrifice was incomplete and God’s justice was not satisfied, rendering Christ’s death meaningless. In the words of David A. DePra, “If God ever, even once, were to put my sin between myself and Him, then Jesus died for nothing.”[4] However, sin was defeated. Once again, “He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” (9:26) Christ’s sacrifice was complete, and therefore, man’s justification – his freedom from the guilt of sin – cannot be undone.

    To Gain Legal Guilt is to Lose Salvation

    A second argument to be made against the assumption that Christians can become guilty of sin is based upon the very purpose of justification: namely, salvation from sin guilt.

    It is sin that condemns mankind to death. (Rom. 6:23) Yet, Jesus affirms that “He who believes in Him [Jesus] is not condemned…” (Jn. 3:18) Moreover, in Romans 7, Paul laments over his sin, declaring, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (v. 24) However, he continues, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus…” (8:1) Belief in Jesus, which results in justification (Ac. 13:39), delivers Christians from the condemnation of death, which is merited by sin. Thus, a Christian’s salvation from the guilt of sin comes through his justification.

    Yet, if this is the case, then for a Christian to gain legal guilt would be to lose his justification; and to lose his justification would be to lose his salvation. This reasoning, carried to its logical end, would suggest that every time a Christian sinned, he would lose his salvation. The Bible does not teach a salvation so insecure. Instead, the Bible affirms, “…having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Eph. 1:13-14; emphasis mine) If a Christian were, indeed, able to lose his salvation so easily, there would be little hope of salvation.
    A further consequence of this belief begs the question, What would become of a Christian who died before he or she had repented? Would he or she be condemned to death? To say not would be to seriously pervert God’s justice. To believe that God would simply “understand” and allow a condemned sinner into His kingdom would be anything but just. However, because Christians do not gain legal guilt whenever they sin, then they do not lose their salvation every time they fall short of God’s righteousness.

    Paul reaffirms the security of a believer’s justification in Romans 8:33-34: “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns?” God declares righteous the believer; no one can reverse His justification.

    Christ’s Righteousness Cannot Be Subverted

    A third and final challenge to the attainment of legal guilt is based upon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the crux of this argument being that it is Christ’s righteousness in which the believer stands – not his own.

    In Romans 5:19, it is written, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” This verse bears witness to the fact that whatever righteousness comes to a Christian comes to him from Christ – in particular, from Christ’s obedience. Thus, the question arises, What bearing can Christians have on Christ’s obedience? Can a Christian make Christ more obedient? Conversely, can a Christian make Christ less obedient? Certainly not! If, then, a Christian’s righteousness is based upon the obedience of Christ, there is nothing that he or she can do to enhance or diminish the righteousness for which they are accredited.

    In practice, for a Christian to assume that he could become less righteous by his failures, he necessarily assumes that he possesses righteousness of his own merit. This, however, is not the case. As John Murray states,

    The righteousness of Christ is the righteousness of his perfect obedience, a righteousness undefiled and undefilable [sic], a righteousness which not only warrants the justification of the ungodly but one that necessarily elicits and constrains such justification.[5]

    By no act of man can Christ’s righteousness be subverted, and because Christians posses only the righteousness of Christ, neither can a Christian’s righteousness be annulled.

    What Does Happen When Christians Sin?

    Although it is evident that Christians cannot gain legal guilt before God, there are still consequences for sin. These consequences are not God’s punishment for sin, however, for the only just consequence of sin is death. (Rom. 6:23) Instead, these consequences are either naturally occurring consequence for sin and ill judgment, or are means of sanctification through God’s discipline.

    First of all, when Christians sin, it is displeasing to God and it grieves the Holy Spirit. (Eph. 4:30) This displeasure does not stem from legal guilt, but from disobedience. Wayne Grudem draws an appropriate parallel between a father’s relationship with his child and God’s relationship with His children: “When we disobey, God the Father is grieved, much as an earthly father is grieved with his children’s disobedience…”[6] Moreover, much like the relationship between a father and son, disobedience and displeasure can hurt a Christian’s relationship to his own Father in heaven. The Westminster Confession of Faith judiciously states,

    Although they never can fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of His countenance restored unto them, until they humbles themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance.[7]

    This statement is important, also, because it explains that confession of sins and begging pardon is for the purpose of restoring a Christian’s relationship with God, not for asking to be justified again, for “they can never fall from the state of justification…”[8]

    Second, as an earthly father disciplines his child, so God the Father disciplines His children. This discipline is not to be taken in dejection, however. In fact, the author of Hebrews praises God’s discipline, for it distinguishes those who are God’s true children and those who are not. (Heb. 12:7-8) Moreover, he says that God disciplines His children for their own profit, “that [they] may be partakers of His holiness.” (12:10) Furthermore, Proverbs 3:11-12 encourages Christians not to become disheartened by the discipline of God: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor detest His correction; for whom the Lord loves He corrects, just as a father the son in whom he delights.” To be sure, discipline is a consequence of sin, but it is viewed in the Bible as a privilege.

    Third, sin may work to hinder a Christian’s ministry. In John 15:4, Jesus explains, “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bar fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.” A Christian’s fruitfulness in ministry depends upon whether or not he abides in Christ.[9]

    Finally, because all members of the body of Christ are necessary for the body’s proper function, if one Christian fails to accomplish his or her purpose as a member, the rest of the body in necessarily affected. God created every member for a purpose, that the Church would lack no necessary component. Thus, “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it…” (I Cor. 12:23-26)

    Certainly, there are real consequences when Christians sin. Moreover, just as many churches suggest, repentance and begging pardon are necessary acts for a Christian. The difference, however, is that there is no condemnation of sin for those who are in Christ. (Rom. 8:1) Renewal of repentance and faith do not clear Christians of legal sin guilt, but restore their relationship with God.


    As previously stated, most evangelical churches to aim adhere to the doctrine of sola fide, but in their dealings with sin they show a gross misunderstanding of this doctrine’s most paramount hope: namely, that justification is by faith alone. By teaching that Christians may re-attain legal guilt, they allow the possibility of two substantial consequences: 1) Christians overcome by despair, and 2) a denial of the true nature of the gospel.

    First of all, far too many Christians in today’s churches feel perpetually overwhelmed by a sense of despair. Their sense of defeat stems from the fact that they cannot seem to successfully live perfect lives. Of course, they realize that they will never be perfect, but they nonetheless fear that their imperfections may eventually separate them from God indefinitely. This author was once a despairing Christian, himself, before he understood the truth of legal guilt, and he understands the frustration surrounding this problem. However, as debilitating as despair may be, it can be easily overcome when the true nature of justification is understood. Despairing Christians can quickly become victorious Christians simply by understanding that their righteousness is not of themselves, but of Christ. They do not have to be perfect before they can attain righteousness: it is given to them as a free gift. Michael Horton explains, “Understanding these words takes the load off of the despairing, because they realize for the first time that God wants to give them the righteous status they could not attain by ‘yielding’ and ‘surrendering.’”[10]

    Second, when churches teach that legal guilt of sin can be again borne by Christians, they are missing the most fundamental point of sola fide, and therefore, according to R. C. Sproul, are missing the foundation of Christianity: “Without sola fide one does not have the Gospel; and without the Gospel, one does not have the Christian faith.”[11] The hope of the Gospel centers around grace: by definition, “unmerited favor.”[12] Christians do not attain justification by their own merits, but as free gift. (Rom. 5:18) For a church to teach wrongfully about the true nature of sola fide, then, is to misrepresent the grace of the gospel of Christ.

    Finally, although there are consequences for sin, it is important to remember that true, justified Christians are incapable possessing legal guilt before God. In the process of justification, God first accounts to the Christian the righteousness of Christ. Because this righteousness is based upon Christ’s obedience, the Christian cannot impede it in any way. Further, after having found the Christian righteous, God declares him legally justified in the sight of God, and there are none who have grounds to revoke God’s declaration. Therefore, while sin does grieve the Father, provoke discipline, and can hamper a Christian’s ministry and relationship to the Church, sin can, by no means, condemn him. As it is written, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus… (Rom. 8:1)


    Deffinbaugh, Bob. “What Happens When Christians Mess up?” Bible.org. http://www.bible.org/page.asp?page_id=100.

    DePra, David A. “When Christians Sin.” The Good News, June 2000. http://www.goodnewsarticles.com/Jun00-1.htm

    Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.

    Horton, Michael. Christ the Lord: the Reformation and lordship salvation. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker, 1992.

    Murray, John. Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Erdmans Publishing, 1977.

    Piper, John. Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, 2002.

    Sproul, R. C. Justified By Faith Alone. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, 1999.

    [HR][/HR][1] R. C. Sproul, Justified By Faith Alone (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, 1999), 9.

    [2] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Erdmans Publishing, 1977), 117-131.

    [3] John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, 2002), 41.

    [4] David A. DePra, “When Christians Sin,” The Good News, June 2000, http://www.goodnewsarticles.com/Jun00-1.htm.

    [5] Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 117-131.

    [6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 505.

    [7] Westminster Confession of Faith, quoted in Ibid.

    [8] Ibid.

    [9] Ibid.

    [10] Michael Horton, Christ the Lord: the Reformation and lordship salvation (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker, 1992), 15-57.

    [11] Sproul, Justified by Faith Alone, 9.

    [12] Bob Deffinbaugh, “What Happens When Christians Mess Up?” (Bible.org), http://www.bible.org/page.asp?page_id=100.

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