Thoughts on Justification – Understanding Man’s Condition and Need – Part 1

As a Oneness Pentecostal, the term justification was not something that was in my vocabulary.  Recall that the UPCI hermeneutical approach to understanding salvation is to start and end with Acts 2:38 and to understand the rest of scripture through the lens of that one verse, even if it means twisting other scriptures to make them fit within an Acts 2:38 viewpoint.

Justification is a concept that is foreign to people within the UPCI.  Looking back over my 25 years in the UPCI, I can confidently state that I never heard any teaching about justification.  I asked others – some of whom have been in the UPCI for 40 or more years – and none recalled hearing teaching on justification.  I asked a UPCI pastor who had been raised in a pastor’s home if he had ever taught about justification and the response was no.  The concept of being ‘justified by faith’ was spoken of by this pastor like some unfamiliar concept and doctrine.

Before looking more closely at this critical concept, I think it is important to step back and look at man and attempt to understand the state of man without God.  What is the condition of man in his sinful state.  In my experience, I have been in UPCI churches that preached and taught very strongly on the subject of sin and its consequences.  I have been in another church where the subject of sin rarely is mentioned.  Where sin is rarely mentioned, living a life for Christ is more about the benefits that one can receive from being in relationship with God.  Regardless of where one finds himself – in a church that emphasizes the sinful nature of man and his need for God or the church that emphasizes benefits of living for Christ rather than man’s need, seeking to follow Christ in either place can be rather precarious for the Christian if he does not have an adequate understanding of what it means to be saved by grace through faith.

As a member of a UPCI church, you are a part of the Arminian tradition as opposed to Calvinism.  I address this subject now because, in my experience, the distinctions between Arminianism and Calvinism were never taught as a part of our study of scripture in the UPCI and I believe that the vast majority are unfamiliar with these concepts.

This a subject for deeper exploration another time but at its most fundamental level the difference between the two positions relates to how an individual comes to salvation.  Arminianism espouses the view that God provides a degree of grace to all people (something called “prevenient grace”) but that man has the free will to make the final determination as to whether or not he will respond to the call of God.  Man, even while in his sinful state, has the ability to choose the right, to do the good and spiritual thing of responding in faith.  Thus, man is tainted by sin but not to the extent that he is unable to place faith in God of his own accord.

In his book, The New Birth, David Bernard reflects the Arminian view in some of his comments regarding man and his sinful state.  “The Scriptures teach that God gives everyone the ability to believe and therefore He is the source of a Christian’s faith. ‘God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith” (Romans 12:3).”  (page 37).  This reflects the Arminian view of unlimited atonement versus the view of Calvinism which holds to particular redemption or limited atonement (a point of considerable debate).  Bernard states further:

Due to our sinful natures, none of us could ever seek God on our own in the absence of His drawing power (John 3:27; 6:44; Romans 3:10-12).  No one would ever have faith if God did not grant it.  However, Christ died for the whole world so that He could bestow grace upon all (John 3:16).  Although man on his own is so depraved and sinful that he cannot of himself choose God, God gives every man the ability to seek after Him and respond to Him.  This grace that precedes salvation and is given to all mankind is what theologians call “universal prevenient grace.”  (page 37).

Calvinism, on the other hand, holds that man is corrupted by sin and unable to come to God of his own accord.  Calvinism would say that man is totally depraved or radically corrupted.  Total depravity does not mean that man is as sinful as he could possibly be.  The depravity reflects the brokenness and inability on the part of man on his own to do good.  Even the “good” that man does is tainted by his sinful nature.  Within the scope of salvation, total depravity or total inability holds that man is unable and not even inclined to love God but are instead inclined to serve his own nature, desires and will and to reject God.  Therefore, salvation must be brought about exclusively through the sovereignty of God who elects, calls and justifies a people for himself.  Man brings nothing to the table – man, according to his nature, does not seek God and is unable to submit himself to the will of God.  God does the work of salvation in us.

R.C. Sproul describes the problem of man as follows:

The ability to make righteous moral choices requires righteous desires and inclinations. Without a righteous inclination to the good, no one can choose the good. Our choices follow our inclinations. For man to be able to choose the things of God, he must first be inclined to choose them. Since the flesh makes no provision for the things of God, grace is required for us to be able to choose them. The unregenerate person must be regenerated before he has any desire for God.

I wish to lay these thoughts out briefly now as to demonstrate that there is a vast difference of view with respect to the nature of our salvation and how it is brought about.  Fundamentally, this difference of view on the sinful state of man is particularly important in light of the gospel proclaimed by the UPCI.  As Calvinist, Dr. James White, noted in his book The God who Justifies, “Every fundamental error regarding the doctrine of justification that man has ever invented flows from a denial of the nature and impact of sin in man’s life.”  (page 53).

The Arminian view of the UPCI is, fundamentally, that faith is something that the natural man must add or contribute towards his salvation independent of the actions of God’s grace.  Man, in his unregenerate (pre-new birth) state has the freewill and natural ability to either believe in or reject God and his extension of grace.  God’s grace is extended to all and takes man part of the way to salvation but fallen man will determine the final outcome with respect to whether he will respond in faith, become regenerate or new born, and ultimately saved.  Thus, grace is an offer and a help to man but will not change man.  Grace is merely Jesus standing at the door and knocking but he is waiting for us to respond and open the door.  God will only respond to and reward those who, in their fallen state, are able to produce sufficient faith to contribute to their salvation.

Thus, the view of your typical Arminian is that God extends this prevenient grace to all to draw men to him but man himself, in his unregenerate state, must contribute his faith to bring about his regeneration/new birth and salvation.  Man has the ability to decide for himself whether he will respond in faith or reject God.   Once man has received the grace of God through the exercise of his faith, his is regenerated/born again.  From here, man is progressively sanctified or conformed to the image of God’s son and would participate in baptism, the Lord’s Supper and be a part of the church.

The UPCI takes your typical Arminian view and moves it to the further extreme.  Not only must man, in his unregenerate, fallen state contribute faith to salvation.  Unregenerate, fallen man must bring faith and obedience.  Bernard, throughout his book The New Birth reiterates obedience, particularly obedience to Acts 2:38, as man’s responsibility in contributing to his salvation.  While lip service is offered to the work being on the part of God and received through faith, man must contribute to his salvation through the acts baptism in the name of Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in unknown tongues.  As Bernard states, “Regeneration…occurs at the time we repent, are baptized in the name of Jesus, and receive the Holy Spirit.”  (Page 329-30).  Thus, the new birth/regeneration is a process that begins with repentance and is not completed until such a point in time when we are baptized and receive the Holy Spirit – in the UPCI view baptism must be in Jesus’ name to be effective in the remission of sins and the reception of the Spirit is to always be accompanied with the initial evidence of speaking in unknown tongues.

The question must be asked, does the scripture teach that man, in his unregenerate state, have the ability to respond in both faith and obedience to the extension of God’s grace in salvation?  Is man capable of contributing anything to his salvation, even in the form of simply faith, much less obedience to baptism and tongue speaking.

In another post we will need to address those scriptures that would affirm man’s ability and responsibility to choose God and those that seem to stress man’s inability to come to Christ.  It is clear that there are many scriptures that include a general call to all to repent and to come to Christ but there seems to be an absence within those passages regarding man’s ability to come to Christ on his own.  Yet the scriptures seem to make clear that within this general call, there is a particular or effectual calling for some.  In the end, many are called but few are chosen.

The question is, does the scripture teach that man, who is universally guilty of sin, and “storing up wrath” for themselves for the “day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed”, who is dead in his trespasses and sin, following the course of this world, living in the passions of his flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and mind, a child of wrath, hostile and in rebellion to God, who has his mind set on the things of the flesh, which is hostile to God, unable to please God and both unwilling and unable to submit to God’s law, able to contribute faith and willingly on his own accord to choose God?

A similar question was asked in Jeremiah 13:23:  Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?  Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.  The answer is no.  Just as a leopard cannot change his spots, man is unable to change something that is a part of his fallen nature – that is his inclination to do evil and his natural state being in rebellion against God.  As Paul stated in Romans, the mind set on the flesh does not submit to the will of God, “indeed it cannot.”  Thus, the image of Jesus standing at the door and knocking (which, if we were to look at that passage in context, is a picture of his knocking on the door of the church and not an image of the state of the relationship between Christ and sinner) is misguided.  The sinner will never come to the door and open to Christ of his own accord.  It is contrary to his nature.

The image that would more accurately reflect the relationship of sinner coming to Christ is that of Christ standing before the tomb of the dead Lazarus.  The effectual call of God will bring forth the dead to life – the dead brings nothing to the equation, indeed he cannot by his nature and state.

In my next blog, we will take a look at the alternative view of scripture on the condition of man and God’s role in bringing about his salvation.