How Does Justification Relate to Salvation?
In understanding the relationship between justification and salvation, we need to realize the different senses in which these terms are used.
Let's start with the meaning of salvation. Perhaps someone has asked you, "Are you saved?" This should actually raise another question: Saved from what?
Paul in the book of Romans explains the dire predicament we human beings are in. He first tells us that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). And then: "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23).
Salvation (divine deliverance or rescue), then, is from sin and its consequences, the ultimate consequence being death—perpetual, eternal death, as other passages show. The rest of Romans 6:23 states the outcome of salvation: ". . . but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Salvation accomplished in stages
God's salvation is accomplished in stages. Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins. When in repentance (which includes a commitment to obey God) and faith we accept Christ's atoning sacrifice, we are freed from the death penalty. We are then under grace—no longer under the dominion of sin and death (verse 14).
As long as we continue with God—not turning away from His way of life—we are saved. This is the sense of salvation described in Ephesians 2: "By grace you have been saved" (verses 5, 8).
Christians, however, still stumble and sin (1 John 1:8). And every sin is a very serious matter—requiring renewed repentance. In fact, neglecting to repent over an extended period can eventually lead to rejecting God and losing salvation ( Hebrews 2:3; 6:4-8; 10:26-31).
Thus each occasion of seeking and receiving God's forgiveness is essentially a renewed salvation— salvation from rejecting God and the terrible end that would lead to. So not only have we "been saved" in one sense, but followers of Christ are presently "being saved" in an ongoing process (see Acts 2:47; 1 Corinthians 1:18; 2 Corinthians 2:15).
As an aside here, this process of ongoing repentance and restoration to God is part of what Scripture refers to as "sanctification"—being made holy or set apart to God. Hebrews 10:10 says that "we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all."
Yet verse 14 says, "For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified." Having been sanctified is parallel to having been saved at initial repentance and forgiveness—and being sanctified is parallel to being saved in an ongoing process of repentance and change.
The main focus of salvation, though, is the ultimate outcome of eternal life in God's Kingdom. And this reward comes only after a concerted effort of struggling to overcome.
Jesus spoke of this overarching aspect of salvation in these terms: "He who endures to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 24:13; Mark 13:13). The salvation mentioned here is yet future (see also Acts 15:11; Romans 5:9-10). And the salvation process we experience today is pointless for us if it does not lead to this ultimate future salvation.
The meaning of justification
Integral to salvation is the matter of justification. This term refers to being made just, right or righteous. Literally, it means being made straight—perfectly lined up (with God).
We are initially justified or aligned with God when, on repentance and faith in Christ's shed blood for atonement, we are forgiven of sin and reckoned by God as righteous. This is referred to by Paul as "imputed" righteousness (see Romans 4:20-25). Justification in this sense is also known as reconciliation. It corresponds to the past sense of salvation—in which we have been saved from sin and death as long as we continue in God's way.
Yet as already noted, Christians will not maintain perfect obedience. They still sin. Thus, they need help to remain aligned with God (to remain justified) and, when they fall out of alignment through sin, they need to continually be realigned (justified or reconciled).
The apostle James explains that "a man is justified by works, and not by faith only" ( James 2:24). He was speaking of maintaining justification through deeds. Yet as Paul explained, human effort of itself cannot achieve the obedience God requires. Only through Christ living within us through the Holy Spirit can we succeed in obedience and remain justified (compare Galatians 2:20; Romans 7:7-8:11).
And thankfully, whenever we fall out of alignment through sin, we still have Christ's blood to justify us as we strive to overcome. Ongoing justification—through Christ-empowered obedience and Christ's atoning sacrifice when we fall short—corresponds to the current process of "being saved."
This will lead us to ultimate salvation. To conclude, let's notice in Romans 5:1-11 past justification through Christ's sacrifice contrasted with future salvation through Christ's life within us to help perfect us in obedience.
Here Paul writes: "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God [i.e., reconciliation] through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand [having been saved, in a sense], and rejoice in the hope of the glory of God [yet future].
"And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations [present struggles], knowing that tribulation produces perseverance [in faith and obedience]; and perseverance, character [the habit of obedience]; and character, hope [in future salvation]. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God [which 1 John 5:3 defines as obedience to God's commandments] has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit [that] was given to us.
"For when we were still without strength [incapable of proper obedience], in due time Christ died for the ungodly . . . God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath [punishment for sin, ultimately death] through Him.
"For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life [within us to help us grow in obedience and through His acting as our High Priest]. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation."
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