what is passive justification?

I recently listened to a message on sanctification that contrasted sanctification with justification. Several statements were made. “Justification is passive.” “There is no imperative to seek justification.” “Justification is monergism.” (Monergism = one worker, i.e., God)

Some of this is true enough. Justification is indeed the work of God, not the work of man. You can search the scriptures and see that it is God who justifies man, man is always justified, always the one receiving justification from God not obtaining it through the works of the law.

The way the two doctrines were contrasted in the sermon I was listening to, however, was as if justification = salvation and that the fact that it is God who justifies men means men are entirely passive in salvation. That is to say, the sermon was thoroughly neo-Calvinist, and triumphantly so.

But is this equation actually presenting a true picture of salvation according to the Scriptures?

The great paragraph on salvation in the New Testament is found in Rm 3.21-26. Moo gives us this note on its importance:

“Luther called this paragraph ‘the chief point … of the whole Bible’.”1

The preceding paragraphs, indeed the whole of Rm 1-3 concludes the wretched condition of man with these words:

Romans 3:20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

No one is justified by ‘deeds of law’ (no article in the Gk). No one can curry favour with God by performing any kind of work that satisfies any law, whether it be the law of Moses, the law of the Church, or any law of any man’s devising, including the ‘law of tolerance’ so widely held supreme today. The presence of such laws only serves to point to human failure and sin.

The ‘chief point’ begins by turning the corner to look at a new kind of righteousness: a ‘without-law’ kind of righteousness that comes from God.

Romans 3:21 ¶ But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; 22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe …

This new kind of righteousness is ‘by faith’ (literally, ‘through faith’) of Jesus Christ – that is, it is obtained through faith as a vehicle through which it is applied to the individual. Salvation is by means of grace (God’s grace) through faith (man’s faith). The new righteousness is ‘upon all and unto all’ the ones believing.

And now we come to justification, for the ones believing are:

Romans 3:24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: 25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood

That is to say, the ones believing are being justified (declared righteous) because they have entered the holy of holies and obtained the benefits of a propitiation-in-his-blood by faith. They obtain the ‘without-law’ righteousness through faith, they enter the Holiest through faith, and are the ones who therefore are being justified (declared righteous) by God.

In the next paragraph the apostle is even more specific:

Romans 3:28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

Here we have justification itself directly connected to faith, this time not with a preposition but by a simple dative: ‘in, with, by’ faith a man is justified. And we are told quite clearly that this justification is without ‘deeds of law’.

Wallace specifically cites this verse and this word in describing the Dative of Means/Instrumentality:

The dative substantive is used to indicate the means or instrument by which the verbal action is accomplished. This is a very common use of the dative, embrac­ing as it does one of the root ideas of the dative case (viz., instrumentality). … it is distinguished from personal agency in two ways: (1) personality is not in view, and (2) means involves an agent who uses it (whether that agent is stated or implied).2

What is this faith that is the means of justification?

We need to turn to James for amplification:

James 2.18 ¶ Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. 19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. 20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? 22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? 23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. 24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. 25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? 26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

James says, ‘faith without works is dead’! Doesn’t that contradict Paul? ‘A man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law’, says Paul.

Well, what kinds of works does James cite as the works of faith? He cites the offering of Isaac by Abraham. Was that a work of any kind of law? What law was Abraham following? He cites Abraham’s belief in the covenant promise of God, Gen 15.6. Was that a work of any kind of law? What law was Abraham following? He cites Rahab the harlot and her reception of the spies. Was that a work of any kind of law? What law was Abraham following?

No, these were not works of law. These were works of faith.

The result of these works of faith is the imputation of righteousness (‘without-law’ righteousness) with justification accompanying: a divine judicial declaration, “You, Abram, are righteous in my sight.” “You, Rahab, are righteous in my sight.”

So yes, justification is passive as far as we are concerned, but it is actively applied by God on passive us by, or through, our faith in God’s public propitiation-in-blood, Jesus Christ.

It could also be said, technically, that we are not commanded to seek justification. But we are commanded to seek salvation, which includes justification and is much more than merely justification.

Acts 2:38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Acts 17:30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:

Acts 16:31 And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.

It is somewhat artificial to isolate one aspect of a doctrine and make it the determining factor for the whole doctrine.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3


  1. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 242. []
  2. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Nouns: Dative Case: 3.Dative of Means/Instrument. []


  1. Don,

    You wrote, “The result of these works of faith is the imputation of righteousness …”

    Didn’t God impute righteousness to Abraham BEFORE he attempted to sacrifice Isaac? Isn’t that what vs 23 is saying, Abraham believed God and was thus imputed with the righteousness of God, and the ultimate expression of that faith, that justifies or demonstrates the reality of that saving faith, is that he was willing to obey God regarding his son Isaac?


    • Hi Andy,

      Yes, that is correct in point of time. But you will notice that James puts it second in order as he is citing them. Surely he has a reason for that. Then he cites Rahab as a second example.

      I am not suggesting that they were saved by doing “good deeds”! (It could be argued that the deeds cited weren’t particularly good.) But the deeds they did James clearly says are works of faith. Not conforming to a law, but believing God.

      What I am trying to dismiss is the notion of monergism such that we are never commanded to seek salvation (clearly not true) or that our faith is somehow not ours, but implanted by an external force. I don’t see these things taught in the Scriptures.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  2. The way I see it, James is explaining Abraham’s work of faith in sacrificing his son as *justification* of his saving faith that resulted in God imputing him as righteous. In other words, James says that Abraham demonstrated his saving faith when he trusted God even in the sacrifice of Isaac. If we use what appears to be a rather explicit statement concerning Abraham’s faith to understand what James is saying regarding Rahab’s faith, then I would conclude that Rahab demonstrated her saving faith by hiding the spies.

    So, I see Paul and James using the term justification in slightly different contexts. Paul uses justification as a forensic term when God declares guilty sinners righteous, imputing the righteousness of Christ to their account. The basis of that justification is the sinner’s exercise of saving faith in Christ alone. James uses justification as a forensic term to declare the actions (or works of faith) of justified-sinners as righteous (i.e., as conforming to the standard of how a man who has faith in Christ alone would exercise his faith).

    As for your overall point, I believe that faith is a gift from God but that at the same time I am personally responsible to exercise saving faith. It is a choice I make but one that I would not make apart from God’s grace.

  3. Christian Markle says:

    Brother Johnson,

    I think I agree with you premise: Salvation is more than passive justification (ie God demands pre-justification faith). However, I got a bit lost when you went to James. My perception of James has been that we are dealing with very different aspect of faith — the effects (works) post-faith rather than pre-justification works. Secondly, and more importantly it has appeared to me that James is dealing with the perspective from earth (man’s) not from heaven (God’s). If you really have faith, prove it to me (James). God knows by our heart, but man knows only by our actions whether we really believe. Both Abraham and Rahab’s actions were proof of their faith — God does not need proof, but we do.

    I think Romans 3 is enough for your point about justification; James (at least your explanation) seems to obscure it.

    For His glory,
    Christian Markle

  4. Thanks to both Christian and Andy on this point. I will continue to work on this and will post more later. I appreciated Christian’s point of post- rather than pre-… I’ll mull that over. I understand Andy’s point of faith as a gift, but I don’t believe the Scriptures teach that. Salvation is a gift, I don’t believe that faith is.

    But more later.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  5. Christian Markle says:

    Just to keep the monkey wrenches flying into the machinary. . . and to keep my position clear. I would agree with Brother Efting with a few modifications:

    I would say, ” I believe that [the ability to have] faith is [possibly] a gift from God but that at the same time I am personally responsible to exercise saving faith. It is a choice I make but one that I would not make apart from [the work of God’s Spirit in me before I trust Him; this is] God’s grace.

    • As to the work of God that brings men to salvation, I think Paul tells us what that is in Romans 10. It is the Word of God. If someone has not heard, he cannot receive. If someone does hear, he may receive. But this point does demand really another post or two! So I’ll leave it with that for now.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  6. Christian Markle says:

    The Word of God is certainly crucial, but this is not the comprehensive work of God for salvation. Jesus is clear in John 6 that there must be a drawing work of the Father (vs44), I believe John refers to the enlightening work of Christ in John 1:9 and Jesus indicates the convicting work of the Spirit in John 16:8-11.

    One might combine these into the grace of God (sometimes called preveinent grace), but normally preveinent grace is presented as present in every man at birth along with is depravity. I would not see this as an accurate portrayal. I see these graces as a process throughout life, therefore depravity is present at all times and these graces are divine external influences that penetrate the depraved mind, and heart . Without these gracious influences none would be saved; however, not all with these influences respond in faith. I do believe, based on the passages I have sited, that all men recieve these graces to whatever degree necessary for them to respond in faith — but again not all do.

    I guess, I have taken this further than I needed to, but I hope my position is more clear.

    • Thanks, Christian. I would see all of these as subsets under the Word of God. I disagree with the notion of prevenient grace and the notion of irresistable grace. The way the Father draws, Christ enlightens, and the Spirit convicts is through the Word, especially the preached Word. Without it, no life can be formed. I think the parable of the sower is very instructive here as well.

      I read over my original article again this afternoon and I think I agree with your assessment that the bit from James sort of throws the conclusion into confusion. I’ll have to think on James some more to see how it fits into this. I am not sure that Paul and James actually use justification differently, but perhaps they do. I am certain that they mean the same thing about the word, ‘faith’, however, although there are some differences on the surface.

      Thanks for the interaction. I don’t think you are going too far afield!

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  7. Paul speaks about justification before God (in the eyes of God); James speaks of justification before men (in the eyes of men). Paul is dealing with the root of true faith; James is dealing with the fruit, what came after as a result of true saving faith. Basically, James is stating that a true believer’s faith is justified in the eyes of others when we see the fruit of it in their lives.