The doctrine of justification is a doctrine that covers a single history with two distinct (but not separate) aspects: the now (the once) and the not yet (the future). This history is the history of Jesus Christ as it takes up our own history in a mighty act of God. The once refers to the objective reality of justification that Christ has brought about – a reality in which all are dead and risen, accused and pardoned. This once and for all event, this once and for all act of God, is true of us whether we apprehend it and receive it or not.
Justification is the mighty act of God, eschatological event. It is active righteous intervention in the impossible situation of humanity under the law. It is the ‘power of God for salvation’. In Jesus Christ, God has intervened decisively in the moral impasse of humanity, doing a deed that humanity could not do itself. The impasse was not simply created by the inability of human beings to fulfill the holy demands of the law and justify themselves before God, but created so that it could not be solved from within itself as demanded by the law. Thus the intervention by God entailed a complete reversal of the moral situation and the setting of it on a wholly new basis. The result was, as Paul put it bluntly, the ‘justification of the ungodly’, an act in which man, in spite of sin, is put fully in the right with God, and it is such a total and final act that men and women are no longer required to achieve justification by themselves to save themselves before God. They enter into justification through Christ’s death, and accept it as a sheer gift of God’s grace which is actualised in them as reality and truth. (T.F. Torrance, Atonement: the Person and Work of Christ, p. 107
In this once and for all act, we are justified. This mighty act of God cannot be done again nor does it need to be done again. In this objective act of justification, we are made righteous by a declaration from God that we are in fact righteous. The verdict which God declares of us to be true is that we are righteous. We are granted a status that creates an actual state of being (it may be helpful to think in terms of speech-act here):
There is indeed a sense in which “justification really” does make someone “righteous” – it really does create the “righteousness,” the status of being-in-the-right of which it speaks… (N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, p. 92)
Now, even though this verdict is once, it still looks forward to the future. While we are righteous, the act of justification has not been fully manifested in our life this side of the eschaton. In this sense, our lives are ‘hid with Christ’:
The justification that has already been accomplished is not yet fully manifest in our lives. Although our old sinful humanity has been put to death with Christ, it still paradoxically clings to us as that from which we are not yet wholly free. Sin is the past that has no future and yet it remains a presence in our lives. The justification that is fully real for us in one form is not yet real in another. It remains hidden with Christ in God (the present-tense form) until that day when we will be perfectly righteous like him because we will see him as he is and ourselves as we are in him (the future-tense form.) (George Hunsinger, Evangelical, Catholic and Reformed, p. 222)
So, then, this verdict’s once refers to its objectivity, and its future refers to the fact that, in a way, the verdict will not be fully real until the eschaton. Justification occurs in Christ, and is has its end in Christ. Our verdict in the present, that of being righteous, corresponds with the future verdict:
How then does justification really work? The main point to notice is that this “justification” occurs now (Romans 3:21), “at the present time” (Romans 3:26). Think eschatology as well as covenant, lawcourt and Christology. This is the present verdict which anticipates the verdict that will be issued on the last day, the verdict Paul has described in solemn terms in 2:1-16. (Justification, p. 204)
Torrance notes that justification’s ‘forward reference point’, or the its future aspect, is fixed by Jesus Christ:
This is the point where we think of justification in its forward or future reference, the restoration to mankind of their truth in Jesus Christ. In that Jesus Christ was raised for our justification, men and women are given a new human life and a new human right in Jesus Christ, for ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, be gave power, exousia, to become children of God’. That is the Johannine way of stating the Pauline doctrine of the justification of man, for it is the bestowing upon men and women in Christ of a new hu!an righteousness so that they are adopted to be sons and daughters of God, and are given already through justification to participate in the new creation which will be revealed at the parousia and in the redemption of the body. (T.F. Torrance, Atonement: the Person and Work of Christ, p. 133
Torrance further fleshes out the forward reference of justification by way of the resurrection of Christ, noting that justification is primarily (1) participation in the righteousness of Christ and (2) that justification is a completed reality awaiting its full disclosure. Thus, to reiterate: we are truly justified and truly righteous in this life. The once and for all act of God truly justifies us. We are also, however, not get justified, in that the full reality of our justification and participation in the righteousness of Christ will not come until the eschaton. In the interim, we are hid with Christ:
Our righteousness and our life are hid with Christ in God. Being directly present in eternity to God, the risen Christ is present to us in time only indirectly. He mediates his presence to us through the earthly forms of word and sacraments. But through those earthly forms he unites himself with us and us with himself…we therefore partake of his saving predicates even now – his righteousness and his life – despite their being hid from us on earth apart from faith. (Evangelical, Catholic and Reformed, p. 262-263
In this interim, this time between the times, we are at once saints and sinners. For the longest time, this baffled me. I saw it as either nonsense – either you are a saint or you are not, and vice versa – or a kind of fiction – you are a saint but not really, and vice versa. I thought this was a ‘legal fiction’ typical of Protestantism. But, with the eschatological aspect of justification firmly in hand, I now see just how this cashes out. Because of the indirect way in which Christ is present in this life in earth through faith, we really are saints. As noted above, our justification is real and not partial. However, because we are in the times between the times, this reality, true though it is, is also hid though no less real for that. It is, then, not a matter of simply looking at this life and saying that one is a not a sinner despite sinning, which is what I used to think. It is a matter of recognizing the eschatological aspect of justification – the once and future verdict.