Some Problems with Legal Universal Justification

This brief paper catalogues a number of issues that must be addressed in any serious discussion of the theme.

Uncategorized December 27, 2001

This brief paper catalogues a number of issues that must be addressed in any serious discussion of the theme.

1. Legal universal justification separates God's justifying act from the reception of the gift of the Spirit, or the new birth. Legal universal justification is a totally objective act that does not make any difference in the life of the individual until he or she is justified by faith, that is to say, when the person decides not to reject the gift of justification that is already his or hers. Therefore, those who have been legally justified, the whole human race, have not been baptized by the sanctifying presence of the Spirit in their lives; they know nothing about the new birth. In the Bible the legal declaration of justification is followed by the reception of the Spirit and the new birth. It is impossible to separate the two even though we do not equate them. Legal universal justification does not only separate them but in some cases the second event, the baptism of the Spirit, never takes place because some reject the gift of legal justification.

2. Legal universal justification implies that all human beings come into the world legally saved, pardoned, justified; from God's perspective they are not lost. If it is true that every human being who has been and will be born on this planet was present in Christ when he died and that they all were legally justified, then those who are not yet born have already been justified. The Bible makes clear that every one who is born into this world of sin is in need of the Savior. We are by nature children of wrath; we deserve to die (Eph 2:3). It is true that because of Christ we do not have to die, but that does not mean that we were already legally saved or justified before or when we were born.

3. Legal universal justification is a threat to the biblical teaching of the nature of humans. It teaches that we were all, the totality of the human race, present in Adam when he sinned and because of that we sinned when he sinned; his sin is our sin. This realist definition of our presence in Adam comes dangerously close to Greek dualism (see article, "Comments on the 'in Christ/in Adam' Motifs").

4. Legal universal justification misunderstands and misuses the Pauline phrase "in Christ." Nowhere in the NT does it refer to the totality of the human race as being present in Christ at the cross. On the contrary, it is used exclusively for those who by faith have been incorporated into Christ and his body, the Church. It designates the most intimate fellowship between believers and their Savior (see article, "Comments on the 'in Christ/in Adam' Motifs").

5. Legal universal justification creates serious theological problems through its understanding of the "in Christ" formula. If we were "in Christ" as we were "in Adam," then we make some type of contribution to our own salvation (see article, "Comments on the 'in Christ/in Adam' Motifs").

6. Legal universal justification undermines the biblical teaching that Christ bore our sins and their penalty on the cross. If it is true that we were all in Christ in some "mystical" or realist way, then, I was there at the cross with Christ bearing my own sins and dying for them together with Christ. Based on that understanding of the phrase "in Christ" there is no need and no reason to teach what the Bible says, namely, that Christ alone bore our sins on the cross. The clear implication is that there was no transfer of sin to our Savior because we were in him with our own sins!

7. Universal legal justification introduces a non-biblical understanding of Christ's substitutionary death. By Christ's substitutionary death it is traditionally meant that Christ alone took our sin and its penalty on him and died in our place in order for us to be saved (Mark 10:45). Universal legal justification teaches what they call "shared substitution." Does that mean that Christ became partially our substitute? Did he only take a share of the load and penalty for our sin? Who took the other share? Their definition of shared substitution is confusing, and lends itself to serious misunderstandings and the threat of synergism, i.e. we make some kind of contribution to our salvation by being in Christ.

8. Universal legal justification tends to see faith as a threat to Christ's objective work of salvation. Faith is almost perceived or viewed as a meritorious act that has no role to play in God's legal justification of the human race. That type of justification, it is argued, does not come through faith but through grace alone. This is obviously based on a misunderstanding of the meaning and function of faith. Faith and grace are placed over against each other as if one, grace, would not allow for the other, faith. Faith, it is said, has a role only in justification by faith, that is to say, when the legal justification is made effective in the life of the believer. Faith is basically considered a human work. E. G. White wrote, "Through faith we receive the grace of God; but faith is not our Saviour. It earns nothing. It is the hand by which we lay hold upon Christ, and appropriate His merits, the remedy for sin."[1] According to the Scripture, we receive justification only by faith. "The New Testament does not teach the extremes of righteousness by works or righteousness by fate, but righteousness by faith."[2]


[1]. Desire of Ages, p. 175.
[2]. Ivan Blazen, "Salvation," in Roul Dederen, ed., Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000), p. 286.