How do You Receive Justification by Grace?

Earlier this week I posted an article titled “What Does It Mean to be Justified by Grace?” In it we explored Paul’s answer to that question in Romans. That is, due to our rebellion and sin, God’s sentence of judgment is upon us—a sentence we can’t possibly “make right” (justify) on our own. Thus God, in his abundant love and grace, provides the way to be saved from the sentence of death: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. If you want to read more you can here.

The question then arises: how can we receive justification by grace? How do we partake of the benefits of an event that occurred 2,000 years ago? Paul answers this question as well: we receive grace by faith:

“And are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”—Rom. 3:24-25

Notice: the reception of the gift of God—justification by grace and salvation from the sentence of judgment—comes through faith. This truth is emphasized again later in the epistle:

“Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”—10:9-10

In this context Paul contrast the justification that comes through grace by faith with a law based system:

“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.”—10:4-5

The difference may seem subtle, but for Paul a great gulf separates the two: one system relies on personal righteousness and perfection; the other trust in the saving work of God. This was at the heart of the Jewish rejection of Jesus: they refused to trust in God’s salvation and attempted to establish their own justification through keeping the law (10:3). As we pointed out in the first article, this was a fool’s errand.

But, if justification by grace is received through faith, at what moment does the act of salvation occur? Does it happen at the moment of mental assent? Are we immediately saved when we recognize the reality of Jesus’ identity? Or, is something else required in order to “receive the gift” of God’s salvation? As we’ve already seen in 10:9-10, genuine belief inevitably results in the confession of Jesus as Lord. Yet, there is also another element which Paul hints at in a previous chapter:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”—6:1-5

At the beginning of this chapter, after making the case for grace, Paul addresses an anticipated response: if God gives grace apart from works, can we keep sinning? The apostle denounces this foolishness with very strong language, then progresses into a discussion of one of the oldest Christian practices: baptism.

Notice how he describes the work of baptism. It is within baptism that we are:

• Placed into Jesus (baptized into Christ)
• Baptized into his death
• Buried with Jesus
• Raised with Jesus
• Given new life
• United in the death of Jesus
• United in the resurrection of Jesus (these final two are symbolic in nature, or rather signposts of the glory that will come).

Previously Paul discussed that God accomplished the means of justification by grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus (4:24-25). We now witness an act in which we receive the saving benefits of that justification by grace: baptism. I would suggest that it is at the moment of baptism that we receive justification by grace, through a penitent faith that confesses Jesus as Lord. This would coincide with Paul’s teaching on baptism in Colossians 2:11-12:

“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”

Notice that baptism is an act of “faith in the powerful working of God.” Baptism is an act of faith in the justifying grace of God that he worked in Jesus. To say that baptism is a “work” as some have claimed in the past doesn’t do justice to Paul’s argument in Romans. Before chapter six Paul makes the case that salvation through works has no justifying power, then uses baptism as the means of showing how one is saved in contrast to a law based system. To claim baptism is a work would completely undermine the point Paul is trying to make: that justification comes through the grace of God, and is received by faith in baptism. I see no reason for professing Christians not to be unified in this doctrine. Baptism is the culminating act of faith, and the saving act of grace in the life of the believer. God grants us a definite moment in our story where we crucify sin and rise to walk in a new life. A moment that we can look back to and say “That’s when God saved me.”

And, as Paul mentions in 6:5 there is a “resurrection lifestyle” that is inevitable for those who live in the shadow of grace. In our next article we will discuss how grace is experienced through obedience.

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