How can a sinful man be justified before a holy God? To justify someone is to declare them innocent or guiltless, to absolve or acquit. The dilemma for us is that God is our judge and he is both loving and just. He is perfect in love, but also perfect in justice so that he cannot wink at our sin or sweep it under the carpet. We must be judged and we are all convicted guilty of sin. What would we think of a human judge who bent the rules acquitting and convicting with no regard for the evidence or the law? The judge would be impeached.
Likewise God cannot be unjust and he must deal with sinners according to the evidence and the law. We are all sinners and he cannot set some sinners free and punish others without a just and lawful explanation. The good news is that though we all deserve damnation for our rebellion against God, Jesus, God the son, willingly took upon himself mankind’s punishment, dying on the cross in our place. The gospel of Christ is the only possible way that Holy God is able to preserve the perfection of both his love and justice in the acquittal of sinful man. Our God is a pure genius of grace as seen in his character and actions. To this all Christians agree.
Unfortunately not all Christians agree as we go deeper in our study of Christ and his salvation of all mankind. In fact the Bible also seems to present a myriad of confusion on this most important point, our justification before holy God. Consider that the Bible says we are:
Justified by
His grace
Romans 3:24
His blood
Romans 5:9
Our faith
Romans 3:28
Our works
James 2:24
Our words
Matthew 12:37

So are we justified by his grace or blood, or our faith, works, or words? Worse yet one verse says we are justified by faith and not works of the law, Romans 3:28, while another verse says we are justified by works and not faith alone, James 2:24. What is the explanation? Certainly God is not intentionally obscure, so our quest for rock solid proof of our acquittal drives us to his word.


These questions have been asked more and less throughout the history of the Christian faith. The most well know debate was in the 16th century between Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s quest for assurance of salvation could not be satisfied by the dogma of the 16th century Catholics. So Luther turned to Scripture and the good news summarized in Romans 1:16-17 (WEB),

16) For I am not ashamed of the Good News of Christ, because it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first, and also for the Greek. 17) For in it is revealed God's righteousness from faith to faith. As it is written, "But the righteous shall live by faith.

Luther found great encouragement that salvation and assurance of salvation does not come through works of the law or even the works required by the Catholic Church but simply by faith in Christ. Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel sparked a fire in the followers of Christ that still impacts the names of denominations and statements of faith to this day.

Two main veins of thought remain from the Reformation. Below is comparison of the classic Ordo Salutis, order of salvation events, as understood by each of these camps.

Reformed / Calvinist
Catholic / Arminian
1) Election / Predestination
2) Gospel call
3) Inward call / Regeneration
4) Conversion: faith and repentance
5) Justification
6) Sanctification
7) Glorification
1) Outward call
2) Faith / election
3) Repentance
4) Regeneration
5) Justification
6) Perseverance
7) Glorification

Note the different orderings of regeneration and faith. The Reformed camp believes that God regenerates sinners, which leads to their faith. The Arminian camp holds that fallen man retains the moral capacity to believe the gospel in his own power, which leads to regeneration. Yet one might ask why does one man believe and not another? The Reformed answer is because God regenerated or awakened one man’s heart and not the other. The Arminian answer is because one man made the good choice of Christ and the other did not. The Arminian position defines election to mean that God foresaw who would believe the gospel, but was not the effecting cause of their belief. The Reformed position understands instead that God won some to believe the gospel and did not yet win others.

Conclusions from the Reformation are an excellent starting point to glorify God for his grace in of our salvation.  However, the Reformation is not the best ending point. Specifically, I plan to show that justification is better ordered before regeneration in the Reformed Ordo Salutis.


One might ask why even debate a sequence of events willed by an eternal and omnipotent God? If a madman determined to crash an unstoppable freight train through the house to our left, then our house, and then the house to our right we would not be concerned with the order that our houses were smashed, but instead that an unstoppable train was coming to destroy. But our joy is that an unstoppable God is coming to save. If we believe that God saves, our Ordo Salutis may not be that significant. Revelation 13:8b says, “…the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.”  Jesus was slain in 33 AD in history, but since creation in God’s determination. So we ask is it even significant to order the actions of an eternal and omnipotent God? For man the order of steps may help us reach an uncertain goal. For God the order and priority may be important, but even if our understanding falls short, God will still reach his goal. So to lose a friendship debating an Ordo Salutis would be pure silliness provided that we all agree God is glorified for effecting our certain salvation.


Can a guilty law breaker justify himself?

Jesus does not think so in Luke 16:15 (WEB),

He said to them, "You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts. For that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God."

The thief on the cross did not think so in Luke 23:40-41 (WEB),

40) But the other answered, and rebuking him said, "Don't you even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? 41) And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong."

No, the law breaker cannot free himself from the judge.

God is the judge who justifies

Romans 8:33 (WEB), says,

Who could bring a charge against God's chosen ones? It is God who justifies.

Only God justifies so who then has the power or authority to condemn? Moreover, Jesus’ judgment is trustworthy, John 5:30 (WEB),

I can of myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is righteous; because I don't seek my own will, but the will of my Father who sent me.

Furthermore, I Peter 3:18 (WEB), says,

Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God, being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit.

So we see that God is able to righteously judge the unrighteous as righteous because of the great exchange of Christ’s righteousness given to our account. So the justification of God’s people is not in question, but Jesus does ask in Luke 18:8 (WEB),

I tell you that he will avenge them quickly. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?

OK, so how and when are law-breakers justified before God the holy judge?

God decided to justify by grace all mankind. Consider Romans 3:23-24 (WEB),

For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

and Titus 3:7 (WEB),

That being justified by his grace, we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Sinful man is justified by God’s gracious choice. When did the judge’s gavel of acquittal fall? Classic Reformed and Arminian camps say the gavel of justification falls for each individual after the new birth. Though, as explained above, the Reformed camp praises God’s grace for new birth while the Arminian camp credits man’s faith as the cause of regeneration.

Regardless, my understanding is that God justified all his people one time from the cross before either Reformed or Arminian regeneration. We read in Luke 23:34a (WEB),

Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing."

Forgiveness is proclaimed! Furthermore, Romans 5:10 (WEB) says,

For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we will be saved by his life.

God’s people are fully reconciled to himself through Christ since 33 AD in history and since creation in God’s determination, well before either our new birth or faith! Paul quotes Habakkuk saying, “the righteous shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17b WEB). God’s people are already righteous before holy God through the work of Christ and so by faith we can live to God. Thus we are right to tell the lost the good news that God loves us and loved us first, rather than saying that God will love us if we love him.

God was able to justify by Christ’s blood as payment. Romans 5:9 (WEB), says,

Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we will be saved from God's wrath through him.

God is able to justify us by his grace because Christ paid our debt of sin with his blood.

Men then RECEIVE justification by faith alone. Romans 3:28 (WEB), says,

We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.

We are justified apart from works of the law. However, is our justification caused by faith or vice a versa? We are justified by God’s gracious choice which is then RECEIVED by faith. God justifies! Paul quotes Habakkuk saying, “the righteous shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17b WEB). God’s chosen, whether believing or unbelieving, are already righteous through the work of Christ and already justified!  Now if we are to live, ‘by faith’ is the only way.

Men prove they have received justification by works of service. James 2:24 (WEB), says,

You see then that by works, a man is justified, and not only by faith.

Does this verse contradict Romans 3:28? Either God’s word is contradictory or an explanation must be found. I understand that Paul and James use the word ‘justified’ slightly differently. Paul answers the question, “how is one saved from damnation?” The answer is we are saved through the work of Christ received by faith alone. James answers the question, “how is one saved from damnation plus how must we who received salvation behave?” The answer is we are saved through the work Christ received by faith alone AND true faith will not be alone from gratitude expressed with good deeds. Paul also teaches that good deeds are a certain RESPONSE of the believing, BUT he takes pains to explain that God’s salvation is received by faith apart from good deeds to guard against those attempting to save themselves BY their good deeds. God likely chose Paul to explain this at length because Paul knew better than most the tragedy of imagining one can save your self by being good enough and just how short these imaginations are from true salvation. Paul challenges the Galatians and any who imagine that they can save themselves with good deeds to face the fact that Christ was crucified!

Men prove they received justification by words of testimony. Jesus said in Matthew 12:37 (WEB),

For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

Does this verse also contradiction Romans 3:28? Are we saved by the work of our testimony? Hardly. Jesus also teaches that receiving his work by faith is our only salvation AND proof that we have done this will be evident in our testimony. We testify with our lips the belief that is our heart. Romans 10:9 (WEB),

that if you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.


The Scriptures say that we are justified by grace, by his blood, by our faith, by our works, and by our words.   So just how we are justified again? God justifies by grace his chosen people by the blood of Christ as payment and we receive this justification by faith proving our faith that God justified us by our works and by our words. God is not intentionally obscure, and our quest for rock solid proof of our acquittal gives believers great confidence because God’s grace is trustworthy.

Justified by
His grace
Romans 3:24
God decided to justify by grace all mankind at the cross
His blood
Romans 5:9
God was able to justify by Christ’s blood as payment
Our faith
Romans 3:28
Men receive justification by faith alone
Our works
James 2:24
Men prove they received justification by works of service
Our words
Matthew 12:37
Men prove they received justification by words of testimony

John Owen on the Formal Cause of Justification

I am only familiar with the book covers of the volumes written by John Owen in the church library, yet I know that somewhere he asserts that the formal cause of justification is the grace of God in the work of Jesus Christ and NOT our faith. Sinful man is justified by the gracious choice of God and this is received by faith.  Only by God’s grace is our will freed to believe that God loves us.


Frankly it is impossible to believe that God loves us as much as he does because there is literally nothing lovable within us. God has simply chosen to love us to show off his grace. Consider two courtrooms to make it clear just what God has done in justifying his chosen people.  Furthermore consider that a God who is God never needed a plan B, but only plan A.

Judge, Banker, and Magistrate party
Father, Son, and Spirit fellowship
Judge plans to show parties beat trials
God plans to show mercy triumphs over judgment
Judge envisions wild Friends for a super party
God foreknows his people
Judge plans to acquit guilty Friends
God predestines to save his people
Banker pledges restitution for Friends’ crimes
Son promises atonement for his people’s sins
Judge builds courtroom beautifully
God creates angels and mankind very good
Judge hires nasty Lawyer and Newspaper
God decrees the fall of Satan and 1/3 of angels
Judge gives Friends temporary criminal tendency so that he can prove that acquittal of the guilty is more effective than prison
God binds mankind to disobedience temporarily so that he can show that mercy to sinners is more transforming and triumphs over judgment
Lawyer lures Judge’s Friends into big crime
Satan tempts mankind to join his rebellion
Friends leave country in fear of Judge
Mankind turns to false religion in fear of true God
Magistrate predicts acquittal of Friends
Spirit records promise of mankind’s salvation
Magistrate predicts demise of Lawyer
Spirit records promise of Satan’s destruction
Lawyer claims acquittal of guilty is unjust
Satan accuses that forgiving sinners is unjust
Newspaper condemns Judge and Friends
Satan’s angels hate God and his people
Judge subpoenas Friends for acquittal papers
God calls mankind to receive salvation
Friends believe Newspaper, ignore subpoena
Mankind believes lies, ignore God’s call
Lawyer accuses Judge of rigging trial
Satan accuses God of compromising true justice
Banker restitutes for legal acquittal of Friends
Son fulfills promise to atone for mankind
Judge gives verdict of acquittal
God justifies his people
Magistrate announces acquittal
Spirit records that mercy triumphs over judgment
Magistrate seeks out Friends 1 by 1
Spirit regenerates his people 1 by 1
Magistrate confronts Friends
Spirit convicts his people
Judge slaps Friends on wrist for hiding
God punishes men for unbelief
Friends receive acquittal papers
Men repent and trust God
Friends thank judge
Believers praise God
Judge helps friends avoid criminal tendencies
God sanctifies believers
Lawyer claims Banker did not make restitution
Satan whispers that Jesus’ atonement not sufficient
Judge sends Lawyer and Newspaper to slammer
God sends Satan and followers to the Lake of Fire
Judge removes criminal tendency from Friends
God glorifies his people in heaven
Judge hosts super party for his wild Friends
God fellowships for eternity future with his people

Perhaps the above comparison could be improved. But can we truly understand God’s wisdom in ordaining the existence of sin in order to demonstrate that mercy triumphs over judgment?  Even if we do not understand we can still rejoice that God has freely justified us. Anticipation of God’s super party with all his wild friends is enough to cause anyone to lose sleep!


Why care if justification precedes regeneration? 

If we agree God’s grace is the effective cause of salvation then the order of salvation events may be of little consequence. However, the pride of man rails against grace. Some agree we are ‘saved by grace,’ but say man’s 'faith' causes justification. I take time above to explain above from Scripture that justification precedes regeneration to silence those adding the work of man to God’s salvation.  The claim that any human condition effects salvation is a poisonous attack on grace.  Furthermore, the claim that 'faith' itself is the condition and casual effect of justification likewise attacks grace and totally redefines faith!  Faith is not a condition to God unconditional love, but faith is simple trust in God's unconditional love!

What is faith? 

Hebrews 11:1 (WEB) says, “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen.” Faith is surety of the unseen. We naturally look inside ourselves to see a reason that God would love us, but find nothing. Even our faith cannot swing the gavel of acquittal at our own trial! We stand before God as guilty sinners and there is no good thing in us to merit our acquittal. Instead God commands us to supernaturally trust that he has slammed the gavel of acquittal by his grace through the blood of Christ.

What is salvation? 

Jesus saves us from many things! Believers are saved from God’s judgment in Hades, Luke 23:43. Obedient believers are saved from sin and sin’s harmful effects, I Corinthians 10:13. Careful believers are saved from loss and receive reward for building with Jesus, I Corinthians 3:10-15. Prayerful believers are saved from harm, Matthew 8:25.  Those predestined to the Lamb’s Book of Life are saved from the Lake of Fire, Revelation 20:11-15.

When is salvation? 

Jesus saved us in the past through predestination, saved when we believed, and saves in the future! This is clear in Romans 5:10 (WEB). Jesus saved us from the penalty of sin in the past, “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son." Jesus saved us from the power of sin when we believed, "much more, being reconciled." And Jesus will finally save us from the presence of sin, "we will be saved by his life.”

Who does God save? 

Jesus is the savior of the world, John 4:42. Jesus atoned for the sins of the whole world, I John 2:2. Jesus is the savior of believers and unbelievers, I Timothy 4:10. Jesus died for all mankind, 2 Corinthians 5:14. Jesus justified all mankind, Romans 3:23-24. Yet he has not saved all from Hades for their unbelief, or saved all from sin because of their disobedience, or saved all from loss for their carelessness, or saved all from harm for their prayerlessness. 

Nevertheless, he will finally save everyone he loves, those he predestined in the Lamb’s Book of Life, from the Lake of Fire, to live in glory with him forever! Are you a son of Adam or daughter of Eve? You can know your name is in the Book of Life through faith in Christ, your Lamb of sacrifice. Read the Bible, pray to Jesus, and talk to Christians! Find your name in the Book of Life through faith in Jesus Christ.


Understanding my view, your view, or the perfect view of Christian Ordo Salutis may not save you, me, or anyone. And if such studies are not useful for salvation are they of any value?  Studies of real value carry knowledge from the head 18 inches further to faith in the heart.  Studies of real value move our feet in service, open our mouths in testimony, and raise our arms worship of the person Jesus Christ.