Given the enormous emphasis given to the subject of eschatological justification over the past few decades in biblical studies, one of the most important theological nuances for us to understand is the time element and the biblical doctrine of justification.
The most significant passage of Scripture in this regard (and yet one that has been often overlooked) is Romans 4:10. In the context of chapter 4, the apostle Paul explains the nature of justification by faith alone from the example of Abraham. Repeatedly citing the locus classicus, Gen. 15:16, Paul develops his argumentation based on the application of the covenant sign to Abraham. In one short passage, Paul posits justification at a specific point in time. He asks, “How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised?” Paul replied with a unhesitating, “It was not after, but before he was circumcised.” The apostle eliminates the possibility of understanding justification as occurring after Abraham was circumcised. Our Reformed and Confessional statements on the doctrine of justification insist that it is a once-for-all “act of God’s free grace” (WSC. 33). There are actually quite a number of implications that we can take away from this observation. Interestingly, many commentators seem to only focus on the first of those listed below when they deal with the theology of Romans 4:1-12:
(1) The Jews do not have any special privileges above the Gentiles after the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.
(2) Abraham was justified at a particular point in time, as is true of those who believe after Abraham. He was not counted righteous after circumcision but before he was circumcised. We must make clear that there is no future imputation of righteousness. Was Abraham justified while circumcised or while uncircumcised? Not while circumcised but while uncircumcised.
(3) Personal Law-keeping played absolutely no role in Abraham’s justification. In fact, the law came 430 years after Abraham (Gal. 3:17). It is completely out of the question when it comes to Abraham’s right standing before God. This is no insignificant detail, as Paul consistently takes us back to Abraham as the example of the “justified man.” It is by faith alone that Abraham was accepted as righteous before God. “Abraham believed in the LORD and He accounted it to Him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).
(4) Abraham was not regenerated or justified by the sacrament. Abraham believed and was justified 14 years prior to receiving the sign and seal of the Covenant. The argument of the Apostle Paul in Romans 4:9-12 is one of the strongest against any sort of sacramentalism. This does not mean that the sacraments are empty signs–as Paul goes on to explain that the circumcision that Abraham received after he believed and was justified was a “sign and a seal of the righteousness of faith.” The sacrament signifies and seals God’s promises to His people.
One of the most helpful treatments of the doctrine of justification in light of recent controversies in the Reformed world is Sinclair Ferguson’s 2005 lecture on “Justification, the New Perspective on Paul and Related Issues.”
UPDATE: Subsequent to writing this post, I wrote a post on the subject of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, titled, “The Justification of Imputation.”