he doctrine of universal legal justification (ULJ) expresses both admirable and problematic ideas.
As to the former, it celebrates a glorious truth: The death of Christ secured access to God for all humans. Paul frequently calls this access “reconciliation.” For him, this reconciliation appears to be unilateral and unconditional, and something occurring prior to justification. “For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:10).1
By contrast, for Paul, both justification and salvation are conditioned upon and preceded by personal faith/belief:2
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” he says, “and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Again, “with the heart one believes unto righteousness [justification], and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. . . . For ‘whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ ” (Rom. 10:10-13).3
ULJ is based, I find, on a dualistic doctrine of man differing from the wholistic view of man that we find throughout Scripture. Humanity is depicted as a single corporate life; yet this single life is manifested through all human individuals. This single, corporate life sinned in Adam, was assimilated into Christ, and paid the death penalty for its sin in Christ, on the cross. Corporate humanity was thus forgiven and justified in Christ, on the cross and therefore, all individual manifestations of that humanity are now unilaterally, unconditionally forgiven and justified in the legal sense. Each individual, however, has the ability to reject that universal justification and become personally lost.
Some proponents of ULJ dismiss the associated concepts of vicarious atonement and the transfer of sin as illegal and unethical. The charge mirrors Roman Catholic objections to the Reformation position that sin and righteousness are transferred between the sinner and Christ our substitute. Proponents of ULJ have been known to espouse an alternate view of substitution sometimes called “shared substitution.”
The Seventh-day Adventist Church was founded on an interpretation of the sanctuary that emphasizes the vicarious substitution of Christ for the sinner through the transfer of sin from sinner to substitute. To this extent, ULJ appears to stand in direct contrast to this pivotal Adventist understanding.
One attempt to support ULJ biblically involves a unique proposal for reading Paul. The translation “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1) is rejected in favor of “having been justified, by faith we have peace with God.” In this rendering believers have peace by faith, rather than justification by faith.
This would make for an exceptional reading of Paul, who nowhere else packages “faith” and “peace” together. Rather, he speaks consistently of “justification / righteousness” (a single word in Greek) “by faith.” A biblically solid belief should not require peculiar textual re-readings to support it.
Let us rejoice that all people, regardless of race, nationality, gender, and religion have universal access to God and to the cross. And let us each be the preacher sent to bring the good news (Rom. 10:14, 15), so that all may hear, know in whom to believe, “call on the name of the Lord,” and be saved.
1 The Greek grammatical structure here is one of sequence, in which reconciliation precedes justification. (Bible texts in this article are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)
2 In Greek, “faith” and “believing” are noun and verb forms of the same verbal root. Lacking an English verb “faithing,” we use the verb “believe.”
3 Paul echoes the sequence given by Jesus in Mark 16:16: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.”
Stephen Bauer is Professor of Theology and ethics at Southern Adventist University. This article was pubished October 10, 2013.