I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Mt. 12:36-37)
εκ γαρ των λογων σον δικαιωθηση, και εκ των λογων σον καταδικασθηση. (Mt. 12:37)
What is justification? With the Roman Catholics' confusion on the one side to "Protestant" infatuation with the New Perspective doctrine and Federal Vision on the other, the Church has came full circle back to the foundational doctrine of the Gospel — the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone. That RCism in her blindness cannot perceive its truth is sad, but it is tragic that those who are supposed to be children of the Reformation are falling away.
Once upon a time, students of the Bible understand that context is key. The Christan would interpret the verse in context, and while the meaning and etymology of the word in the original language may be helpful at a deeper level, they cannot and should not overturn the basic contextual meaning of the verse in context. Such is to commit an exegetical fallacy, of which the most common encountered so far is the fallacy of unwarranted adoption of an expanded semantic field or abuse of the field of lexicography, as described in D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker), p. 60-61. When using a reliable translation of the Bible, we can trust that we have God's Word with us, and therefore we can read the Scripture for ourselves and learn what it desires to teach us.
The historic Protestant doctrine of justification is "the gracious act of God the Father through the perfect work of Jesus Christ whereby I have been pardoned and made right before God" [James R. White, The God who Justifies (Minneapolis, MI, USA: Bethany House, 2001), p. 31. Emphasis original]. It encompasses the process of double imputation as its logical corollary, whereby our sin is counted as Christ's, while his righteousness is credited to our account, so that we are considered righteous before God and acceptable unto Him though we are still materially sinful and God is holy. This understanding of Justification flows from a look at the book of Romans, as shown by Dr. James R. White in his book The God who Justifies.
Being biblical, we know that Scripture proclaims for itself inerrancy and especially verbal plenary inspiration and authority. Since that is the case, all of Scripture must be systematized into a coherent whole, for God does not lie so contradictions cannot exist. The doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone is so explicit in Romans that the only way to avoid its teaching is either to attempt to subjugate its message using counter proof-texts as what RCism traditionally has done, or to shift the entire reading and hermeneutical framework as what New Perspectivism has done.
We have previously addressed James 2, and have exposed the exegetical fallacy involved in reading acontextually all forms of the dikaio- word groups legal justification. In Mt. 12:36-37, this fallacy seems to be involved as well. However, if so, then what exactly is Mt. 12:36-37 teaching if not legal justification? Since it alludes if not refers to the last Day of judgment, shouldn't the context be referring to justification before God in the legal sense, and thus justification has a future aspect to it as well?
To address this issue, we will look to the immediate context of the verse, and then to the larger context of the Scriptures using the Analogy of Faith (Analogia Fide).
The context of this passage is the teachings of Jesus regarding various sundry issues in Jesus' contention against the false teachings of the Pharisees. In the immediate context however, the teachings of Jesus in verse 33 on the good and bad tree (echoing back to Mt. 7:17-20), and verses 35 on the treasures indicate for us an emphasis on practical Christian living. This can be seen in verse 34 which states that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks". Therefore, the entire focus of the immediate context is on the practical manifestation of Christian living.
Verses 36 and 37 should thus be interpreted in this light. The "justification" here is the manifestation of the nature of genuine faith in true Christians, while the condemnation is the manifestation of the judgment of God against sinful men.
Entirety of Scripture or Systematic Theology
When one looks at the entirety of Scripture, it can be clearly seen that justification is a one-time event when a person exercises faith in Christ, a fact defended by Dr. James R. White in his book The God that Justifies.
Jn. 3:18 teaches that condemnation is already a reality before the final judgment even now for all Man unless they are saved. The parallelism, which is very striking in the Greek, thus hints that conversely, justification in this verse is something which is a present reality in people even before the final judgment.
Putting the two lines of thought together would yield us the correct Protestant interpretation of the verses — that the words we speak reveal or manifest our nature as believers or unbelievers; whether we are righteous or unrighteousness, justified or condemned. We are not justified by our words or works as taught in Mt. 12:36-37, but we are shown to be previously justified at the final judgment.
There is therefore no future aspect of justification. God knows His people and as Sovereign, does not need to defend and contest with anyone who his justified elect are. and the validity of the justification process in any one individual. When we are justified, we have already been justified (past tense), and move along the golden chain of salvation (in Rom. 8:29; not the exact Ordo Salutis) to the next step so to speak, which chronologically is glorification. When believers stand before God, God does not have to check his "record-book" to confirm that any believer is indeed justified (past tense), but he would welcome us in without any need of assessment, giving us glorified bodies fit for our new habitat and status.
In conclusion, Mt. 12:36-37 does not teach legal justification or anything of the sort. Context matters, and when the texts are interpreted in context, the true biblical meaning always surfaces. Despite mention of the day of judgment, Mt. 12:36-37 does not teach legal justification by works at all. Amen.