St. Paul makes the distinction between justification before men and justification
before God in Romans chapter 4. He says that Abraham had reason for boasting by being justified by his works, but not before God. He did have reason to boast before us, as our example, when God proved his faith by his obedience. To be justified before God is to be justified through faith in the promise of Christ who is the propitiation for our sins. To be justified before men (“You show me your faith, and I’ll show you my faith by my works.” James 2:18) is to be shown before men that you are justified before God. Faith alone can’t do this, because people can’t see your faith. But God who sees in secret rewards you (Matt 6:4).
So here is the clarification. To be justified before men does not mean that we are justified by men. Rather, God is always the one who justifies, whether before men or before himself. In a sense we must say that nothing is not before God. He sees all things. But the distinction is made by Paul in order to direct our boasting, that is, what we lay claim to. We are not received into favor before men simply by our faith. This is impossible, since they can’t see it. We are received into favor before God by faith apart from works, which is what we mean by faith alone (SD III, 36). So back to the clarification. God is always the one who justifies. He alone receives us into favor with himself (justification before God), and he alone proves our faith to the world and all the angels by preparing works in which we are to walk. So when we speak of justification before men we are not denying that this is God’s work. We are only denying that this is being received into God’s favor. God justifies us before men. This is also known as vindicating us. Jesus did this for the woman when he said to Simon the Pharisee, “I tell you that her sins are forgiven, for she loves much. (Luke 7:47; cf. Ap IV [III], 31ff)” He justifies her before the Pharisees by pointing to her love. But before himself she is justified by faith, as he says to her, “Your faith has saved you.”
God justifies us before men and angels. St. Paul says that the manifold wisdom of God is revealed through the church to all the authorities in the heavenly places (Eph 3:10). Now, jump to 1 Peter 1:6-12. God tests our faith with fire, confirming us in his saving gospel, which is something that angels long to touch. They long to touch what is being proved to them. This is what God did with Job when the devil, with all the other sons of God (angels), came before him (Job 1). God justified Job before the angels and before men (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar). And yet, he also rebuked Job, calling him back to trust in him (Job 38-41). Before himself God justified Job by calling him back to faith in him. But before everyone else God justified Job by proving his faith, saying (Job 42:8), “Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”
So we might call justification before men (and angels) vindication, while justification properly speaking is when we believe that we are received into favor by God who has cancelled our debt for Christ’s sake. Jesus was vindicated by the Spirit and then seen by angels (1 Tim 3:16). That is, he was proven to be who he said he was. He was, on the basis of his work of fulfilling God’s will, declared innocent of all the sin, which he bore on the cross. His vindication is therefore our justification. We are justified on the same basis that Christ was vindicated – on the basis of the work of Christ. We are thereby vindicated – shown to be righteous before men and angels – by the charity in which we walk and the perseverance in hope through all afflictions. Throughout all this we are not put to shame, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom 5:5). But all of this is a result of being justified by faith (Rom 5:1). God does not let us be put to shame, so he does not leave our faith to no effect (2 Peter 1:8).
Now, there is also a consciousness on the part of the believer of this vindication from God. We need to be vindicated even before ourselves. This is why St. Peter says that we should make every effort to make our calling and election sure, namely, by supplementing our faith with good works (2 Peter 1:10). If we practice these things then our faith will not be without effect. It is in this way, that is, in this context, that the entrance into the eternal kingdom of Christ will be provided for us (2 Peter 1:11). This entrance is provided while God confirms our faith by the works he has prepared for us to walk in (Eph 2:10). This is not a positive confirmation of our faith, as if our works are the source and sustenance of our faith. That is rather the case with the prophetic word, which St. Peter says in the same chapter is even more certain (2 Peter 1:19). Our works rather provide a negative confirmation of our faith. We are to be watchful that we are keeping busy in good works, lest we become idle and secure in our own flesh, and our faith dies (Ap XX, 90; SD IV, 33, 34).
It was only after Job repented that God told his friends that he spoke what was true. When God proves our faith, vindicates us, or justifies us before men – whatever you want to call it – we experience this as rebuke and repentance. This brings to mind an important point, which Luther makes in his Antinomian Disputations, namely, that every good work done by the Christian is an act of repentance.(1) Whenever you pursue those works, which make your election sure, you are repenting of the sins, in which you would otherwise be walking. Repentance always includes both rejecting the bad and affirming the good (Rom 6:13). So when the apostles admonish us to walk in good works, they are admonishing us to repent, lest we let sin reign in us and make us obey its passions (Rom 6:12).
Throughout all this God vindicates us. He tries our faith and proves to all of heaven, earth, and hell that we are his children. We experience it as rebuke and reproof. God reveals it to the world as proof that we are his children.
One final observation is that God is always vindicating himself. For his name’s sake he blots out our sins (Ps. 25:11). And also, by his might he vindicates us before men (Ps. 54:1) and pleads our cause (Ps. 43:1). He is showing that his own creation of faith in our hearts is good. And he is proving that his cause is good. So if you do your duty as a husband and a father, trusting in God’s mercy, God vindicates you not because of your worthy effort, but because of his cause. He vindicates his own cause, his own commandment. The integrity and righteousness, which we claim by faith, we also, in weakness, take up in our daily vocation. So God justifies his Word. He justifies his commandment. He has us endure this vindication with patience and long suffering, not as a way to make satisfaction for any punishment before him, but in order to learn to depend on him. We are therefore zealous for what is good, because all good gifts come from above, and God will finally prove them to be good. We are zealous for good works, because we know that the same God who saved us is the one who works them in us and will finally prove that his commandments are true. This is why the Psalmist can say (Ps. 119:66), “Teach me good judgment and knowledge: for I have believed thy commandments.” We have the promise throughout this entire battle against the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh that there is no one who can harm us if we are zealous for what is good (1 Pet 3:13). After all, it is God who justifies. He justifies the sinner through faith in Christ precisely because he justifies – vindicates – his own work, which was fulfilled in Christ (Matt 5:17).
(1) Antinomian Disputations, Third Set of Theses, theses 8 &9: Toto enim tempore vitae durat peccatum in carne nostra, et adversatur spiritui sibi adversario. 9. Quare omnia opera post iustificationem sunt aliud nihil quam poenitentia seu bonum propositum contra peccatum. “8. For the sin in our flesh lasts the entire time of life and strives against the spirit, its adversary (cf. Gal. 5:17). 9. This is why all works done after justification are nothing else than repentance or the good intention against sin.” Solus Decalogus Est Aeternus: Martin Luther’s Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations, ed/trans. Holger Sonntag, (Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2008), 228-29.