Introduction – What does the word mean?
Justification is not an easy word to understand. Its meaning has been corrupted over the centuries of the Christian faith and even today there are still a number of different views as to what it really means. The Roman Catholic church especially confuses it with sanctification and even links it with good works. It was not until the Reformation that its true meaning began to emerge. In fact the doctrine of ‘Justification by Faith’ was the great material principle of the Reformation.
Saying what justification is not helps us to understand the need to approach the subject carefully. Justification is not sanctification; it is not conversion; and it is not regeneration.
The Greek word, dikaioo, is translated ‘to justify’ and with its other forms – ‘justified and justification’, appears thirtynine times in the New Testament and twenty-nine of those occurrences are used by the apostle Paul. His main dissertation on justification is found in the Epistle to the Romans, 3: 21-28 and 5: 1- 21. We will view the subject under the following four headings: 1) Meaning; 2) Ground; 3) Means; 4) Results.
So what does Justification mean? The Greek word is a legal term. It means, ‘to acquit’. It is the opposite to condemn. Justification is the act of a judge. From the viewpoint of an accused person, it means to get the verdict that enables you to be declared righteous.
Supposing you were accused of a serious crime. Your case has been heard in court and the jury has given its decision – not guilty. The judge would then give his verdict in accordance with the jury’s decision. He would declare you acquitted of the charges against you: innocent of wrongdoing. That statement of the judge is what justification means. It is a formal, legal declaration of righteousness. It is the establishment of a person as just, by acquittal from guilt.
In the spiritual sphere, it is the judicial act of God, whereby He justly declares and treats as righteous, the sinner.
Justification takes place once and for all. It is not repeated, neither is it a process; it is complete at once, and for all time. It has no degrees. You can’t be barely justified, or justified to an average extent, or even very justified. A man is either fully justified, or he is not justified at all.
In scripture, God is the judge of all the earth and His dealings with men are constantly described in legal terms. God is righteous and He requires that men should also be righteous. His standard of righteousness is set out in the law, which He gave to Moses. God’s own righteousness as Judge is continually demonstrated by His exercising judgement on those who fall short of that righteousness.
2 GROUND OF JUSTIFICATION
What is meant by the ‘ground’ of justification? How can a righteous God justly declare that a man, who is clearly a sinner, is righteous?
This was the great spiritual problem. A problem, which damned the relationship between man and his creator, God. Isaiah described it like this ‘But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear’, 59. 2. It was a problem, which in human terms was completely insoluble, but it was not insoluble to the love and wisdom of God.
God, in His deep love for mankind, wished to forgive human sin, but that forgiveness must be granted justly. Remember Abraham’s words to God as he pleaded for Sodom and Gomorrah, ‘Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?’ Gen. 18. 25. God in His very nature and character can only act justly. It is utterly impossible for the great God of heaven to act unrighteously.
The basis on which God judges
So what in God’s sight would provide a righteous basis for justification? Romans chapter 2 verse 6 tells us that the principle by which God judges a man is that individual’s acts. The apostle is speaking here of ‘the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgement’, and he says of God ‘who will render to every man according to his deeds’. The standard by which God judges is His law – either the Mosaic law for the Jews, or the law of conscience for the other nations. Only law-keepers can be justified. Nothing will suffice but the complete fulfilment of the law of God. If a man could keep God’s law in every particular, then God could justly declare him to be righteous. ‘For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified’, Rom. 2. 13.
But men have never fully kept God’s law
But no human being has ever achieved this. Even the most godly of men – Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, etc., have all broken the law at some time. James tells us in his epistle, ‘He that offendeth in one point (that is of God’s Law) is guilty of all’. So no one can be justified on the ground of law keeping, ‘Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin’, Rom. 3. 20. The scriptures also tell us that ‘all have sinned’ and so the prospect for mankind is universal condemnation.
No one could be justified by law keeping
The whole human race of all generations and all nationalities is guilty before God; condemned in His sight and subject to His divine wrath on sin, ‘Now we know, that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God’, Rom. 3. 19.
But God was not defeated by men’s failure
It is then, in the time of human helplessness and hopelessness, that God reveals His plan by which a righteousness, which is from God and of God, can be applied to the sinner, ‘But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets’, Rom. 3. 21. That plan is the gospel of Christ. God has found one who could fulfil His law in every detail and so demonstrate His righteousness but then take upon himself the penalty and judgement of all human sin, by taking their place under God’s just punishment for it. Then this righteousness could be imputed or reckoned to the sinner and he could be justified.
Jesus Christ is God’s answer to our need
That person is none other than the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, the only one in the whole universe who could act in that representative capacity to God’s entire satisfaction. Jesus Christ, on behalf of mankind, has satisfied the claims of God’s law upon the human race. He lived under the requirements of the law of God to fulfil its precepts and then to bear the penalty of the law in man’s stead. By His obedience to God, He won for all His people the status of law keepers. His life of righteousness culminated in His dying the death of the unrighteous, bearing the law’s penal curse. In His person on the cross, the sins of His people were judged and expiated. Through this ‘one act of righteousness’ – His sinless life and death – God’s free gift of justification and life became available to all men. So sinners become ‘the righteousness of God’ in and through Him who ‘knew no sin’ personally, but was, in His representative capacity made sin, (treated as a sinner and punished) in their place. So ‘Christ is made unto us righteousness’, i.e., this righteousness He has provided is imputed to us. This means that sinners are made righteous before God through His admitting them to share Christ’s status of acceptance. God treats them according to Christ’s desert. Sinners are justified ‘in Christ’. God counts them righteous not because He judges them to have kept His law personally, but because He accounts them to be ‘in’ the one who did keep His law as their representative.
Christ is our justification
So when God justifies sinners on the ground of Christ’s obedience and death, He acts justly. The Greek word meaning ‘to put to one’s account’ appears eleven times in Romans chapter 4, but it is translated by three different words – ‘count, reckon, and impute’. But the basic meaning is that the value of Christ’s obedience and death is applied to the sinner. This is the principle of justification, God taking Christ’s righteousness and applying it to the sinner and declaring him righteous.
3 MEANS OF JUSTIFICATION
So the ground of justification has been established in the righteousness of Christ through His obedience and death. Now, how can that righteousness be applied to the sinner? Only through faith – Ephesians chapter 2 verses 8 and 9 state, ‘For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast’.
What is faith? What does it mean?
Faith is the recognition by men or women that as sinners they are under the judgement of God. That they cannot do anything themselves to alter that state of guilt and condemnation but that God, in grace, has provided a way through the Lord Jesus Christ. This is then followed by a complete acceptance that Jesus Christ died for them at Calvary and an act of total trust in Christ as Saviour. The sinner must have this exercise of faith. On the basis of that faith, God can impute (put to their account) the righteousness of Christ. God can justify them – declare them righteous.
4 RESULTS OF JUSTIFICATION
i. The believer has been declared righteous. That is a once-and-for-all declaration which saves him from the sins of the past, and secures his spiritual future. But believers continue to sin after they are justified. James chapter 3 verse 2 states, ‘For in many things we offend all’. Justification means that those sins do not affect the believer’s standing or place before God for they are ‘in Christ’. But they do mar the believer’s spiritual life and produce a feeling of guilt and separation from God. The believer needs then to confess their sins and God will forgive them and restore their fellowship. 1 John chapter 1 verse 9 declares, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’.
ii. No condemnation. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit’, Rom. 8. 1.
iii. The believer is reconciled to God. That feeling of hostility and antagonism from a sinner towards God is gone forever, ‘And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation’, 2 Cor. 5. 18. And the effect of that reconciliation is peace with God, ‘Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’, Rom. 5. 1.
iv. The believer is adopted as a child of God. Galatians chapter 4 verses 4 and 5 say, ‘But when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons’, and following closely on that, they were made heirs of God. ‘Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ’, Gal. 4. 7.
v. The believer has eternal life now and for the future, and an eternal inheritance in heaven.
vi. The Holy Spirit indwells the believer. This is one of the greatest gifts given to mortal man – the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit of God in his heart, in his life, as his Guide, Comforter and Friend.
vii. Nothing can separate the believer from the love of God, ‘For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’, Rom. 8. 38, 39.