In Old Testament times, two men had this problem. Job raised the question, ‘How should man be just with God?’ Job 9. 2. Bildad the Shuhite asked, ‘How then can man be justified with God?’ 25. 4.
Having declared, I ‘will by no means clear the guilty’, Exod. 34. 7, God seems to leave the question without answer. Solomon added to the problem when he wrote, ‘he that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are an abomination to the Lord’, Prov. 17. 15.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul provides the answer to the questions raised by Job and Bildad in his Epistles to the Romans and the Galatians. There is an important difference of teaching in these Epistles on the matter of justification. In Romans it is established that there is no substitute for faith in the matter of being justified; in the Epistle to the Galatians it is equally asserted that nothing can be added to faith. In Romans, Paul in a masterly way shows how a just God can justify the guilty. Paul declares that we are ‘justified by faith’, thereby showing that works are opposed to faith. In Galatians, Paul declares that nothing of works can be added to faith. God is ‘just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus’, Rom. 3. 26. In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul frequently uses the words ‘righteous’ and ‘justify’. In the Greek language the two words, ‘righteous’ and ‘justify’, are derived from the same root word, so when the apostle speaks of righteousness and justification he is speaking more or less of the same thing.
It is important to observe that justification does not change a person morally, but it does change his position, giving him a new standing before God in a position of perfect righteousness, cleared of every charge.
Justification is an integral part of God’s great plan of salvation, part of the divine counsel for our blessing. God’s magnificent purpose in salvation is highlighted particularly in the letter to the Romans: ‘For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate … whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called … them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified’, 8. 29-30.
All three persons of the Godhead are involved in providing the blessing of justification for man. God Himself is the justifier. God is ‘just and the justifier’, 3. 26. It is, ‘through Christ’ and ‘in Christ’ that we are justified: ‘if … we seek to be justified by Christ’, Gal. 2. 17, and He ‘was raised again for our justification’, Rom. 4. 25. Justification was provided by Christ, and is secured to us in Christ. The Holy Spirit is the divine agent in justification, ‘but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God’, 1 Cor. 6. 11.
The apostle Paul in Romans chapter 3 describes a law court scene. God is the judge and man is the criminal in the dock. Witnesses for the prosecution are assembled. For the Jew, there is the witness of the commandments, which testify against him. For both the pagan and enlightened Gentile, there is the witness of creation and of conscience. The apostle Paul is the prosecutor, and fourteen charges are brought before the court, until the sentence is passed: all the world brought in guilty before God, Rom. 1-3.
How can justification be defined? In simple terms, we can say that to purify is to make pure, to sanctify is to make holy, and to justify is to make just.1 Justify is a well-known word for those who use a word-processor, as by the click of a button we can bring all the lines of a manuscript into line. This is what God does in justifying the person who believes in Jesus. He brings everything into line with His own character.
Justification is a legal term to which there are two sides: negatively, it means to clear entirely and eternally all the guilt of all our sins; on the positive side, it means to declare us eternally just and right before God who is Himself essentially just and righteous.
Justification in the New Testament is explained in a fivefold way:
God is the justifier: ‘Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and the un-circumcision through faith’, 3. 30. When Paul speaks of ‘now’ and ‘at this time’, 3. 21, 26, he is indicating the character of the present church age, compared with God’s dealings with man in Old Testament times before the cross. God in His forbearance and in response to their offering and exercise of faith, remitted sins that are past, not the past sins of a believer, but sins committed in a past age. The Greek word translated ‘remission’ means ‘passing over’, the righteousness of God is now declared in so acting because Christ Jesus has been ‘set forth a propitiation’.
Now that the death of Christ is an accomplished fact, God ‘now’ and ‘at this time’ is not only declared righteous but, as a just God, He justifies the guilty sinner who believes in Jesus, acquitting that person of the guilt of all their sins, and declares them just and right forever. In doing this, justice is honoured and God’s righteousness is established.
The question may be raised, ‘how can we be justified by God and by Christ?’ In Galatians chapter 2 verse 17 we read, ‘Now if in seeking to be justified in Christ’ JND. The apostle is here teaching the sphere of our justification, i.e., where justification can be found. If guilty sinners are to be justified today, there is only one place where that can be found and that is in Christ. God is the source of justification, and Christ is the sphere of justification.
In Romans chapter 5 verse 9, Paul underscores the foundation of justification, which is the blood of Christ, the evidence of the accomplished sacrifice of Christ at Calvary.
‘Bearing shame and scoffing rude
In our place condemned He stood’,
[P. P. Bliss]
On the cross, the Lord Jesus was the object of human ridicule, the spectacle of angels and demons. The Son of God was put to death, and so He bore the sentence on our account. In verse 19, the apostle writes, ‘as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous’. Again, Christ was ‘made sin’, not sinful, nor a sinner, but sin; He was made ‘sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him’, 2 Cor. 5. 21. On the cross God made His Son to be sin for us and dealt with Him as He must deal with sin. It could be put this way: God made Christ to be what by no process He could have become that we might be made in Him what by no process we could personally have become.
The apostle puts emphasis on the blood of Christ shed sacrificially on the cross, Rom. 5. 9. This has satisfied the claims of divine justice against sin. Paul makes the point that justification is a present possession. The expression ‘being now justified’ does not suggest a process, but refers to all who in this day of God’s grace are justified. Darby translates ‘having been now justified’. The sinner who believes in Jesus is immediately justified, declared righteous by God.
The ground of justification is established in the following statement, ‘by the obedience of one’, meaning by that one act of obedience on the cross when Christ handed himself over to God’s holy judgement against sin, the result is ‘many … made righteous’, v. 19.
In Romans chapter 3 verse 24, the apostle describes justification as bestowed by grace. It was freely given, without cause and without any merit on our part. God took the initiative and, in grace and at infinite cost, He procured and bestowed justification on us who believe in Jesus. God might have righteously left us in all our guilt and without hope, but the disposition of His heart was such that, in grace, He freely bestowed justification upon all who have believed in Jesus.
The apostle will now establish faith as the means by which we obtain justification, Rom. 5. 1. If grace is God’s side of justification, then faith is our side. Paul concludes ‘a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law’, Rom. 3. 28. The requirement of God is faith in Jesus, in His person and in His accomplished sacrifice at Calvary; where this faith is in evidence, it enables God to reckon to that person the value of the precious blood of Christ and declare him righteous.
Paul writes, ‘what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it [his faith] was counted unto him for righteousness’, Rom. 4. 3. Similarly, the evidence of both Abraham’s faith and the harlot Rahab’s was in their works, Jas. 2. 21, 25. The two-fold blessing of justification is ‘peace with God’, Rom. 5. 1, and ‘the peace of God’, Phil. 4. 7.
There can be no accusation raised against the justified. No voice in heaven or in earth or under the earth can ever be raised in condemnation. Who can condemn us now? It is God that justifies and it was Christ who died, and is risen again and is at the right hand of God making intercession for us, Rom. 8. 33-39.
The practical outworking of having been declared righteous by God is that we should now demonstrate it before men by living righteously.
Since Christ died for our sins, God can treat the sinner who believes on Him as a righteous person should be treated. In view of this, Paul asked the question ‘Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?’ Rom. 8. 33. The sinner is justified solely because Christ in His vicarious death endured what was due to sin. Justice having no further claim upon him, God is now justified in justifying the believing sinner.