A Biblical look at Justification
In our world today, we often hear the victims of horrible crimes declaring, “We want justice, that’s all we want". This is understandable. As human beings who have been created in the image of God (Gen.1:27), we have a natural desire for justice to be done. When we witness injustice, we are disgusted, and we shake our heads in disbelief. We tend to see the retaliation of victims as justified and deserving of accolades rather than punitive action.
Although this desire for justice is natural, it only goes so far. We stop short of calling for justice when it comes to our own sin. If asked what we think should happen to us for our sin, we will declare that we want grace and mercy, not justice. Of course we understand that this is hypocrisy. The reality is that our sin requires justice be done just as much as everybody else’s sin. The beautiful and wonderful truth of the gospel is that every single Christian today can have confidence that, at the cross, their sins have been met with justice.
Jesus Christ took their sins upon himself and settled the sentence. (1) When an individual is regenerated, has repented and trusted in Christ -and Christ alone for salvation- they are born again, and they are given a right legal standing before God. They receive justification.
Since the inception of the Church, there has been much ink spilled discussing the doctrine of justification. Some of the questions often asked include: What is the nature of justification? What is the basis of justification? and What was the means of justification? This body of work will address these questions. First, what is the nature of justification?
The Nature of Justification
It is important to differentiate between justification and sanctification. In justification, God declares us righteous; in sanctification, He makes us righteous. Justification is a legal or forensic declaration of righteousness. It is about our legal status not our inner character. (2) These types of legal declarations are common in our everyday life. When a Pastor declares, “I now pronounce you husband and wife” there is an immediate, legal change that takes place in the relationship.
Although this change has life-transforming implications for the couple, there is no change in the character or nature of either individual involved. (3) The justification we receive from God is given to us as a gift of grace, we have no legal claim to it whatsoever (Rom. 3:23-24). It must also be understood that justification is a one time instantaneous act. At the moment of salvation an individual is declared righteous before God. Sanctification, on the other hand, is both immediate and progressive. Once we understand the nature of justification, we ask the question, what is the basis of justification?
The Basis of Justification
How is such a declaration consistent with God’s character when Scripture tells us, in Proverbs 17:15, that "he who justifies the wicked is an abomination to the Lord". All mankind is wicked from birth; lawbreakers; all deserving God’s condemnation (Rom. 3:23). How is it possible for God to justify the ungodly and not, as Proverbs 17:15 says, "participate in something abominable"? The answer to that question can be found in the doctrine of imputation. This act of imputation is a twofold act. (4)
• Imputation of our sins to Christ.
The Father counted Jesus to have committed all the sins of those who would ever repent and believe in him (2 Cor. 5:21). Though Jesus never committed any sins whatsoever (1 Peter 2:22), the Father judicially reckoned Christ to have committed the sins of those whom he was giving himself as a substitute. Although this aspect of justification is imperative, it is not enough.
If all the sinner received was forgiveness, they would be left in a state of moral neutrality. They would be reckoned as never having sinned, but also never having obeyed either. God’s law requires that we both face punishment for our sin as well as carry out certain acts of righteousness. Christ received our punishment, but for us to carryout any act of righteousness we must have his righteousness imputed to us. This is the second aspect of imputation.
• Imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us.
When we say that God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, it means that God regards Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us (Rom. 4:6). (5) The Apostle Paul says it this way in 1 Corinthians 1:30, “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption.”(NASB)
Justification is not a mechanical or impersonal event, but a benefit of union with Christ. Believers are justified in Christ. The righteousness of Christ and imputation is the basis for justification. The final aspect of justification we will discuss is closely connected with the basis for justification and it is the means of justification.
The Means of Justification
In Genesis 15:6, we read that Abraham "believed in the Lord and it was counted to him as righteousness". This was the text that the Apostle Paul used to explain the means of justification in Romans 4:3 and Galatians 3:6. Abraham was not justified by works of the law, and neither are Christians today. In Romans and Galatians, Paul gives us the clearest exposition of the doctrine of justification. In these letters, he makes it abundantly clear that justification comes through faith in Christ and Christ alone.
It is important to remember that faith is not the basis for justification but rather the means or instrument of justification through which we receive this righteousness as it is imputed to us. This is an important distinction to make because many people believe they are justified because they had the good sense to believe the gospel. However, this belief undermines the truth that we are saved by grace alone. If saving righteousness is grounded on the sinner doing anything, even believing, it is no longer an alien righteousness given as a gift by God, and therefore cannot be the righteousness of God required for salvation. (8)
As the Christian considers the reality of their legal standing before the one who will judge the living and the dead, their understanding of these precious truths regarding justification should give them a greater appreciation for what their Lord has done for them. They now have a right legal standing before him. Because Jesus Christ, by his grace, has taken their sin upon himself and credited his righteousness to them, they are justified through faith.
Let us marvel at the wonderful reality of this profoundly magnificent act of mercy.
1 Tim Challies, https://www.challies.com/articles/my-heart-longs-for-justice-for-others/ referenced 9/20/2022.
2 John Frame, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Christian Faith. (Phillipsburg NJ: P&R Publishing,
3 John MacArthur, Essential Christian Doctrine, A Handbook on Biblical Truth. (Wheaton ILL: Crossway
Publishing, 2021), 612.
4 Joel R. Beeke & Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, Spirit and Salvation, Vol. 3. (Wheaton
Publishing, 2021), 517.
5 Wayne Grudem, Biblical Doctrine, Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan
6 L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1941), 517.
7 Joel R. Beeke & Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, Spirit and Salvation, Vol. 3. (Wheaton ILL: Crossway
Publishing, 2021), 522.
8 John MacArthur, Essential Christian Doctrine, A Handbook on Biblical Truth. (Wheaton ILL: Crossway
Publishing, 2021), 332.
Additional resources not specifically referenced in document
Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology Third Edition. (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2013).
Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology. (Chicago ILL: Moody Publishers, 1989).
R.C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, (Sanford Fl: Reformation Trust,
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. (USA printing in East Peoria ILL: Versa Press, 2014)