Justification - Getting it Right by Pastor John Samson
Justification is a legal word - a word from the courtroom. It is the legal act whereby God declares the sinner to be righteous in the sight of God. It is not that the sinner is now righteous in and of himself, but that he is "declared" righteous because of the work of Christ. Though fully deserving a guilty sentence, along with all of its eternal consequences, instead, the justified sinner is pronounced "not guilty," is reckoned righteous, and made the very righteousness of God in Christ. This declaration of righteousness is what it means to be justified before God.
But how exactly can God make this kind of pronouncement without negotiating His holiness and righteousness? If the sinner is in fact guilty of sin, how is it right for a holy and righteous judge to declare a sinner's innocence? In other words, how can God still be just and yet justify the sinner?
The Biblical answer is found in Romans 3:21-28, which reads as follows: But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. (NASB)
Dr. R. C. Sproul, in summing up the teaching of this passage wrote, "Paul declares a way of justification different from justification by deeds of the law. It is not a novelty, proclaimed for the first time in the New Testament. This way of justification is witnessed to by the Prophets and by the law itself. It is justification through faith in Jesus Christ. This justification is not given to everyone. It is provided to all and on all, who believe. It is based on the righteousness of God that is provided to and on the believer. It is given both freely and graciously by God through the redeeming work of Christ. This manner of justification demonstrates God himself to be both just and the justifier."
Sproul continues, "Again, the dilemma faced by the sinner summoned to the judgment seat of God is this: The sinner must appear before a divine Judge who is perfectly just. Yet the sinner is unjust. How can he possibly be unjust and justified? The answer to this question touches the eye of the Reformation tornado. For God to justify the impious (iustificatio impii) and himself remain just in the process, the sinner must somehow become actually just by a righteousness supplied him by another."
I was recently reading the statement of faith produced by Dr. John Piper and the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was obvious to me that a lot of thought had gone into it. In fact, one section on justification ended up becoming something of a personal meditation for me, as for several days, I considered the exact wording and sought to find scriptural confirmation for each sentence in my own mind. The more I contemplated the words, the more it struck me just how vital it is that every Christian is fully grounded in this essential doctrine.
Romans 5:1 declares, "Therefore, having been justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." This peace or shalom with God is not a temporary ceasefire in the hostility. It is not something that could be unsettled by either an international or even a cosmic "incident." No, the two parties, God and sinners, who were very much at war, are brought together through Christ's mediatorial work on the cross, establishing not merely the end of conflict; not merely a toleration of one another, but a full and complete reconciliation, and an abiding, permanent, and everlasting peace.
We can begin to grasp this amazing message by asking and answering these questions:
Did Jesus ever commit sin?
The answer is a resounding, "no." Hebrews 4:15, states, "For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin."
Did we ever commit righteousness?
No. In fact, the best works we do are considered as filthy rags before God. Isaiah 64:6 "For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment." All who would approach God must come with pure and spotless garments, which speak of a righteousness worthy of such an audience. Many would understand that our sins are like filthy rags to God, but Scripture goes much further to say that the very best human action we can do is still tainted by sin, and in reality, in comparison with the absolute holiness of God, is filthy in God's sight. And remember, this is the best that man can produce.
Romans 3:9-12 declares "...we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, "THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE; THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS, THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD; ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS; THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD, THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE."
In all reality the doctrine of justification by faith alone is really theological short-hand for justification by the work of Christ alone. There was a double function at work in this regard. Christ not only died an atoning death for our sins, but we need to remember that He also lived a sinless life. If all that was necessary for our justification was the death on the cross, Christ could have come to earth on Good Friday, died on the cross for us, and three days later, rise again. However, for more than 33 years, Christ also lived a perfect life and fulfilled every demand of the law. Christ is the only One who can say that He loved His Father perfectly in life, with all His heart, soul, mind and strength.
At the cross then, all our sins were laid on Him (though of course, He remained the holy and spotless Lamb of God, in and of Himself) and as our sin bearer, He was punished in our place.
As the angel declared to Joseph in Matthew 1:21, "you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins."
"He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree" (1 Pet. 2:24).
Isa 53:5, 6 says, "But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him."
But that is far from all that took place. There was a double imputation. Not only were our sins imputed to Christ and He bore their punishment for us, but positively, the righteousness of Christ was imputed to us. The punishment due to us came upon Him, and the pleasure of God due to Jesus' obedience to every jot and tittle of the law came upon us. That is because the righteousness of Jesus Christ is one that has fulfilled the entire law of God.
The righteous demands of the law (the requirement of total obedience) was met by Christ alone who becomes the righteousness of the believer (1 Cor. 1:30). The work of Christ is perfect in every respect, and perfect in every aspect. The righteousness now enjoyed by the believer is an alien one (one that comes from outside of himself) for it is the righteousness of Christ Himself. It is a gift, not something earned (Rom. 5:17), and is the cause of our rejoicing in the direct presence of the Lord. As believers in Christ, we've been made righteous with a righteousness that has never known sin. Hallelujah!
On the cross, Jesus bore our punishment, as the Father's full wrath for our sin was meted out on Him. Christ was the substitute Lamb who took away our sins. Our sins were imputed to Him; yet, in exchange, the very righteousness of Christ is imputed or transferred to us who believe in Him. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, "He (God) made Him (Jesus) who knew no sin, to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him."
Charles Hodge commented on this verse: "There is probably no passage in the Scriptures in which the doctrine of justification is more concisely or clearly stated than [this]. Our sins were imputed to Christ, and His righteousness is imputed to us. He bore our sins; we are clothed in His righteousness... Christ bearing our sins did not make Him morally a sinner... nor does Christ's righteousness become subjectively ours, it is not the moral quality of our souls... Our sins were the judicial ground of the sufferings of Christ, so that they were a satisfaction of justice; and his righteousness is the judicial ground of our acceptance with God.... "our pardon is an act of justice" - an act based on Jesus having borne our sins (see 1 Pet. 2:24) and yet it "is not mere pardon, but justification alone" -- that is, our forevermore standing as righteous before God because we are clothed with Christ's perfection - "that gives us peace with God."
The Westminster Longer Catechism Question 70 asks, What is justification?
Answer: Justification is an act of God's free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.
WLC 71 How is justification an act of God's free grace?
Answer: Although Christ, by his obedience and death, did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God's justice in the behalf of them that are justified, yet in as much as God accepteth the satisfaction from a surety, which he might have demanded of them and did provide this surety, his own only Son, imputing his righteousness to them, and requiring nothing of them for their justification but faith, which also is his gift, their justification is to them of free grace.
An objection to all this has been raised by some, saying "we are not saved by believing in justification by faith alone, we are saved by believing in Jesus." I don't personally know of anyone who confuses justification by faith alone with Jesus. Of course! Justification by faith alone is not the same as the Savior. Absolutely! But that completely misses the point. What does sola fide tell us? It is not a construct that takes the place of Christ, but it does tell us about what kind of faith actually saves. A faith that is solely focused upon Christ (to the exclusion of the concept of self-righteousness and personal merit) is the faith of which sola fide speaks, in contrast to a faith that is wedded to works of righteousness.
This is Paul's point in Romans 4:4, 5: Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.
Dr James White makes the following comment in this regard, "The contrast is between working (with expectation of reward) and faith that does not expect or seek any reward at all, but instead casts itself upon another (the One who justifies) in recognition of that unworthiness (justifies the ungodly). This is the "faith" of "faith alone," and it also explains why it is the only faith that saves (hence the "alone" part of sola fide). So, the issue is simple: does a man or woman possess that kind of faith, or do they possess a faith that is corrupt, one that is associated with self-righteousness? Has their mouth been closed before a holy God (Romans 3:19) or are they still yapping about their goodness and how they are not as bad as someone else? That is the issue."
He goes on to say, "The "alone" element of sola fide speaks to the kind of faith that is focused solely upon Jesus Christ, for a faith that is diffused amongst various objects, seeking reward or solace in its various objects, is not the kind of faith created by the Spirit, and is not the kind of faith exercised by the new creation in Christ Jesus."
Some Quotes from Martin Luther:
"Justification by faith alone is the article of the standing or falling Church."
"This doctrine [justification by faith alone] is the head and the cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour. For no one who does not hold this article or, to use Paul's expression, this 'sound doctrine' (Titus 2:1) is able to teach aright in the church or successfully to resist any adversary . . . this is the heel of the Seed that opposes the old serpent and crushes its head. That is why Satan, in turn, cannot but persecute it."
"Whoever departs from the article of justification does not know God and is an idolater . . . For when this article has been taken away, nothing remains but error, hypocrisy, godlessness, and idolatry, although it may seem to be the height of truth, worship of God, holiness, etc. . . If the article of justification is lost, all Christian doctrine is lost at the same time."
"When the article of justification has fallen, everything has fallen. Therefore it is necessary constantly to inculcate and impress it, as Moses says of his Law (Deut. 6:7); for it cannot be inculcated and urged enough or too much. Indeed, even though we learn it well and hold to it, yet there is no one who apprehends it perfectly or believes it with a full affection and heart. So very trickish is our flesh, fighting as it does against the obedience of the spirit."
With Martin Luther we declare, "Justification by faith alone is the article of the standing or falling Church." It is vital to the eternal welfare of every soul as well as every so called Church. The doctrine of justification taught in the Reformed confessions is a faithful summary of the biblical teaching, is necessary for the faithful preaching of the Gospel, and is foundational to all Christian assurance and holy living.
Here then is part of the statement from Bethlehem Baptist Church on justification:
In a free act of grace, God justifies the ungodly by faith alone apart from works, pardoning their sins, and reckoning them as righteous and acceptable in His presence. Faith is the sole instrument by which we, as sinners, are united to Christ, whose perfect righteousness and satisfaction for sins is alone the ground of our acceptance with God. This acceptance happens fully and permanently at the first instant of justification. The righteousness by which we come into right standing with God is not anything worked in us by God, neither imparted to us at baptism nor over time, but rather is accomplished for us, outside ourselves, and is imputed to us.
We believe, nevertheless, that the faith, which alone receives the gift of justification, does not remain alone in the person so justified, but produces, by the Holy Spirit, the fruit of love and leads necessarily to sanctification. This necessary relationship between justifying faith and the fruit of good works gives rise to some Biblical expressions which seem to make works the ground of justification, but in fact simply express the crucial truth that faith that does not yield the fruit of good works is dead, being no true faith.
Justification and sanctification are both brought about by God through faith, but not in the same way. Justification is an act of God's imputing and reckoning; sanctification is an act of God's imparting and transforming. Thus the function of faith in regard to each is different. In regard to justification, faith is not the channel through which power or transformation flows to the soul of the believer, but rather faith is the occasion of God's forgiving, acquitting, and reckoning as righteous. But in regard to sanctification, faith is indeed the channel through which divine power and transformation flow to the soul; and the sanctifying work of God through faith does indeed touch the soul and change it into the likeness of Christ.
We believe that the reason justifying faith necessarily sanctifies is fourfold:
First, justifying faith is a persevering, that is, continuing kind of faith. Even though we are justified at the first instant of saving faith, yet this faith justifies only because it is the kind of faith that will surely persevere. The extension of this faith into the future is, as it were, contained in the first seed of faith, as the oak in the acorn. Thus the moral effects of persevering faith may be rightly described as the effects of justifying faith.
Second, we believe that justifying faith trusts in Christ not only for the gift of imputed righteousness and the forgiveness of sins, but also for the fulfillment of all His promises to us based on that reconciliation. Justifying faith magnifies the finished work of Christ's atonement, by resting securely in all the promises of God obtained and guaranteed by that all-sufficient work.
Third, we believe that justifying faith embraces Christ in all His roles: Creator, Sustainer, Savior, Teacher, Guide, Comforter, Helper, Friend, Advocate, Protector, and Lord. Justifying faith does not divide Christ, accepting part of Him and rejecting the rest. All of Chrsit is embraced by justifying faith, even before we are fully aware of, or fully understand, all that He will be for us. As more of Christ is truly revealed to us in His Word, genuine faith recognizes Christ and embraces Him more fully.
Fouth, we believe that this embracing of all of Christ is not mere intellectual assent, or a mere decision of the will, but is also heartfelt, Spirit-given (yet imperfect) satisfaction in all that God is for us in Jesus. Therefore, the change of mind and heart that turns from the moral ugliness and danger of sin, and is sometimes called "repentance," is included in the very nature of saving faith.
We believe that this persevering, future-oriented, Christ-embracing, heart-satisfying faith is life-transforming, and therefore renders intelligible the teaching of Scripture that final salvation in the age to come depends on the transformation of life, and yet does not contradict justification by faith alone. The faith which alone justifies, cannot remain alone, but works through love.
We believe that this simple, powerful reality of justifying faith is God's gift, given unconditionally in accord with God's electing love, so that no one can boast in himself, but only give all glory to God for every part of salvation. The Holy Spirit is the decisive agent in this life-transformation, but that He is supplied to us and works holiness in us through our daily faith in the Son of God whose trustworthiness He loves to glorify.
We believe that the sanctification, which comes by the Spirit through faith, is imperfect and incomplete in this life. Although slavery to sin is broken, and sinful desires are progressively weakened by the power of a superior satisfaction in the glory of Christ, yet there remain remnants of corruption in every heart that give rise to irreconcilable war, and call for vigilance in the lifelong fight of faith.
We believe that all who are justified will win this fight - they will persevere in faith and never surrender to the enemy of their souls. This perseverance is the promise of the New Covenant, obtained by the blood of Christ, and worked in us by God Himself, yet not so as to diminish, but only to empower and encourage our vigilance; so that we may say in the end, I have fought the good fight, but it was not I, but the grace of God which was with me.
I would encourage you to read and meditate on the entire section on justification from the statement of faith from Bethlehem Baptist Church, available here, starting at page 28, which also provides the scriptural references.
Recommended Books for further reading:
The God who Justifies by Dr. James White