Understanding the Gospel: Justification
Understanding the Gospel: Justification
"Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with
God through our Lord Jesus
Christ" (Romans 5:1). At the heart of the biblical gospel is the amazing
truth of justification. Without this truth there would be no gospel at
all. It is, in fact, very difficult to overestimate its importance
because it is an absolutely essential element of true Christianity (see Galatians
1:8; 5:4). The Protestant Reformation was mainly over the nature of
justification, and still today it is a dividing line between true and
false gospels. As Christians, a better and more complete understanding
of justification will help us to properly understand the gospel and our
relationship with God.
Justification may be defined as a legal act of God, at the instant we
believe in Christ, in which He 1) forgives our sins, 2) imputes to us the
righteousness of Christ (this means that He thinks of it as belonging to
us), and 3) declares us to be righteous in his sight, thereby 4)
delivering us from all condemnation.
The first aspect of justification is forgiveness of sins. This
means that God stops holding our sins against us and that they will never
again be grounds for condemnation. In order for God to remain just in
forgiving, however, He cannot just overlook our sin. He must judge it.
Therefore, this element of justification is only possible because of the
atoning death of Christ. On the cross, God punished Jesus for our sins
in our place. God is now able to forgive our sins without compromising
His justice because Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins: "...being
justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in
Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation [the
sacrifice for sins that took away God's wrath] in His blood through
faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness...so that He would be
just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Romans
3:23-26). Justification is therefore closely tied to the atonement of
Christ (His paying the penalty for our sins)--the atonement is not part
of our justification but it makes possible our justification.
If we are to be accepted by God, however, it is not enough just
to have our sins forgiven. This would only make us neutral in the sight
of God, whereas God requires that we actually have a positive
righteousness in order to be accepted by Him. This is where the second
aspect of justification comes in: God imputes to us the righteousness of
Christ. In this context, to have something imputed to you means being given credit
for something that you did not do. So having Christ's righteousness imputed
to you means that God gives you credit for the righteousness of
Christ--the perfect obedience that He accomplished in your place while He
was on earth. "For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned
through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and
of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One,
Christ" (Romans 5:17; see also Romans 4:6). Another way to define
imputed righteousness is
that God thinks of Christ's righteousness as belonging to you. God is
then able to declare us righteous (or, just) in His sight (the third
aspect justification) because He has given to us the perfect
righteousness of Christ.
If God did not impute the righteousness of Christ to us, He could
not declare us righteous. This is because we are sinners, and there is
nothing in us that makes us worthy of being declared righteous before
God. But God will not declare a person righteous unless there is some
righteousness to base this declaration upon. The perfect righteousness
of Christ solves this dilemma. God declares us righteous on the basis of
what Christ did in our place. As Paul says, Christ became for us
righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30; see also Isaiah 61:10; Jeremiah 23:6). Because
imputes to us Christ's righteousness (which He accomplished through His perfect
obedience to the Father in our place while He was on earth), He can
justly declare us righteous.
Imputed versus infused righteousness
The distinction between imputed righteousness and infused
righteousness serves to further clarify this point. Justification does
not mean that God infuses righteousness into our hearts and declares us
righteous on the basis of that. He does not transform us into righteous
creatures and on that basis declare us righteous. Instead, God imputes
to us someone else's righteousness--Christ's--and declares us righteous
on that basis. Thus, we are declared righteous before God on the
of who Christ is and what He did, not on the basis of anything inherently
good in us or anything that we have done. Justification involves a
change in our standing before God but not a change in our
Again, God does not declare us righteous on the basis of a change that He
brings about in us or on the basis of good deeds that we do for Him (i.e., infused
righteousness), but He declares us
righteous on the basis of what Christ did for us and we are given the
credit for (i.e., imputed righteousness).
This is how we can be both justified and sinners at the same
time--because justification does not involve anything that we inherently
are, but involves having credit for what Christ did. Paul makes this
clear: "But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who
justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness"
4:5). "...and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my
derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the
righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith" (Philippians
3:9). "...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" (Romans 3:23-24).
Clearly, the concept of imputation is central to justification.
It is the basis of both our forgiveness and our being declared just. God
is able to forgive us our sins because He imputed them to Christ on the
cross and then justly punished Him in our place. And He is able to
declare us righteous because He took Christ's righteousness and imputed
it to us. What a deal! Christ gets the blame (and thus the punishment)
for our unrighteousness and we get the credit (and thus salvation) for
His righteousness. Paul brings out both of these aspects in 2
Corinthians 5:21: "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf,
so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." This is a
truly wonderful and marvelous thing that should bring about great praise
to God from our hearts.
Deliverance from all condemnation
Finally, because justification involves forgiveness, being given
Christ's righteousness, and being declared righteous, we are thereby
delivered from all condemnation because there is no reason left for us to
be condemned. If we are justified, we will never be sent to hell:
"Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ
Jesus" (Romans 8:1). "Who will bring a charge against God's elect? God
is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns?" (Romans 8:33-34).
How justification relates to sanctification
I have tried to make it clear that justification does not have
anything at all to do with something that God does in us; it is
does about us. But do not take this to mean that a justified person
will not begin a changed life. Justification is always accompanied by
sanctification--the process by which God makes us holy in our character,
not just our standing before Him. But it must be kept clear that
justification and sanctification are not the same thing. They are simply
two different things that occur together. Further, whereas justification
occurs in an instant the moment one believes, sanctification is a
process that continues throughout life. God begins this process of
sanctification at conversion when we are justified, but it does not end
until we die.
John MacArthur makes this distinction between justification and
sanctification clear: "This is a crucial point on which Protestants have
historically been in full agreement: sinners are not justified because
of some good thing in them; God can declare them righteous because he
first imputes to them the perfect righteousness of Christ....Again, this
is owing to no good thing in us--not even God's sanctifying or
regenerating work in our hearts" (The Gospel According to Jesus, p.
Justification is by faith alone
Perhaps the central truth of justification that must be
understood is that it is by faith alone. We do not earn
and salvation by good works--God does not give it to us because we are
good enough. He gives it to us because we believe in Christ, period. It
is not faith plus works, but faith alone through which we are saved.
Many Scriptures make this clear: "By the works of the law no flesh will
be justified in His sight" (Romans 3:20). "...all have sinned and fall
short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift" (Romans
"For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the
Law" (Romans 3:28). "He saved us, not on the basis of deeds
have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy..." (Titus 3:5).
"But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies
ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness" (Romans 4:5). "But if it
is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no
longer grace" (Romans 11:6). "...nevertheless knowing that a man is not
justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus..."
Good works will always follow in the life of a justified person,
but they are the result of our salvation, not the cause of it. "For by
grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it
is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,
God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:8-10).
But how does justification by faith alone square with the words of James: "You
see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24)? Is
this in contradiction to the verses we saw above? No, it is not. As Dr. Wayne
Grudem has said, "Here we must realize that James is using the word justified in
a different sense from the way Paul uses it" (Wayne Grudem, Systematic
Theology, p. 731). Paul uses the word justify to mean "declare to be
righteous," but the word can also mean "to demonstrate to be righteous." For
example, the word is used this way in Luke 16:15. That James is using it this way
is supported by the fact that the instance that he uses to show that Abraham was
"justified by works" (2:21)--which is recorded in Genesis 22--came many years
after Genesis 15:6 where Abraham believed God and "[God] reckoned it to him as
righteousness." Further, James is concerned in this section with showing that
mere intellectual assent to the gospel is not true faith (2:18, 26). Grudem
summarizes: "James is saying here that `faith' that has no results or `works' is
not real faith at all; it is`dead' faith. He is not denying Paul's clear
teaching that justification (in the sense of a declaration of right legal
standing before God) is by faith alone apart from works of the law; he is simply
affirming a different truth, namely, that `justification' in the sense of an
outward showing that one is righteous only occurs as we see evidence in a
person's life. To paraphrase, James is saying that a person is `shown to be
righteous by his works, and not by his faith alone.' This is something with
which Paul also would certainly agree (2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 5:19-24)" (Grudem, pp.
Faith does not earn salvation
It should also be kept clear that faith is not regarded by
God as a good act that we do which He "rewards" by giving us
justification. God does not see an individual believe and say, "Now that
he has believed, I will repay His good choice by justifying him."
Instead, faith is the means through which we are justified. Faith is
what connects us with the righteousness of Christ, not something that
earns us the righteousness of Christ. For example, let's say that a
friend works a whole summer so that He can give to me the money he
earns. He would have earned the credit in my place, just like Christ
earned righteousness to God, through His obedience, in my place. Once my
friend has all of the money that he earned, he then writes a check and
offers it to me. In order to receive the check, I reach out my hand and
grab it. Reaching out my hand was not something I did to earn the check,
but it was instead the means through which I received it. So it is with
justification. We do not earn it by our faith, but instead receive it
through our faith.
In closing, what are the applications of this doctrine? First,
if we believe in Christ we can be confident that we have peace with God
(Romans 5:1). Second, a proper understanding that we are justified by
faith alone through Christ alone is necessary to being a Christian
(Galatians 5:4). Third, it gives us deep comfort, security, and
confidence before God to know that even though I will never be perfect in
this life, I am nonetheless considered perfectly righteous in His sight.
This has huge ramifications for the way we relate to God. Fourth,
knowing this truth gives us a fuller--and more accurate--understanding of
our God and the gospel we preach, and keeps us from preaching a false
gospel. Fifth, true humility is only possible by recognizing that we
cannot earn salvation, but instead must admit our horribly sinful
condition and accept salvation as a gift (Romans 4:2; Ephesians 2:8, 9).
Sixth, knowing this truth gives us a greater delight in God and deeper
worship of Him, for it reveals to us more of His ways that we may know
Him more fully (Exodus 33:11). Finally, we need to know about
justification in order to fully appreciate our salvation.
1. In justification we are forgiven of our sins.
2. God is able to do this because He imputed them to Christ and punished
Him in our place.
3. In justification God imputes to us Christ's righteousness.
4. God then declares us righteous on the basis of Christ's imputed
righteousness, not on the basis of anything good in us.
5. Through this we have a right standing before God and are forever
delivered from all condemnation because the basis of our condemnation has
been entirely removed.
6. Justification is by faith alone, but this faith will always produce
obedience. It is not like this: faith + obedience = justification.
Instead, it is like this: faith = justification + obedience.
7. Faith does not earn justification, but is the means through which we
8. Knowing the doctrine of justification by faith alone has many
All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.
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