All believers are justified, and most know it, but when it comes to explaining what it is, there are many differences. For many it is no more than forgiveness, for others it is a ‘Wiping the slate clean’ and some explain it as ‘Just–as–if–I had never sinned’. Then, as is usual when it comes to anything of a doctrinal flavour, there is the ‘Does it really matter?’ brigade. Such are not concerned as to what justification is––so long as they are justified! Well, which of those categories fits you? None I hope––but if you come within the scope of the indifferent group let me ask you to consider the following
The Christian has many spiritual blessings, for God has “blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ” (Eph. 1: 3). Every one of those blessings meant that God had “not spared his own Son” (Rom. 8: 32). Now each of our spiritual blessings are different. In a treasury of jewels, all are precious but the diamond is not the same as the sapphire and the fiery red of the ruby is distinct from the glorious green of the emerald. Thus it is with our blessings: Reconciliation is distinct from redemption; the forgiveness of our sins is not the same as salvation. So what would you think of a jeweller who possessed a treasury of precious stones but could not tell the difference between a diamond and a ruby, let alone distinguish between a chrysolite and a topaz? How sad then, and what an affront to God when Christians cannot give some account of what they have got and have no interest in doing so! Peter tells us to “[be] always prepared to [give] an answer [to] every one that asks you to give an account of the hope that [is] in you” (1 Pet. 3: 15).
So our subject is justification. We will begin with
I read “Therefore having been justified on the principle of faith, we have peace towards God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5: 1). Thus the result of justification is peace with God. It is not “having been forgiven” or “having been redeemed” or anything else, but “having been justified … we have peace towards God” (my emphasis). Whatever its meaning, the foundation for peace with God is justification and nothing else.
Now Rom. 5: 1 begins with the word “Therefore”. Hence the apostle has reached a point in his treatise where he draws a conclusion, and the result of that conclusion is that justification is the divine basis for peace. If you read the previous chapter which forms the argument for Paul’s conclusion, you will find that while the word justification occurs once, righteousness occurs eight times. This gives us a clue as to the meaning of justification: It is simply the declaration of righteousness. We will enlarge on this definition in detail in a moment. Now the thought of justification (and thus righteousness) as the ground of peace is nothing new and was prophesied in the OT: “And the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance for ever” (Is. 32: 17). Again, in the NT we have “But [the] fruit of righteousness in peace is sown for them that make peace” (James 3: 18). The divine order is righteousness, then peace: “for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in [the] Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14: 17. See also Ps. 72: 3; 85: 10; Is. 9: 7; 48: 18; 60: 17; 62: 1; Heb. 7: 2.) Hence nothing but the realisation in the soul of the truth of justification––that I have been declared righteous––will bring undisturbed peace with God. It is only as justified by faith that we have peace with God. This brings us now to
In English the words justification and righteousness look quite different, but in Greek the similarity is obvious. The word for justify is dikaiow and the words for righteousness are dikaiwma and dikaiosunh. Furthermore, one word for justification is dikaiwma which is also one of the words for righteousness.
Now some people say that justification just means to clear a person of all charge against him. Clearly, this is the sense of Acts 13: 39 “and from all things from which ye could not be justified in the law of Moses, in him every one that believes is justified”––but that is rather a consequence of the meaning than the meaning itself. Justification means to declare a person righteous. The fact that a man may be cleared of all charge against him does not make that man righteous, but if he is declared righteous then it follows that no charge can be levelled against him.
Knowing its meaning, we can thus see that there is a great difference between forgiveness and justification, just as there is between a sapphire and a diamond. Forgiveness is entirely negative; justification has both negative and positive sides to it. Forgiveness is the act of a person wronged passing over faults against himself, an act of kindness so that relationships between the two may proceed as before. Justification, while it does not hold the offender chargeable with guilt, embraces more, namely the declaration of the offender as righteous. You could not change the “justified” for “forgiven” in “For he that has died is justified from sin” (Rom. 6: 7). The sense there is clearly that a dead man cannot be charged with sin.
Another erroneous idea is that justification means ‘Just–as–if–I had never sinned’. Only two men were ever in the state of never having sinned: Adam and Christ. In that state the former was innocent; the latter was righteous. Adam left his innocent state quickly through sin; Christ was ever righteous. Even if I could be returned to the position of never having sinned, I would still be a sinner and not righteous. The fact that I sin does not make me a sinner (as many people think) but rather I sin because I am a sinner: “For as indeed by the disobedience of the one man the many have been constituted sinners” (Rom. 5: 19. Again, David’s testimony is “Behold, in iniquity was I brought forth, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51: 5). Thus justification cannot mean ‘Just–as–if–I had never sinned’. It means to declare a person righteous and, as a result, to clear him from every charge.
Returning now to the Greek verb to justify (dikaiow). This word not only means to set forth as righteous, but to do so by a judicial act. This brings us to the point in our consideration of justification where we must look at
If you turn to Rom. 5: 12–21 you will find that the apostle, along with the words justification and righteousness, uses other words for comparison and contrast in his argument, such as offence, judgment, and condemnation. Later on we read “Who shall bring an accusation against God’s elect? [It is] God who justifies: who is he that condemns?” (Rom. 8: 33, 34––my emphasis). Along with the meaning of justification already given, the use of these words clearly puts justification in a legal or judicial setting. The arena of justification is the courts of divine justice. Indeed, the whole of the doctrinal part of Romans is argued against a legal and judicial background. Justification comes as a result of a legal judgment. This is important and makes it unique among our blessings––for forgiveness, redemption, sanctification, and so on, do not have this background. Justification involves a judicial clearance from all charge against me. Indeed, since it is a judicial term, there is no such thing as justification without judgment. Forgiveness refers to kindness; justification to judgment. The result of forgiveness is love on the part of the one forgiven: “which of them therefore will love him most? And Simon answering said, I suppose he to whom he forgave the most.” (Luke 7: 42, 43). The result of justification is boldness: “that we may have boldness in the day of judgment, that even as he is, we also are in this world” (1 John 4: 17). Our position in this world is Christ’s position in heaven. He is not there as forgiven––for He had nothing to be forgiven. He is there in righteousness (see John 16: 10) having been justified––for He “has been justified in [the] Spirit … has been received up in glory” (1 Tim. 3: 16). To argue that justification means no more than ‘wiping the slate clean’, while taking account of the negative side of the truth, is to neglect the positive side entirely. Yes, I am cleared of all that was against me, but justification does not stop there. I am also declared righteous. That is its positive side.
So who is it that makes this declaration of righteousness in regard to the believer? Who is the supreme authority in the divine court of justice? The question is of major importance, for the value of a judicial declaration is determined by the one who makes it. This now brings me in my examination of justification to consider
On this there can be no doubt: “[It is] God who justifies” (Rom. 8: 33). It is not Christ, nor the Holy Spirit, but God. Again, it is not God as Father––it is God as God who justifies. The Christian has a blessed relationship with God as Father, but an unconverted man has no relationship with Him, or Christ as Lord, or the Holy Spirit. However, all men stand in relation to God as God as responsible to Him. When the world is judged, God’s appointed Man, the Lord Jesus Christ, will preside as Judge (see Acts 17: 31), but in regard to the believer’s justification, God Himself, as God––the supreme Authority in the universe––makes that declaration. In Acts 19: 38, the town clerk at Ephesus declared “If therefore Demetrius and the artisans who [are] with him have a matter against any one, the courts are being held, and there are proconsuls: let them accuse one another”. Such were the courts of man. With regard to the supreme court however, Paul can ask with utter disdain: “Who shall bring an accusation against God’s elect?” and then gives his reply “[It is] God who justifies: who is he that condemns?” (Rom. 8: 33, 34). It is God Himself, as God, who declares the believer justified. With this absolute assurance, you can now see why justification by God Himself is the only basis for peace with God. We must now deal with another aspect of justification, namely
This can be set out by quoting two Scriptures from Romans: “so that he should be just, and justify him that is of [the] faith of Jesus” (Rom. 3: 26) and “him who justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4: 5). The first demand is that God “be just”, that is right, and not just right, but seen to be so. Yet those whom he justifies are “the ungodly”––that is they are unlike God. God is righteous; they are not. So how can God be righteous in declaring those who are unrighteous, as righteous? That is the enigma of justification. The answer to the enigma lies in
The solution to the enigma is the answer to Job’s question “how can man be just with God?” (Job 9: 1). While this question appears in the OT it is only in the NT that we have its complete answer. Now just as every coin has two sides, so the implementation of justification is two sided: There is God’s side and there is my side. On God’s side I have been “justified by his grace” (Tit. 3: 7), indeed “justified freely by his grace through the redemption which [is] in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3: 24). God has acted in grace, requiring nothing and expecting nothing in the way of works from man. The great expression of divine grace is in the One who was “delivered for our offences and has been raised for our justification” (Rom. 4: 25). He was the One who “has once suffered for sins, [the] just for [the] unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3: 18). Thus I am “justified in [the power of] his blood” (Rom. 5: 9). His sacrificial death in which He took my place (“[the] just for [the] unjust”) and “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2: 24) when “Him who knew not sin he has made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5: 21) has cleared me of every charge that could be levelled against me. That is the negative side of the matter as expressed in “delivered for our offences”. Yet the apostle does not stop there, but goes on to speak of the positive side in that Christ “has been raised for our justification” (Rom. 4: 25). God thus not only clears me of every charge, but declares me positively righteous. Not only God’s glory (see Rom. 6: 4) but my justification required Christ’s resurrection. As raised by God Christ is clear of death, and as identified with Him I am consequently clear of every charge that could ever be brought against me. God has declared me righteous so that I am “justified in Christ” (Gal. 2: 17) and instead of the condemnation of death I have the “justification of life” (Rom. 5: 18).
What of the other side of the coin––my side of justification? Justification with God is by faith. Again and again we read that we are “justified by faith” (Rom. 3: 28; 5: 1; see also Gal. 3: 8, 24 etc.). I accept what God says about Christ’s death. Righteousness before God is reckoned on that ground alone. Abraham “considered not” and “hesitated not” but “was fully persuaded … wherefore also it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4: 19–22). Then the Apostle continues “Now it was not written on his account alone that it was reckoned to him, but on ours also, to whom, believing on him who has raised from among [the] dead Jesus our Lord … it will be reckoned” (Rom. 4: 23–25). We now arrive at the point in our consideration of justification at
“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4: 3). Abraham is “[the] father of all them that believe … that righteousness might be reckoned to them also” (Rom. 4: 11). How is righteousness reckoned? It is not that a man who is already truly righteous is reckoned to be so, for then there would be no point in righteousness being reckoned at all! Nor is it the transfer of a quantity of righteousness from God or Christ as some think, like the transfer of funds from one bank account to another. In that case, what would be credit to the one, would clearly be debit to the other. There is not the slightest thought in Scripture of a quantity of righteousness outside of myself being reckoned to me, or of inward righteousness from God or Christ being conferred upon me. Justification does not mean that because of a divine work within us, we who were previously unrighteous have become righteous. No, Righteousness reckoned is simply holding a person right, who is not so either in nature or in practice. Righteousness reckoned supposes that one is destitute of it, or else why reckon it?
What then does this word reckoned mean? It means that we who were viewed by God previously as unrighteous (because we were so practically) are now viewed by Him as righteous (even though practically we are still the same). Now Paul uses this word reckoned earlier on in this epistle and if we turn to that occasion, we will be in no doubt as to its correct meaning. In Rom. 2: 26 we read “If therefore the uncircumcision keep the requirements of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be reckoned for circumcision”? Reading the whole passage the sense is crystal clear: The Jew was circumcised; the Gentile was not. Yet if the Gentile were to keep the law, even though he was not circumcised, and even though he were never to be circumcised, nonetheless he would still be reckoned as circumcised. That is, an uncircumcised man would be treated, viewed, considered, as if he were circumcised (even though he was not). The word reckoned means exactly the same in regard to righteousness. God views us, considers us, treats us as righteous––even though we are not. Hence, as we read later “For as indeed by the disobedience of the one man the many have been constituted sinners, so also by the obedience of the one the many will be constituted righteous” (Rom. 5: 19). Reckoning is simply how God views us: He constitutes us righteous. That now brings me in regard to justification to
Paul says “that a man is not justified on the principle of works of law” (Gal. 2: 16) but James says “that a man is justified on the principle of works, and not on the principle of faith only” (James 2: 24). These apparently contradictory statements have been a puzzle to Christians for centuries.
Now in the interpretation of the Word of God there are two maxims: One, that we read a particular statement in context, and two, that we read the statement accurately. The latter point is often clarified by noting what a statement does not say. Let us take the second maxim first. James says that both faith and works are needed for justification; Paul says faith alone––or does he? Nowhere does Paul say that faith alone is necessary for justification. Furthermore, though James says that a man is justified on the principle of works, he never says that a man is justified on the principle of works of law. The addition of these two words of law make all the difference between the character of the works that Paul rejects for justification and the character of the works that James demands for justification. Now in the NT when there is a definite article before the word law, it means the law that Israel accepted at Sinai. When the article is absent, it makes the word law merely characteristic (compare the two cases in Rom. 7: 22, 23 for example). Thus the phrase “works of law” are works characterised by legality. In English, we would say ‘legal works’. The whole of Paul’s argument in Romans (and Galatians) is that righteousness is not obtained on this principle of law––by having the law, or any other set of standards of law, before me so that my obedience to such is classed as righteousness before God. If that was the case, how could Paul speak of “being justified freely” (Rom. 3: 24––my emphasis)? Again, Paul says “for if righteousness [is] by law, then Christ has died for nothing” (Gal. 2: 21). Now James never speaks of works of law but just of works. Nor does he speak of works as a substitute for faith. He assumes faith and states that unless works accompany it then that faith is dead: “faith without works is dead” (James 2: 26). The works that James speaks of are as a result of faith––the outcome of a man being justified before God, not the means of that justification. The works that Paul refuses are works done to secure justification or righteousness. The works that James demands are those that flow from faith and hence righteousness. Thus James says in regard to Abraham’s offering up of Isaac: “Thou seest that faith wrought with his works, and that by works faith is perfected (teleioo––completed; James 2: 22).
Now to the second maxim––the context of a statement in God’s Word. Justification in Romans and Galatians is before God; in James it is before man. When Paul says “if Abraham has been justified on the principle of works, he has whereof to boast,” he adds “but not before God” (Rom. 4: 2; see also Rom. 4: 17). In Rom. 3: 20 when Paul says “Wherefore by works of law no flesh shall be justified before him; for by law [is] knowledge of sin” (my emphasis) it is before God. James begins his epistle by speaking of “the proving of your faith” (James 1: 3). The God who reads the hearts of men does not need proof to know of faith’s existence, but man does. Thus James speaks of justification, not before God, but before men: “I from my works will shew thee my faith” (James 2: 18––my emphasis). It is justification in the eyes of men, not before God. Works are not needed to show faith to God, they are to show faith to men. Now neither of the examples given by James would appeal to men as the natural path to righteousness. In the one case a man was willing to kill his own son and heir; in the other a woman was prepared to betray her own king and country (see James 2: 21, 25). These examples do, however, prove the reality of their faith.
This then is justification according to God. It is the foundation of my peace with God. It has been made possible by the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is God as the Supreme Judge that makes that declaration of righteousness. I have the blessing by faith proved to men by the works that follow. What a jewel indeed in the treasury of God’s blessings!
Justification's Threefold Cord
It is interesting to note that Paul speaks of justification with a triple connection. First of all in Rom. 5: 1 the Christian is said to be justified on the principle of faith. In fact there is no other principle on which we could be justified. We look out of ourselves to Christ, and rest only on Him “Who has been delivered for our offences and has been raised for our justification ... Therefore having been justified on the principle of faith, we have peace towards God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 4: 25–5: 1). It is of faith, not of works of law; these being two competing principles. Now if any works could justify a man, it would have to be the works of God’s law, for works of man’s device could have no value with God. However works of law would have been all well, if only man could do them. The truth is though, that man, being now a sinner, could not possibly face them, except in the blind and mad presumption of the flesh. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God,” (Rom. 3: 23), becomes the measure, now that Eden is lost by sin. All his works are necessarily spoiled by his fallen condition, even if he had not been, as he is, powerless through sin. Works of law therefore are totally useless, except to detect and bring to light the ruin of the sinner. If he is to be justified, it must be through another by grace; and therefore it can only be by faith, not by law–works. This the apostle asserts in Rom. 5: 1, 2 with its blessed results for our souls toward God, past, present, and future.
Now in verse 9 of the same chapter we are told that we are justified in virtue of His blood. Here the adequate power comes forward. Without the blood of Christ no sin could be purged really and for ever before God. No other blood would do, as 1 John 1: 7 declares. It is the blood of Jesus Christ which cleanses us from all sin. Hence if God justifies us, it is in virtue, or in the power, of Christ’s blood; and as being now justified in (or by) His blood, “we shall be saved by him from wrath”. Our sins were the great difficulty, but now they are gone, we are justified and we shall be saved. Such is the confident assurance to us of the apostle.
Lastly in Tit. 3: 7, we are directed to the spring from which justification flows. It flows from the grace of God, and not any merit in the objects of that grace. All glorying in flesh is thereby excluded for ever. We are justified by grace and not as a reward (our only just reward would in fact be damnation). Thus we read: “Therefore [it is] on the principle of faith, that [it might be] according to grace”, (Rom. 4: 16). The blessed result is that “having been justified by his grace, we should become heirs according to [the] hope of eternal life.” Such is the grace of God!
It is difficult to conceive anything more complete than these three statements of the same apostle. Long ago Job asked “How can man be just with God?”, (Job 9: 2). The apostle supplies the answer—by faith, by blood, and by grace. It is a threefold cord which cannot be broken for him who by grace trusts God and His Word.