God Declares Mankind Not Guilty: Justification
Pedro was an active boy who gave his teacher much trouble in his school classroom. He scribbled on some of the clean pages of his workbook, making it difficult for her to correct his work. Then the time came for “Open House,” when the teacher displayed all of the students’ work for their parents to see. On the evening of “Open House,” Pedro went with his parents on a tour of the school. When they came to his classroom, he was almost afraid to go in. His parents went ahead, and he listened anxiously as the teacher talked to them. Finally, when he could stand it no longer, he went into the room and looked at the displays.
What a mess he had made of his workbook! He had horrible feelings of guilt and shame. But when he looked at his book, he found that it contained only good pages. All the messy ones had been removed. As his parents moved away, he asked the teacher, a godly Christian, what had happened. She answered, “Because I love you and want to help you, I cut the bad pages out. I want to think of you as if you had never made a mistake or done wrong.”
The boy was greatly moved by this teacher’s loving spirit. Her act of love completely changed his life. This story gives us a beautiful picture of God’s love in forgiving people and treating them as if they had never sinned. It is this aspect of salvation—justification—which we will study in this lesson.
- Nature and Meaning of Justification
- Source of Justification
- Experience of Justification
When you finish this lesson you should be able to:
- Explain how in justification the righteousness of God is maintained even as the sinner is declared not guilty.
- State the source of justification in both its positive and negative aspects.
- Defend this statement: People are justified by faith alone.
- Appreciate the grace of God that justifies the sinner and imputes the righteousness of Christ to him.
NATURE AND MEANING OF JUSTIFICATION
We continue our examination of the activity of God in salvation with the study of justification. This demonstration of the grace and mercy of God has to do with our standing before Him. In the chain of the salvation experience, regeneration and justification must be studied together. This is so because they take place at the same time. When God by His Spirit regenerates a person, He also justifies the person, declaring him or her righteous and free from the penalty for sin. Moreover, He treats the person as if he or she had never sinned. This is a superb picture of love and grace that should cause each of us to respond in loving devotion to God.
Objective 1. Select a statement that correctly describes the nature of justification.
Job’s question, “But how can a mortal be righteous before God?” (Job 9:2), and the Philippian jailer’s question, “Men, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30) raise one of life’s greatest questions: How can a person who is a sinner get right with God and be assured of His approval? We find the answer to this question in the New Testament, particularly in the Epistle to the Romans, which presents the plan of salvation in a very complete way. The theme of Romans is found in chapter 1, verses 16 and 17. It may be summed up as follows: The gospel is God’s power for people’s salvation because it explains how sinners can be changed in position and condition so that they will be right with God.
The Scriptures also teach that God’s righteousness does two things: it judges and it saves (1 John 1:9; Romans 3:24-26). His righteousness demands judgment for sin. And yet He provides a way for guilty sinners to be declared “Not guilty!” and no longer subject to judgment. This provision is made by the work of propitiation that we studied in Lesson 1.
These Scriptures in Romans and 1 John teach that God does not set aside His own moral standard of uprightness when He justifies people. His righteousness is maintained. For a long time it appeared that God was overlooking sin (Romans 3:25). But the work of Christ on Calvary showed that He was not overlooking sin. In patience He had simply withheld His righteous judgment, for He knew from eternity what His love had provided. Then, at the right time, Christ came to demonstrate that through the cross God’s righteousness is maintained even as the guilty sinner is declared “Not guilty!” For in Christ the repentant sinner receives the righteousness of Christ and because of this he or she is declared to be righteous (Romans 3:26).
Objective 2. Identify the meaning of justification in the experience of salvation.
The primary meaning of the word justification refers to a declaration of righteousness. It is an objective work that takes place outside of us. It does not deal with our spiritual state (whether it is one of maturity or immaturity); rather, it deals with our standing before God. Justification means, then, that because Christ is righteous, God declares us to be righteous when by faith we experience salvation through the atoning work of Christ on the cross. Because of Christ, we can stand before God as righteous.
In the Old Testament, when a person was justified it meant that person was “lined up” with God’s law. In the New Testament, however, the righteousness of Jesus Christ is credited to us.
Remember that because of sin humanity lost true relationship to God. And as a result, people suffered from guilt, condemnation, and separation (Genesis 3:1-24). Justification restores humanity to our true relationship to God. In Romans 8 we see what this restoration includes:
- It provides for the removal of guilt by crediting mankind with Christ’s righteousness: “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies!” (8: 33).
- It provides for the removal of condemnation because of the forgiveness of sins: “Who is he that condemns?” (8:34).
- It provides for the removal of separation: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (8:35).
We see, then, that in justification God’s attitude toward the sinner is reversed, because of the sinner’s relationship to Christ. But justification includes more than pardon for sins, removal of condemnation, and restoration to God: it also places guilty offenders in the position of righteous people! The following comparison illustrates this concept. A ruler pardons a certain criminal. He even restores the criminal’s rights as a citizen, rights that were lost in his conviction. However, he cannot return the criminal to his former position in society as one who has not broken the law. As a result, the criminal is a marked person. This person’s greatest need is to be restored to favor and fellowship with society as if he had never been convicted of a crime. For only in this way can he be accepted in his society.
By contrast, when God justifies a sinner, He blots out the sinner’s past with its sins and offenses. Moreover, He treats the person just as if he or she had never sinned, and, in addition, He declares the person righteous in His sight. We must notice, however, that justification is more than just a declaration; it is also a position that the justified person receives on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice. Christ’s righteousness is actually applied or credited to the redeemed person, and he is considered as righteous. What a glorious thought! Only in this way can a just God justify the ungodly. Since Christ has become righteousness for the sinner (1 Corinthians 1:30), he, the redeemed sinner, is placed in the position of a righteous person. And this has been made possible because Jesus took the offenses of the sinner upon Himself at Calvary, and these sins were transferred to Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). Someone has said, “Justification is first subtraction—the cancellation of sins; second, it is addition—the imputing of righteousness.”
Read Paul’s short letter to Philemon in the New Testament. As you read through this letter, see if you can locate an illustration of justification.
Did you notice that in verse 18 Paul says that if Onesimus owes Philemon anything, Philemon should charge it to Paul’s account. Onesimus would then be set free from any obligation to Philemon. Paul’s right and warm relationship with his friend Philemon would be credited to Onesimus.
Its Relation to the Law
Objective 3. Recognize differences in the purposes of justification and the Law.
Paul says that no one is put right in God’s sight (justified) by doing what the Law requires (Romans 3:20). This is no reflection on the Law, for it is holy, right, and good (Romans 7:12). It means that the Law was not given for the purpose of making people righteous, but to provide a standard of righteousness. God gave the Law to Moses so that the nation of Israel would have a clear understanding of right and wrong (Exodus 20). The Old Testament records the history of the Jewish nation and its repeated disobedience to the Law.
Let’s consider three reasons why the Law cannot justify a person. First, the Law cannot justify us because it has no power to change weak and sinful human nature. The Law can detect sin and diagnose our sinful condition, but it cannot provide a solution that will remove the cause of sin. The Law is like a ruler that will measure the length of some material, but will not increase its length: “Through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). Like a mirror, the Law can reveal our corruption and wickedness, but it cannot cleanse us from our uncleanness. We can look intently into a mirror all day, but no amount of looking will cleanse a dirty face. The Law shows us what God’s standard of righteousness is. It also shows us our inabilities and shortcomings and how we fail to line up with God’s law. But it cannot change us. Just as the priest and the Levite left to his fate the man attacked by robbers, the Law leaves us hopeless and helpless (Luke 10:30-37). It has no power to recover us from our awful fate. Only Christ, the Good Samaritan, can do this!
Second, the Law cannot justify because it cannot be changed. It measures out just punishment to the one who breaks the Law, but it knows no mercy. To be justified by the Law, a person would have to keep the Law without ever making a single mistake (Galatians 3:10; James 2:10). And our corrupt human nature cannot do such a thing.
Third, the Law cannot change the past or cleanse the inner corruption of Adam’s descendants. A person might suddenly decide to begin keeping the Law perfectly. His life from this point on might be acceptable to God, but the record of his past would not be. It is the whole life that must be straightened out before God. Only the blood of Jesus can wash away his sins of the past and create a new nature within him.
For these reasons, Paul says that the Law can never justify anyone (Galatians 2:21). It should be plain to us that the Law was not given to relieve sin but to reveal it.
The Law was thus necessary to provide a standard of righteousness. It was given to reveal people’s sin, their sinful nature, and their helplessness, so that they could be guided to grace. Although the Law cannot bring a person to salvation, it can bring him or her to the Savior: “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24).
The relationship between keeping the Law and justification may be compared to a trip in an airplane. An airplane is a means to an end. For instance, a businessman has no intention of making his home on the airplane; rather, his objective is to reach his destination. And when he reaches his destination, he leaves the airplane. The Law was given to take Israel to a specific destination, and that destination was belief and trust in God’s saving grace. But when the Redeemer came, the people of Israel were so spiritually blind that they acted like a person who refuses to get off the airplane when he reaches his destination. Many of the Jews refused to leave their seats on the old covenant “airplane” (the Law) in spite of the fact that the New Testament declares that “Christ is the end of the law” (Romans 10:4).
In Galatians 3:24,25 Paul explains the relationship between keeping the Law and justification. He illustrates the relationship by using the figure of a tutor who teaches, trains, and disciplines his pupil until that child reaches the legal age of inheriting. So the Law was the means God used to show His people their hopeless state, the standard of God’s righteousness, and their inability to fulfill the Law’s requirements. But now, since Calvary, God has revealed that people can be put right with Him by faith in Christ, for He has met the standard of righteousness. He has paid the penalty for sin and His righteousness has been credited to us. Christ has now fulfilled the Law and we are justified freely on the basis of His grace and righteousness (Romans 3:24).
Its Contrast With Regeneration
Objective 4. Contrast the characteristics of justification and regeneration.
You will notice that some characteristics of justification and regeneration take place in us. Others take place outside us. For example, justification takes place outside us before the throne of God, where He declares us righteous. Justification is God’s decision concerning our standing. It is that which Christ does for us. Justification changes our relationship to God.
As we noted earlier, justification and regeneration take place at the same time. They are simply different aspects of one work. However, regeneration is God’s work done within us. It deals with our state and the changing of our nature. Both regeneration and justification are instantaneous works.
SOURCE OF JUSTIFICATION
Objective 5. Choose statements that describe the biblical source of justification.
Deep within the human nature there is the idea that a person must do something to become worthy of salvation. In the early church some Jewish Christian teachers claimed that sinners were saved by faith plus the observance of the Law. And since that time this mistaken idea has grown in some areas of the Christian church. It has taken the form of self-punishment, the making of sacred pilgrimages, the performance of religious rites, and the payment of money to receive pardon for sins. In heathen religions, too, people seek to please their gods by the works of their hands. The reason they give for these efforts to become worthy is that “God is not gracious and people are not righteous; therefore, people must become righteous so that God will be gracious.”
Martin Luther was troubled with this mistaken idea; therefore, he tried by self-denial to work out his own salvation. His cry, Oh, Luther, when will you become pious enough so that you will find God gracious? represents the heart cry of millions. Then, at last, he found the truth that is the basis of the gospel. God is gracious and therefore He wills to make people righteous. Justification, therefore, does not come by the works of the Law or by any other human works: “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5).
Scriptures not only say that we are not justified by works but also they condemn the attempt to be justified in this way. This is the clear teaching of the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians.
Clearly Paul teaches against justification by works, but some will ask, “Doesn’t James teach that justification comes by works and not by faith alone?” To help resolve this question, read carefully James 2:18-26.
Notice that James does not condemn saving faith. It is an inactive and purely intellectual faith that he speaks against. James declares that inactive faith cannot justify; therefore, he insists on active faith—that is, a faith that issues forth in works. Paul insists that good works do not justify us (Titus 3:5). He asserts that it is saving faith, apart from works, which justifies (Romans 3:21,22). Someone has said, “We are not saved by faith and works; rather, we are saved by faith that works.”
Perhaps we can understand better the difference of approach between James and Paul if we consider what each one was contending with. Paul was clearly fighting against the notion that a person was justified by faith plus keeping the Law. James, on the other hand, was fighting against those who claimed that since believers are justified by grace alone, they are not obligated to keep requirements of the Law or to pay the penalties for breaking it. Those who held this view contended that the Christian is free from all moral law and can utterly disregard it, a view that encouraged loose morals and low living.
Thus, James and Paul do not contradict each other; rather, they are like two soldiers who are fighting back to back against an enemy who is attacking on two sides. Paul fights against those who depend on the Law for salvation, while James is fighting those who think salvation permits them to ignore the Law.
Paul commends the kind of faith that trusts God alone, while James condemns inactive faith that is merely intellectual assent. Paul rejects works without faith, while James commends actions that show that faith is real. The justification that Paul preaches refers to the beginning of the Christian life. James, on the other hand, speaks of justification as referring to that life of obedience and holiness that is the outward evidence that a person has been saved.
Scripture teaches clearly that the source of justification is the free grace of God. Scripture also teaches that the basis of our justification is the atoning work of Christ, for we “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). God’s grace and the cross of Christ are the source and basis for our justification.
The word freely in Romans 3:24 has the extended meaning of “without reason or cause.” This shows that the grace of God is given not as a result of anything we have done to deserve it, but as a gift, an undeserved favor that cannot be paid for or earned. Good works or commendable Christian services do not pay for God’s grace. They are, however practical and normal expressions of our devotion and love to God.
You should be aware of misunderstanding that exists concerning grace. Perhaps the following illustration will help you to understand more clearly the meaning of grace. A certain man and a judge were good friends. One day, the man was charged with a crime and was brought to trial in the court where his friend was the presiding judge. After hearing the evidence the judge sternly handed down the verdict: “Guilty as charged. The fine is $400.00.” The man was shaken because his friend had not bent the law in order to clear him of the charge and instead had given him a heavy penalty. However, as the judge walked out of the courtroom, he handed his own personal check to the clerk as full payment for the penalty. In order to keep the integrity of the law the judge pronounced the verdict. Yet, in mercy he provided a way for his friend’s penalty to be paid.
Grace does not mean that God is so loving that He overlooks sin and avoids righteous judgment. As the holy and just ruler of the universe, God cannot treat sin lightly. for this would detract from His holiness and justice. But God’s grace is revealed in the fact that He himself, through the atonement of Christ, paid the full penalty of sin; therefore, He can justly pardon the sinner. His pardon of sin rests upon strict justice: “He is faithful and just” (1 John 1:9). God’s grace is demonstrated in His provision of the atonement by which He justifies the ungodly but repentant and at the same time upholds His holy, unchangeable law.
EXPERIENCE OF JUSTIFICATION
Illustrations of Justification
Objective 6. Relate the two biblical illustrations of justification given by Paul in Romans 4.
In Romans 4 the apostle Paul discusses the experience of two men who are outstanding examples of justification. Read this chapter quickly and then notice especially verses 6-8.
David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him’ (Romans 4:6-8).
Notice that in this illustration we do not see faith without works, but rather faith apart from works. In this setting (vs. 1-9) works do not come first, but faith alone. “However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).
This kind of faith, however, has accompanying works as evidence of its vitality. Paul describes the root of justification, which is faith apart from works. And, as we have seen, James writes of the fruit of faith, which is good works. The fruit bears witness to the kind of root that produces it. In this analogy we must remember faith is the root that produces good works; good works, which are fruit, do not produce the root that is faith.
In this masterful treatment of justification, Paul uses Abraham as a second example to illustrate justification by faith apart from ritual. Paul points out that Abraham was justified by faith (Genesis 15:6) before he was circumcised (Genesis 17:10-14). In addition, he shows that Abraham was not justified by keeping the Law: “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith” (Romans 4:13).
From these illustrations we see what God’s pattern for justification is: we are to come as we are and receive what He offers.
Extent of Justification
Objective 7. Select a statement that correctly explains the extent of justification.
In Lesson 1 we evaluated the Scriptures that dealt with the extent of the atonement and concluded that it was unlimited. But when we speak of the extent of justification, we find that there is a difference. Justification is limited to those who receive Christ. Each person must appropriate the work of Christ (Revelation 3:20). We can, however, say that the provision of justification is unlimited, but the appropriation of it is limited to those who will take advantage of that provision.
A young man was convicted of a serious crime and condemned to die. His mother pleaded with the governor of the state to intervene and grant her son a pardon. After considering the case carefully, the governor responded by granting a pardon. The warden of the prison received the pardon and quickly went to the cellblock to inform the young man. However, the rebellious prisoner refused to see anyone, including the warden, even though the warden tried repeatedly. And so the young man was scheduled for execution. On the way to the death chamber he was informed that the warden had tried to see him to offer the governor’s pardon. Only then, when it was too late, did he realize the awfulness of his situation; he would die even though he might have been free had he accepted the pardon. So in justification all who will appropriate or accept the offer by believing in what Christ has done for them may be freely justified.
The Means of Justification
Objective 8. Explain the statement: Faith is the means of justification.
As we have seen, neither the Law nor good works justify a person; therefore, what people need is the righteousness of God. The righteousness of God is a gift that is freely offered (Romans 3:24). But this gift must be accepted. To the questions—How is the gift of righteousness accepted? and What is the means of justification?—we respond with a sound, biblical answer:
- “A man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Romans 3:28).
- “Righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22).
- ‘Therefore . . . we have been justified through faith” (Romans 5:1).
- “Noah . . . became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith” (Hebrews 11:7).
- “ . . . that I may gain Christ and be completely united with him . . . I now have . . . the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3:8,9, TEV).
Faith, then, is the hand that reaches out to take what God offers. It is not the basis for justification but it is the condition. Someone has noted that there is no more merit in this kind of faith than there is in a beggar who holds out a hand for a gift. Faith is never presented as the price of justification, but faith is the means of appropriating it.
Since the means of justification is faith, several errors may be cleared away. First, the pride of self-righteousness and self-effort is removed since fallen people are incapable of either goodness or justice. Titus 3:5 says, “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” Second, the fear that we are too weak and too sinful to see our salvation experience through to successful completion is also removed. Faith is both important and powerful for it unites a person to Christ. In union with Christ a person has the motive and the power to live a life of righteousness: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ” (Galatians 3:27). “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their sinful nature with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5: 24). Paul expresses his gratitude for the vitality of the faith of believers at Philippi: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
The Results of Justification
Objective 9. List the results of justification as revealed in Scripture.
The results of justification are many. One of the many results is that, with the problem of sin settled, a person enters the company of the blessed and partakes of immediate benefits: “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered” (Psalm 32:1). We shall see that there are many other wonderful benefits as well.
Salvation, God’s greatest gift, makes us new creatures in Christ. Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 that:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.