The Bible’s teaching on justification is the very core of the gospel message because it
answers the all-important question of how a sinner can become right with God.
What is justification? Though the meaning of the word ‘justification’ may not be very
familiar because we do not often use it in everyday speech, the concept is quite simple
to understand. Justification is a legal term. It is the sentence pronounced by the judge
in favour of the accused. To justify means to declare righteous, to pronounce not
guilty. The justified person is freed from all punishment of the law. The opposite of
justification, as one may suppose, is condemnation: the sentence meted against
the accused when the judge declares him to be guilty, a law-breaker, and deserving
punishment. The judge’s role, then, is to condemn the unrighteous and to justify the
righteous (Deut 25:1; Prov 17:15).
God would have justified us if we had been righteous. In that case we would not have
needed a Saviour because Christ did not come to call the righteous, but sinners. In
reality we have all sinned, having broken the law of God. We are born sinners and
throughout our lives we continued to pile up guilt upon guilt. ‘Now we know that
whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may
be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God’ (Rom 3:19). God’s
just sentence is our condemnation because we are all guilty; we are all worthy of the
punishment of hell.
Since the Lord abhors him ‘who justifies the wicked’ how then can we ever escape
divine judgment? It is precisely here that the gospel of God’s grace shines forth in all
its splendour: God has revealed a way – the only way – whereby he himself may still
be just and at the same time justify the wicked!
There are two aspects to justification: negatively, God cancels out the sin record of
the believer. ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are
covered; blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin.’ God does not
impute sin, that is, he does not count the believer’s sins against him any longer.
Positively, ‘God imputes righteousness apart from works’ (Romans 4:6-8). In other
words, God counts and considers the believer as righteous! God imputes, or credits,
righteousness to his account.
At this point we must ask two important questions: (1) How is the blessing of
justification received? (2) How can God justify a sinner without violating his own
justice and holiness?
How is a sinner justified? A person is justified by faith, by trusting in the Lord Jesus
Christ. Faith is the hand that receives God’s gift of righteousness.
God does not justify the believer because of any personal righteousness that he has
attained by obedience to God’s law. Scripture speaks unequivocally: ‘Therefore we
conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law’ (Rom 3:28).
‘Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus
Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in
Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be
justified’ (Gal 2:16). ‘But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is
evident, for ‘the just shall live by faith’’ (Gal 3:11).
Man is justified by faith alone, that is, without any merit accruing from what he does
during his lifetime. This does not imply that faith is alone or barren in the justified
person. A true and living faith is always shown by the good works it produces, but
the Christian does not perform good works in order to be justified before God, neither
is he justified on account of his good deeds.
‘But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his
faith is accounted for righteousness’ (Rom 4:5). God justifies the ungodly! He does
not say, ‘God justifies the righteous.’ That would have been perfectly understandable
and just - and it would have spelled despair to all of us sinners. He does not even say,
‘God justifies the ungodly when he converts and starts doing good works.’ Paul
insists that it is him ‘who does not work’ but ‘believes’ that God accounts as righteous.
God justifies the ungodly by faith alone.
We now come to the second question. How can God justify a sinner without violating
his own justice and holiness? How is it possible for God, who is holy and just, not to
reckon sin? Can God be lax about it, or simply ignore it? How can he ‘credit
righteousness’ to the believer if the believer does not work to gain it? What
righteousness is this on account of which God accepts sinners? In a word, the answer
The Bible explains how those who believe in Jesus are ‘justified freely by His grace
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by
His blood, through faith … to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that
He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Rom 3:24-26).
God can be gracious towards sinners because of ‘the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’.
Jesus bought our freedom by shedding his blood on the cross. In Christ ‘we have
redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins’ (Eph 1:7). We were indebted to
God’s justice; Jesus paid our debt in full. Our debt was cancelled.
God presented Jesus as a propitiation. The word ‘propitiation’ means to placate, to
pacify, and to appease. God is offended and angered by sin. ‘The wrath of God is
revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men’ (Rom 1:18).
Jesus turned aside God's wrath against us who believe because he shed his blood on
the cross as a sacrifice for sin. God is appeased because Christ fulfilled the demands
of the Law.
Moreover, in justification God does not only take away our sin and guilt; he also credits
righteousness to our account. We are not only declared ‘not guilty’ – we are also
declared ‘righteous’! Not guilty because our sins were taken away by Christ; righteous
because we are clothed in Jesus’ righteousness. ‘Therefore, as through one man’s
offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one
Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For
as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s
obedience many will be made righteous’ (Rom 5:17, 19). Adam’s sin brought down the
human race with him to condemnation; Jesus’ perfect obedience to the Father merited
righteousness and life for all who believe in him.
In brief, God ‘made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the
righteousness of God in Him’ (2 Cor 5:21). Christ, the Lamb without spot or blemish,
was made ‘sin for us’ – and suffered and died to satisfy divine justice. Furthermore,
we have been made righteous ‘in him’. Believers are hid in Christ; when God looks at
us, he sees us perfectly righteous – indeed, as righteous as his beloved Son himself.
So, God is ‘just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Rom 3:26). God
graciously declares believers righteous, and in so doing he remains perfectly just -- all
because of Jesus’ obedience and sacrifice on the cross. Grace and justice are gloriously
displayed at the cross of Calvary.
Why is it that the merits of Christ for our justification are applied to us by faith alone?
Why doesn’t God allow us to contribute our merits too?
The Bible answers: ‘Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace’
(Rom 4:16). God wants to exhibit the beauty of his grace – his unmerited favour, his
goodness and kindness towards undeserving sinners. ‘Now to him who works, the
wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but
believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness’
(Rom 4:4, 5).
A worker deserves his salary because he has earned it by his labour, but a servant who
hates his master and steals his property doesn’t deserve anything but chastisement.
What if, instead of punishment, his master forgives him and enriches him with goods?
That is grace! And that is exactly what God does to sinners who believe in His Son.
Justification is not the wage, or payment, for our works. It was earned for us by an
infinite price – the blood of the Son of God (Rom 5:9). God justifies us freely because
the price was paid by his own Son! It is God’s gift to unworthy sinners. God justifies
‘freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 3:24). Freely!
Without any payment! Without human merit! Whoever attempts to be reconciled to God
by doing good works thereby denies and refuses grace (see Rom 11:6; Gal 5:4).
This evangelical truth of justification is vital for the Christian church. If we are in error
here, we lose the true and only gospel of God. With all our heart, we must embrace,
uphold and defend the scriptural gospel of justification by faith alone, in Christ alone,
and by the pure grace of God alone.