What is justification? Can God declare a guilty man not guilty?
Justification is the God’s declaration of his righteousness over us. Being justified means to be declared righteous, not guilty, and acceptable in God’s sight. We receive this marvelous gift by faith in Christ.
How does the Bible explain and support this basic truth that is necessary for salvation?
I.. What is the basis or foundation for justification?
A.. It is Christ’s righteousness.
In 1 Cor. 1:30, Paul teaches that Christ has become our justification. It is as if he stands in for us and puts his robe of righteousness on us. He is the source of justification.
B.. It is Christ’s perfect obedience.
Rom. 5:19 says that in Adam many (i.e. everyone) was made sinners, so by Christ’s obedience many (i.e. everyone) will be made righteous. Adam’s disobedience was transferred or passed on to everyone, by virtue of all of us sharing in his human nature. Christ’s obedience is transferred or passed on to everyone who receives it by faith, by virtue of Christ’s obedience.
2 Cor. 5:21 proclaims that God made Christ who knew no sin to be sin for us (the sin offering in Lev. 4:1-5:13), so we may become the righteousness of God. This is the great exchange. He takes our sin, and in exchange he gives us his righteousness.
Heb. 4:15-16 teaches that he did not sin, so this opens access to God’s throne of grace in confidence.
In 1 Pet. 2:22 Peter tells us that at Christ’s trial, he did not open his mouth to defend himself, but was like a sacrificial lamb.
C.. It is Christ’s death on the cross.
Rom. 3:24-25 are two of the greatest verses on this topic of justification, and perhaps the theologically richest in the whole Bible. We have been justified freely by his grace through Christ’s redemption because God presented him as an atonement through the shedding of his blood on the cross. All of this received by faith. Atonement means Christ’s sacrifices expiates (lifts or removes) guilt and satisfies God’s justice-wrath. He was punished in our place for our sins, to take away the penalty of our sins.
Rom. 5:9 clearly teaches that we have been justified by his sacrificial death, so we are saved from God’s justice-wrath. That means his blood covers us, invisibly to us, but visible to God. Christ is the fulfillment of all the animal sacrifices in the Old Covenant.
D.. It is Christ’s resurrection.
Rom. 4:25 is wonderful, for it says he was delivered over to death for our sins, but he was not left in the grave, but he was raised to life for our justification (God’s declaration of our righteousness). So once again we learn that he is our substitute who took the penalty of our sins.
II.. What is the manner of receiving justification?
A.. We cannot earn it by our obedience.
Rom. 3:28 teaches us that we receive justification by faith and not by law keeping. When Paul uses the word “faith,” he stands it in contrast to law keeping, even without saying it sometimes. It is implied. Here he states it.
Rom. 9:31-32 teaches that Paul’s fellow Jews pursued righteousness by law keeping, but they did not achieve it because they did not get it by exercising faith, but by works.
Gal. 2:16 is extremely clear: we are not justified (declared righteous) by works of the law, but by faith in Christ Jesus.
In Phil. 3:9, Paul prays that he would have righteousness that is not his own, by law keeping, but it comes by faith in Christ. This is called alien righteousness because it is a gift of God and not in us.
B.. We receive it as a gift of God’s grace.
Rom. 3:24, the atonement is to be received by grace, not by law keeping.
According to Rom. 4:16, Abraham was justified by faith in God and his promise to the patriarch (Gen. 15:6) before the law of Moses.
Rom. 5:15-17 says that many died by the trespass of one man (Adam), so God’s grace in an opposite way—from the grace of Jesus overflows to the many (i.e. everyone) who believes in him. The word “overflows” is important. A super-abundance of grace!
Gal. 2:21 teaches us that if righteousness could be obtained by law keeping, then Christ died in vain—uselessly. He had to shed his blood to die so that all the Old Covenant could be fulfilled and so that the remission (release from guilt and penalty of sins) and forgiveness of sins through his shed blood could be applied eternally.
C.. We receive it by repenting.
Luke 18:13-14 tells the quick parable of a self-righteous Pharisee who did not repent, while a socially despised tax collector repented with great sorrow. The tax collector went away justified, not the Pharisee.
God declares us righteous in Christ the moment we repent of our sins and have saving faith in Christ. On our repentance and saving faith, we are born again. Repentance and new birth are the work of grace and the Spirit. So God is not declaring the guilty not guilty without a basis, but he declares not guilty the repentant as they have saving faith in him when they are now in union with Christ. As for paying for the penalty of our sins done in our past life, Jesus paid for this just penalty on the cross. He died in our place, where we should have died for our own sins. He is our substitute.
D.. We receive it through faith.
In Acts 13:39, Paul is preaching in the synagogue at Antioch in the province of Pisidia, and gives an overview of Israel’s biblical history. Then he drives home the point that David is dead, so the biblical prophecies about him living and his body not suffering decay applies to his main descendant—Jesus. Everyone who believes in him is set free from every sin, which is justification that his Jewish audience was unable to receive under the law of Moses, by law keeping.
Rom. 3:22 says that righteousness apart from the law is given through faith in Jesus Christ.
Rom. 3:26-28 offers a profound biblical truth that when Christ offered himself as an atoning sacrifice, God could justify us sinners and still be just—Christ paid our penalty that God’s justice demanded of us.
Rom. 4:10-12, Abraham received justification (credited righteousness) by faith before circumcision, which was a sign of God’s covenant to him. And circumcision was a work, not an act of faith.
In Gal. 2:16, Paul’s logic is impeccable, if we accept the premise that faith in Christ justifies us, not law keeping.
Gal. 5:5 teaches that by faith we eagerly await the righteousness for which we hope. So in the future God’s righteousness, which is alien to us, will be worked out throughout all of our lives until it is complete. We are not only declared righteous, but we will one day be perfectly righteous.
Phil. 3:9: see the second point, above.
E.. Faith must be a saving, living faith.
Jas. 2:14-26 teaches us that faith without works is dead, and by faith alone no one is justified (v. 23). At first this appears to contradict Paul, but a closer look shows that James is talking about a barren faith, not a saving faith (v. 20). Barren faith is useless because even demons believe that God exists (v. 19). Then James says Abraham’s faith was completed by works, not initiated or enhanced or secured by it (v. 22). A living, saving faith will overflow with good works. He says that as the body separated from the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead (v. 26).
See my longer discussion Paul and James on Faith and Works, for more information.
III.. What are the results or benefits of justification?
A.. We become the children of God.
In Rom. 4:11-12 Paul asserts that Abraham is the father of all who believe before circumcision, so Gentiles are admitted into he family of God without the need to be circumcised.
Rom. 4:16-17 says that since Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness, so we too who believe in Christ become his offspring.
B.. We are redeemed.
Rom. 3:24 teaches us that we are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Jesus. His redemption opened the door to our justification, and now we have both.
C.. We receive forgiveness of sins.
For the context of Acts 13:38-39, see Question 2 and the fourth point. We are set free from every sin by believing in Christ Jesus.
D.. We receive eternal life.
Rom. 5:17-18 once again reiterates that condemnation by God’s justice-wrath comes by one man (Adam), so God’s abundant provision of grace comes by one righteous act of Jesus and resulted in justification and life. In this context, life in Christ is always eternal—it never ends.
Rom. 6:22 is a great verse. We have been set free from sins and have become slaves to God. The benefit is holiness, and the result is eternal life.
Rom. 8:10 says that our body is going towards death because of sin, so the Spirit gives life to our body because of righteousness—not our own righteousness but Christ. And this is eternal life in Christ.
Tit. 3:7 teaches us that after we have been declared righteous by his grace, we are heirs having the hope of eternal life. Here Paul says we have life, but we will experience it ultimately and fully in eternity for eternity.
E.. We are blessed by God.
Rom. 4:6-9 says that David is blessed because his sins were forgiven and never counted against him.
Gal. 3:9 says we are blessed with Abraham because he believed, and that’s how we were counted righteous, as he was, by faith (Gen. 15:6).
Gal. 3:14 teaches us that Christ redeemed us through his death, so the blessing of Abraham—righteousness by faith—might be extended to Gentiles. They too can be included in God’s family of faith, not law keeping.
F.. We are considered to have kept God’s law, but only in union with Christ.
Rom. 8:3-4 tells us that God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering (Lev. 4:1-5:13), so that means the righteous requirements of the law have been fulfilled in our union with Christ.
2 Cor. 5:21: See the first Question the second point. He became a sin offering, so now we do not have to be present ourselves as a sin offering at judgment. We would or could never measure up.
G.. We become free from the law.
In Gal. 5:1, yes, we are free from the law, but that means law keeping. But moral law was transferred to the New Covenant Scriptures (New Testament).
H.. We have peace with God.
Rom. 5:1 says that justification through faith brings us this peace through Jesus Christ. We have been reconciled to God. Peace goes in the opposite direction from hostility towards or alienation from God.
J.. He clothes us with the robe of righteousness.
In Zech. 3, Satan stands next to Joshua the high priest who is wearing filthy clothes. God orders an angel to take of the old robes and put on him the clean one. Now he is ready to serve God. Christ also clothes you with his robe of righteousness.
K.. We share in Christ’s sufferings.
Phil. 3:10 says that after we receive righteousness by faith, we can share in his sufferings. Paul was in prison in Rome, when he wrote that.
L.. We have union with Christ.
Gal. 2:15-17 says that “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no long I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.”
So this union with Christ means that God’s declared righteousness is not make-believe or a pretense. Since Christ lives in us, he declares us as we really are in our new life in him and our new, divine nature.
M.. We become free from condemnation.
Rom. 8:1 says there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Rom. 8:33-34 reassures us that no one can justly condemn us because it is God who justifies or declares us righteous.
N.. We go on to live a holy life.
Rom. 6:19 says that just because we have been declared righteous does not mean we can be slaves of unrighteousness, as we used to be. We have to become slaves of righteousness, leading to a holy life.
According to Rom. 6:22, as noted, above, we have been set free from sins and have become slaves to God. The benefit is holiness, and the result is eternal life.
Gal. 2:17-19 are interesting verses. When Jews are justified by faith in the Messiah (Christ), they might find themselves among sinful Gentiles. Therefore, God promotes sin, right? No! These verses explain why some theologians (in their New Perspective on Paul) believe that justification includes breaking down and eliminating the wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles and the markers that separated them, like circumcision. This is partly true, as long as this idea of breaking down the wall is placed in the aftermath of declared righteousness, and not part of justification as such.
N.. We will someday be glorified.
Rom. 8:10-11 says that the Spirit makes our bodies alive because of Christ’s righteousness. This vivification of our bodies is a great benefit—today—not someday. Of course, eventually our bodies wear out, so the Spirit does not make it live forever. Instead, we will receive a new body when we are raised from the dead, and all because of justification.
O.. We are saved from God’s justice-wrath-judgment.
Rom. 5:9: see the first Question, the third point. A much-neglected biblical truth is God’s justice-wrath-judgment. Wrath is methodically judicial, not an emotional outburst. It simply means that God has to evaluate us and pass sentence. Justification means that we will be declared “not guilty!” because Jesus will stand next to us and point to his robe of righteousness he had placed on us.
How does this post help me grow in Christ?
Your salvation works out like this:
1.. The gospel goes forth, and you hear it.
2.. The Spirit energizes it and at the same time produces faith in you—not intellectual assent (or agreement), but saving faith.
3.. You believe in Jesus Christ—fully placing your trust in him. Faith is a total reliance on God.
F-A-I-T-H = Forsaking All I Trust Him.
4.. He credits your faith with the gift of righteousness. This crediting is the same as declaring you righteous. It is a legal declaration before the heavenly tribunal. He places his robe of righteousness on you.
5.. You have union with Christ, so God’s declaration your righteousness is true because Christ in you is righteous and you have a new nature (Tit. 3:4-7; 1 Pet. 1:4).
6.. Christ in you is working on you to be more like him in his character (sanctification). Through his transforming power and life, you live a holy life, day by day, little by little. If you stumble and repent, he gladly forgives. Now pick yourself up and keep going in him.
7.. So to answer the question at the very beginning, as noted under II.C.,
As noted earlier, God declares us righteous in Christ the moment we repent of our sins and having saving faith in Christ. On our repentance and saving faith, we are born again. Repentance and new birth is the work of grace and the Spirit. So God is not declaring the guilty not guilty without a basis, but he declares not guilty the repentant as they have saving faith in him when they are now in union with Christ. As for paying for the penalty of our sins done in our past life, Jesus paid for this just penalty on the cross. He died in our place, where we should have died for our own sins. He is our substitute.
Now sanctification is the outworking of God’s declared righteousness over you.
As noted in the other posts, justification is different from sanctification in these ways:
|Legal standing||Internal condition|
|Once and for all time||Continuous throughout life|
|Entirely God’s work||We cooperate with God|
|Perfect in this life||Imperfect in this life|
|The same in all Christians||Greater in some than in others|
|Source: Grudem, p. 746|
The only slight disagreement is that God declares us holy only because he transfers us from darkness to light, from the profane to the sacred; we are consecrated to him, no longer to the world. But now we work it out. Justification and sanctification are linked, but distinct. As noted in the other posts in the Justification series, the order is really logical, not sequential in time, according to NT theology. That is, logically, legal declaration by God comes before we humans practice holiness and righteousness. Logically, we receive righteousness as a free gift before we can have it infused in us by the work of the Spirit. (If we believed that our holiness logically came before God’s gift of righteousness, Paul would say his theology was turned upside down and out of order.) Logically, your personal sanctification never launches God’s declaration of your right legal standing and your being born again (regeneration), or else Christianity would resemble other religions, particularly certain strands of Saul’s / Paul’s old Judaism. Just the opposite is the case. Your repentance (by grace) and your saving faith and your new birth (by the Spirit) and God’s declared righteousness–all of this at the same time–launches your sanctification process. But logically, declared righteousness (justification) is prior to the other works of the Spirit.
At that link, look for the NIV Study Bible.