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
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
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
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
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 is Jesus!
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
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
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
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.