By: A.G. Martin
Theology and Doctrine are looked at today as “irrelevant” or rather “unimportant” subjects to discuss. Reason being, is because people view these terms as “taking the focus off of the moving of the Holy Spirit” as I have been told personally in one way or another. These terms have become more associated with “legalism” and “head knowledge,” and less associated with who God is, and what God does. We do not hear much about justification being taught from the pulpit nowadays because it is a “theological” term. According to some, we should be focusing not on theology and doctrine, but on what God and His Spirit are doing now, in us and in our culture. On the surface, this appears to be a legitimate argument. What many fail to realize is that theology is the study of God. Not just for our intellect, but to instruct us in His ways, and teachings (doctrine). The object of theology is not the self, religion, morality, or culture, but God. Knowing this, when we look at Paul’s teaching in the book of Romans on the doctrine of Justification by Faith, we must remember that first and foremost, justification is about God. It is God who justifies the ungodly. Romans 4:5, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” God would be perfectly within His right to glorify Himself by displaying His justice, letting each and every one of us receive the judgement we deserve. However, in His grace and Mercy He gives to us faith that justifies us bringing every believer to right standing with Him. This way, God gets all the credit, and all the glory. Now that we know that justification is about God, how important is justification? Martin Luther said, “Articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae” meaning “The article upon which the Church stands or falls.”Likewise, John Calvin agreed with Luther that Justification by Faith is the hinge on which everything turns. Our being found justified before God is central to our salvation. If we are not justified before God and are found guilty of what we believe to be the smallest of sins, we deserve death (Romans 6:23). In spite of our deserving God’s wrath and judgement, Jesus was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification (Romans 4:25), and it is by faith alone that we are justified having peace with God through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1). Faith is the instrument by which we are declared justified and found righteous before God.
When looking at the definition of biblical terms, we tend to define them within the confines of the English language. For some reason we fall into the belief that God brought His word into existence through the leather-bound King James Version Scofield Reference Bible. We must always remember that the scriptures were not written in English. In this case we need to look at justification as defined by Paul in the book of Romans which was written in Greek. While it is helpful and valuable for us to look at how different scholars define justification, the bible itself defines the term. In order to get an accurate definition, it is important to distinguish the difference between “justification” and “righteousness.” Why do we need to define the difference? Dr. James White, a Greek scholar explains; looking at these terms in English we would say that righteousness is something that is done “in” us, and justification is done for us. Righteousness in this case is looked at as moral, upright, and sinless, while Justification is legal in its very character. In English we see these as two separate terms. However, in the Greek there are not two terms, but only one, or as Dr. White documents a, “family of terms.” Dikaios (the adjective), dikaiosune (the noun), and dikatoo (the verb). It is up to the translator to decide as to render dikaiosune as “righteousness” or as “justification” depending on the context. Justification is where God declares a sinner to be innocent of his or her sin. This is the work of God where the righteousness of Jesus is imputed to the transgressor, so that the sinner is declared by God to be righteous under the law.Charles Hodge, in his systematic theology asserts that justification is:
- An act, and not, as sanctification, a continued and progressive work.
- It is an act of grace to the sinner. In himself he deserves condemnation when God justifies him.
- As to the nature of the act, it is, in the first place, not an efficient act, or an act of power. It does not produce any subjective change in the person justified. It does not effect a change of character, making those good who were bad, those holy who were unholy. That is done in regeneration and sanctification. In the second place, it is not a mere executive act, as when a sovereign pardons a criminal, and thereby restores him to his civil rights, or to his former status in the commonwealth. In the third place, it is a forensic, or judicial act, the act of a judge, not of a sovereign. That is, in the case of the sinner, or, in foro Dei, it is an act of God not in his character of sovereign, but in his character of judge. It is a declarative act in which God pronounces the sinner just or righteous, that is, declares that the claims of justice, so far as he is concerned, are satisfied, so that he cannot be justly condemned, but is in justice entitled to the reward promised or due to perfect righteousness.
- The meritorious ground of justification is not faith; we are not justified on account of our faith, considered as a virtuous or holy act or state of mind. Nor are our works of any kind the ground of justification. Nothing done by us or wrought in us satisfies the demands of justice or can be the ground or reason of the declaration that justice and passive, i.e., including his perfect obedience to the law as a covenant, and his enduring the penalty of the law in our stead and on our behalf.
- The righteousness of Christ is in justification imputed to the believer. That is, is set to his account, so that he is entitled to plead it at the bar of God, as though it were personally and inherently his own.
- Faith is the condition of justification. That is, so far as adults are concerned, God does not impute the righteousness of Christ to the sinner, until and unless, he (through grace), receives and rests on Christ alone for his salvation.
While Hodge, White, Sproul, Piper, and a host of other admirable teachers would have agreeing definitions of Justification, N.T. Wright on the other hand attempts to redefine the term. Wright says, “Justification in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people.” Eschatologically speaking, because of justification, we have eternal life and will be able to live for eternity with God. Biblically speaking, “God’s justifying act does not make somebody a member of the covenant, but confirms the person’s already existing status within the covenant.” We are not justified to something such as a group, instead we are declared innocent of our sin.
I have often heard justification explained as “just-as-if-I-had-never-sinned.” While this is true, it does not take this term to its full extent. If we look at “justified” in the light of the New Testament, it reads, “just-as-if-I-had-always-obeyed.” God does not simply treat us as if we have never sinned against Him, but rather He treats us as if we had always obeyed Him. If God were to only cancel out our sin, it would not bring forth and give to us the presence of righteousness. Not only does God forgive us of our sins, He gives us a righteousness that is not our own so that we may have peace with Him. “A person is justified when he is judged by God as being free from guilt of sin and its deserved punishment, and as having that righteousness that entitles him to the reward of life.”
Faith is the means by which we obtain justification. It is the instrument, and not the basis. It is a gift from God, and He has granted it to us to believe (Philippians1:29). During the Reformation, the formulation of justification was expressed as, “per fidem propter Christum” (through faith on the basis of Christ). This way, faith is always looking outside of itself to the object of Christ. Important to note; saving faith looks to the object of Christ, and not to the works of the law. Romans 3:21-22a, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” v.28. Cross reference with Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. Not a result of works (law), so that no one may boast.” Paul gives a clear example of being justified by faith with Abraham in Romans 4 stating, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” v.2. It was Abraham’s faith in God that was credited to him as righteousness. Paul continues, asking, “How then was it [righteousness] counted to him; before or after he had been circumcised? Circumcision was to focus attention on Abraham’s offspring and the line through which blessing would come. Circumcision would be considered a “work.” Yet, we see that Abraham was justified, and declared righteous in the sight of God by his faith before God instituted the covenant of circumcision and His law. Paul explains, “to make him [Abraham] the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham has before he was circumcised” v.12. We see the emphasis placed on faith, and not on works of the law. Paul also in chapter four of the book of Romans looks to David in verse six, “Just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteous apart from works.” This view of the means contrasts to that of the Roman Catholic Church. In Roman Catholicism, you are justified through the sacraments beginning with baptism. It is however, possible for you to lose your justification, in which case you will have to do the sacraments all over again to re-obtain justification. This, making justification received by works and not of faith. This view is contrary to the teaching presented by Paul in chapter four. “The saving power of faith resides thus not in itself, but in the Almighty Saviour on whom it rests… It is not strictly speaking even faith in Christ that saves, but Christ that saves through faith.”
The basis, or grounds by which we are justified is Christ’s atoning work on the cross. 1 Peter 2:24 says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” This is the Gospel message, God’s redemption plan for saving sinful people. Justification by Faith alone is necessary and essential to the gospel and to salvation. Sin deserves judgement, but God promises us a savior (Isaiah 53). Christ, who was born without sin, also lived without sin. Being born perfectly righteous, He [Christ] also lived by the law of God and achieved perfect righteousness. This is something that we as fallen beings cannot do in and of ourselves. However, in order for us to stand before God perfectly righteous, somehow that which Christ has, needs to get to us. With Imputation comes Justification, which grants to us Propitiation, bringing us to Reconciliation. In denying ourselves, repenting of sin, and trusting in Christ; by His obedience in dying on the cross, His righteousness is imputed or attributed to us. Not only is Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, but our sin imputed to Christ. This is the “Great Exchange.” The imputed righteousness of Christ “is the basis, the cause, the source of all our own actual righteousness.” Christ’s righteousness is now what God sees when He looks at us. Jesus took on the full weight of God’s wrath for our sin, nailing it to the cross. This is Justification. With this imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, we are now viewed as righteous before God “just-as-if-we-had-always-obeyed.” This removes the wrath of God that was due us, bring us into harmonious relationship, and peace with the Father. In this we see the legal character of justification. Because we have sinned, we deserve judgement. Yet, another has come before the judge in our place and paid our fine. We are vindicated and the judge has passed a verdict and pronounced us “Not guilty.” Justification is not a process, but a declaration that happens in that moment.
In a sermon speaking on “Pardon and Justification,” Charles Spurgeon talks about the blessings of justification. One of these blessings is that it comes to us instantaneously. We can see this in Romans chapter four when Paul references Abraham. “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness” (v.3). Going back to Genesis 15:6 we see, “And he [Abraham] believed the Lord, and He [The Lord] counted it to him [Abraham] as righteousness.” Abraham believed, then the Lord counted it to him as righteousness. It was that instant. Augustus Hopkins Strong says, “But since justification is an instantaneous act of God, complete at the moment of the sinners first believing, it has no degrees.” Meaning weak faith justifies the same as strong faith. Continuing on, Strong says:
Justification is instantaneous, complete, and final: instantaneous, since otherwise there would be an interval during which the soul was neither approved nor condemned by God (Matt 6:24); complete, since the soul, united to Christ by faith, becomes partaker of his complete satisfaction to the demands of the law (Col 2:9-10); and final, since the union with Christ is indissoluble (John 10:28-29).
It is in the moment that God grants to us faith to believe that we become justified, and it takes no time to accomplish it. This work of God is instantaneous because it is not a process, but a declaration.
A believer’s justification results in the receiving of benefits. In studying Romans chapter five, we can get a look at what these benefits are. Starting in verse one, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The first benefit we notice is peace with God. The “peace with God” goes back to the propitiation of our sin, and the removal of God’s wrath. It is the ending of the hostile nature that existed between the former non-believers who were haters of God, and God’s wrath that rested upon them (Romans 1). Now, being justified by faith through the work of Jesus on the cross, there is peace between the believer, and God.
The next benefit we receive is a standing of grace with God. “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” v.2. This means that when God deals with us, He does so on the basis of grace, and not of works. Therefore, when we sin and repent of that sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us (1 John 1:9). Through justification we also “rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” This gives us an assurance that we may receive blessings of God.
In verses three through eight, we have the benefits of enduring suffering. James 1:2-3 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of carious kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” In Paul’s second letter to Timothy he wrote, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” (2 Timothy 3:12-13). Paul is telling the Romans that when they go through suffering, “rejoice.” Rejoice because they rejected the savior, and now His enemies are rejecting you. In a sermon Dr. John MacArthur said, “The more like Christ you are the more the world will treat you like they treated Christ. Maybe you do not get much persecution because there is not much similarity.” This suffering will produce endurance, we will want to keep going. The endurance will produce character, it will change the way we live our lives.
One of the greatest things about justification is that it is irreversible. When we are pronounced pardoned by God, it is by His mercy that we can never be unpardoned.Jesus said in John 6:39, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lost nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” Jesus will lose none that the Father has given Him. “He speaks a man into a justified condition, and he will never speak him out of it again; nor can that man be cast away.” Jonathan Edwards tells us:
The sinner, in his first justification, is forever justified and freed from all obligations to eternal punishment. Because justification is forever, it follows that future faith and repentance are contained within that justification. Repentance of those future sins, faith in the Redeemer, and continuance in one whose heart is repentant and faithful are now made sure by God’s promise.
What Edwards points out here is that justification is a onetime act. We do not have to keep being justified, we are justified. As followers of Christ we are continually being made holy. This process is known as sanctification. However, because we are not perfectly holy we continue to fall into sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 2:1). The repentance of any future sins we will commit, since we are not perfectly holy are still justified. This gives us great assurance that when Jesus saves His people, they are saved. God has given us faith to believe in Christ. In our faith we become Christ’s sheep given to Him by the Father, and no one can snatch us out of His hand (John 10:28). Glory to God for not only saving us, but justifying us so that we may forever have communion with Him.
 Michael Horton, The Christians Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On The Way (Grand Rapids, Zondervan 2011).p.96
 RC Sproul, Faith Alone (Grand Rapids, Baker Books 1999)
 RC Sproul, Saved From What? (Wheaton, Crossway 2010.)p.89
 Dr. James White, Justification by Faith: Kindle Edition (Southbridge: Crowne Publications INC., 1990) p.264
 Matt Slick, The Roman Catholic View on Justification. (https://carm.org/roman-catholic-view-justification)
 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology: Volume III (Peabody, Hendrickson Publishers Marketing LLC 5th printing 2011)p.117-118
 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) p. 119.
 Ben C. Blackwell, John K. Goodrich, Jason Maston, Reading Romans In Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism (Grand Rapids, Zondervan 2015)p.54
 Jonathan Edwards, Sinners In The Hands of An Angry God (Newberry, Bridge-Logos 2003) p.239
 Horton, p.583
 Benjamin B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Volume II The Biblical Doctrine of Faith (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House 2003) p.504
 Sproul, Faith Alone
 Martin Luther, Two Kinds of Righteousness: Luther’s Works, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971) 31:398.
 John Piper, Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came To Die, (Wheaton, Crossway 2006)p.38
 Ibid p.39
 Charles H/Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Sermon: Volume 4: (Peabody: Hendrickson Publisher’s Marketing, LLC 2013) p.63
 Augustus Hopkins Strong, Outlines of Systematic Theology: Designed for the use of Theological Students, (Philadelphia, Griffith and Rowland Press, 1908) p.228
 Spurgeon, p.63
 Spurgeon, p.63
 Ibid, p.64
 Edwards p.308