The doctrine of justification concerns God’s gracious judicial verdict in advance of the day of judgment, pronouncing guilty sinners, who turn in self-despairing trust to Jesus Christ, forgiven, acquitted of all charges and declared morally upright in God’s sight.
Before God’s law humans stand condemned and there is no way they can put themselves right with God. In the gospel God reveals his way of putting sinners right with himself. Jesus, the Son of God, became the sinner’s representative and substitute. As God’s obedient servant, he lived a righteous life and died the atoning death of the cross. Justification is one of the key components of God’s saving work. It concerns the “great exchange” where both the sins of his people were put to Christ’s account and he paid the price, and also the righteousness of Christ’s obedience to the Father in life and death was put to their account. It is by faith alone in Christ alone that sinners are justified. There is no substance to the many objections made to this doctrine but the benefits that result from this gospel truth are enormous and the implications significant.
The good news concerning God’s justification of sinners by faith in Christ alone without the addition of human deeds or the church’s administrations was the biblical truth rediscovered by Protestant Reformers and is one of the distinctive features of Evangelical Protestantism. It is a precious doctrine that is constantly attacked and misrepresented. Luther emphasised five solas (“alones”) that are particularly relevant to justification: it is by God’s grace alone, through our faith alone, in Christ alone, to God’s glory alone with Scripture alone being the ultimate authority for this truth.
God – the Absolute Standard
To appreciate justification, it is important to start with the one true and living God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This triune God is the ultimate moral standard. Even Pharaoh acknowledged that the Lord is righteous (Exod 9:27; see Psa 119:137). That absolute standard of what is right is expressed in the Mosaic law especially as it is summarised in the Ten Commandments and the law of love (Deut 5:6-22; 6:1-9; Matt 19:16-22; 22:36-40; Rom 7:12; 13:8-9). It is also witnessed most wonderfully in the character and life of Jesus the Messiah who was tempted in every way like us yet remained without sin (John 14:9; Heb 4:15).
Humans – Guilty, Condemned and Helpless
Human beings, created in God’s image and accountable to God, all fall far short of that ultimate standard of righteousness. God’s assessment of the human condition is beyond dispute: no one is good or righteous. Even people’s best efforts are viewed as filthy rags (Psa 53:1,3; Isa 64:6; Rom 3:9-23). God’s law condemns us and before the presence of Christ we can only acknowledge our sinfulness (Luke 5:8). No-one can stand upright before God (Psa 130:3). How then can a person be right with God? We may try as much as we like, make whatever excuses we can, or live in hope that God will look favorably on our virtuous actions and overlook what is evil, yet all will be to no advantage.
The whole of humanity is condemned. Disobedience to God’s will results in a death sentence. The righteous judge of all the earth is perfectly justified in pronouncing guilty sinners worthy of eternal damnation.
The Dilemma – How Can a Person be Right with God?
Job posed the question to his friends, “But how can a man be in the right before God?” (Job 9:2), and yet in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus made it clear that it was possible for God to justify sinful people (Luke 18:9-14).
But how can sinful humanity ever be justified by the God who judges justly? The Bible indicates how objectionable it is for anyone to justify lawless, rebellious people. “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord” (Prov 17:15; see 24:23-24). God himself states that “I will not acquit the wicked?” (Exod 23:7) and calls on judges to act justly by “acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty” (Deut 25:1). And yet Paul declares that this same God justifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5). In the justification of sinners, God does what is humanly impossible. He has provided a righteous way for declaring sinners righteous in his sight while remaining scrupulously fair and true to his own righteous character (Rom 1:16-17; 3:21-26).
Jesus the God-Man – the Sinner’s Representative and Substitute
God’s good news concerns his Son, who became the man Jesus the Messiah, in fulfillment of Old Testament promises (Rom 1:1-3). He is God’s answer to the human predicament. The Son took human nature to rescue humans by becoming the representative head of his people and their substitutionary sacrifice. As Adam was the original representative head of humanity and all are united to him in his sin, condemnation and death (Acts 17:26; Rom 5:12-21; 1Cor 15:21-22) so Christ as the last Adam is the representative of those who belong to him but, unlike Adam, he is also their substitute. As a result of his obedient life leading to his atoning death and resurrection, Jesus is given the name “Lord” (see Isa 45:21-25; Phil 2:6-11) having gained the victory over the principalities and powers (Col 2:15). But he also has the name “Savior” as his earthly name, Jesus, implies (Matt 1:21; Isa 45:15,21-22; Luke 2:11; Acts 5:31; Titus 2:13). Christians not only confess that Jesus is Lord but with the Samaritans they testify that he is the world’s Savior (John 4:42; see 1Jn 4:14). The justification of sinners is one of the key components of God’s saving activity in Christ.
Justification – Central to the Good News about Jesus
Contrary to some recent teachings, justification lies at the very heart of the Christian message for it presents real hope to guilty, rebellious humans who deserve nothing but for God’s wrath to fall upon them. The gospel of God’s justifying grace proclaims that sinful people who put their trust in Jesus Christ have all their sins forgiven, are placed in a right legal standing before God and are no longer condemned. The various elements in this gospel truth need to be highlighted.
- The biblical doctrine of justification is “an act” of God in the sense of a legal declaration, a judicial pronouncement. It is not declaring what is already a reality from eternity past or what will be true in the future, but it is God’s actual decision which takes place when a person believes. This declaration is, therefore, not a process or creative work of God in believers that makes them morally better but the divine judge’s verdict in advance of the day of judgment. It is not a provisional announcement but a once-for-all decree in the here and now that is not overturned, withdrawn or made permanent on the last day.
- This judicial act is a gracious verdict. It displays the amazing, undeserved kindness of God (Titus 3:5-7). Those to whom God makes this legal pronouncement have done nothing to earn or be worthy of it and therefore they have nothing of which to boast in themselves (Rom 3:24,27).
- Justification consists of two parts: “the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness” (Calvin, Institutes 3.11.2). It involves the forgiveness of sins (Rom 4:6-8). Sin is no longer reckoned to the believer’s account. Secondly, righteousness is credited to the believer’s account. Believers are not left in some morally neutral state. The moral righteousness of Christ is credited to them. Luther called it “an alien righteousness” because it was not something that belonged innately to the believer. Justification is not about a change of nature, rather it is about a righteous status that results from the righteous character of Christ being credited to believers (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:1-5; 5:19).
- Justification is based not upon the Spirit’s work of regeneration and renewal but entirely on the person and work of Christ. He is the Suffering Servant of whom Isaiah prophesied. The guilt of God’s people was transferred to him and he paid the price by receiving the punishment due, and the obedient Servant’s righteousness was transferred to them so that they were accounted righteous (Isa 53:5-6,11). This is the wondrous exchange that Luther found so precious: Christ takes our sins and he gives us his righteousness. God is able to pardon the ungodly on the grounds of Christ’s redemptive death. (Rom 3:24-26). He paid the penalty and made full satisfaction for every believer’s sins. God considered their sin as belonging to Jesus, his Son, who was sinless, and on the cross he endured the awful consequences (1Pet 2:24). God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us (2Cor 5:21a). Secondly, he is able to pronounce the ungodly righteous because they are given Christ’s righteousness. This is the righteousness from God which consists of Christ’s obedience to the Father in life and death (2Cor 5:21b; Phil 2:7-8; 3:9). As all humanity were constituted sinners in Adam so in Christ believers are constituted righteous (Rom 5:18-19). The clothing metaphor is often used in Scripture to signify the believer’s standing in the righteousness of Christ (Gen 3:21; Isa 61:10; Matt 22:11-14; Gal 3:27; Rev 7:9).
- It is through faith alone that sinners are justified. God justifies the one who believes in Jesus (Rom 3:26; 5:1). This faith is not to be seen as an acceptance that we have already been justified in eternity past. Both Paul and Peter believed in Christ Jesus “in order to be justified” (Gal 2:16). Neither is this faith to be thought of as believing in a doctrine of justification. Faith is reliance on the Jesus whose person and work is revealed in Scripture. Faith is simply the channel or the empty hand that receives God’s free gift. Luther describes it as self-despairing trust. It is not through faith and works or through faith and our love that we are justified but through faith alone. Justification is not on the basis of our faith but always through or by our faith. When the Scriptures state that Abraham was justified by faith, it was not his own faith that was the ground of his justification (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:3,13-24). Abraham believed the promise concerning Christ, whom he saw and in whom he rejoiced (John 8:56). This faith is not to be seen as a work that we do in order for God to accept us. He does not justify us because he sees faith as a sign of a change in our attitude. It is faith’s object, namely Jesus the Messiah, that is the basis of justification.
- Justification must never be considered without reference to the believer’s union with Christ. The justified person is found “in Christ” (Phil 3:8-9). Union with Christ is central to the believer’s whole salvation from effectual calling to glorification and justification is one of the crucial elements and must never be isolated from the rest (Rom 8:30). This does not make superfluous the truth concerning the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness not union with Christ is the ground of our justification.
Answering Common Objections
- It’s out of date. The legal language relating to justification is biblical and not at all outmoded. People are constantly crying out for justice or being brought before a judge in a court of law where a verdict of guilty or not guilty is declared.
- It’s a legal fiction. Justifying the ungodly who believe in Jesus is not legal fiction for Christ, through his perfect obedience and sacrifice, has fulfilled all the demands of the law so that they are accounted as righteous as Christ is.
- It encourages lawlessness. This freeness of justification in no way encourages lawless living as a Christian. This is where the believer’s union with Christ is so important for those who are justified are consecrated to God and have new desires to please and serve him (Rom 6; Gal 5:13-26).
- It contradicts the Bible’s teaching regarding judgment based on works. For the believer, there is no future or final justification based on works. There is a judgment based on works, and the works of believers will indicate their justified position in Christ by faith (Matt 25:31-46). Just as Christ was justified in the sense of vindicated by his resurrection so believers in Christ will be vindicated before all at the general resurrection on the last day (John 5:28-29; Rom 4:25; 1Tim 3:16).
- It contradicts James’s teaching regarding faith and works. When James emphasises that we are justified not by faith alone but by works (James 2:24), he is concerned to make clear that faith is not a mere acceptance of facts, such as demons have. Faith without deeds is dead. The faith that embraces Christ for justification is one that issues in a righteous life. There are a few places in the Bible where the verb “to justify” has a demonstrative rather than a declarative meaning (Jer 3:11; Ezek 16:51-52; Matt 11:19; Rom 3:4; etc.). Abraham and Rahab, for instance, were justified or shown to be righteous by their works (James 2:19-26). We are not declared righteous by our good works but the good works that God gives believers to do demonstrate their righteous position in Christ (Eph 2:8-10; Titus 2:11-14; Rev 14:13).
Results and Implications for Believers
- We have peace with God (Rom 5:1). The relationship broken by sin is re-established.
- There is a sure and certain hope of a future beyond this present world order (Rom 5:2).
- Assurance is based, in the first place, not on feelings but on the truth that aw believers we are righteous before God through Christ’s obedience and blood (Rom 8:30).
- We are adopted into God’s family (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:5).
- We belong to the one covenant community. As Gentiles do not need to become Jews in order to join the group (Gal 3:29) so membership of the church is open to all whose trust is in Christ alone for acceptance with God.
- It is a liberating message for those who are weighed down with a burden of guilt and despair over their sinful state (Matt 11:28). When doubts and fears arise and accusations are made, the Christian can remember: “It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?” (Rom 8:33-34).
- We are blessed to know that we do not have to strive for approval and acceptance.
- This biblical doctrine gives all the glory to God and leaves the justified sinner lost in wonder, love, and praise (Isa 45:24-25; 54:17; 61:10; 1Cor 1:30-31).
- James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification,  (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997). This edition includes an excellent introduction by J. I. Packer. Available online here.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), especially Book 3, Chapters XI-XVIII.
- Philip H. Eveson, The Great Exchange: Justification by faith alone in the light of recent thought (Bromley, Kent: Day One Publications, 1996).
- Philip H. Eveson, “Justification and Evangelical Christianity: A Historical Concern” (PDF download)
- Charles Hodge, Faith (free eBook download)
- Steven Lawson, “Justification by Faith Alone” (video)
- Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapters 3:20-4:25 Atonement and Justification (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1970).
- Scott Oliphint (Editor), Justified in Christ. God’s Plan for us in Justification (Fearn, Ross-shire: Mentor Imprint by Christian Focus Publications, 2007).
- John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith (free eBook download)
- J. I. Packer, Sola Fide: The Reformed Doctrine of Justification (free eBook download).
- John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002).
- John Piper, “The Heart of the Gospel: The Righteousness from God that Depends on Faith” (video)
- Michael Reeves, “Does James Contradict Paul and the Reformers?” (brief video)
- Robert Traill, Justification Vindicated,  (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002).
- James White, “The God Who Justifies” (video)
New Perspectives and N.T. Wright
- William B. Barcley with Ligon Duncan, Gospel Clarity: Challenging the New Perspective on Paul (Darlington: EP Books, 2010).
- D. A. Carson, “The New Perspective on Paul” (audio lectures Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
- John Piper, The Future of Justification. A response to N. T. Wright (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008).
- Cornelis P. Venema, The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006.
- Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2004).