- “Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16 ESV)
- “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 there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-24)
What is Justification?
Galatians 2 makes it clear, the righteousness we need to stand before God can’t come through our attempts to obey the law. Self-righteousness will not save us. The righteousness that can save us is apart from the law. It comes from God in a different way. In Romans 3:22, it comes “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
Both passages use the same word to describe how eternal right standing before God can come to the sinner. Justification. It’s a long word but don’t be scared. It literally means, to pronounce or declare something righteous. The Law can’t declare us righteous; it can only condemn us. But God can. Let’s look at the verses.
It is “by his grace”
Grace means gift. Grace means getting something I don’t deserve. The justifying declaration of God for the sinner is completely out of his kindness and love and in no way based on the sinner deserving it. If I deserve it, I earned it. If not, it is grace.
It is “through faith in Jesus Christ”
Faith is the means or instrument through which this righteous declaration comes. This faith is not itself a work but rather is the open hand receiving. Notice faith’s object is not faith but Jesus. This is shorthand for the gospel about Jesus. His person as God and man. His work dying bearing our guilt on the cross and his resurrection.
It is available “to all who believe”
Justification is not exclusive. It is not just for Jews or just Gentiles but any who believe. Remember this is a three-part series, so we will unpack this further, but to summarize, here is the Westminster Catechism,
“Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardons all their sins, accepts and accounts their persons righteous in his sight; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.”
The result of God’s justification of the sinner is that the sinner, while still a sinner, is treated eternally by God as a morally perfect human being.
This sounds too wonderful to be true, doesn’t it? Most religions say, try more. Work harder. Do this. Do that. Christianity says the complete opposite. Stop trying! Stop trusting how good you are! The impulse to self-justify by my own actions itself is human pride. Jesus has done the work for us. He has lived a perfectly righteous life and his very righteousness is made available to all who believe in him.
So God makes me righteous? No. Here is a key point. In justification, God doesn’t make us righteous. We still fall short of the glory of God all the time and every day. The miracle here is that God declares us righteous anyway.
Here we are fighting an old Sunday school definition of justification: just as if I’d never sinned. Sounds nice but it robs justification of its true glory. It is not just as if I’d never sinned. It is in spite of all my sin. In spite of all my rebellion. In spite of all my doing the wrong thing and failure to do the right and loving thing. In spite of the massive pile of guilt even the most moral person has created. Despite my sin against him, he justifies anyway. Justification is a moment—a declaration of eternal righteousness for anyone who places their faith in Jesus Christ.
“Turning away our view from our own works, it bids us look only to the mercy of God and the perfection of Christ. The order of justification which it sets before us is this: first, God of his mere gratuitous goodness is pleased to embrace the sinner, in whom he sees nothing that can move him to mercy but wretchedness, because he sees him altogether naked and destitute of good works. He, therefore, seeks the cause of kindness in himself, that thus he may affect the sinner by a sense of his goodness, and induce him, in distrust of his own works, to cast himself entirely upon his mercy for salvation. This is the meaning of faith by which the sinner comes into the possession of salvation, when, according to the doctrine of the Gospel, he perceives that he is reconciled by God; when, by the intercession of Christ, he obtains the pardon of his sins, and is justified; and, though renewed by the Spirit of God, considers that, instead of leaning on his own works, he must look solely to the righteousness which is treasured up for him in Christ.” (John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion)
This places the sinner in an eternal category he doesn’t deserve to be in. All his guilt is taken away. God makes an eternal commitment to view him as a morally perfect human being. You protest, “But I’m not morally perfect!” We know you’re not. The friends you grew up with know you’re not. Your family knows you’re not. If you put your faith in Jesus, there’s only one person who doesn’t know that and that’s God. Better said, of his own grace, he freely and lovingly chooses not to know it, not to remember it, not to ever hold it against you. He has declared you not simply morally neutral, but positively and eternally righteous. That is justification.
This is the answer to the either damning or delightful reality check at death. The sudden-pain-in-your-chest, slump-to-the-ground, here-you-go moment. That millisecond on the other side of death where the sudden view is of the majesty of Almighty God, the beauty of heaven, the terror of hell, and the question that determines our eternal destiny. Perfectly righteous or not. Heaven or not. Eternal life or not.
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
©2014 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
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