"Being justified freely by his grace"

Most true Christians know the word justification and most will be able to tell you they believe themselves to have been justified by faith. But what is justification and why is it so important for believers in the Lord Jesus Christ to have a proper understanding of this term?

Here are seven key points with respect to justification that all believers should know and understand. If we are truly to appreciate what God has done for us in the sacrifice of his Son, our Saviour, we must see our position in terms of God's eternal love and mercy.

What justification is

Justification is a pronouncing a person righteous according to law as though he had never sinned. An important distinction here is to distinguish between pardon and justification. Pardon for sin is receiving mercy when we have been tried under law, found guilty and convicted. Justification is to have been tried and declared not guilty as though one had never sinned or transgressed the law. Also, while pardon takes away sin or at least the condemnation and guilt of our sin, it does not make us righteous. Justification on the other hand does. Not in the sense that sinners have righteousness poured into them so that they become sinless, but in the sense that God regards them as if they were righteous and reckons them to be so. Justification is the imputation of righteousness whereby a sinner is considered by God to be righteous.

The source of justification

The source of a Christian's justification is the Triune God. Only God can declare a sinner righteous because it is God who has been sinned against and God who is the judge of our sin. God therefore is the originator of a believer's justification. However, each person in the Trinity is actively engaged in the justification of a sinner. The Father, as author, established the terms of our justification agreeing to accept the ransom of Jesus Christ as the ground of reconciliation between God and man. Christ, as representative, perfectly obeyed, magnified and honoured the holy law of God. The Father accepted that righteousness, imputing it to His chosen people and declaring them righteous in His sight through the obedience of His Son. The Holy Spirit then brings the merits of this work of Christ to the heart of the sinner. He convinces men of their need, shows them the beauty of Christ's righteousness and bestows faith by which they trust in that completed work and the justifying purpose of God. John Gill summarised this Triune work by saying, 'the Father contrives it, the Son has procured it, and the Spirit applies it'.

What initiates justification

In this way we can clearly see that the justification of a sinner is God's work, not man's. Our justification does not flow from our obedience to the law. If it did we would be justified by works and not by grace. Nor are we justified by obedience to the gospel as if the gospel were an easier or milder form of law. Faith is not obedience to law. Our Christian profession does not justify us, nor, and this is important for it is widely misunderstood, does our believing the gospel and trusting in Christ. It is not the sinner's belief or his act of believing that justifies him before God. Rather it is the object of a believer's faith, specifically, the righteousness of Christ, and not the exercise of faith which God accepts. Justification is Christ's righteousness imputed to the sinner without any initiating act on the part of the sinner (Romans 4:6). To quote John Gill again, 

We are, indeed, said to be justified by faith (Romans 5:1), but not by faith, as an act of ours, for then we should be justified by works . but we are justified by faith objectively, as it looks to, receives, apprehends, and embraces Christ's righteousness for justification. 

It is God who justifies the sinner and not the sinner who justifies himself by his act of faith. We are justified for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ, who by living obediently to the law won this justification for us and freely bore our sin in suffering and death, to cleanse us from guilt and remove our penalty. 

How we are justified

Justification requires righteousness. Remember the distinction between justification and pardon? We know that the law convicts all men as unrighteous sinners so the righteousness of another must reckoned to us if we are going to be free from the law's condemnation. This is God's work. He justifies by imputing righteousness (God justifies the ungodly). Our state and God's demands require imputation and just as Adam's sin became ours by imputation so Christ's righteousness comes to all His people by imputation. Just as our sin became Christ's by imputation so His righteousness becomes ours (2 Corinthians 5:21).

When we are justified

When does God justify sinners? Some say the elect were justified when the Lord Jesus died, some say it was when the Lord rose again. Today a popular teaching is that justification takes place when a sinner believes and becomes a Christian. Other teachings have placed justification in the Garden of Eden immediately after the fall, or at the last judgement. However, in light of what we have learned above, it is clear that justification, i.e. the pronouncing of sinners as righteous by the imputation of Christ's righteousness, is the result and consequence of covenant agreements between the Father and the Son, regarding Christ's suretiship and substitutionary atonement for His bride. These covenants are from eternity and prove the case for justification from eternity. Those who teach justification conditional upon man's act of faith fail to do justice to the Biblical evidence of Romans 4:5 where we are told that God justifies the ungodly. Faith is the fruit of justification, not the other way around. Justification is what has been declared by God and accomplished by Christ. Faith lays hold upon that Word.

The people who are justified

The objects of justification are the elect people of God, His people chosen from before the foundation of the world. They are justified, according to Romans 8 and freed from all condemnation through Christ's representative and substitutionary death. Only the elect will be converted, only they elect will be given the gift of faith, only the elect will be saved (Romans 5:9,10). Nevertheless, this people are a great number whom no man can number. God's righteous servant has justified many (Isaiah 53:11).

The effect of justification

The elect of God, whom He has justified in Christ, are free from all wrath of God, Christ having interposed Himself in their place and borne their condemnation. They are reconciled to God and have peace with Him. Because of their sins here on earth they sometimes feel far from God and must sometimes be disciplined in a fatherly and loving way, but they are free from all condemnation and will never experience the judgement of God. These justified ones are converted from an ungodly state in time by the work of the Holy Spirit, obtain peace of conscience by the blood of Christ and have grace to enter boldly into the presence of God in prayer, worship and ultimately in their glorified bodies. A major effect of justification is sanctification, for 'whom he justified, them he also glorified.'(Romans 8:30).

The blessing of justification is a privilege of grace that only God could devise and only Christ accomplish. It is an act of God's free grace, bestowed completely upon all the elect, once and for all time. All the elect have the same justification. There are no degrees, no one is more justified than another. All the elect are perfectly righteous before God by the imputed righteousness of Christ. The justification of a sinner cannot be revoked and every sinner who exercises the gift of faith is assured of salvation by the declared will of God.

Here are two final points about justification. Justification does not take sin out of the believer. The elect are free from sin in that they are free from the condemnation for sin - Christ having borne their sin and carried their sorrow. Nor does justification discourage the performance of good works. The elect are created in Christ Jesus unto good works (Ephesians 2:10). On the contrary, justification enables the child of God to deny ungodliness and live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world to the glory of God, their Saviour (Titus 2:12).

Peter Meney is editor of New Focus Magazine New Focus is a bi-monthly periodical committed to the doctrines of sovereign grace

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Topics: Gospel Distinctives
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