All the doctrines of the Bible are important, but none is more vital to the peace and rest of the child of God than the Bible truth of Justification. The believer does not ascend to the peak of Christian joy until he appreciates and appropriates this aspect of the grace of God. Forgiveness is wonderful; pardon is wonderful; cleansing is wonderful; but Justification is more wonderful. In Paul’s day, and later in the days of the Protestant Reformation, and in our own day, it would be difficult to find a truth more cardinal to our historic Christian faith than the doctrine of Justification.
In the preceding lesson we discussed the doctrine of Regeneration. Now there is a difference between Regeneration and Justification. Regeneration is God working in us; Justification is God working for us.
The Fact of Justification
The question of man’s justification before God was raised early in man’s history. In the Book of Job we read, “How should man be just with God?” (Job 9:2), and “How then can man be justified with God?” (Job 25:4).
In the New Testament the Apostle Paul, chief exponent of the doctrine of Justification, developed it more fully. After his conversion, and during his visit to Antioch in Pisidia, he said, “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins; And by Him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38, 39). Paul says that forgiveness and justification are made possible through Jesus Christ, but he makes it clear that the two are not identical. If a criminal is found guilty and convicted of crime, he may be forgiven by the offended party and even pardoned by the governor, but he remains guilty of his offense. His guilt was established and the court records carry it as such. He has been forgiven but not justified.
The Apostle is saying that God does two things for the guilty but believing sinner that no man can possibly do for another; that is, He both forgives and justifies. Justification is more than forgiveness. We can forgive another for his wrong, but never can we justify him. Forgiveness assumes guilt; therefore, the guilty one cannot be justified. On the other hand, if we justify a man, then he needs no forgiveness, because justification assumes no guilt. But since all men are both guilty and condemned sinners before God, all need both forgiveness and justification before entering the Kingdom of God.
Justification can be defined as that act of God whereby He declares absolutely righteous any and all who take shelter in the blood of Christ as their only hope for salvation. Justification is a legal term which changes the believing sinner’s standing before God, declaring him acquitted and accepted by God, with the guilt and penalty of his sins put away forever. Justification is the sentence of the Judge in favor of the condemned man, clearing him of all blame and freeing him of every charge. Justification does not make the sinner righteous, but when God sees him “in Christ,” He declares that he is righteous, thereby pronouncing the verdict of “not guilty.” In modern jurisprudence a sentence in any court must be in keeping with the facts presented. A judge has no right to condemn the innocent or to clear the guilty. Only God can clear the guilty.
We must keep in mind the fact that there is a close connection between the act of justifying and the imputed righteousness of the one who has been justified. Though the words just, justify, justification, right, righteous, and righteousness are all translations from the same root, their individual meanings may differ slightly. However, a general meaning is common to all. The meaning of these words is always objective, not subjective. If we looked to men for a definition of the words justification and righteousness, their meaning might change with time and differ according to geographical location. Men change in their thinking. What might be considered just and right in one generation, or in one part of the world, might not be so considered in another generation, or in a different part of the world. Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest said, “God is the objective standard which determines the content and meaning, and at the same time keeps that content of meaning constant and unchanging, since He only is the unchanging One.” A just person is one who has been declared righteous by God. God is the Author of Justification. “It is God that justifieth” (Romans 8:33). Man has nothing to do with it except to receive it through faith, and that as the Holy Spirit enables him.
The Foundation of Justification
Forgiveness cannot be effected, nor righteousness declared, until guilt has been established. If a man is not guilty, no act or declaration of justification is needed. The man who contends that he does not need to be justified by God must first establish the evidence that there is no accusation against him. But he who believes the Scriptures, and examines his own heart honestly, must admit that he is an accused and guilty sinner before God. We know that there is something wrong with the human race. “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
God chose the Apostle Paul to expound the doctrine of Justification. This Paul did in detail in his Epistle to the Romans. Romans 1:18-3:20 depicts a court scene. In 1:18-32 the unrighteousness of the Gentiles is exposed to the light. With great delicacy Paul alluded to some of the vile practices of which they were guilty. Then in clear and bold logic, he listed twenty-five charges against man. In chapter 2:1-16 he shows that the self-righteous are equally guilty before God. The moralists of Paul’s day were men of culture, refinement, and intellect, but they too were inexcusable. In the remainder of chapter 2, verses 17-29, the Apostle strips the Jew of every vestige of the cloak of self-righteousness, so that when we reach chapter 3, verse 19, God’s startling verdict is “Guilty!” Every mouth is stopped and all the world is accused before Him. A sad picture, but true!
Consider well and take seriously the fact of the universality of sin. You and I are guilty and condemned. No earthly or fleshly means, no court on earth can justify us in God’s sight. We lack righteousness. God has a righteousness which He desires to make ours. If we accept it, He will pardon, forgive, free, cleanse, and justify us. Upon this foundation God goes into action. Man’s need and his inability to help himself occasion a move on God’s part. He must find a way to ransom His fallen creature and to remove both the penalty and guilt of man’s sin.
The question arises: How can God justify the guilty sinner and at the same time remain just? How can He declare an unrighteous man righteous and Himself remain right? This is the problem simply stated, and it is the basis upon which God acts in Justification. The very nature of God demands that He justify the righteous and condemn the guilty. If, out of favoritism, or for other reasons, God cleared the guilty and condemned the righteous, He would not be administering justice. Little wonder that one theologian suggested that the holy and righteous God faced the greatest riddle ever when He set out to justify the ungodly.
I must confess that, as a parent, I have been guilty of dealing unjustly with my children, not in punishing them for their misconduct, but in finding some excuse for it. More than once I explained away their conduct because I did not want to administer justice as I knew it should be administered. In so doing I failed to deal justly on the basis of the facts in the case. Because they were my children and I loved them, I excused and shielded their guilt. Now I am critical of my sons when I see them dealing in this same way with their children. I am more ready now to judge my grandchildren justly, but love kept me from so judging my own children.
God, in keeping with His holiness and justice, cannot deal unjustly with guilty sinners. He must judge and condemn the guilty. But since all are guilty and deserving of judgment, how can He save those whom He loves? From the human viewpoint this is an insurmountable problem, one for which there is no solution. But God did find a way whereby He could remain just and at the same time justify the guilty who would do no more than believe. How He did it is the burden of our present study, for it brings before us one of the most majestic and profound truths in all the Bible, the doctrine of Justification.
The Function of Justification
What is the function of justification?
First, we know that sinners are justified by God.
God Himself is the Justifier. Only God can justify a man; no man can justify another man. The tribunal of Heaven differs from all earthly tribunals. The source of justification must be in the one holy and righteous God. The governor of a state, or the President of the United States, can pardon a guilty and condemned criminal, but neither can reinstate the criminal to the position of an innocent man. The Bible illustrates this: “If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them; then shall they justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked” (Deuteronomy 25:1). In all human jurisprudence such a procedure is proper. If a man is not guilty of a charge made against him, he should be justified. But in the case of biblical justification, all men are sinners, and since all sin is against God, He only must be satisfied. “. . . whom He (God) called, them He also justified . . .” (Romans 8:30). “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth” (Romans 8:33). “. . . That He (God) might be just, and the Justifier of him who believeth in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). Indeed, only God can justify sinners.
Second, we are justified by grace.
“Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). Look carefully at the text and notice that word “freely.” The Greek word (dorean) translated “freely” means “without a cause.” The same Greek word is so translated in John 15:25. There was no cause in the words and works of Jesus for which men should hate Him, yet He was hated “freely,” “without a cause.” Just as there was no cause that men should hate our Lord, so there was no cause that God should justify man; but He justifies him “freely,” without a cause. Jesus came with a heart full of love for mankind, but they hated Him. Man’s heart has been evil continually, but God loves him. Justification is something for nothing. In the Latin version the word “freely” is “gratis,” “being justified gratis.” God’s method of justifying men gives us a glorious demonstration of His sovereign grace. Grace has dug a foundation so deep that men have been drinking from its cleansing, justifying stream for centuries.
After Charles Spurgeon had finished preaching a sermon on “Justification by Grace,” a man came to him and said, “Oh sir, I have been praying and I do not think God will forgive me unless I do something to deserve it.” To which Mr. Spurgeon replied, “I tell you, sir, if you bring any of your deservings, you shall never have it. God gives away His justification freely; and if you bring anything to pay for it, He will throw it in your face and will not give His justification to you.”
You cannot buy it with money, for it is “freely by His grace.” You cannot work for it with your hands; it is “freely by His grace.” You cannot receive it through any rite or ceremony; it is “freely by His grace.” You cannot lay claim to it because you are not so bad as others, for it is “freely by His grace.” It is useless to wait until you improve, because it is “freely by His grace.” If you hope to be justified before God apart from grace, you have a false idea of the value of the Christian Gospel. Perhaps some of you think that it is all too cheap and not worth bothering about. If such is the case, I urge you to come with me that I may show you what it cost God to provide justification for you and me.
Third, we are justified by blood.
The provision for righteousness is solely through the blood of Christ. “Much more then, being now justified by His (Christ’s) blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Romans 5:9). “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness, that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Romans 3:24-26) These verses are of tremendous importance because they show the only ground of justification.
We emphasize the phrase “to declare his righteousness,” for to justify means to declare righteous, the basis of which is the shed Blood of Jesus Christ. The righteousness of God for sinners has been wrought through the redeeming process of God’s Son. When God declares a man righteous, that declaration and act finds its efficacy in the Blood of Jesus Christ, Who died on Calvary. The worth of His shed Blood is the righteous ground on which the grace of God can act in behalf of sinners.
Did you ever question why Christ died on the Cross? The answer is “to declare His righteousness.” You see, God could not remain just and at the same time allow sin to go unpunished. Justification cannot be on arbitrary grounds. There must be a moral basis for a holy God to justify a sinful man. God cannot be just and the Justifier of the ungoldly (Romans 3:26) unless a just penalty has been exacted. He is never merciful at the expense of justice. If God is to justify a guilty sinner, He can do it only on the ground that the payment for sin has been met. When an earthly judge shows mercy, he is not being just; and when he is just, he cannot show mercy. The only way that God could be both merciful and just was through Calvary, where Jesus Christ paid the penalty for sin. There He vindicated His Holy Law and at the same time showed mercy to sinners. The vicarious sufferings and death of Christ are the cause of our justification before God.
Paul set forth this doctrine clearly in II Corinthians 5:21 when he said, “For he (God) hath made him (Jesus) to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Justification is only “in Him,” for apart from Him no basis for it exists.
Let us put it another way--the only righteous basis for our justification has been provided through the death of Christ. This was the only way that God could have reckoned to us His righteousness, and it is the one way He found of not reckoning to us our sin. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer; the sin of the unbeliever is imputed to Christ as if that sin were Christ’s. Think you it was a fair exchange? Little wonder that men will love and serve the Lord Jesus by life and by death! Praise God for the atonement, for without it He could not reckon us other than what we actually are, nor could He deal with us differently from what we deserve. God can make bad men good only through the death of His Son, for we are justified by His Blood.
Fourth, we are justified by faith.
“Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). “Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28). “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Faith is the vital point of contact between the sinner and God. All may be justified, but only those who believe are justified. Remember, there is no meritorious value in faith itself. The Blood of Christ and the grace of God compose the basis of justification and the principle upon which it is offered to man. This is the God-ward aspect of justification, but like all the blessings of salvation, the sinner cannot receive it until he accepts it, and this he does when he acknowledges his guilt and puts personal faith in what God has done for him in Christ.
Paul gave Abraham as an excellent biblical illustration of justification by faith. He says, “. . . Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Romans 4:3, cf. Genesis 15:6; Galatians 3:6). Abraham had nothing, or did nothing, that would stand boasting before God. He simply believed God, and through his faith in the truth which God had spoken, God in grace freely justified him. It was Abraham’s faith that was reckoned unto him for righteousness. Verse 5 tells us that only one kind of man can be justified; not the self righteous worker, but the ungodly man who believes, for, says Paul: “. . . to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Do not misunderstand Paul. He is not inferring that faith is righteousness, but rather that faith is the means through which righteousness is reckoned. Faith is not the end in itself; it is a means to the end.
Abraham’s justification is the pattern of the justification of all men. The principle on which God declared him righteous is the principle on which He declares any man righteous. When God, by a judicial decision, made Abraham a righteous man, He did it on the principle of faith, “that he (Abraham) might be the father of all them that believe” (Romans 4:11). Abraham was justified, not by rites of religion, for circumcision was not required until later, nor by the deeds of the law, for the law was not yet given, but through faith in God’s Word.
The Bible so solemnly shows us that he who justifies himself by his own works must be condemned by God, but he who condemns himself and trusts in Christ will find complete justification in Him.
would not work my soul to save,
One further thought. In a comprehensive statement of the Gospel, Paul wrote, “Who was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25). Christ’s resurrection was as necessary for our justification as was His death. Had He not risen, man would be yet in his sins (I Corinthians 15:17), because Christ would not be what He claimed to be. He had to rise from death and appear before God in our behalf in order to secure for us the benefits of His death. Had death triumphed over Him, our justification would have been forever impossible. That He should pass into Heaven to appear for us was as necessary as His death on the cross (Matthew 16:21). On account of our offenses He died, and on account of our justification He arose, the latter being the ratifying counterpart of the former, the confirmation of the completeness and satisfaction of the atonement.
Fifth, we are justified by the Spirit.
“And such were some of you; but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (I Corinthians 6:11). I understand this verse to mean that the Holy Spirit is the agent and power by which we are declared righteous. It is the Spirit who regenerates us (John 3:5; Titus 3:5) and puts us in Christ. “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body . . .” (I Corinthians 12:13). All three Persons in the Holy Trinity are active in the justification of sinners. The believing sinner’s righteousness is the plan of God the Father, the provision of God the Son, and by the power of God the Holy Spirit.
There is no conflict between Paul and James in their presentation of the Doctrine of Justification. Both were inspired by the Holy Spirit, therefore both are correct.
Paul says, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28).
James says, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:24).
Paul is explaining how a sinner is justified (pronounced righteous) by God, namely, by faith alone. James is stating how a believer who has been justified by God is justified before men, namely, by works. James is speaking of the evidence of justification. He makes his point clear by use of illustration: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” (James 2:21). Of course he was! But when did Abraham offer Isaac upon the altar? It was many years after he was justified before God. God justified Abraham before Isaac was born (Genesis 15:6). Abraham justified himself before men after he had been declared acquitted by God. What was true of Abraham was likewise true of Rahab (James 2:25). Both have reference to justification before men. When a man says he has been justified by God, his fellowmen have a right to expect him to prove his faith by his good works.
The Biblical account of the council at Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29), shows that Paul and James were in perfect agreement. In Romans Paul is merely emphasizing the truth that faith is the means of justification, while James stresses the fact that good works are the fruit of justification. Paul says, “Do not depend on your good works to justify you.” James says, “Do not neglect to perform good works if you are justified.” Both are right. When a man is justified by faith, good works are sure to follow.
A solemn word of warning is in order here. When the covetous Pharisees derided our Lord, who knew their hearts, Jesus answered them, “Ye are they which justify yourselves before men, but God knoweth your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). There is a false exterior justification that has the approval and approbation of men, but is despised of God because the heart is not right. There is always the danger of men trying to live the Christian life when they are not Christian at heart. Remember, it is by God’s perfect standard of justification that we all will be tried. The Pharisees made open and loud professions before men, but their hearts were full of covetousness. So much lower than God’s standard of holiness is man’s that things which are approved of men may be counted as evil in the sight of God. Let us make certain that by faith we are justified before God.
Nor can it be said that Paul contradicted himself when he wrote, “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified” (Romans 2:13). Paul wrote this to those who were boasting that the Law was given to them. They gloried in the Law. They trusted in the Law. But the Law condemned them because they could not keep it. Paul was telling them that if they hoped to be justified by the Law, they had to be more than hearers--they must be doers. But where is there a man who ever kept the whole law? There was but One. His name is Jesus Christ, and He was the only Just Man. He needed not to be justified since He was already holy and just. If any person would be saved by keeping the Law, then he must keep it wholly, not merely in part, for “. . . he is a debtor to do the whole law” (Galatians 5:3). “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).
If a man’s obedience to some part of the law is his boast, he may glory before man “but not before God” (Romans 4:2).
The Fruits of Justification
Paul’s summary of his argument of this great truth lists the blessings which accompany it. Here is the believer’s heritage in Christ. These results of justification by faith are given to us in Romans, chapter 5.
Paul commences in verse 1 with the word “therefore.” This word definitely connects that which is to follow with that which has been said in previous chapters. It gathers up the truth of what precedes and sheds light upon the truth about to be affirmed. We began with man down in the depth of sin, Jew and Gentile alike, both guilty and condemned before God. Then we saw the record of the pure love and grace of God, in sending Jesus Christ to die in the sinner’s place and for sin, showing that the sinner could be justified before God, “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” “Therefore,” says Paul, “in view of what God in His Son has done for man, these are the blessings that pour forth from God to all who receive His justifying grace.”
A. We Have Peace With God (Romans 5:1)
This phrase sets forth the greatness of our new standing before Him. This peace is not subjective; it is objective. It is not the tranquility and quietness of our own feelings and emotions. Elsewhere Paul speaks of the “peace of God” (Philippians 4:7), an experience of those believers who learn to cast their cares on Him. “Peace with God” means that the strife between God and the believer has ended, hostilities have ceased, and no longer are we His enemies. Praise God! The war is done, armistice has been declared, and God holds nothing whatever against us. Sin has been fully and finally judged in the Person of Christ, our Substitute and Sin-Bearer. God was satisfied with the sacrifice of His Son, and never again will He take up a case against those who have been justified by faith. He sees the believer just as if he had never sinned. Declared righteous through the redemption which is in Christ, the believer can now say with Andrew Bonar:
hear the word of love,
A judicial peace between a holy God and a guilty sinner has been established. Jesus Christ “made peace through the blood of his cross . . . And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight” (Colossians 1:20-22).
B. We Have Access to God (Romans 5:2)
Before our sins were put away, we had absolutely no right of approach to God. Sin shuts man out from God’s presence. Our first parents were driven out from the garden; Cain was driven out from the presence of the Lord; Israel was kept afar off from the foot of Mount Sinai lest some of the people should approach it. Only the high priest could come before the Divine Presence, and that only once each year, and not without blood. Of Jehovah, the Prophet wrote: “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (Habakkuk 1:13). But Christ having taken away my sin, I now have access into God’s presence. Since only the righteous can enter, the believer has access because he has been justified--declared righteous. He now can be introduced to the private chamber of the King of kings, even into the holiest of all. Furthermore, it is important that we do not overlook the fact that this access is both a present and a permanent possession. Remember, we could never open the way nor introduce ourselves to God. We were brought there by Christ Who said, “I am the Door; by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture” (John 10:9).
Beloved, let us not neglect our privilege--“in and out.” Shame on believers to have access to so much and possess so little! We have access into His grace. It is our own fault if we are empty. But let us never lose sight of the glorious fact that our Lord Jesus Christ, through His death, is the sole ground of our justification. We have access only through Him. Even in our daily prayer life, He warned us that we can be successful only as we pray, as He said, “In My Name.” It is “through Him we have access” (Ephesians 2:18). “In Christ Jesus our Lord . . . we have boldness and access” (Ephesians 3:11, 12). “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19). This truth is emphasized for us in I Peter 3:18, where we read: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.” The last phrase of this verse, “that He might bring us to God,” can be translated, “that He might provide for us access into the presence of God.” This blessed privilege is all of grace.
C. We Rejoice in Hope of the Glory of God (Romans 5:2)
When a man is justified by faith, he rejoices in the present because of the future glory. The writer knows from experience that when the truth of justification burst upon his soul, his joy and rejoicing increased. Knowing that we shall enter into and share Christ’s glory should make us rejoice now. There is glory for the believer which has not yet been manifested. It is future -- “When Christ, who is our life, shall be manifested, then shall ye also with him be manifested in glory” (Colossians 3:4 R.V.). It is His own glory which He has given to us (John 17:22), and it is the result of our being declared righteous through faith in His Blood. It is “the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18), for “whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). This means that justification by faith guarantees for us our future. It works! It will last!
D. We Glory in Tribulation Also (Romans 5:3)
There is no promise in God’s Word that those who are justified by faith shall escape tribulation. But our present hope and future glory are not jeopardized by tribulation. Tribulation cannot touch the security of the justified. The mere professor is easily moved by tribulation (Matthew 13:21), but in the justified, tribulation works a positive good. Those who are justified by faith can take pleasure in tribulation (II Corinthians 12:10), for we know that it is “but for a moment,” and that it “worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (II Corinthians 4:17).
Someone may ask, “How can you take such an attitude toward your troubles?” Charles Hodge has said, “Since our relation to God is changed, the relation of all things to us is changed.” And that is the answer! Judicially we are declared righteous, we are justified, and the just shall live by faith. None but the justified who walk by faith can rejoice in the midst of tribulation, for rejoicing in tribulation is not natural to the unregenerate heart.
If this message should find its way into the hands of an unsaved person, I would say in closing that God can do nothing more to save you. Heaven was bankrupt to make you righteous. He did all that He could do. Reject the Savior no longer, but, like Abraham of old, believe God, and it shall be counted unto you for righteousness.
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