What Does It Mean to be Justified?
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
We read and sing about being justified before God all the time. Some form of the word appears forty-three times throughout the Bible, with thirty-eight of those occurrences appearing in the New Testament alone. The Greek word which lies behind the English word justify is some form of the verb dikaioō which is variously translated into English as to justify or to acquit. The noun forms of this Greek word (dikaiosis, dikaioma, dikaiosune, dikaios) are variously translated as righteous, righteousness or justification and appear nearly six hundred times throughout the Bible. Yet, when Christians are asked to explain the Bible’s teaching on justification, many will scratch their heads and fumble through answers of being saved, forgiven, redeemed, or reconciled to God. While all these concepts are related to justification, the biblical doctrines of regeneration, forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation are not synonymous with justification. What then does it mean to be justified before God and why does it matter that we know this?
Before we can answer this question, we need to understand the problem? Throughout scripture, God makes clear that the soul who sins must die. This began in the garden of Eden when God said to Adam, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17). Adam was to keep the Law of God perfectly or death would be the consequence.
This does not change with the covenant God established with Israel at Mt. Sinai. There God says to them, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples” (Exod. 19:5). God’s covenant with Israel was a conditional covenant which Israel was expected to keep. To be sure, the covenant is then inaugurated with the shedding of blood, symbolizing that should Israel fail to keep the laws of the covenant then death would be the consequence (Jer 34:18). God has always been clear that “the soul who sins shall die” (Ezek 18:4, 20).
God’s righteous standard does not change with the coming of Christ. In fact, Christ reinforces God’s holy and righteousness standards. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says to the crowd, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). Regardless of what we think of the scribes and Pharisees, in Jesus’ day they were thought to be the ones most devoted to God. Jesus’ statement would have shocked his listeners. Just how far must one’s righteousness exceed the scribes and Pharisees? Jesus concludes by saying, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v.48). A holy God demands perfect obedience from those who would stand in his presence.
Hence, to be righteous in God’s presence, to be in right standing before God, is to be in right standing before His law. The word justification/righteousness is a legal term derived from the courtroom language of the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 25:1-2 we read, “If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty, then if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense.” The phrase “acquitting the innocent” are the Hebrew words for justification/righteousness (tsaddiq). Literally the text reads: “justifying the just” or “righteousing the righteous.” In other words, to be righteous or just before the Law is to be found not guilty with regards to the Law--all of it.
This presents an insurmountable problem for all of us. Since God is the just “Judge of all the earth” (Gen 18:25) and since “there is none righteous, no, not one [no one in right standing before the Law]…For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:10, 23), how then can one ever hope to inherit eternal life?
In Romans 4, Paul provides a solution to our dilemma by taking us back to Abraham. “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (vv.2-3). Paul reminds us that in Genesis 15 Abraham was justified--considered to be in right standing before God—because of his faith. “Abraham believed God, and it [his faith] was counted to him as righteousness.” The word “counted” from the Greek is logizomai: to be considered or treated as. Hence, because of Abraham’s faith in God and in the word of God, Abrahm was considered by God to be in right-standing. He was treated as though he was in right standing before God.
Paul goes on to explain that “to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:4-5). Thus, like Abraham, when we believe God, when believe in the words of God and in the promises of God, he considers us to be in right standing before him. But how can this be? How can God use our faith as the basis of being in right standing before the Law?
Paul further explains in Romans 5 where he sets up a parallel analogy between Adam and Christ. In vv.12-14 he reminds us that sin entered the world because of Adam’s disobedience and infected the entire human race. Adam was our federal representative. As such, we would all reap the benefits or suffer the consequences of his obedience or disobedience. Christ comes as the second Adam (1 Cor 15:45), as the federal representative of a new humanity, to accomplish what the first Adam failed to accomplish. Thus, Paul posits in vv.15-21 that because of Adam’s disobedience those whom he represents receive “condemnation” (vv.16, 18), “death” (vv.17, 21), and are “made sinners” (v.19). Those whom Christ represents through faith receive “justification” (vv.16, 18), “grace”, “righteousness,” and “eternal life” (v.17-20). In other words, just as Adam violated God’s law as our representative, causing us to reap the consequences of his disobedience—condemnation (a guilty verdict)—so also Christ perfectly kept God’s law as our (believers) representative, causing us to reap the blessings of his obedience—justification (not guilty).
Christ does the work. We receive the benefit at the moment we place faith in Christ. At the moment we place faith in Christ, believing that he died, was buried, and rose from the grave for us and for our sins, in the great courtroom of God, the Judge of all the earth, we are declared not guilty! Not because we deserve it, not because we have earned it, but solely because of what Christ has done for us. This is the doctrine (teaching) of justification by faith alone, and it is the very heart of the gospel. For this reason Martin Luther famously said, “The doctrine of justification by faith alone is the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls.” Lose the doctrine of justification by faith alone or get it wrong and there is no gospel; hence, there is no church. On the great day of judgement, will you be found guilty or not guilty?
Photo by Claire Anderson on Unsplash
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