By William Webster
One of the great truths of salvation is that of justification. But what is justification? The heart of the Reformation controversy was over the meaning of this word and despite the impression given by ECT, the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches are still very much at odds with one another on this issue. The Reformers claimed that the Roman Catholic Church had perverted the true biblical meaning of the term by insisting on the necessity of works and sacraments as the basis for justification. And the Roman Church charged that the Reformer’s teaching of faith alone (sola fide) and imputed righteousness was unbiblical and itself a perversion of the gospel message. In order to properly evaluate these two positions it is essential that we understand correctly what the bible teaches on this subject. And this begins with a biblical understanding of the nature of God. Why? Because all biblical teaching on salvation is rooted in the character of God himself.
The Nature of God
Scripture declares that God is a God of holiness. He is a God of light in whom there is no darkness at all (1Jn. 1:5). Because he is holy, he is just. He always acts righteously and in accord with his law since the law is an expression of his essential character. His holiness demands just dealings with sin. Thus, scripture teaches that the one true and living God is a God of wrath and judgment precisely because he is a God of holiness. As Leon Morris puts it:
This is confirmed in the New Testament by the apostle Paul where he states that the atonement of Christ takes place to vindicate the righteousness of God, so that he might be found just while mercifully justifying sinners:
This passage tells us something very significant about God and forgiveness. It tells us that God is a God of love and mercy but that he cannot and will not exercise his mercy in a way that would compromise his justice and righteousness. He must act in accord with his law because it is an expression of his holiness. So the forgiveness and justification of sinners must be compatible with God’s justice and righteousness. It must be consistent with and in fulfillment of his law. And that means that he must judge sin. So the ultimate question is this: How can unjust sinners stand before the judgment of a God who is infinitely holy and just? God, in his love, desires to forgive us and to extend mercy, but he cannot do so if it compromises his holiness and justice. The law demands death for transgression and perfect obedience for God’s acceptance. How can he forgive and accept us when we have transgressed the law and consequently do not possess this perfect righteousness? This is why the gospel is good news. It tells us that God has provided a salvation for us in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. He has provided a means of redeeming us that is consistent with his holy nature and law. He is able to exercise his love and extend to us forgiveness without compromising his holiness and justice. The great message of the gospel is that we can be justified (forgiven and accepted by God) by grace through faith on account of Christ. The Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches both agree with this statement but define the terms differently. The key to understanding this difference in interpretation is the word alone. The Protestant Church states that an individual is justified by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. This distinction is crucial in understanding the scriptural teaching of justification because the word alone safeguards its biblical meaning. To omit this important word is to distort the scriptural teaching on justification. There are four key concepts expressed by this summary statement of the gospel: Justification, grace, faith and on account of Christ. To understand the first three—justification, grace and faith—we must understand that last phrase—on account of Christ, because scripture makes a direct correlation between justification and the work of Christ. If we understand the work of Christ we will understand the meaning of faith, grace and justification. Any meaningful discussion of justification must be based upon a thorough understanding of the atonement of Christ.
The Work of Christ in Atonement
One of the most important elements in understanding the atonement is its relationship to the law. The word of God states that Christ undertook the work of atonement to deal with the penalty of a transgressed law. In so doing he becomes both a curse and a propitiation. Thus, the atonement is forensic in nature because it is judicial in nature. This is emphasized in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans:
For as many as are the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law to perform them." Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, "The righteous man shall live by faith." However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, "He who practices them shall live by them." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree" (Gal. 3:10–13). "But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed. For the demonstration I say of His righteousness at the present time that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law." (Rom. 3:21–28).
There are four important concepts emphasized in these passages which are key to an understanding of the New Testament doctrine of the atonement of Christ: The phrase "For us"; Curse; Propitiation; The righteousness of God.
The scriptures tell us that Christ became a curse for us. This is the truth of substitution. Jesus became a curse by bearing man’s sin and taking man’s place as his substitute to suffer the punishment due those sins by enduring the penalty of God’s broken law in man’s place. All of our sin was imputed to him and the judgment of God in all its fury came upon him:
"God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8). "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age." (Gal. 1:3–4). "He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross." (1 Pet. 2:24). "He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquity. The chastening for our well being fell upon Him and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him." (Is. 53:4-6).
"He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf." (2Cor. 5:21).
Curse and Propitiation
Our sin was imputed to Christ. He then became a propitiation, suffering the wrath of God against our sin by laying down his own life in death to satisfy the demands of the law. This is the primary meaning of the word propitiation—to satisfy wrath. In this case it refers specifically to the wrath of God in relation to sin. Christ bore the wrath of God as a judgment against sin. This underscores the fact that Christ’s atonement is penal in nature. It relates to the law of God. Scripture teaches that one of the purposes of Christ’s incarnation was related to the law of God: "But when the fulness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons" (Gal. 4:4–5). On the cross Christ bore the full punishment of the law as man's substitute. In becoming a propitiation, he completely satisfied the justice of God in that full punishment has been meted out to Christ as our substitute. He bore the full penalty of the law—the curse of the law (he hangs on a tree in death)—because the law demands death for transgression. The reference to the shedding of blood in scripture as the payment for sin always represents a life laid down in death. There are various descriptions of this in the New Testament: "Christ...gave Himself for our sins." (Gal. 1:4); "He...delivered Him up for us all." (Rom. 8:32); "Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God." (Eph. 5:2); "But God demonstrated His own love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8); "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses." (Eph. 1:7). These expressions refer us back to the Old Testament sacrificial system which represented the ultimate sacrifice of Christ as the lamb of God:
"For the life of the flesh is in the blood and I have given it to you on the altar to make an atonement for your souls, for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement." (Lev. 17:11).
"Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness . . ." (Heb. 9:27).
"Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." (Jn. 1:29).
So when scripture tells us that we are justified as a gift through the propitiation of Christ and his blood (Rom. 3:25–26; 5:9), it means that through his death he bore our sin and perfectly fulfilled all the requirements of the law as our substitute. If we understand Christ’s atonement we will begin to understand the biblical meaning of justification. Justification is directly related to the atonement in scripture: "Having now been justified by His blood we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him." (Rom. 5:9). To be justified by Christ’s blood is to be justified by his death which is his work of atonement. What then is the nature of Christ’s atonement according to the word of God? Christ has borne the totality of man’s sin. In his one act of obedience as a propitiatory sacrifice in death he has borne the full judgment and condemnation of God against sin forever. The New Testament teaches that his atonement is once–for–all. This means that the work of atonement is a finished and complete work. Jesus himself said, "It is finished." Note the following references to the once–for–all nature of the atonement:
"Knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives He lives to God." (Rom. 6:10).
"Who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself." (Heb. 7:27)
"Nor was it that He should offer Himself often...otherwise He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages he has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself." (Heb. 9:25–26).
"By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." (Heb. 10:10).
Repeatedly this once–for–all aspect of the work of Christ is emphasized in scripture. The Greek word translated once–for–all is ephapax. It is used in particular with reference to Jesus’ death and communicates the thought that Christ’s death is a finished work which cannot be repeated or perpetuated. It was a unique historic event which is completed and therefore he can never experience death again. In addition to Paul’s affirmation of this, Jesus himself states: "I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore" (Rev. 1:18). The word used to describe the death of Jesus as a finished work—ephapax—is the same word used to describe his sacrifice and the offering of his body (Heb. 10:10; 9:25–26). Just as Christ cannot die again, neither can his body be offered again or his sacrifice be continued for sin. This is because apart from his death there is no sacrifice that is propitiatory for sin. What made his sacrifice propitiatory in God’s eyes was his death. Hebrews 9:22 makes this point: "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness . . ." As a result then of this one sacrifice, the bible teaches that God has accomplished a sufficient and finished atonement. On the basis of that finished work God now offers complete and total forgiveness to man. There is no more sacrifice for sin: "Where there is forgiveness of these things there is no longer any offering for sin." (Heb. 10:18). And since there is no need for further sacrifice, scripture also teaches that there is no need for a continuing sacerdotal priesthood. Christ has fulfilled the Old Testament ceremonial law and it is now abrogated (Heb. 7:11–19). He has become our Sacrifice and Priest and the only Mediator by which we approach God (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 7:22–25). Christ’s atonement has completely removed the guilt of our sin and its condemnation because he has paid the penalty in full. This will become more evident as we examine the different Greek words used to describe the work of Christ in relationship to sin.
The Greek word luo means to loose. It is found in the famous Matthew 16 passage where Jesus entrusts the keys of the kingdom to Peter and tells him that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven. Luo means to release, to set free, to dissolve or to destroy. Jesus used this word to describe His impending death and resurrection: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up." (Jn. 2:19). Peter uses the word to describe the destruction of the physical universe at the end of the age:
"But the day of the Lord will come like a thief in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat and the earth and all its works will be burned up. Since these things are to be destroyed in this way what sort of people ought we to be in holy conduct and godliness." (2 Pet. 3:10–11).
The significance of this word luo in the context of salvation is that it is the root word for all Greek words that refer to redemption. For example the word apolutrosis is the common Greek word for redemption. It is the word used in Ephesians 1:7: "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses." The word lutron which forms part of the word apolutrosis means a ransom price. This is the word used by Jesus to describe the meaning of his sacrificial death: "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many" (Mk. 10:45). The word lutroo is the verb form of lutron and it means to redeem through the payment of a ransom price. Peter describes this in the following words:
Because a ransom price has been paid (the life of the Lord Jesus given in death) sin has been destroyed and those who are united to Christ are redeemed. They have been set free from sin, and their redemption is eternal:
"To Him who loves us and released (loosed) us from our sins by His blood."(Rev. 1:5).
"But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption." (Heb. 9:11–12).
Those who are united to Christ possess this redemption. It means a complete and full deliverance from the guilt and condemnation of sin as well as from its bondage. The redeemed in Christ are loosed from their sins—cleansed, forgiven and set free—for all eternity:
"As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us." (Ps. 103:12).
"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." (Rom. 8:1).
"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life." (Jn. 5:24).
"My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand." (Jn. 10:27–29).
When Jesus says that whoever enters into a relationship with him will never enter into judgment he uses the Greek word krisis. This word is used in John 5:24 to describe the activity of Jesus himself as Judge:
For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son...and He gave Him authority to execute judgment because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment (Jn. 5:22, 27-29; cf. Mt. 12:36; 1 Tim. 5:24; Heb. 9:27).
Those who have experienced redemption—the loosing of their sins as a result of the work of Jesus in atonement—will never enter into judgment by God for their sins. This is because their sins have already been judged in Jesus.
The word aphaireo means to take away or to remove. In Matthew 26:51 it refers to Peter’s removal of the ear of the servant of the high priest. This word is used in Hebrews 10:4 to contrast the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament dispensation with Jesus’ atonement. The author of Hebrews emphasizes the superiority of Christ’s atonement to the Old Testament sacrifice of animals because his sacrifice takes away sin: "For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins...But now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself." (Heb. 10:4; 9:26). The one sacrifice of Jesus completely removes or takes away the guilt of our sin with its consequent judgment and condemnation.
Athetesin means to annul or abolish. It is the word used to describe the annulling or setting aside of the Jewish ceremonial law once the sacrifice of Christ had been completed. It is the same word used to describe the effect of Christ’s sacrifice for sin:
"Nor was it that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the holy place year by year with blood not his own. Otherwise He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself." (Heb. 9:26).
"By this one sacrifice sin has been annulled, abolished, done away with. As a result, the promise of the New Covenant is that God no longer remembers our sin:"
"Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more." (Heb. 10:17).
The word katherismos means cleansing or purification. It is the word employed by the writer of Hebrews when he refers to Christ’s work as a purification from sin: "When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high." (Heb. 1:3). The term is used in the aorist tense here and it speaks of a once–for–all finished work by which Christ has made a complete cleansing of sin. This same word is used in Acts 15:9 by the apostle Peter when he testified to the conversion of the Gentiles: "And He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith." When Peter preached the gospel and the Gentiles responded by trusting in Christ they experienced an instantaneous cleansing of their hearts from sin. It is also the word used by the apostle John in his first epistle where he states that it is the blood of Christ—his finished work of atonement—which is the effectual cause of cleansing from sin’s defilement: "The blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin." (1 Jn. 1:7). This is true of all who believe savingly in Christ. By faith we experience a complete cleansing from sin through the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Aphesis means forgiveness as it relates to redemption and the ransom price of Christ’s sacrifice. The death (blood) of Jesus is the only sufficient payment for our sin. It alone satisfies the justice of God. Scripture teaches that "all things are cleansed with blood and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Heb. 9:22). Since Jesus has shed his blood we have a complete forgiveness through him:
"In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses." (Eph. 1:7).
"In whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." (Col 1:14).
"Now where there is forgiveness of these things there are no more sacrifices." (Heb. 10:18).
Exalaisas means to wipe away, to obliterate, to erase, to blot out. It describes what God does with the totality of our sin in Christ:
"He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross." (Col. 2:13-14). "Repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away, in order that the times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord." (Acts 3:19).
How many of our sins has Christ died for? Since he died for us before we were even born he died for all our sin, not just a portion of it. The certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us—our individual transgressions of the law—has been abolished. It has been nailed to the cross. All our transgressions have been dealt with in Christ. Our debt is completely paid and we are set free. In the mind of God all our transgressions have been canceled out and wiped away because the judgment due them was inflicted upon the Lord Jesus Christ and as a result "there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." (Rom. 8:1).
The Reformation understanding of justification as comprising freedom from the condemnation of the law through the atonement of Christ is expressed by Huldrych Zwingli:
The Reformed understanding of the forensic nature of the atonement of Christ is further elaborated by James Buchanan:
The Atonement and Justification
The atonement is not an on going process. It is a once–for–all, non–repeatable and finished work. This means then that justification is a once–for–all, non–repeatable, finished work. It likewise is not a process. It is an eternal state of forgiveness and acceptance with God. Because the atonement is forensic (legal) in nature, justification is also a forensic work. When a man is justified all legal claims against him have been satisfied and he is forgiven. This is in part revealed by the resurrection:
"He was delivered up because of our transgressions and raised because of our justification." (Rom. 4:25).
We are told that we possess the righteousness of God in justification and that through this righteousness we are given an eternal standing of forgiveness and acceptance before him. This is the basis upon which justification becomes a reality for sinful men and women and is the defining issue for a proper understanding of this great biblical doctrine.
The Righteousness of God
Because of God’s holiness man needs a righteousness that will truly justify him before God. Such a righteousness must be the perfect fulfilment of his law. The wonderful news of the gospel is that when a man is united to Jesus Christ he is given that righteousness as a gift, the righteousness of God, a righteousness which fully satisfies the justice of God and secures for the believer an eternal standing of acceptance and forgiveness before him. But what is the righteousness of God? Is it a righteousness that man is responsible for producing, partially or wholly, or is it a righteousness accomplished completely apart from man’s activity, given solely as a gift? It is imperative that we understand the biblical teaching on this matter. If this truth is distorted then the biblical meaning of justification will be distorted with tragic and eternal consequences. There are at least five different meanings for the word righteousness in the New Testament. Firstly, it describes an attribute of God. God is described as being perfectly righteous in his essential nature (Deut. 32:4 ). Secondly, it describes the character of Christ as "Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 Jn. 2:1), meaning that he likewise is perfect and sinless in nature and character. Thirdly, it carries an eschatological meaning. In the future kingdom of God following the second coming of the Lord Jesus, all sin will be eradicated (Rev. 21:27). There will be a new heaven and earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:10-13). This again describes a state of perfection. Fourthly, it describes the experience of sanctification. The believer who enters into a salvation experience with the Lord Jesus Christ becomes a slave of righteousness (Rom. 6:1-22). Though imperfect, the prevailing characteristic of his life will be righteousness. Finally, the word righteousness is used to describe the work of Christ in atonement, designated specifically by the phrase the righteousness of God. It is this which is the basis for man’s justification, separate and distinct from the other descriptions of righteousness given in scripture. The following scriptures define the nature of this justifying righteousness:
"But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ...in order that I may gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him." (Phil 3:7–10).
"He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." (2 Cor. 5:21).
"But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe...being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." (Rom. 3:21–26)
"Now to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account." (Rom. 4:4–8).
"For if by the transgression of the one death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteousness." (Rom. 5:17–19).
"Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God but not according to knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes." (Rom. 10:1–4).
"But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption." (1Cor. 1:30).
There are a number of key points in these passages regarding the righteousness that justifies. The following points summarize its essential characteristics:
The righteousness that God requires as a fulfillment of his law is provided as a gift in his Son Jesus Christ who is the Lord our righteousness (1Jn. 2:1; Jer. 23:6). Paul describes the righteousness of God in Romans 3 as a righteousness apart from the law but predicted in the law and the prophets. Such prediction can be found in Isaiah 53, for example, where the atonement of Christ for sin is clearly set forth. Paul states that Christ became a propitiation for sin for the demonstration of the righteousness of God that he might be just in justifying sinners. In other words, the mercy and forgiveness he expresses towards sinners in justifying them is in conformity with the righteous demands of the law and with his holy nature because the Christ who justifies is the Christ who gave his life as a payment for sin in fulfilment of the demands of the law. Therefore the righteousness of God is a person, the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is his obedience which is the righteousness that justifies, not that of the believer. Paul brings this out in Romans 5:19–20: "Through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men...through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous." Note that the work of Christ is described as an act of righteousness. When this is compared with Paul’s statement in Romans 5:9 that we are "justified by his blood", we see that the righteousness that justifies is not the righteousness of the individual but the righteousness of the person of Christ in his work of atonement. It is the righteousness of Another. It is also important to note that this righteousness is not limited to Christ’s work of atonement but includes his entire life of obedience. Christ fulfils the law as man’s substitute positively in that he lived a perfect life of obedience and negatively in that he paid its penalty. James Buchanan gives this explanation of the meaning of justifying righteousness and why it is called the righteousness of God:
Paul says that this righteousness is given as a gift by faith, to the ungodly, completely apart from works. If it is a righteousness that is given apart from works and to the ungodly, then it must be independent of human works. It is a completed righteousness that is given and received. This is not something that one works to achieve. This is very important in helping us to understand the meaning of justification. Paul’s phrase "apart from works" is another way of stating the Reformation teaching of faith alone. This simply means that there is no work an individual can contribute to his justification. Some have suggested that when he uses the phrase "by the works of the law", Paul is not referring to the moral law but to the Jewish ceremonial law. They suggest that while we must repudiate the Jewish ceremonial law as a basis for justification that this is not so for the moral law. However, in the book of Romans, Paul uses the term law to include both the ceremonial and the moral law of God. In Romans 7:7–13 he specifically repudiates the moral law as a basis for justification. Because the righteousness which justifies is a gift of God, justification then is also a gift. The righteousness that justifies us is something completely external to us. This is why the Reformers called it an "alien righteousness". Justification is a forensic (legal) term which deals with acquittal from the claims of the law. It is based upon the atonement of Christ which was offered in the context of legal demands. Again, we see the direct connection between justification and the atonement in Romans 5:9 which states that we are "justified by His blood." Justification is a declaration of a righteousness based on the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. Justification does not mean to "make righteous" morally, but to declare to be righteous legally. It has to do with a person’s legal status before God the holy Judge. This is the particular meaning the word justification has within the overall context of salvation. It means to be acquitted from guilt, to be set free from condemnation and to be fully accepted by God. There are two Greek words in the New Testament, both derived from the same root, which are translated by the words righteousness (dikaiosune), and justify (dikaioo). Thayer’s Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament defines dikaioo as: "to declare, pronounce one to be just, righteous, or such as he ought to be; to declare guiltless one accused or who may be accused, acquit of a charge or reproach; to judge, declare, pronounce righteous and therefore acceptable." The noun dikaiosune means: "The state of him who is such as he ought to be, righteousness; the condition acceptable to God; denotes the state acceptable to God which becomes a sinner’s possession through that faith by which he embraces the grace of God offered him in the expiatory death of Christ." Leon Morris makes these important observations on the meaning of the word justification as it is used in scripture:
The declarative nature of justification is taught in Romans 5:19 where we read: "For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one the many will be made righteous." The terms "made sinners" and "made righteous" do not refer to our moral condition but to our status or position before God. It refers to a reckoning in the mind of God. Before a man is even born he is reckoned to be a sinner. The word translated "made’ is kathistemi. It means to set down as, to constitute, to declare. It is used twenty–two times in the New Testament and in most cases it means to be appointed to some kind of position. Thus, to be justified by the imputed righteousness of Christ is to be reckoned as righteous in God’s eyes, to hold the status or position of righteousness, to be acquitted from the condemnation and judgment of the law based on the once–for–all atonement of Christ. God declares that believers have fulfilled the demands of the law in Christ. Believers are united with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection so that his experience and standing before God becomes theirs (Rom. 6:1–5). In other words, the believer who is united to Christ is imputed with his righteousness. This actually constitutes him righteous judicially before God because this righteousness is a real righteousness. As John Murray observes:
In 1 Corinthians 1:30 Paul states, "But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus who became to us wisdom from God and righteousness and sanctification and redemption." Here Paul uses the word righteousness as a synonym for justification and separates justification from sanctification as concepts. Justifying righteousness is a separate concept and work from that of sanctification though they both come under the general heading of salvation. Justification and sanctification are not interchangeable terms in the New Testament. They are two entirely different aspects of the overall work of salvation. Paul maintains that the righteousness that justifies is a person, the Lord Jesus Christ: "By His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us...righteousness." He does not say that Christ is the source of grace by which a person may become righteous through sanctification. He uses the term sanctification for that. When he uses the word righteousness with respect to justification, the apostle is underscoring the wonderful truth that in Christ God provides a completed righteousness, apart from the works of man. This righteousness instantly and forever justifies an individual by conferring upon him a legal state of eternal righteousness. It is a righteousness which has fulfilled the just demands of the law of God. Just as man’s sin was imputed to Christ, so Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the true believer. The whole concept of imputation is essential to the doctrine of justification. This is not the invention of the Protestant Reformers but the express teaching of scripture itself. In Romans 4:5–6 Paul writes: "But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works." The Greek word translated "reckon" in these two verses is logizomai. It means to "reckon, count, compute, calculate, count over; hence...to pass to one’s account, to impute" (Thayer’s Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament). This word is used forty–one times in the New Testament. It means a mental evaluation, conclusion or judgment regarding a particular issue. It is an accounting term. Paul illustrates this in his letter to Philemon when referring to Philemon’s former slave Onesimus: "But if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account" (verse 18). Charge that to my account! In other words, impute that to me. Joel Beeke describes the relationship between justification and imputation:
So the basic thrust of Paul’s teaching on imputation in Romans 4 is this: In justification God imputes or credits a completed righteousness, the obedience of Another, to the one who comes by faith alone to Christ. This results in an eternal state of forgiveness and acceptance with God. On the basis of that imputed righteousness God comes to a settled evaluation about the individual—he is judged to be righteous. Historically, the whole concept of imputed righteousness for justification has been mocked by the Roman Catholic Church. She calls it a legal fiction. This is a serious charge. But in labelling this a legal fiction the Roman Catholic Church brings this charge against God himself. If the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is fiction then the imputation of our sin to him is also fiction. But the imputation of righteousness is the explicit teaching of scripture. In justification there is a real righteousness and a real imputation, just as in the atonement Christ bore in reality our sin and died a real death. This is not a legal fiction. There are today Roman Catholic apologists who repudiate any notion of justification as a forensic concept. For example, in the spring of 1995, CURE (Christians United For Reformation) hosted a debate between Protestants and Roman Catholics on Justification. Robert Sungenis, one of the Roman Catholic participants, made the following comments on justification:
In light of the fact that justification is grounded upon the atonement of Christ (which Galatians 3 tells us is performed in the context of the demands of the law of God) these assertions by Robert Sugenis are patently false. To actually suggest that scripture nowhere represents justification in a legal sense is to completely misrepresent the teaching of scripture. The cross of Christ is in fact one big courtroom scene. It is a vindictaion of the justice of God, as Romans 3 teaches, enabling God to be a just Judge while mercifully justifying sinners. While it is true that in salvation believers are adopted into the family of God, coming to know him as Father, it is equally true that the basis for such a relationship is the satisfaction of the justice of God who is a righteous and holy Judge. The following comments from leading Reformers sum up the Reformation understanding of the meaning of justification based on imputed righteousness and the finished work of Christ in atonement in these words:
The judicial basis of our relationship with God is also seen in the New Testament teaching on the New Covenant. The New Covenant is a term used to describe the new relationship with God that is effected for man through the person and work of Jesus Christ. The whole concept of covenant is at the heart of God’s revelation to man. The New Testament is but a record of the fulfilment and continuation of the Abrahamic covenant of the Old Testament (Rom. 4:1–4; Gal. 3:6–29). In this Covenant God brings man into a new relationship with himself in which man experiences forgiveness of sins, an experiential knowledge of God and a new heart sanctified unto God. This covenant is mediated through the person of Jesus Christ on the basis of his once–for–all atonement for sin. The New Testament frequently speaks of the "blood of the covenant." For example, Hebrews 9:15 states: "And for this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of eternal life." And Jesus, when he initiated the Lord’s Supper as a memorial of his sacrificial death, put it in covenantal terms when he said: "This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins...This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood" (Mt. 26:28; Lk. 22:20). These passages and others make it clear that apart from Christ’s death, given as a payment for sin in atonement to God, there would be no new covenant, no New Testament dispensation. The whole basis for our relationship with God is legal in nature because it is grounded solidly upon the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Grace and Faith
To understand imputed righteousness is to understand grace and faith. Grace is the means by which everything necessary for man to receive forgiveness and eternal acceptance has been provided as a gift by God through the work of his Son. It is not a work achieved or merited by man in any way. It is accomplished by Christ alone. It is his righteousness, not man’s. Therefore from a biblical standpoint, grace alone means by Christ alone, received by faith alone and not by works. As Paul puts it:
"If it is by grace it is no longer on the basis of works otherwise grace is no longer grace." (Rom. 11:6).
"For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law." (Rom. 3:28).
Repeatedly, scripture tells us that justification is not by works, either before or after a person has come into the experience of grace. For example Titus 3:5 states: "He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy." Paul states that works are not the basis for our salvation, grace empowered or otherwise. Why is this so? Because Christ has done all the work necessary for justification:
"By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast." (Eph. 2:8–9).
Some Roman Catholic apologists point out that the verb form for justify is found in the aorist, present and future tenses in the New Testament. They maintain this proves that justification is not a completed work but an ongoing process which is dependent upon the human works of sanctification. However such assertions are laid to rest by Galatians 2:16 where all three verb tenses are found in relation to justification:
Paul states emphatically that no man is ever justified by works, whether it be the past, present or future. He is writing to the Galatians who have already experienced the grace of God. He is warning these believers that justification is not a process based upon human works, even works in cooperation with grace, but solely upon faith in Christ at a point in time. Paul makes it clear in this same letter that if a gospel of justification by works is preached it will result in the corrupting and distorting of the true gospel of grace:
Works as a basis for justification must be repudiated and an exclusive trust in and reliance upon the person of Christ and his work of atonement alone for salvation must be exercised if one is to have saving faith. This is the Reformation truth of sola fide or faith alone. It is another way of stating the truth of Romans 3:28: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law."
The Place of Works
Is there any place for works? The bible answers in the affirmative. In the book of James we read:
In light of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith how are we to understand James? Was Abraham justified by works in addition to faith? Does this support the Roman Catholic position that justification should include works? To properly interpret James there are a number of important principles to keep in mind. In Romans, Paul deals with the nature of justification. In James the issue is the nature or character of saving faith. James addresses the issue of dead faith, as opposed to living, saving faith. Dead faith is "faith" that makes a profession but it has no effect on the life, what many call today, easy–believism, dead orthodoxy or mere intellectual assent. Dead faith produces no fruit, no accompanying works to testify to the veracity or reality of the professed faith—put simply, no holiness. So while Paul deals with the issue of legalism as it relates to justification, James deals with antinomianism as it relates to faith. The key phrase in James 2 is "show me your faith" (Js. 2:18). The only way true saving faith is demonstrated is through works. "Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works." (Js. 2:18). True saving faith will always be demonstrated or accompanied by works of love and holiness. According to Romans 4:2 Abraham was justified by faith apart from works. He was declared righteous by God. But how do we know he truly had saving faith? Because his works revealed and vindicated his faith before men. His faith bore the fruit of love for God. In that sense his works justified his faith. Faith alone justifies but the faith that justifies will always give evidence of its existence, bearing fruit in holiness of life. In Matthew 11:19 we are told, "Wisdom is vindicated (justified)by her deeds." The word for vindicated here is the Greek word justify. It simply means that wisdom is revealed or demonstrated as true wisdom by the evidence of its works. The works do not make it wisdom. Wisdom exists, but the works reveal its existence. It is the same with true saving faith. Justification and faith already exist but the reality of saving faith is always evidenced by works. The Dictionary of New Testament Theology puts it this way: "In the expression, faith working through love (Gal. 5:16), love is specified as the means by which faith becomes visibly operative or effective" (Colin Brown, Ed., Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), Volume III, p. 1182).
This is further amplified by the apostle John in his first epistle. John states, "By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments...no one who is born of God practices sin, for His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin because he is born of God." (1 Jn. 2:3; 3:9). John is teaching that a righteous life is the evidence of the new birth. If an individual is truly united to Jesus Christ he will give evidence to that reality by living a righteous life. The works of righteousness do not produce the new birth or the knowledge of God, rather they give evidence of it. Jesus teaches the same truth. In John 15:8 he says, "By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples." (Jn. 15:8). The fruit of righteousness gives evidence or proof that one has come into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. The disciple relationship already exists and the works are evidence of the reality of that relationship. Likewise Jesus disabuses the Pharisees of the notion that they were the children of Abraham when he states that if they were, they would do the deeds of Abraham (Jn. 8:39). Instead they give evidence of the fact that they are the children of Satan (Jn. 8:44). He says that if God were truly their Father they would love him (Jn. 8:42). In other words, a person’s true nature is revealed by his attitudes and life. The deeds do not create the nature but reveal its existence. Jesus teaches that a tree is known by its fruit (Mt. 7:16–20). The fruit does not create the tree but reveals the type of tree it is. Similarly, a righteous life is the obvious and inevitable result of true salvation. It is the fruit of union with Christ. This same truth is expressed by Paul when he says, "Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit for God." (Rom. 7:4). First comes the relationship with Christ and then follows the fruit as an evidence of the union. After stating in Ephesians 2:8–9 that salvation is not by works, Paul goes on to say: "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Eph. 2:10). Though works are not the basis for our salvation, we are saved to bring forth works which glorify God. Philip Melanchthon, the Reformer and close friend and associate of Martin Luther, makes these comments on the relationship between faith and works:
Thomas Cranmer, expresses a similar view:
Sanctification cannot be separated from justification in the overall experience of salvation. When an individual is justified he begins the process of growth in holiness called sanctification or fruitbearing. The bible teaches nothing of justification without sanctification. If there is no fruit, then as James says, the professed faith is dead and will not save. A faith that lacks the fruit of obedience is nothing more than intellectual assent and therefore, dead orthodoxy. Paul states, "There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek." (Rom. 2:9–10). And Jesus said, "Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment." (Jn. 5:28–29). Jesus and Paul are not teaching salvation by works. Rather, they are stressing the necessity of works as the evidence of saving faith, the visible criteria by which a true relationship with Christ is judged to exist. It is the relationship, not works, which is the basis for entrance into the kingdom of God. What about rewards? This issue was a point of contention between the Reformers and Rome due to Rome’s theology of merit. Roman Catholicism consistently misinterprets scripture regarding rewards by equating them with eternal life. For example, Roman Catholic theologian, Ludwig Ott, states:
It is clear from the teaching of Jesus that he does promise rewards for faithful service. For example he states: "For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward" (Mt. 9:41). In another place he says: "Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Mt. 5:11–12). Note, however, that the rewards spoken of here are not heaven or eternal life. As we have seen, eternal life is a free gift (Rom. 6:23). It cannot be earned or merited by human works. Rewards on the other hand are for faithful, persevering service. John Murray helps us to understand the relationship between justification and works and rewards:
Works do not save or justify. But a saved life will demonstrate itself in a life of sanctification and faithful service to the Lord. This was the consistent teaching of the Reformers and all those who are true to their teaching. In teaching faith alone neither Calvin or Luther ever implied that one could be justified and yet go on living in sin. They taught what scripture teaches: that when an individual is saved he is eternally justified, but also regenerated, sanctified and adopted. Justification is but one aspect of the overall work of salvation, as is sanctification. Although both doctrines come under the general heading of salvation they are not interchangeable terms. They are separate blessings which flow simultaneously from union with Christ. The Protestant Reformers affirmed the biblical teaching of imputed righteousness for justification as well as, and in addition to, the necessity for regeneration and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for sanctification, but without confusing the terms. They consistently taught that justification is by faith alone but by a faith evidenced by or which necessitates the works of sanctification. So the emphasis of the Reformation was upon a twofold understanding of righteousness. Firstly, in justification there is the imputation of the righteousness of Christ and secondly, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, there is the living out of the righteousness of sanctification. This is well expressed, for example, by Martin Luther:
The English Reformer, John Hooper, says:
Thus, while the Reformation teaching of faith alone (sola fide) means a repudiation of all works as necessary for justification, it is not a repudiation of works in general. The Reformers unanimously insisted on the necessity for the works of sanctification.
The Results of Justification
Justification is an eternal declaration of God which happens the moment an individual is united to Christ. It is not a process dependent upon the works of an individual but an instantaneous act of God. The sinner is translated out of a state of sin and enmity with God into a state of forgiveness and acceptance with him. He is reconciled to and has peace with God (Rom. 5:1). He is set free from all judgment and condemnation (Rom. 8:1). The believer is brought into a filial relationship with God through the New Covenant. He is adopted—made a child of God (Rom. 8:15–17; Eph. 1:5; 1 Jn. 3:1–2). It is not uncommon in the polemics between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism for Roman Catholics to misrepresent the true teaching of the Reformation. All too often Roman apologists give the impression that imputed righteousness in justification is the totality of the Protestant teaching on salvation—that it includes nothing more. There is rarely any mention made that the true position of the Reformation is an affirmation not only of imputed righteousness for justification but also of sanctification, regeneration and adoption. Even a cursory reading of Reformed theology reveals this to be the case. For example, with respect to the teaching of adoption the Westminster Confession states:
When an individual is truly saved he is adopted into the family of God. But adoption is based upon the truth of justification. Scripture makes this point when it says: "But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons." (Gal. 4:4–5). Our adoption as sons can only become a reality if Christ redeems us from the law by bearing its curse for us. Our entire relationship with God, then, is grounded upon a legal declaration sealed in blood—the blood of the Lamb of God who gave himself as a propitiatory sacrifice for sin to satisfy the just claims of the law of God. The believer moves out of the courtroom of God the Judge into the home of God the Father only because Another, our Lord Jesus Christ, stood in his place to bear the consequences of a transgressed law.
Because justification is completely dependent on the work of Christ, it is perfect and eternal in nature. Christ imparts eternal life (Jn. 3:16), and his work accomplishes an eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12) and provides an eternal inheritance (Heb. 9:15; 1 Pet. 1:4). Once a man is justified, therefore, he cannot lose that grace. The scriptures speak with certainty about the assurance of eternal salvation. Jesus himself makes the following statements:
Justification is a state of forgiveness and acceptance with God which is as perfect and eternal as Christ’s own standing. It cannot be improved upon and it cannot be lost:
William A. Webster is a business man, living with his wife and children in Battle Ground, Washington. He is the author of: The Christian: Following Christ as Lord, Salvation, The Bible, and Roman Catholicism and The Church of Rome at the Bar of History. He is a founder of Christian resources, Inc., a tape and book ministry dedicated to teaching and evangelism.
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