In many ways the situation today is similar to that of the late medieval period. Cherished views are being questioned. There is uncertainty over terminology. In the popular mind great ignorance prevails. Added to this, the climate of opinion is against theological precision. People are more interested in feeling than in truth. We are living in what is called the post-modern era. It is an age of relativism, existentialism, mindless enthusiasm and pluralism. How can the gospel truth concerning justification be conveyed in this prevailing situation? Do we compromise the truth, capitulate to the modern trends or cleverly revise it to gain maximum support? Certainly not. There is a better way. We follow the long line of apostles, prophets, martyrs and preachers who have been gripped by the truth of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to God’s glory alone.
There is something very exciting and wonderful about justification. True, there are aspects of the subject which are mysterious, but that goes for every element of the Christian Faith. Justification is a message unique to Christianity. It needs to be preached with feeling and in a way that shows its relevance now and on into the twenty-first century. Not only must justification be preached from the pulpit it must be expressed in the way life is lived and be a constant theme in prayer and conversation.
In order to appreciate justification by faith alone, it is essential to take into account some very basic, yet important, biblical truths concerning God, humanity and Jesus Christ:
In this age of relativism, people have been led to believe that there are no moral absolutes. The argument is that behaviour that is acceptable in one period of history or in one particular culture may not be acceptable in another age or another culture. The conclusion is then drawn that what is right for one person need not be right for others. The ‘feel good factor’ is an example of this way of thinking. Street-level morality often works on the assumption that ‘if it feels good’ it must be right.
All is not relative, however. There are absolutes. Now and then, even today, belief in absolute standards of right and wrong comes to the surface as, for example, in popular and universal condemnation of apartheid in South Africa.
The Bible does not speak in abstract terms of what is right and just. Any idea of an impersonal and absolute standard of righteousness and justice to which both God and man must comply is foreign to the Scriptures. God is the Absolute One, and he is the ultimate standard for what is right. No-one is good but God. He only is the righteous one. ‘The LORD is righteous and my people and I are wicked’ confesses Pharaoh in Exodus 9:27. God has made known what is right and good in the Bible. The law, given by God through Moses, is not an arbitrary set of rules; it expresses the character of God who is holy, righteous and good (Romans 7:12). What is more, people without knowledge of God’s law show by their behaviour some knowledge of the divine moral standards (Romans 2:12-16). Humanity created by God, and in his image, is not ignorant of God’s law. In addition, God’s unique Son, Jesus Christ, reveals the divine character (John 14:9). The absolute standard of goodness and righteousness is seen not only in the letter of the law but in the Person of the God-man, the Word made flesh (John 1:14-18).
Attitude to Sin
God’s attitude toward all human depravity and sin is one of holy, righteous anger (Romans 1:18). He hates all sin and his wrath remains on all sinners who do not repent and believe the gospel (John 3:36; 1 Thessalonians 2:16). To think of God as wrathful and as an avenging God is not a pagan or archaic idea. Of course, there is no thought of God breaking out in an uncontrollable fit of rage as is often depicted in the Babylonian and Greek myths concerning the gods. To safeguard against any false notions, some scholars have redefined wrath in impersonal terms as no more than ‘an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe’.1 But this is unacceptable, for God’s wrath is as personal and as active as his love. It is an aspect of God’s holy nature whereby he refuses to condone rebellion against himself and his law. God’s wrath involves his righteous reaction in punishing those guilty of such rebellion (Numbers 11:1; Psalm 90:7-12; Hebrews 3:11). All present expressions of God’s vengeance are merely foretastes and warnings of what will happen on the day of judgment (Romans 9:22; Ephesians 5:6; 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10; Revelation 6:16; 19:15).
Ability to Justify Sinners
God is able to do the seemingly impossible: he justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5). But how can an unrighteous person be right before God? How can God who is righteous (and that includes being virtuous and fair as well as being true to any covenant obligations into which he has entered), possibly pronounce not guilty those who are guilty of rebellion against his Person and law? ‘He who justifies the guilty and he who condemns the innocent are both alike an abomination to the Lord’ (Proverbs 17:15 [AV]). It would be inconsistent with his own character and law for God to do such a thing. Yet, in his great love and concern for lost sinners, he has devised a way by which he can and does pronounce such people not guilty without compromising his own nature and standards (Romans 3:26).
Accountable to God
Human beings have been created by God and for God. God created man, male and female, in his own image for fellowship with himself and to rule over the earth on God’s behalf (Genesis 1:27-28; 5:22,24; Deuteronomy 6:5). It is because we are created in the divine image that there is this builtin sense of God and of right and wrong. Within the limits of our existence as finite creatures, we also have the god-like freedom and power to act according to our own individual wills. Human beings are not robots or machines. It is because we are made in this way that we are responsible for all our actions. This means that ultimately everyone of us must answer to God for our own personal lives. No church, no institution, no human agency can shield us from that final day of reckoning (Romans 2:16; Hebrews 9:27; Revelation 20:12).
Accused by God
All are agreed that there is something wrong with human beings. While many can point to a variety of secondary causes, it is the Bible alone which gets to the root of the matter. Humanity is fallen and the death sentence hangs over us all (Romans 3:23; 6:23a). Sin is rebellion against God (cf. Psalm 51:4). It is acting contrary to God’s law (1 John 3:4). We are all rebels. Every human being is a sinner by nature and practice. Already polluted by sin and associated with the guilt of Adam, every person is also guilty of breaking God’s law (I Kings 8:46; Romans 3:10-19; 5:12). In this condition we sinners are already in the condemned cell and deserve and can expect nothing but God’s wrath to be fully poured out on the day of judgment in final rejection and unending punishment (Mark 3:29; 9:43ff.; John 3:18-19, 36; Ephesians 2:3; Hebrews 10:27-39; 2 Peter 2:9; 3:7). Such is the plight of humanity in sin.
There are three matters, however, that need to be spelled out in more detail and re-emphasised in the light of recent trends in the evangelical world:
1. God our Judge
It must be remembered that humanity in sin is no longer in a parent/child relationship before God but rather in a judge/criminal relationship. The old liberal view, which had a devastating effect on the churches, frowned on the idea of human beings as criminals standing guilty before God the Judge. Though the law-court metaphor is used by Paul, they insisted that it should not be taken too seriously but should be viewed in the light of Jesus’ teaching on the lost son needing to find his way back home into the arms of the heavenly Father. They considered the Reformers to have been influenced by the legal concepts which so governed the culture of their day, and that is why justification as a legal term was so popular and important to them. In order to speak to the present situation, legal terminology is out of place. God’s dealings with his creatures, so the liberals argued, would be better represented by a more personal and fatherly approach.
Such sentiments have been expressed more recently in evangelical quarters and in a way that makes them sound acceptable. We are being told that we must liberate ourselves from the legal language of the sixteenth century and present justification in a way that meets the needs of twentieth-century Westerners.2
Legal terminology, however, is biblical and the sixteenth century Reformers were right to insist that justification refers to a legal pronouncement and not to a transformational activity. To preach justification in legal terms is therefore not a case of being in bondage to the culture and theological expressions of the sixteenth century; it is an instance of being true to the biblical revelation. In addition, the new emphasis on presenting ‘righteousness’ in covenantal terms, while helpful at many points, can lead to a denial of the biblical insistence that God’s relationship to people in their sin is not that of Father/children but of Judge/lawbreakers. Unless we understand rebellious humanity’s relationship before God in the legal terms employed by the Bible, we will do great damage to the gospel of justification, ‘making it seem simply irrelevant to man’s basic need’.3
2. Solidarity with Adam
The historicity of Adam is taken for granted by Paul and is essential to his whole argument in Romans 5:12-21. This is an embarrassment to those who jettison the Genesis account of the creation of human beings in favour of an evolutionary theory. According to the biblical record, Adam stands at the head of the human race in two senses. He is, in the first place, the natural head of the race. We are all descended from him. All the races of the world are ultimately of one stock as Paul reminds the Athenians (Acts 17:26). Adam also stands in a representative position as head of humanity. This is the point that Paul stresses in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22. The whole of humanity is bound up with the sin of Adam. All sinned ‘in Adam’; all stand condemned ‘in Adam’; all die ‘in Adam’. Adam was appointed by God as our federal or representative head so that his original sin is placed to our account. All of us sinned in and with him, so that when he fell, we fell. We all stand guilty and condemned ‘in Adam’.
This solidarity between Adam and the whole human race in sin and death is something which many find unacceptable today. Having a Western individualistic mentality we have difficulties with the idea of a corporate relationship to a person of the past. Furthermore, to suggest that we today are guilty and condemned for an act at the beginning of history by one man is regarded as grossly unfair, fatalistic and a failure to treat people as morally responsible for their own actions.4 It is not fatalistic, however, nor does it treat people as morally irresponsible. The fact that we are born with a corrupt and sinful nature does not mean that we are not responsible for our actions (Mark 7:21). We constantly commit sin from our earliest days by not doing what we ought to do and by doing what we ought not to do. For these personal transgressions and failures we are responsible before God. It is because of our present privatistic view of life that our solidarity with Adam is regarded as unfair. To human reason it may be thought offensive, but is such a reaction so surprising, given our natural dislike of the Bible’s general estimate of our sinful condition? Have we such a high opinion of ourselves to think that if we were in Adam’s position we would have handled the situation differently? Unless we appreciate our position by nature in Adam, we shall not see the significance of the representative nature of Christ and his activity for all those who belong to him. Lose the truth concerning the historical Adam and our solidarity in his sin and condemnation, and a further hole is made in the gospel of justification.
3. God punishes sinners
It is precisely because people are created in God’s image that hell awaits all unrepentant sinners. It is as divine image-bearers that we will be judged and punished. That image is defaced on account of sin but it is not eradicated (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). Just as it is a most heinous crime to take human life unlawfully because it involves killing a divine image-bearer, so human beings in their sinful rebellion are an affront to God and deserve the ultimate penalty, namely, the second death which is everlasting punishment in hell.
There is a growing tendency to play down God’s active involvement in the final destiny of the lost. The Church of England Report The Mystery of Salvation states that hell is ‘the ultimate affirmation of the reality of human freedom’. ‘It is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being.’5 The Bible presents hell, however, not only as the inevitable destiny of human choice but as the ultimate demonstration of the divine wrath, where all who are opposed to God experience divine punishment. It insists that vengeance or retribution belongs to God, he will exact the full penalty. ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay, says the Lord’ (Romans 12:19; cf. Deuteronomy 32:35).
In God’s mysterious yet amazing action the future judgment was brought forward and experienced by Christ the sinner’s substitute in order that all who belong to him might be justified here and now and escape the wrath to come. What happened to our Lord on the cross during those three hours of uncanny darkness and dereliction was absolute hell. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34). He endured the awful judgment of God in body, mind and spirit. That figure on the cross was still a human being. Even though his appearance ‘was marred beyond human likeness’ (Isaiah 52:14), he was not in a state of ‘total non-being’. The eternal punishment and torment which is to come on all those who do not belong to Jesus Christ was experienced by him. ‘The punishment that brought us peace was upon him’ (Isaiah 53:5). There on that central cross we have a glimpse on earth, in time and space, of what the future torment will be like. But the full horror cannot be depicted; it is veiled behind the three hours of silence and darkness.
God’s wrath or punishment of sinners is sometimes described as a cup. In the agony of Gethsemane Jesus prayed to the Father, ‘Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’ (Mark 14:36). Later, when Jesus had to rebuke Peter he said, ‘Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me’ (John 18:11). This cup of the Lord’s wrath is spoken of by the prophets, in such passages as Isaiah 51:17-23 and Jeremiah 25:15-29. When Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin for us, there on the cross he tasted the full fury of God’s wrath in the place of sinners. The same cup will also be poured out full strength on the day of judgment. ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image. ..he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath.. .The smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night’ (Revelation 14:9-11).
The Lord Jesus Christ who received the full force of that punishment when he became the sinner’s substitute is the very Person who has been appointed Judge on the Day of Judgment and ‘He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on that day...’ (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; cf. Matthew 10:28; 25:4 1; Mark 9:43).
Criticism is made of preachers of the past for trying to frighten people too much. When the Church of England Report was published the headlines in The Times read: ‘No pit, no torment: damnation is not as cruel as it is painted, says Anglican report.’6 Hell is a disturbing subject but would that more people were frightened into realising what awaits them if they do not repent and believe the gospel! ‘It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ for ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 10:3 1; 12:29; cf. Deuteronomy 4:24). ‘Fear him’, say Jesus, ‘who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him’ (Luke 12:5). Those who deny the conscious, everlasting punishment of sinners in hell are chipping away at the foundations of the gospel of justification.7
Unable to please God
We always live in hope. Even someone in a condemned cell thinks of the possibility either of escaping or of behaving so well that the authorities may consider amending the sentence. But there is no escape from God’s all-seeing eye. In addition, we cannot do anything to change the position in which we find ourselves. The human mind, will, affections, conscience are all contaminated by sin. Though people are capable of many fine and noble achievements, in God’s sight, they are all unclean and fallen. The understanding is darkened, the mind depraved and the heart corrupt (Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9; Ephesians 2:2-3; 4:17-19). Thus we are totally incapable of doing the good or amending the damage done. ‘Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God’ (Romans 8:8).
This is the tragedy of human beings made in the image of God. We are still human beings: sin has not made us into something else. We bear the divine image in a fallen state. Our whole beings are affected by sin and we are powerless to right the situation. When Paul says that ‘all have sinned’ he is not speaking merely in general terms of Jews and Gentiles as nations, as some maintain. No, this is the position of every single person conceived in the womb. There are no exceptions. It is into this bleak situation that the Gospel shines in all its glory and at the heart of it is the truth concerning justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to God’s glory alone.
The Divine Answer
Christ is God’s answer to the human predicament (John 3:16; Galatians 1:4; 4:4; Titus 3:4-7). The gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through the Old Testament prophets, concerns his Son who took human nature in order to live, suffer, die and rise from the dead for our sakes. This promised Person came as Jesus of Nazareth who was fully God and truly human — the God-Man. (Romans 1:1-4). It is through what God has done in Christ that sinners are justified.
The Last Adam
Jesus Christ is the second and final representative figure. As Adam was appointed by God to be the representative head of the old humanity, so now Christ is the divinely appointed head of the new humanity (1 Corinthians 15:45-47). The Puritan, Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680), commenting on Paul’s phraseology ‘the first man Adam’ and ‘the second man from heaven’, puts it very graphically in these words: ‘He speaks of them as if there had never been any more men in the world, nor were ever to be for time to come, except these two. And why? but because these two between them had all the rest of the Sons of men hanging at their girdle.’8 As ‘in Adam’ all die, so ‘in Christ’ all will be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22). As ‘in Adam’ all sinned so ‘in Christ’ all are righteous. Christ is the representative of his people so that the righteousness of his obedience is put to their account. We stand guiltless and justified ‘in Christ’ (Romans 5:15-21).
The Atoning Sacrifice
The substitutionary death of Jesus Christ as a sacrifice to propitiate or appease the wrath of God is another element so essential to the biblical doctrine of justification. By his atoning death Christ has made full, sufficient and final satisfaction for the sins of those he represents. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who placates God’s righteous wrath and who completely satisfies the demands of the law. The liberals of the past rejected Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice and many modern evangelicals seem to be embarrassed by it. Without it, however, it would be a sheer impossibility for God to justify sinners. Justification would be a legal fiction and a denial of God’s righteous nature and activity.
In order for God to remain true to his character, sin must be justly dealt with. Only through Christ, the sinless one, identifying himself with sinners and receiving what sin deserves can guilty sinners who rely on Christ be immune from punishment. God has presented Jesus Christ as the propitiatory sacrifice in order to ‘demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3:25-26). Sinners need not only a representative head who is righteous, but one who will act as their substitute and endure the penalty which their sin deserves.
Propitiation is sometimes presented as though Christ were appeasing God’s wrath in order to make God love us. This is completely wrong. It is the love of God in Christ which is at work propitiating his own righteous indignation for the benefit of us sinners. ‘Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10; cf. also 2:1-2 [AV]).
What is justification?
A popular evangelical explanation is to take the term justified to mean ‘just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned’. As with most clever little definitions it is too simplistic and could be misleading. While it indicates that there is no condemnation, it fails to show that believers will always be aware that they are guilty sinners who have been forgiven and pronounced not guilty on account of Christ’s obedience and atoning death.9
We may define justification like this:
Justification is a legal declaration. It has to do with the judge’s sentence or pronouncement. There is no question of people justifying themselves. Justification is not sinners trying to make excuses for themselves. It is ‘an instantaneous legal act of God’.10 The biblical doctrine of justification concerns the Judge of all the earth uttering a legal pronouncement in the offender’s favour, in advance of the day of judgment, which takes immediate effect and which cannot be changed. It means the offender can walk free. ‘If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (John 8:36). The person is in a right legal standing before the heavenly court. It is the opposite of condemnation (Romans 5:16,18; 8:33-34). ‘To condemn’ means to declare a person guilty and to pronounce sentence. ‘To justify’ is to declare a person not guilty, and acquitted of all charges. ‘He will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life’ (John 5:24; cf. 3:18).
This legal declaration includes two items:
1. Sinners are given a full pardon.
When dealing with justification, Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2 in Romans 4:6-8 showing that it involves the forgiveness of sins. ‘David . . .speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” Sin is covered. It is blotted out. The slate is wiped clean. The sinner will never be charged with it as a crime needing to be punished. Past, present and future sins have all been paid for. ‘Who is a God like you’, declares Micah, ‘who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance?’ (Micah 7:18) ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us’ (Psalm 103:12).
Some scholars have been content to leave it at that — full and free forgiveness. But this is only one aspect of the truth, wonderful though that is. Forgiveness is the negative aspect of justification. It has to do with our sins and involves the cancelling of the debt we owe. Though we have sinned God does not impute sin to us. Sin is no longer reckoned to our account. But there is more to it than that.
2. Sinners are declared righteous in God’s sight.
At the heart of justification is the truth that God declares the sinner to be righteous. It is the positive aspect of justification. Not only are our sins not reckoned to us but beyond that we have righteousness credited to us. God puts righteousness to our account. Some stop short of this. They hold that all that is meant is a new righteous status: justification is the statement of a person’s right legal status before the heavenly court. In line with the Reformers and Puritans, however, we would want to add that it includes ‘the merits of perfect righteousness before him’.11 Abraham was in a right legal status before God because he had righteousness, or ‘God-like behaviour’ credited to him (Genesis 15:6). Isaiah rejoiced greatly in God who ‘arrayed me in a robe of righteousness’ (Isaiah 61:10). In Romans 5:19 Paul argues that just as through the disobedience of the one man Adam the many were constituted sinners, so through the obedience of the one man Jesus Christ the many are constituted righteous. Ethical righteousness, the perfect undefiled righteousness of Christ is credited to the account of sinners and so they are declared righteous.12 It is in union with Christ that the pronouncement is made.
This legal verdict is therefore, not about making sinners righteous but declaring them righteous. Justification itself does not mean that God changes people within making them morally upright. That is something connected with regeneration and sanctification. If justification were about a change within people then they would have some righteous act of their own on which to depend. Justification is about the righteous activity of someone else which is put to the account of those who have absolutely nothing in themselves to plead. It is about a change of status not a change of nature. It concerns the righteousness of another put to the sinner’s account. When Paul states in Romans 5:19 that ‘the many will be made righteous’, he does not mean that they are made morally upright. The verb ‘to make’ there means ‘to appoint’, ‘to constitute’. He is referring to God’s judicial act in regarding them as righteous: they are set in the category of the righteous. In their legal status before God they are really and truly righteous because of the righteous character and work of Christ. Dr. Lloyd-Jones explains the meaning in this way: ‘Look at yourself in Adam; though you had done nothing you were declared a sinner. Look at yourself in Christ; and see that, though you have done nothing, you are declared to be righteous. That is the parallel.’13
It must be added that this legal pronouncement is not merely a declaring in the present of what people will one day become on the day of judgment. We object to those who, with the best of intentions, take away from the radical nature of God’s declaration. For instance, in reply to the claim that justification is a legal fiction, one respected author has written, ‘God does not treat us as if we were righteous; he declares that we will be righteous . . . The sinner, who one day will be righteous, can rejoice in that hope’.14 Of course sinners in Christ will be morally upright one day, and that will be because of God’s sanctifying work in us. But justification is a declaration of what sinners in Christ are now. God treats them as morally upright now. He declares not only that we will be righteous but that we are righteous in his sight. The grounds on which he does so, without there being any legal fiction, are Christ’s obedience and atoning death and are set out in more detail below. In the light of the context, the future tense in Romans 5:19 is used not of the final declaration on the judgment day but of any time in the present before the end whenever people believe the gospel.15 Whenever people trust Christ for salvation there and then they are declared righteous.
We drew attention in chapter eight to a common idea in ecumenical circles of thinking that when God justifies he not only pronounces the sinner righteous (declaring righteous) but his powerful word effects what is declared (making righteous).16 This is supported, so it is claimed, by Paul’s words in Romans 1:16 that the gospel is ‘the power of God unto salvation’. But we are not dealing with the wider topic of God’s salvation in general but the specific matter concerning justification. Dr. David Samuel, former Director of Church Society, pointed out in an article in The Times that when God condemns, he does not make someone a sinner. Why should we then think that God makes someone righteous when he justifies them?17
The origin of justification
Justification is due entirely to the sovereign, gracious activity of God towards undeserving people. It lies in God’s free, unmerited love towards sinners (‘it is by grace you have been saved’, Ephesians 2:5). Such sinners are ‘justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’ (Romans 3:24). Justification is not on account of any human achievement or initiative. We do not add any merit of our own. ‘No-one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law’ (Romans 3:20). ‘He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.. .having been justified by his grace’ (Titus 3:5-7).
The recipients of justification
The people who receive this gracious blessing from God are those who have no merits or works of their own to plead. In fact, we are taught that God ‘justifies the wicked’ (Romans 4:5). The ones whom God justifies are those who are sinners and enemies of God, who are already condemned, with the wrath of God already hanging over them (Romans 5:8, 10; 3:23; John 3:36). It is not those confident of their own righteousness who are justified but sinners like the despised tax collector (Luke 18:9-14; cf. 15:1-2). Gentiles ‘who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it’ while Israel, ‘who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it’ (Romans 9:30-31). Nevertheless, God ‘will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith’ (Romans 3:30).
The basis of justification
It is based entirely on the representative, substitutionary work of Jesus Christ. Isaiah 53:11-12 shows that justification comes through the Servant’s propitiatory sacrifice. Paul indicates this even more clearly in Romans 3:24-26. Peter also writes of Christ, the righteous one, suffering what our sins deserve, in order to bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18). Christ is also the representative head of his people. He is the righteous one and his people are righteous in him.
Christ alone is the ground and basis of justification. God’s gift of a righteous status is due to Christ’s work on behalf of sinners and this provides the only adequate answer to the charge of legal fiction. It stands on solid foundations. God is able to justify the ungodly on the grounds that:
1. The sinner’s guilt has been put to Christ’s account and he has paid the penalty. ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). God considered our sin as belonging to his Son, Jesus Christ, who was sinless, and he experienced the awful consequences. In so doing he has made full satisfaction for the believer’s sins. There is no more to pay. The punishment fell on Jesus Christ as he bore our sins in his own body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24).
2. Christ’s obedience or righteousness is reckoned to the sinner. ‘God credits righteousness’ to us (Romans 4:1-11). Not only do we need our sins cancelled but, as Wayne Grudem in his excellent presentation of the doctrine of justification puts it, ‘We must rather move from a point of moral neutrality to a point of having positive righteousness before God, the righteousness of a life of perfect obedience to him . . . God must declare us not to be merely neutral in his sight but actually to be righteous in his sight.18 Of course, Grudem is not suggesting that it is possible for any sinner actually to be in a neutral state. He is not describing the steps of a process — he is simply analysing the elements of justification. We are given the gift of Christ’s righteousness, the righteousness of his perfect life which culminated in his obedience even to the death of the cross (Philippians 2:7-8). Paul speaks of being found in Christ, ‘not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God...’ (Philippians 3:9; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
As we were constituted sinners in Adam, so in Christ we are constituted righteous. When Adam sinned his guilt was imputed to us all. Christ pleased his Father in every way and his righteousness is credited to all who belong to him. God sees the believing sinner in Christ ‘who has become for us...our righteousness’ (1 Corinthians 1:30). We stand in the perfect righteousness of Christ. Or to put it another way, we are clothed in his righteousness. It covers all those who belong to him. The clothing illustration picks up themes running throughout Scripture from the tunics which God gave Adam and Eve, the robe of righteousness of which Isaiah speaks, the wedding clothes of Jesus’ parable, to the white robes of the innumerable company of those from every nation standing before God’s throne (Genesis 3:21; Isaiah 61:10; Matthew 22:11-14; Revelation 7:9).
God does not justify on the ground of the Spirit’s work of regeneration and renewal. The Spirit’s work enabling the sinner to believe is not a basis of justification. God does not take into account any initial movement on our part and on that basis decides to justify us. When the Bible says that Abraham believed and it was accounted to him for righteousness, it was not his faith as an obedient act of personal righteousness that was the basis of God’s verdict. God credited righteousness ‘without works’. Abraham believed the gospel promise, he embraced the Christ who is the only ground (Hebrews 11:13; Romans 4:5,24-25).
The way to justification
It is through faith in Jesus Christ that the sinner is justified. God justifies the one ‘who believes in Jesus’ (Romans 3:26; 5:1; Galatians 2:16). It is not through faith and human works that we are justified but through faith alone. Not that faith justifies. Faith is only a channel. It is simply the instrument, the empty hand, through which we receive justification from God. Faith is not a work which God regards as meritorious. God does not even justify sinners because he sees faith as a sign of change in the sinner’s attitude. It is faith’s object that is the basis of justification, namely, Jesus Christ. Justification is never on the basis of faith but always through or by faith. Faith is personal reliance on the Person and work of Christ alone. ‘Faith is the absence of self-justification, or at least the recognition that self-justification will not avail with Almighty God’.19 It is self-despairing trust in the Lord Jesus Christ our only Saviour.
The results of justification
There are many consequences which flow from justification. They include the following:
1. Peace with God
This is the first item that Paul mentions in Romans 5:1, ‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ It is not some personal problem or trouble that is highlighted. Not even the blessing of inner tranquillity is mentioned. The first and fundamental blessing is God-centred rather than centred in any individual need. Right with God means the end of hostilities between God and human beings. Justification brings about reconciliation. The theme of reconciliation is picked up again further on in Romans 5:10-11. All the barriers and obstacles are now removed. The way is open into the very presence of God. We are welcomed home. The relationship which was broken by sin is re-established.
2. A state of grace
In Romans 5:2 Paul writes that through Jesus Christ ‘we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.’ It is a ‘blessed’, highly privileged position in which to be (cf. Matthew 5:3). It is to be no longer in the realm of sin, Satan, law and death (cf. Romans 6). This state is continuing and secure and enables us to come freely and confidently into God’s presence (Ephesians 3:12).
3. A glorious hope
Again in Romans 5:2 Paul adds, ‘And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God’. In 3:23 Paul speaks of all humanity having fallen short of the glory of God because of sin. Now, all those who are in this justified position through Christ can boast, exult, rejoice with confidence in the sure hope of sharing in and being part of that stunning greatness and splendour of God.
4. Adopted into God’s family
In both Romans and Galatians Paul is eager to show that one of the blessings of being justified is ‘that we might receive the full rights of sons’ (Galatians 4:5). Both justification and adoption are associated with the promise of the Spirit. In Galatians 3:1-5 and 3:14 Paul refers to the promise of the Spirit in connection with justification. Then in the next chapter this promise is associated with adoption. ‘Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir’ (4:6-7). In Romans 8 where Paul is dealing with the security of the believer as a result of being justified by faith alone (‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’) he presents teaching concerning the Spirit. The Spirit is the Spirit of life who applies the benefits which Christ won at Calvary. Those who are led by the Spirit are the sons of God. What is more, the indwelling Spirit also ‘makes us deeply aware that we now belong to God’20 as his own very dear children, using similar language as in the letter to the Galatians. ‘You received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15).
5. Membership of the covenant community
In chapter ten we criticised those who argued that justification means God’s declaration that those who believe in Christ are members of the covenant family. Such a definition gives pride of place to the horizontal state (a right status in the group) rather than the vertical (a right status with God). We all stand naked and exposed in our rebellious condition before God. What we need, if we are to be saved, is for God to clear us of guilt and to declare us right with himself.
Having emphasised that point, we can say that membership of the covenant family is one of the consequences of justification. In his treatment of justification in Galatians 3 and 4, Paul deals with the question of who belongs to the covenant community. There is only one people of God to which both Jewish and Gentile believers belong. Those who believe in Christ are members of the same covenant family as Abraham. ‘If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise’ (Galatians 3:29). Gentiles do not need to become Jews and carry out all the old covenant rituals in order to properly belong. It is not Christ plus any legal requirements that put us right with God and fit us to be members of his covenant community, but Christ alone. In Christ we are among the righteous people of God.
The implications of justification
1. For unbelievers and those trusting false hopes
There are both negative as well as positive points to consider. On the negative side it means that people can never by their religious observances and good works attract God’s attention and win for themselves places in heaven. It also means the end of thinking that our good points will finally balance out our bad points and God will be kind enough to overlook the bad and, with a nod and wink, get us into heaven. In addition, there is no hope for those who put their trust in the church and its sacraments to see them right in the end.
On the other hand, the message of justification by faith alone in Christ alone means good news for those who have tried to do their best and yet have failed even to live up to their own standards. There is also real hope for spiritual down-and-outs, people who are painfully aware that they will never make it. Indeed, all those who feel unworthy and weighed down with guilt need no longer despair. Jesus said: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28).
2. For believers in the Lord Jesus
The implications of this glorious truth for believers are enormous.
To appreciate the truth concerning justification is immensely liberating and is a source of true joy and contentment of spirit for the Christian. It is a great blessing to wake up each morning and realise that there is no need to strive for recognition, status and acceptance before God. ‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 5:1).
When doubts and fears arise we are to remember that Christ died and rose from the dead to bring about our justification (Romans 4:25). Our feelings may get the better of us and we may wonder whether we are Christians. Satan, the accuser of God’s people, will seek to point the finger at us and accuse us. At that time we can remember, ‘It is God who justifies us. Who is he that condemns?’ (Romans 8:33-34). God the Father sees us in Christ.
When Satan tempts me to despair,
Despite what Rome claims, such assurance of our justified state is not sinful presumption, because it does not rest on human ability but on the grace of God. What is more, there are no degrees of justification. We are either declared righteous like the tax-collector or we are not justified like the proud Pharisee. Neither can we be justified one day and not justified the next. The verdict of the final judgment is brought forward and is a once and for all declaration. Those whom God calls and justifies, he glorifies (Romans 8:30).
This also means we can face death confidently as we lean upon the once for all work of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no such place or state as purgatory. Jesus Christ has made full satisfaction for our sins. ‘Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people’ (Hebrews 9:27-28). The dying thief who trusted Christ was assured by Jesus that he would be, that very day, in paradise with the Lord (Luke 23:43). There is no need to pray for the dead or light candles for them, no need to hold requiem masses or to obtain indulgences. Those who die in Jesus die safely and are with Christ which is far better than anything in this present earthly life (Philippians 1:21-23). There is no sadder occasion than to be present at a funeral service where the doctrine of justification by faith alone is not known. On the other hand, there is something very uplifting and deeply moving to be present at the funeral of one who died believing and to see the family, through tears of loss and sorrow, having that inner joy and assurance in the Lord that comes to those who know the truth of justification.
My hope is built on nothing less
The righteous life
From this new justified position in Christ we are called to live the righteous life. Regeneration and sanctification must not be confused with justification as they are in Roman Catholic and ecumenical theology. Nevertheless, they are firmly linked to justification. Justification takes place in the context of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. The faith which rests on Christ is a living faith. It is a sign of new life, of a repentant, obedient spirit, and of a desire to please God (Titus 3:5-7; Ephesians 2:8-10).
At this point, what James says is important. He is concerned that faith is not a mere acceptance of facts. Such a faith demons have. ‘Faith without deeds is dead’ (2:14-20,26). The faith that embraces Christ for justification is a faith that issues in a righteous life. This leads James to speak of the works which a Christian does as an indication of this saving faith (2:21-24). In doing so he uses the word ‘justify’ to mean ‘to show to be righteous’, a meaning not uncommon in other parts of the Bible (cf. Jeremiah 3:11; Ezekiel 16: 51-52; Matthew 11:19; Luke 16:15; Romans 3:4; etc.). Abraham and Rahab were ‘justified by works’ in that they demonstrated their righteous status by their good actions.23 Our works arising out of our faith should indicate that our lives have been changed and that we are living the righteous life. We do not do good works to earn salvation but we are saved to do good works (Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 2:11-14).
Those who are righteous by God’s grace ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (Matthew 5:6; cf. Zephaniah 2:3). They have a deep longing which is expressed in prayer and action to see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. This means we shall not be satisfied with ourselves but we shall daily desire to be more like the Lord Jesus Christ. There will also be an ache in our hearts to see justice done in the world. The cry of the Psalmist will be our cry, ‘How long, O Lord, how long?’ We shall long to see lives changed as a result of the gospel. There will be a desperate calling out to God for spiritual awakening in the church that will spill over into society. In eager expectation we shall also pray, ‘Come, Lord Jesus’. We hunger for the ultimate satisfaction: for the day when sin will be forever removed, when we shall stand faultless and blameless before God’s throne, when all opposition to God will have gone, and when the Lord alone will be exalted. ‘But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness’ (2 Peter 3:13). This is ‘the hope of righteousness’ and it is the Spirit’s ministry to assure us of this hope (Galatians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 5:5; Ephesians 1:13-14).24
Discipline, not punishment
In all our troubles and difficulties we know that God is for us, not against us. ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28). He disciplines his children in order to conform them to the image of his Son (Hebrews 12:4-11). Such trials do have a purifying effect, but they must not be thought of as punishments, as though God were making us pay for our sins in some way. Christ alone has paid the full punishment which our sins deserve. We are not to live, then, in a spirit of fear and torment. ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1). Being justified we live neither in fear of purgatory nor of hell. In no way does God bring calamity on us to make us pay for past or present sins. The results of past and present sins we may well have to live with for the rest of our lives. In the same way, we all have to live with ailments, pain and death which are the results of Adam’s original sin. But thank God, we do not have to live with them for ever! We do not have to live with them after we pass from this life. After death, those who love the Lord are immediately in his presence and are at peace. ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them’ (Revelation 14:13). But there is more. The Bible speaks of glorification, of the resurrection of the body, the curse finally removed, no more pain or death, and of a new creation (Philippians 3:21; Revelation 21:1-4).
Our present justified state anticipates the verdict on the day of judgment and this present state is complete and final in Christ, because it is his perfect righteousness that is imputed to us. It is our personal sanctification that is incomplete in this life and it is our work as believers that will be judged on the final day.
Being declared right with God through faith in Jesus Christ means that we are now counted among the righteous and fit to be members of the covenant community. This does have implications for the church as the people of God. The visible family of God that meets as a local church should receive into membership all who look to Christ alone for salvation whatever their class, colour, sex or race. Jews do not have to become Gentiles in order to belong, neither do Gentiles need to become Jews (Galatians 3:26-29).
For there to be fellowship between churches, a clear statement of belief in the doctrine of justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, is essential. There can be no fellowship between churches where this doctrine is ignored, weakened or compromised. Merely to have a form of words that is agreeable to everyone is meaningless. How can there be cooperation in evangelism when the heart of the gospel, the message of justification, is left imprecise? How can people grow in grace when justification by faith alone is not preached and known? Happy the community of God’s people where all are one in spirit and mind in confessing this wonderful gospel truth!
O for a thousand tongues to sing
Look unto him, ye nations, own your God, ye fallen race;
A native of Wrexham, Philip Eveson obtained his initial degree in Biblical Studies at the University College of North Wales, Bangor. From there he was awarded a scholarship to read Theology at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He later gained his MTh in Hebrew and Aramaic Studies at King's College, London and is a member of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research. After a year at the Presbyterian Theological College, Aberystwyth, he served churches in South Wales before moving to London, where he has been Minister of Kensit Evangelical Church for the past twenty-three years. Since its inception in 1977, he has been Resident Tutor and Lecturer in Biblical Languages and Exegesis at the London Theological Seminary. Philip has also preached and lectured in the Far East and Ghana, is Chairman of the Red Sea Mission Team British Home Council and a Director of Go Teach. He is married to Jennifer and they have one daughter.