‘To justify’ is a legal term meaning ‘to acquit’, ‘to declare righteous.’ It is the opposite of ‘to condemn’.
According to the Puritan Thomas Watson, ‘justification is the very hinge and pillar of Christianity. An error about justification is dangerous, like a defect in a foundation. Justification by Christ is a spring of the water of life. To have the poison of corrupt doctrine cast into this spring is damnable.’
J.I. Packer writes that ‘in Scripture, God is ‘the Judge of all the earth’, (Ge 18:25) and his dealings with men are constantly described in forensic terms. Righteousness, i.e. conformity with his law, is what he requires of men, and he shows his own righteousness as Judge in taking vengeance on those who fall short of it (cf. Ps 7:11, RV; Isa 5:16; 10:22; Acts 17:31; Rom 2:5; 3:5f). There is no hope for anyone if God’s verdict goes against him.’ (New Bible Dictionary)
The heart of the gospel
J.I. Packer says that ‘the doctrine of justification determines the whole character of Christianity as a religion of grace and faith:-
- It defines the saving significance of Christ’s life and death by relating both to God’s law, Rom 3:24ff; 5:15ff.
- It displays God’s justice in condemning and punishing sin, his mercy in pardoning and accepting sinners, and his wisdom in exercising both attributes harmoniously together through Christ, Rom 3:23ff.
- It makes clear what faith is – belief in Christ’s atoning death and justifying resurrection, Rom 4:23ff; 108ff, and trust in him alone for righteousness, Phil 3:8f.
- It makes clear what Christian morality is – law-keeping out of gratitude to the Saviour whose gift of righteousness made law-keeping needless for acceptance, Rom 7:1-6; 12:1f.
- It explains all hints, prophecies, and instances of salvation in the Old Testament, Rom 1:17; 3:21; 4:1ff, and provides the basis on which Christianity becomes a religion for the world, Rom 1:16; 3:29f.
It is the heart of the gospel.’
(Art. ‘Justification’ in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, numbering added)
Scripture teaches the following aspects of justification:-
1. Its source. We are justified ‘by grace’, Rom 3:24. We did not deserve it, and it is given to us for nothing.
2. Its ground. We are justified ‘through his blood, Rom 5:9. We are acquited, Rom 8:1, because God ‘condemned sin’ in Jesus, Rom 8:3.
3. Its sphere. We are justified ‘in Christ’, Gal 2:17. We are justified when we are united to Christ.
4. Its means. We are justified ‘by faith’, Rom 3:28. And it is by faith alone, since it is altogether apart from observing the law. Faith is not itself a work, but is simply the hand which takes the gift.
5. Its fruit. We are justified unto good works, Eph 2:8-10.
(See Stott, Evangelical truth, 93f.)
Stott also discusses the topic in his book The Cross of Christ. Justification, he says, uses a picture drawn from the lawcourt. If propitiation speaks of God setting aside his own wrath by means of self-sacrifice, and redemption speaks of our rescue at the cost of the death of his Son, then justification speaks of the verdict of ‘not guilty’ pronounced on those who have been thus redeemed.
The doctrine of justification was recognised by the 16th-century Reformers and their heirs as being of critical importance. Luther regarded it as ‘the principal article of all Christian doctrine, which maketh true Christians indeed.’
But some have objected to it:-
Some reject all use of legal categories in talk about salvation. God is Father, they say, not Judge. But Scripture itself balances the legal categories with the personal ones.
Others reject justification as a product of Paul’s legal mind. But what Paul says is apostolic, and therefore authoritative. And, in any case, Jesus used the idea of justification before Paul did (e.g. Lk 18:14), and Isaiah before that (Isa 53:11).
Again, Roman Catholics have historically rejected the teaching of the Reformers on justification, maintaining that it include ‘imparted’ grace or ‘infused righteousness’, and that ‘mortal sin’ committed after baptism has to be purged by confession and penance (and, if present at death, by purgatory). However, Hans Kung’s work on Barth’s doctrine of justification, together with the teaching of the 2nd Vatican Council, have gone some way towards bridging the chasm. Still, Evangelicals will feel the need to press Roman Catholics on sin, grace, faith and works. And Roman Catholics will feel a need to press Evangelicals on whether justification implies, not only a change of status before God, but also a change of character and conduct.
There is no doubt that we Evangelicals, in our zeal to emphasise the utter freeness of salvation, have sometimes been incautious in our phraseology, and have given the impression that good works are of no importance. But then the apostle Paul could evidently be incautious too, since his critics flung exactly the same charge at him, which led him to cry: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?” (Rom 6:1)…What Paul was doing by [his] response was to show that justification is not the only image of salvation.
God’s work for us, in justification, and his work in us, in regeneration, are inseparable twins. The first is an external declaration; the second is an inner transformation.
We may summarise Paul’s doctrine of justification as follows:-
- Its source. We are justified ‘by grace’, Rom 3:24. We did not deserve it, and it is given to us for nothing.
- Its ground. We are justified ‘through his blood, Rom 5:9. We are acquited, Rom 8:1, because God ‘condemned sin’ in Jesus, Rom 8:3.
- Its means. We are justified ‘by faith’, Rom 3:28. And it is by faith alone, since it is altogether apart from observing the law. Faith is not itself a work, but is simply the hand which takes the gift.
- Its effects. We are justified ‘in Christ’, Gal 2:17. We are justified when we are united to Christ. We thereby gain membership of his Messianic community, and are eager to do good works, Eph 2:8-10.
Interestingly, the teaching of N.T. Wright is both quoted and alluded to at this point. Here is the quote:
Tom Wright is surely correct in his emphasis that ‘justification is not an individualist’s charter, but God’s declaration that we belong to the covenant community.’
And here is the allusion:-
Justification is an eschatological event. It brings forward into the present the verdict which belongs to the last judgment. That is why the church is a community of hope, which looks with humble confidence into the future.
The Cross of Christ, 182-192