What is Justification and What Does Justification Mean for Christians?

Justification means “the action of showing something to be right or reasonable.” When something is “just” it is “right” or “true.” When God justifies someone, He declares him or her to be right and good.
Gavel on top of Bible

Because we are all human beings, we all sin (do things that are not good and make God sad) and therefore cannot be called “right” despite anything that we do to please God. Our list of good things we have done also includes the list of bad things we have done. Even our best behavior cannot make us right before God. But God declares us to be right (justifies us), because of His Son, Jesus Christ. When Jesus died on the cross, He took all of our sin and bad stuff and took it on himself. In turn, He gives us His righteousness. Because Jesus is God, he did not sin and therefore was perfect.

When God justifies people, He puts a “righteous” stamp on them; He takes away their “sinful” label and replaces it with a “righteous” one. To justify is to change something’s label from “wrong” to “right.” This is a one-time event; once God justifies a person, the “sinful” label is thrown away forever. God wants to save us from the stain of sin; this is known as justification. He cleanses us of our sins and puts a new label on us.

If we are not justified by what we do, how then are we justified? We are justified by grace through faith. We have already discussed that grace is “God’s unmerited favor towards us.” Justification is God’s gift to us. We cannot do anything to earn it; we do not deserve it. We receive this promise of justification by faith. Faith is simply belief or trust. When you have faith in someone, you trust them. You trust that they are going to do what they said they would do; this is faith. Therefore justification is a free gift from God that we receive by believing in Jesus and trusting Him. God himself gives us this faith and allows us to believe in Him and His promises.

A Deeper Look at Justification in the Bible

Justification is a divine act whereby God judicially declares a believing sinner to be righteous and acceptable before Him because Christ has bore the sinner’s sin on the cross and in turn has given the believing sinner His own righteousness (Phil 3:9; Rom. 4:3-8). The redemptive activity of Christ bearing our sins and imputing His righteousness upon us is the basis for our justification (2 Cor 5:21). Calvin called justification “the hinge on which the door of salvation turns.” It is based on Christ’s righteousness (Rom 3:24-26; 4:25; 5:15-21), brings the peace of God (Rom.5:1), salvation, and the giving of His spirit to those who believe. Justification by faith alone is the heart of the Gospel, and the Gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16).

Just as it is with sanctification, justification is a benefit of our union with Christ. It is because of our union with Christ that we are counted as righteous. John Piper writes [1]:

Christ counts us as having his righteousness in Christ because we are united to Christ by faith alone. That is, we are counted perfectly honoring and displaying the glory of God, which is the essence of God’s righteousness, and which is also the perfect fulfilling of the law. That is what God imputes to us and counts us as having because we are in Christ who perfectly honored God in his sinless life.

Our righteousness therefore is in Heaven, where we are united to Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father, not here on Earth. The basis for justification then is the vicarious work of Christ for us. Luther’s primary critique of the Roman Catholic Church’s view of justification was that they did not acknowledge that people are justified by grace through faith alone. The Council of Trent, the Catholic response to the Reformation, declared those who believed in justification by faith alone as cursed.

Justification and sanctification are benefits that flow from our union with Christ (Acts 16:31), but we must remember they are separate acts. Justification is the act of God declaring us righteous, while sanctification is the process by which we are made to be more Christ-like. Justification is a legal declaration that we are now righteous before God and deals with the legal ramifications of sin. We are no longer declared guilty in God’s court. Sanctification is the heart transformation that happens upon justification. We are new creatures in Christ, people who have been transformed by the Gospel. Both justification and sanctification are gifts by the grace of God (Eph. 2:8-10) and not based on any righteousness of our own (Rom. 5:6:8; 1 Peter 3:18).

Righteousness Through the Atoning Sacrifice of Jesus Christ

This righteousness is therefore imputed to us and it is an alien righteousness, meaning that it comes from outside of us (Jer 23:6). It is the imputed perfect righteousness of Christ which is the ground of the believer’s justification and salvation because imputed, not inherent, righteousness gives us the right to eternal life. John Owen wrote [2]:

And therefore, whereas our inherent righteousness is imperfect (they are to be pitied or despised, not to be contended withal, that are otherwise minded), if that be imputed unto us, we cannot be accepted on the account thereof as perfectly righteous without an error in judgment.

As stated above this righteousness is imputed to us, and it can only be made possible through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Christ’s death served as a perfect and complete sacrifice for the sins of all who believe. In Old Testament times, sacrifices had to be offered repeatedly because they could not completely and finally deal with sins. Christ is an effectual sacrifice because He is the perfect High Priest who was perfect in every way (Heb. 7:28, 10:5-15). While the Old Testament priests were not sinless themselves, Christ was perfect and without sin. It is only by the blood of Christ that we can be made clean.

What Can Wash Away My Sin?
Nothing But the Blood of Jesus

We are redeemed by the blood of Christ (1 John 1:7; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:20; Rom. 5:9). The Bible not only declares that Jesus bore the penalty of our sin for us (1 John 2:2; John 1:29), it also states that Christ became sin for us (Gal. 3:13; 2 Cor 5:21). Christ is the fulfillment of the Law and all the penalties that were due to God’s people for disobeying the Law were poured out onto Christ (Matt. 5:17-18; Rom 10:4). Because Christ has fulfilled the Law, obeying it completely and perfectly, we are no longer under the Law but under grace (Gal. 2:19, 3:24-25; Rom. 7:6). It was the active obedience of Christ that led him to the cross (Phil. 2:8).

Justification by Faith vs. Self-Righteousness

Tim Keller explains righteousness as “the validating performance record which opens doors” [3]. When you present a resume to an employer you are saying, “Look at my credentials; I am worthy of this job.” If you are good enough, you are accepted. The world works this way. You get out your performance record and if you are good enough you are accepted. So therefore we assume that God also works this way; we show him a list of our qualifications and if we meet certain goals then we are accepted by. Then Paul comes along and says there is a perfect and divine righteousness that comes to us as a gift, and once you have received it, by faith, you are accepted. You do not develop it on your own; it is a gift from God.

In the Bible, the same Greek word is used for “righteousness” and “justification” and the two are linked in Scripture. To justify yourself is to validate your worthiness. In the movie Chariots of Fire, as Harold Abrahams is preparing to run the 100 Meter Race in the 1924 Olympics, he says this, “And now in one hour’s time I will be out there again. I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence. But will I?”

So what does all of this mean for us today, in our day-to-day lives? Why does this matter? If we accept what Paul is saying, that this is a free righteousness, that we are justified freely, it changes everything. We are able to withstand anything, loss of money, loss of job status, because our righteousness and our justification is not based on our performance. Now our justification is from the Lord. Receiving this justification by grace through faith means to repent of your false righteousness, to transfer it from wealth, children, job security, to God. It is a righteousness that comes to you, not from you, and is the end of your struggle to justify your existence. Tim Keller writes [4]:

The gospel of justifying faith means that while Christians are, in themselves still sinful and sinning, yet in Christ, in God’s sight, they are accepted and righteous. So we can say that we are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope — at the very same time. This creates a radical new dynamic for personal growth. It means that the more you see your own flaws and sins, the more precious, electrifying, and amazing God’s grace appears to you. But on the other hand, the more aware you are of God’s grace and acceptance in Christ, the more able you are to drop your denials and self-defenses and admit the true dimensions and character of your sin.

We often talk about justification as simply being forgiveness but it is much more than that. It goes beyond forgiving someone; free justification is an invitation. When you are forgiven, essentially the other person is saying, “You may go. I will no longer hold your action against you.” But in the Bible justification is an invitation and the bestowal of a new status upon you. It is the bestowal of a status and all the benefits that comes from that new status. Through Christ God now says to us “you are welcome to all my love and presence.” In Galatians 4:4-7 Paul reminds the Galatians that because of God’s grace and Christ’s righteousness they are now adopted into God’s family (Rom 8:17; 1 Peter 1:4). They receive the blessings and promises given to Christ.

When we receive Christ’s promise of justification by grace through faith, we too have received all the promises and blessings given to Christ. All of our sins-past, present, and future, are forgiven, nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14), and we are made to be sons and daughters of the living God. We are then free to give up our efforts of self-justification and delight in the grace of God who has saved us for His glory.

Works Cited

[1] Piper, John. Future of Justification. 165.
[2] Owen, John. The Doctrine of Justification. 5:173, 267.
[3] Keller, Tim. “Justified by Faith.” Tim Keller Podcast. Redeemer Presbyterian Church. NYC. 25 May 2012.
[4] Keller, Tim. “Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: Living in Line with the Truth of the Gospel.” Redeemer Presbyterian Church. 2003.

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