What Justification Is
What is justification?
Herman Hoeksema defined it as an act of the grace of God, whereby He imputes, puts on the legal account of one who is guilty and condemned but elect His perfect righteousness in Christ, acquitting him of all his guilt and punishment on the grounds of the merit of Christ’s work, and giving to this sinner the right to eternal life. Justification is a part of salvation from sin in Christ as God applies salvation to each of His elect.
Scripture declares, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose. For whom he did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified, them He also glorified” (Romans 8:28-30).
This passage speaks of justification as a work of God—His legal declaration in the consciousness of the elect, called, believing sinner. When we speak of justification, we will be speaking of it as a part of the work of God in saving every elect sinner, giving to them salvation from sin in Christ. Justification is God declaring to the consciousness of His regenerated and called children that they are forgiven and righteous.
God by His Spirit speaks to the consciousness of the humbled and broken sinner of His act of changing his legal position before God, the Judge, from a state of guilt to a state of innocence. God speaks to the repenting sinner of His work of having justified him in Christ. Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican concludes with the publican going “to his house justified.”
The Pharisee and the publican went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stood and prayed with himself, “God I thank Thee, that I am not as other men are.” The publican found a place in a far corner and there He humbly pleaded for mercy — God’s undeserved pity for a miserable sinner. God spoke to the consciousness of that broken, humble sinner, working in him an awareness that God had done something for him. The humble sinner left the temple justified, rejoicing in the knowledge and assurance of his justification. Justification is the humble sinner hearing God declare that his legal status before the holy and righteous Judge is changed from one of guilt to one of innocence. Believing what God had spoken by His Spirit to his consciousness, the publican went home no longer beating his breast as he did in the temple, but happy with the blessedness of justification.
While God’s declaration of the justification of His elect children took place once at the cross of Christ, the justification which takes place in the consciousness of His children occurs repeatedly. Every time the sinner repents, God gives the humbled sinner the knowledge that all his sins and sinfulness are forgiven for Jesus’ sake.
Why it is that the children of the heavenly Father are taught to pray repeatedly: “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”?
Every time we pray the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer we are asking our Father in heaven to justify us, that is, not to impute to us our sins and the sinfulness which lies within us. Justification is repeated, not because God’s act of justifying is imperfect, but because the sinner repeatedly sins and needs to be told, over and over, that his sins are not imputed to him.
There are two major elements in God’s declaration of an elect sinner’s justification. The one is negative and the other is positive. The first element of justification is that God instructs the elect ungodly that he is forgiven, delivering him from all the guilt and shame of his sins. The sinner knows that he is only worthy of condemnation and his conscience condemns him (Luke 18:13).
But God declares him to be forgiven—perfect innocent. Though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin. God forgives. He takes away my condemnation, the penalty I deserve, the shame that comes with the penalty, and the consciousness of the guilt which drove the publican to beat his breast in the far corner of the temple. God declares that our sin is gone. He declares that in His judgment we are no longer worthy of being condemned.
For what can a justified sinner be condemned?
His sin is gone. Long ago a catechism teacher taught me that to be justified means “just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned.” The Heidelberg says, “As if I never had had, nor committed any sin.”
The second element of justification is God declaring to the consciousness of the elect sinner that he is righteous. Simply put, to be righteous is to be right in God’s sight because God’s law has been perfectly fulfilled. God declares that in Christ the believing sinner has fulfilled His law (Romans 5:19).
It does not matter what my sight sees or what others say they see in me. Righteousness is that God declares that I have done what is right, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me. It is the reality of this second element of justification which makes the simple definition of justification (just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned) simplistic, because it does not speak of righteousness. Justification means that God declares one to be righteous. This is a real righteousness. God, the perfect Judge declares the elect, regenerated, called sinner to be righteous. The justified sinner is aware that he is worthy to be condemned to everlasting damnation, but God, out of His own good pleasure, merely of grace, for the sake of Christ declares this sinner to be perfectly righteous, and thus worthy of intimate friendship with God, both now and eternally in heaven. The present relationship with God is that the justified one is a child of God, graciously adopted into His family. And he is an heir of eternal life. Children are heirs, co-heirs with Christ of everlasting life with God.
We must say one more thing about the righteousness which God reckons to the account of the justified. It is God declaring one to be righteous by imputation. This is not yet God making him righteous by infusing or by renewal. This latter is sanctification which always follows justification. The righteousness which is ours in justification is something which God, as the Judge, declares to be ours legally, by imputation. The righteousness which God gives to the sinner is only the righteousness of Jesus. We have none. And this righteousness is nothing less than God’s righteousness.
“By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets: even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe.”
It is the righteousness of God — His own righteousness. God’s own perfect righteousness is reckoned on our account because of the perfect work of Jesus Christ.
Jesus earned this absolutely perfect righteousness. He did so by His perfect obedience to God’s law and by His suffering all the penalty of our sins. In His life and suffering Jesus was made to be sin for us. He was reckoned among sinners. Our sins were imputed to Him, so He carried every one of our sins and all of our sinfulness. He came into the likeness of our sinful flesh in order to bear the wrath of God for all of our sins.
Romans 4:25 declares that He was delivered unto death because of, on account of, our offences. His work of bearing God’s wrath was a perfect work, performed out of loving obedience to God. This merited forgiveness and righteousness. He fully paid our debt and He earned for us such perfect righteousness that God had to raise Him from the dead. Jesus no longer belonged under death and in the grave. Every one of our sins and all of our sinfulness was forgiven.
Even as Jesus was delivered to death on account of our offences, so He was raised from the dead on account of our righteousness. His resurrection is proof that He had fully paid for all of our sin. When we see the empty tomb, then the Spirit communicates to us the truth of forgiveness, full and free. Our conscience may say the opposite. It may want us to look at all of our sins and to stare at the spiritual cesspool of sinfulness out of which all our sins arise. This would make us doubt our salvation. But the gospel points to the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His tomb is empty. He paid it all. We are justified. We are righteous.
By Ronald Van Overloop