Justification: Declared Not Guilty
Topic: Topical Sermons Passage: Romans 1:1–6:23
When the Apostle Paul wrote to a young church in the imperial city of Rome, he did so with the purpose of making certain that the faith of these new Christians was based upon a solid theological foundation. He had never met them, but he hoped to visit them soon. And when he came, he wanted to find them growing and prospering in their faith. His letter has been described as “the Magna Carta of the Christian faith” because within it he declares that “the righteousness of God has been clearly revealed in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
In its opening chapter he makes clear that he is “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
In order to understand the reason for his confidence as clearly as Paul meant for it to be understood, we would have to read the entire epistle. We don’t have time to do that this morning, but in a few moments I would like to take a brief walk with you through its first six chapters in order to lay the foundation for our discussion of “justification.” So if you will turn with me to Romans 3—found on page 940 in the Bibles under the seat in front of you—I would like to begin by reading verses 21 through 26. Please follow along:
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-26)
As we continue our climb up the Ordo Salutis ladder we arrive this morning at the doctrine of “justification.” Having discovered the doctrines of grace which would become the seeds for the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther wrote and spoke extensively on this subject. If one place, he said, “The loss of the doctrine of justification involves the loss of all Christian doctrine.” And in a similar vein, he added in another place, “Justification by faith alone is the article upon which the church stands or falls.”
In his brief history of the Reformation, Michael Reeves concurs, adding, “Justification is what made the Reformation the Reformation.”
You and I have been dealing with some pretty “heady” theological terms in recent weeks, and we still have a few more to go. One of the reasons for this present series on the great doctrines related to salvation is that we are able to get our hands on—and in some cases wrestle with—what the Bible says with regard to what being a Christian means. As we consider “justification” today, we should probably begin by discussing...
The meaning of “justification.”
I’m not really sure where it began or who may have originated it, but someone has defined “justification” as meaning “just as if I had never sinned.” In the sense of one’s standing with God after having been “declared righteous,” I suppose I can see what the originator of that phrase may have meant. Nevertheless, it is an inadequate description that falls woefully short of what took place when God purchased my “justification” through the death of His Son. It is much more accurate to say that “justification” is what happens to me “because I have sinned.” If I had never sinned, I would need no “justification.” As it is, it is precisely because I am a sinner that I stand in dire need of God’s “justifying” grace.
At its core, we are dealing with a legal or forensic term, the basic idea of which is “acquittal.” Generally speaking, “justification” refers to “conformity to an ethical or moral standard.” More often than not, when the Bible speaks of “justification,” it refers to “a right standing with God.” It is a state known as “righteousness.” In fact, in both the Old and New Testaments, the same family of words that are commonly used to translate “righteous” (“sadeq” and “δικαιοs”) are also used to translate “just.”
From before the days of Job, spiritually honest men and women have sought to know how they could gain “right standing” with the Lord. Job himself asked, “How can a man be in the right with God?” (Job 9:2 and 25:4). Although God’s answer would come progressively through His prophets in Old Testament times, it did not arrive in its full and complete form until the advent of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is there that we learn that by being “in Christ,” a believer partakes of His righteous work on the cross, which not only brings forgiveness of sins but also declares the believer to be “righteous” before God.
That last statement is very important. The believer is “declared to be righteous”...he is not “made righteous.” We will say more about that shortly, but for now the evidence of that fact is that even after entering into a saving relationship with Christ through faith, he or she continues to struggle with sin (cf. Romans 7:7-25). Indeed, the very fact that we struggle with, rather than yielding to sin provides a measure of assurance that we are “in Christ.” We will discuss that more when we get to the doctrine of sanctification.
It is not my intention to lose you in an “ocean of words” this morning, but it is at times helpful to consider how those who have framed our understanding of theology labored for precision in defining these terms. Citing the “Golden Chain of Redemption” from Romans 8, The Westminster Confession, drawn up in 1646, states with regard to “justification”:
Those whom God effectually calleth, He also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone.
Shortly thereafter, the Puritan theologian John Owen, expressed his understanding of “justification” by calling it...
...the gracious free act of God, imputing the righteousness of Christ to a believing sinner and for that speaking peace unto his conscience, in the pardon of his sin, pronouncing him to be just and accepted before him.
James P. Boyce, the founding president of Southern Seminary, was adamant in declaring, “No doctrine of Scripture is more important than that of justification.” He defined it in this manner:
Justification is a judicial act of God, by which, on account of the meritorious work of Christ, imputed to a sinner and received by him through that faith which vitally unites him to his substitute and Saviour, God declares that sinner to be free from the demands of the law, and entitled to the rewards due to the obedience of that substitute.
At the risk of oversimplifying a doctrine that is anything but simple, we turn once again to Wayne Grudem, who has stated in clearer terms...
Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight.
So, there you have it. Putting all of those together, I propose to you that justification is the judicial act of God in which He declares the believing sinner to be righteous on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
When Job asked, “How can a man be in the right with God?” he was dealing with a dilemma that is far more profound that any of us realize. Simply put, it is to ask, “How a just God can remain just while justifying an unjust sinner.”
The answer, as we will see, is found in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. As mentioned a moment ago, I would like to invite you to take a brisk stroll with me through the first six chapters of Romans. Please follow along in your Bible, because within this extended session we find...
The basis of “justification.”
As we have already alluded, Paul begins in verse 16 of chapter 1 by saying he is “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” He tells us why in verse 17, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” That last phrase is a quote lifted from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk (2:4), suggesting that salvation has always come—even before the cross—on the basis of one placing faith in the revealed truth of God.
Immediately following that initial statement, the apostle adds in verse 18, that men by nature suppress God’s truth by their “unrighteousness,” thereby incurring “the wrath of God.” The remainder of chapter 1 is a stunning indictment against all of man’s “unrighteous” deeds, which over time only become more and more evil and result in greater and greater alienation from God.
In the first eleven verses of chapter 2, we learn that “God’s righteous judgment” is the fate of “every human being who does evil,” which, as we shall soon see, includes us all. Verse 13 tells us that it is only “the doers of the law who will be justified,” which, as we shall also soon see, refers to none of us.
We need pause here for a moment, because it is necessary for us to stop and realize that “justification” is not an isolated concept understood to exist in a vacuum. Instead, it is a critical part of the overall biblical understanding—seen most notably in the Old Testament—that God is a God of law. When the Bible speaks of God’s law, we need to recognize that such a designation refers not simply to a demand that God makes on His people. Rather, it is the way by which God governs His universe. In other words, God can always be relied upon to act in a manner that is consistent with His fixed, predetermined pattern and plan.
There are many verses of Scripture we could extract in support of this. For example, even before giving the Law to Moses to pass along to His people, God refers to Himself as “the Judge of all the earth” in Genesis 18:25. He is later referred to as “our lawgiver” In Isaiah 33:22. And even in the New Testament He is spoken of as “the righteous judge” in 2 Timothy 4:8.
Elaborating on this a little more, everything God does is “right.” That is because, as the most Supreme Being in the universe, He is the standard of “righteousness,” and He acts according to His own good pleasure. Nothing limits God but His own desires. To put it bluntly, He is the law!
The problem that creates for us is that we are lawbreakers.
This is demonstrated by our propensity to sin, because the Bible labels sin as “lawlessness” (cf. 1 John 3:4). By our actions, words, and motives we are “transgressor(s) of the law” (cf. James 2:11). And as Romans 3:5 clearly states, it is “our unrighteousness (which) serves to show the righteousness of God.” In other words it is against the dark backdrop of our sin that the brilliance of the Lord’s “righteousness” is displayed.
And, as we have mentioned, every last one of us stands condemned when measured by the standard of God’s unblemished holy and righteous character. Lest you think that you may have somehow eluded such an indictment, look carefully at verses 10 through 12 of Romans 3.
“None is righteous, no not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
You and I are included in this condemnation every bit as much as if our names and pictures were printed on this page in our Bibles. We are all in a helpless situation of having a sin-problem that separates us from God our Creator and being hopeless to do anything about.
Our crying need is to be declared “righteous” by God—to be “justified”—in His sight. The reason for that is at least twofold. First of all, as Psalm 145:17 declares, “The LORD is righteous in all his ways.” In fact, He is the only truly “righteous” Being in the entire universe, and it is with this One you and I must deal.
But secondly, man’s spiritual blindness inherently leads him to declare himself to be “righteous,” when he is anything but. Jesus chastised the Pharisees of His day saying, “You are those who justify themselves before men, but God knows your hearts” (Luke 16:15).
Therefore, we are left with a seemingly insurmountable problem. But do you recall the verses I read for you when we began this message? They were lifted from this very chapter. Let’s again read verses 21 through 26 with the background we have just seen in view:
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Could that be “light” that we now see...light that is able to lead us out of our darkened tunnel that we have been led into by our sin? Surely it is. So let’s proceed in Romans. Using Abraham as the prototype, Paul argues in chapter 4 that this great patriarch became the recipient of God’s promises on the basis of faith. Notice verse 3: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” How was it that Abraham was able to be “justified” or gain “right standing” with God? It was by faith “in him who justifies the ungodly.” Technically, it wasn’t his faith, per se, that saved him, but rather the One in whom his faith was placed. And when he took the Lord at His Word, “righteousness” was “credited” to his account. So, how are you and I justified? In the very same way...by faith.
Having thus laid the foundation for “justification by faith,” the apostle begins to supply the details of that process in chapter 5. In verse 1, he assumes that his readers have exercised genuine saving faith, and he writes, “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus.” Here we are plainly told that “peace with God” or “justification” comes to us as a result of the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Verse 8 is one of the most helpful verses in all of Scripture with regard to understanding “peace with God.” There we read that “God shows (or demonstrates) his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The implication of such a magnanimous sacrifice on our behalf is explained in verse 9: “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” Praise the Lord! Is not this the answer for which we have sought since our plight was exposed in the earlier chapters of this letter?
But the question remains...it is the same question that the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas in Acts 16:30, “What must I do to be saved.” The answer then and the answer now are one and the same: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
Paul says as much here in Romans 5:17, calling it “the free gift of righteousness.” And in the very next verse he adds, that it is through Christ’s “one act of righteousness” that “justification” is made available for all who would receive it. This chapter concludes by affirming that the priceless outcome of one’s “justification” is “eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Chapter 6 presents a charge to those who have become beneficiaries of God’s gracious gift to live lives that reflect their “righteous” standing. In verses 12 and 13 Paul writes, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members as instruments for righteousness.” That is because, as verse 18 argues, those who have been “declared righteous” have been “set free from sin, (having now ) become slaves of righteousness.”
The Lord of Scripture believed this to be such a critical matter for us to comprehend that He devoted an entire epistle to explaining it in detail. These first six chapters of Romans lay the foundation of what the Bible refers to as the “justification” of the believer.
I have devoted considerable time to pointing out that foundation. The reason is that we see from Scripture itself that we, as human beings, are fundamentally flawed by sin and apart from God’s sovereign mediating grace made possible through the redemptive death of His Son, we are left without hope in attaining right standing with Him.
Building upon this foundation, there are some other things of which we need to take note. Although we will move with greater haste, it is not to minimize their importance. We need, for example to consider...
The cause of “justification.”
In a word, it is “grace” or the “undeserved favor” of God. Looking once again at Romans 3:24, we read that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” When Christ died on the cross He purchased or bought—which is what the word “redemption” means—those who would be His, making them His own and granting to them the “gift” of “righteousness.” Elsewhere—specifically in Titus 3:7—we read that the result of such a lavish “gift” is that “being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
To employ two additional theological terms, God’s wrath toward us was “propitiated” as a result of the sinless sacrifice of His Son on our behalf, so that He is now free to act in grace toward those who turn to Him in repentance and faith. What that means practically for the believer is that he and God are no longer enemies, but friends. Theologically speaking they have been “reconciled.”
Given a thousand lifetimes, there is no amount of good that we could ever do—even if we were able to do good—that could possibly merit for us a single moment of God’s righteous favor. It took the sacrificial death of a sinless Savior, namely Jesus Christ, to make that happen. In Paul’s familiar words from Ephesians 2:8 and 9—words that are cited frequently in this context—it is “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” And what a priceless gift it is!
That passage gives us not only the cause but also...
The condition of “justification.”
“By grace you have been saved through faith...” But Ephesians 2 isn’t the only place where that great truth is borne out.
In Romans 3:28, for example, we are reminded that “One is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” There is also Romans 4:5, which says, “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” Then in Romans 5:1, we find that condition confirmed as Paul writes, “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul’s letter to the Galatians—believed to be the first epistle that he wrote—adds weight to the argument. There, in chapter 2 and verse 16, he elaborates, saying, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
As if drawing the argument to a conclusion, in chapter 3 and verse 11 of that same letter, the apostle writes, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
So let’s be perfectly clear. The cause of one’s “justification” is the sheer grace of God, and the condition for having God’s “righteousness” credited to one’s account is faith. What is left for us is to highlight some of...
The benefits of “justification.”
There are many, but we will mention just seven with a verse of support for each:
- There is, first of all, the deliverance from future judgment. Romans 5:9 says, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath to come.”
- Then there is the reception of life. By contrasting Adam’s act of disobedience with the perfect act of obedience by Christ, Romans 5:18 concludes, “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.”
- Next there is peace with God. As we have seen already in Romans 5:1, “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
- Then there is the forgiveness of sin. Romans 8:1 is one of the most encouraging verses in the entire New Testament for those who have been “declared righteous by God: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
- Next there is the inheritance of eternal life. According to Titus 3:7, “So that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
- Then there is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. In 2 Corinthians 5:21, we read that it was “For our sake he made (Christ) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Some of you may not be familiar with the term “imputation” or the doctrine it represents, so let me pause long enough to explain. The doctrine of imputation teaches that the “unrighteousness” of believing sinners was placed on Christ when He died on the cross, while at the same time His “righteousness” is “credited” to their account. Although Romans 1:25 condemned men for “exchang(ing) the truth about God for a lie,” Christ stepped forward and offered us a greater “exchange.” He willingly took the sins of those who confess Him as Lord and Savior and “exchanged” them for His “righteousness.” Technically speaking, sinners are not “justified” because they were “regenerated” (as we considered two Sundays ago), but because Jesus has paid the penalty of their sins and applied all of His benefits to them.
- And finally, at least in this brief list of the benefits of “justification,” there is the assurance of future glorification. As we have seen several times already in this series in the “Golden Chain of Redemption,” Romans 8:30 assures us that “Those whom he justified he also glorified.” The past tense of those verbs is significant. If you have been to the cross of Christ and acknowledged Him as your Savior and Lord, then you have been “declared righteous”—“justified”—and a place in His eternal presence has been reserved for you.
Our decision to work through the Ordo Salutis together is not in order that we quibble over theological terms and concepts. We have hoped that by coming to grips with the various aspects of these doctrines related to salvation, we will arrive at a more comprehensive understanding and gain a greater appreciation for what the writer of Hebrews calls “such a great salvation” (Hebrews 2:4).
Especially is that necessary as we consider the great doctrine of “justification.” As we bring to a conclusion our time together this morning, allow me to summarize what I have tried to say in one sentence: Justification means that we are accepted in the sight of God, not on the ground of what we ourselves have accomplished, but on account of the divine mercy shown to us in God’s forgiving love.
And that love was demonstrated “for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). It was He “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
As it was in the days of Habakkuk the prophet, so it remains today: “The righteous shall live by... faith” (Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17, Hebrews 10:38).
J.I. Packer has written that “The knowledge of one’s justification is the basis of all true religion. It has always been so; it always will be. The issue is not, can one state the doctrine with full biblical accuracy...but does one know its reality in experience? True religion does not begin till the question presses: how may I get rid of my sins? And it exists only in those who know the answer is: not be seeing what I can do for myself, but by putting my trust in Jesus and in what He did for me.”
As we bow our heads in prayer, ask yourself if you have done that.