The Doctrine Of Justification
This is perhaps the most important doctrine in the Christian faith, yet one of the most neglected. Understanding this doctrine is of the utmost importance. The question is really just this “How then can man be righteous before God?” Job 25:4.
The Doctrine Of Justification
This is perhaps in my own opinion what distinguishes true Christianity from all other religions and cults. Muslims would say that if your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, then you have earned yourself a right standing before God. Roman Catholics would say that one is justified by observing the sacraments (baptism, penance etc) . Jehovah's Witnesses would say that you must simply work your way into heaven to be justified at the end.
What is justification?
“Justification is a divine act where God declares the sinner to be innocent of his sins. It is a legal action in that God declares the sinner righteous.”
Justification is a one time act where God declares us righteous. Justification takes place in the courtroom of God.
Can works save us?
But can we really earn a right standing before God like the Muslims, Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses say? Can our good deeds really please and move God into declaring us righteous? The Bible says: “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isa 64:6) and “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Rom 8:8). So No, we cannot.
“Sin is the ultimate and only problem of humanity, and man’s problem with sin has two aspects, one internal and the other external: Not only does every fallen son of Adam have a bad heart; he also has a bad record in the eyes of God’s law. Sin both defiles him and condemns him; its power rules within him, and its penalty rests upon him. Man is both helpless and hopeless– his plight is truly impossible.” Charles Leiter
God requires perfect righteousness from birth, so even if I start living perfectly now, God's justice would still require that I be condemned to hell for the sins that I committed before this change. This would also imply that even if my good deeds outweigh the bad ones, I would still have to go to hell to suffer for the bad deeds. So man cannot be justified before God by doing any good work.
The Divine Dilemma
“He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, Both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD.” (Pro 17:15)
God says whoever justifies the wicked is an abomination to Him. Here's the dilemma: If God is just He cannot justify anyone without His justice being satisfied, He must punish sin. This is the dilemma that troubled Job. “How then can man be righteous before God? Or how can he be pure who is born of a woman?” (Job 25:4).
The only way that God can justify sinners is if one who is sinless should fulfil all the requirements of His law perfectly and suffer for the sins of the sinners. Jesus Christ is that Man, He fulfilled God's law and suffered in the place of all who believe in Him. And God imputed (counted) our sins to Him and His perfect righteousness to us.
How then are we justified?
“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-26)
Let us look at the above passages to answer our question:
“being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith”
We are justified by grace (unmerited favour) and not by works (cf. Rom 4:1-5). We do not and cannot earn justification, we will always fall short. So then we are justified by grace alone (Sola Gratia), through faith alone (Sola Fide), in Jesus Christ alone (Solus Christus) and to the Glory of God alone (Soli Deo Gloria). Jesus Christ turned away the wrath of God (propitiation) from us and satisfied God's justice.
Before this, Paul had said “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed… even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe”
Here Paul tells us of a righteousness that is not attained by doing the works of the law, but by simply having faith in Jesus Christ. This is how God can Justify us, because He imputes Christ's righteousness to all who believe in Him and He is pleased with them.
“to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
God cannot and will not overlook sin, all sin will be punished, either on the sinner or on Christ. So God did not overlook sin even in the Old Testament, He punished the sins of all who trusted in the Christ to come on His Son. So now God is just and also the justifier of wicked men because of Christ's life and death: His life for our righteousness and His death for our sins.
“Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.” (Romans 4:4)
“The Christian has a permanent standing of acceptance and favor with God, not because of his performance, but because of the righteousness of Another.” Charles Leiter
What about verses that seem to say a man is justified by works?
There are people who say the Bible contradicts itself with this justification stuff. Paul says we are justified by faith alone, whereas James say we are justified by works. So who is right and is there a contradiction?
“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” (Romans 3:28)
“You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” (James 2:24)
At face value this might seem like there is a contradiction. But a simple study of both passages will show you no contradiction. Paul is talking about being justified before God and James is talking about being justified before men. So what James is talking about is proving your faith by works. James is showing that works must follow our justification (James 2:20), even though they don't bring it.
Perhaps the best place to study justification is The Epistle to the Galatians. Here a group called the Judaizers had invaded the church and teaching that gentile Christians must become circumcised in order to be saved (justified) and also follow the law. Paul laboured hard to show the Galatians that we are not justified by any work of ourselves, but that of Christ alone. And while good works don't save us, they are the fruit of our salvation. Here are some verses to consider:
“knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)
“I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” (Galatians 2:21)
“just as Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”” (Galatians 3:6)
“But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” (Galatians 3:11)
“You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” (Galatians 5:4)
Justification is a one time divine act of God where we are declared righteous before God. We are not justified by works. We are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and our faith must produce good works.
Soli Deo Gloria