In justification, God declares us righteous. In sanctification and glorification, which we explore in future columns, He makes us so. These interlocking works of God ensure that followers of Jesus are fully conformed to the image of Christ.
The Greek noun dikaiosis, or justification, describes the act of God declaring sinners righteous on the basis of the finished work of Christ. Believing sinners are acquitted – freed of all guilt – as their sins are transferred to the account of Christ and exchanged for Christ’s righteousness.
Theologians often refer to justification as forensic, which means “having to do with legal proceedings.” This legal declaration does not change our internal character. A judge does not make defendants guilty or innocent; he simply declares them to be one or the other.
Regeneration, indwelling, and sanctification are ways God works salvation in us, making us spiritually alive, taking up permanent residence in our spirits, and conforming us to the image of Christ. But justification occurs outside of us. Put another way, the location of justification is heaven, where God declares believing sinners in right standing before Him.
The linchpin of salvation
In some respects, justification is the linchpin in God’s great work of salvation. It is His fundamental act of blessing by which He saves us from the past and secures us for the future. Paul places justification in the golden chain of redemption in Rom. 8:29-30. Those whom God foreknows, He predestines, calls, justifies, and glorifies.
Followers of Jesus may look backward at God’s foreknowledge, predestination, and calling. But from the standpoint of justification, we also look forward, knowing God will complete the good work He began in us (Phil. 1:6).
Justification is grounded in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. The apostle Paul puts it succinctly: “He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Paul further writes, “So then, as through one trespass [Adam’s] there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act [Christ’s] there is justification leading to life for everyone” (Rom. 5:18).
Justification is received by faith, apart from human effort (Rom. 5:1; Gal. 3:24). It is a one-time, instantaneous, non-repeatable act of God, placing us in right standing before His holy bench and ensuring that we are never subject to double jeopardy. To add works to justification, such as returning to old covenant practices that served as types and shadows of greater things to come, is to trample on the Son of God and regard as profane the blood of the new covenant (Heb. 10:29).
Justification is not to be confused with sanctification, which is the work of God setting believers apart and engaging us in a lifelong process by which we become more Christlike (1 Thess. 5:23). Justification and sanctification may be distinguished but not separated; both are divine elements of God’s redemption.
The necessity of justification
Every person needs to be justified before God because every person is a sinner. Our sins place us under God’s wrath. Further, no one possesses the righteousness necessary to enter the presence of God, whose eyes are too pure to look on evil (Hab. 1:13).
God the Father is the author of justification. He is the member of the triune Godhead who declares the believing sinner righteous. He does so based on the person and work of Christ, who, acting on behalf of helpless sinners, satisfies the claims of God’s law on them.
Faith is the means by which we receive the offer of right-standing with God. Paul refers us to the case of Abraham, who “believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness” (Rom. 4:3ff; Gal. 3:6).
Two inseparable elements come into play in justification: forgiveness and imputation. In forgiveness, God acquits us, or declares that our sins are forgiven based on the finished work of Christ. At the same time, our sins are imputed, or transferred, to the account of Christ, in exchange for His righteousness.
Every human being needs God’s declaration of righteousness because no one possesses the righteousness necessary to enter God’s presence. Our best efforts are but filthy rags (literally, menstrual garments) in the eyes of God (Isa. 64:6).
Like the guest who arrogantly shuns the king’s offer of a wedding robe, and thus is bound hand and foot and cast into outer darkness (Matt. 22:1-14); like the Pharisee who fasts and pays tithes, yet who leaves the temple unjustified (Luke 18:9-14); and like those who profess to have accomplished much in the name of Jesus, yet are told to depart as lawbreakers (Matt. 7:21-23), we cannot justify ourselves despite our most strenuous efforts.