In the parable of the religious and self-righteous Pharisee and the tax-gatherer, Christ declared that the tax-gatherer, in contrast to the Pharisee, was justified through his faith in the Levitical offerings which alone could propitiate the holy character of God (Luke 18:10-14). In Romans 3:25-26 Paul speaks of Jesus Christ as the means of propitiation and then shows the death of Christ demonstrated God’s righteousness so that He might remain just and at the same time be free to justify the one who has faith in Jesus Christ. But what is meant by justification and what is involved?
Justification and imputation are those aspects of reconciliation that deal with the barrier of man’s lack of righteousness. Sometimes, in order to keep the definition of justification nice and simple, one often hears it defined as meaning, “Just as if I’d never sinned.” This definition is simple, but it misses the heart of the truth of justification. Being acceptable before God involves more than just the removal of our sins.
The barrier between God and man, remember, consists not only of man’s sin, but of man’s negative righteousness, his lack of perfect righteousness. Isaiah declares that all of our righteous deeds are as filthy rags in the sight of the perfect holiness of God (Isa. 64:6). Man not only needs the subtraction of his sin, but also the addition of perfect righteousness, the righteousness of Christ. God’s solution to this problem is found in the doctrines of “imputation” and “justification” as set forth in the Bible.
Justification is a judicial or a forensic concept and is therefore related to God as the righteous Judge of all the earth (Gen. 18:25; Deut. 32:4; 2 Tim. 4:8). Ryrie writes:
“If God, the Judge, is without injustice and completely righteous in all His decisions, then how can He announce a sinner righteous? And sinners we all are. There are only three options open to God as sinners stand in His courtroom. He must condemn them, compromise His own righteousness to receive them as they are, or He can change them into righteous people. If He can exercise the third option, then He can announce them righteous, which is justification. But any righteousness the sinner has must be actual, not fictitious; real, not imagined; acceptable by God’s standards, and not a whit short. If this can be accomplished, then, and only then, can He justify.
Job stated the problem accurately when he asked, “how can a man be in the right before God?”
Justification answers this question posed by Job. Doctrinally, justification is the judicial act of God, based on the work of Jesus Christ, which justly declares and treats as righteous the one who believes in Jesus Christ and who stands by imputation in the righteousness of Christ.
Scripture reveals a number of important aspects to the process of justification defined below:
(1) The Plan and Manifestation of Justification Righteousness—Romans 3:21 (also Gal. 4:4-5)
Through the Gospel of the New Testament, this righteousness from God has now, since the coming of Christ, been clearly made known. This was the fullness of time when God brought the Suffering Savior into a sin-ridden world to deal with man’s sin. However, though revealed more clearly than before, this gospel message is not new.
God revealed His righteousness in many ways before the full revelation of the Gospel. He did so in His Law, His judgments against sin, by the preaching of the prophets, and by His blessings on the obedient. These were all ways by which God revealed His righteousness. But that was not all. Even this gospel message in which righteousness is received by faith was witnessed to and anticipated throughout the Old Testament in the many prophecies of the Messiah who must not only reign on the throne of His father, David, but must first suffer and die for our sin.
Beginning at Genesis 3:15, and continuing through the entire Old Testament, witness is given to salvation by faith in Messiah. God bore witness to the righteousness from God in the Old Testament sacrifices, the tabernacle, the priesthood, the prophecies, the types, and passages like Isaiah 53. But though the Law could witness to God’s righteousness, it could never provide it for sinful man, “weak as it was in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3).
What, then, were some of the other characteristics of this righteousness from God? Most importantly, as a righteousness from God (Rom. 3:21), it is independent of the Law. Note that the words “apart from the Law” are literally, “apart from law.” Law is anarthrous, that is, without the article. It is broader than just the Law of the Old Testament. It refers to any kind of law whether it is the Law of the Old Testament, or the law of one’s conscience (Rom. 2:14-15), or even the righteous principles of the sermon on the mount. So then, what’s the source of this righteousness from God? Note verse 22.
(2) The Prerequisite and Channel for Justification Righteousness—Romans 3:22a
Righteousness comes through the channel of faith in the person and work of Christ. “Even” of the NKJV/NASB represents the Greek conjunction de. It is transitional and introduces this verse as an explanation which points us to the channel by which man may receive this righteousness from God.
“The righteousness of God.” “Of God” is a genitive of source. It means either “the righteousness derived from, sourced in,” or “dependent on God.”
“Through faith in Jesus Christ” points us to the means or the channel. Righteousness from God is received “by means of” faith in Jesus Christ.
In the final analysis, all men end up trusting in something, if only in their own works or record; but the apostle’s point is that the only means of having God’s righteousness is through trusting in Jesus Christ.
(3) The Problem or Reason for Justification Righteousness—Romans 3:22b-23
God can show no favoritism with people since He is perfect holiness and since all have sinned and fallen short of His holiness. As the Judge, He must deal with their actual righteousness.
(4) The Price or Cost of Justification Righteousness—Romans 3:24-25a
While justification is free to the believer, without cost, it was not without cost. The price paid to redeem us from the slave block of sin was nothing short of the death of Christ who alone could satisfy (propitiate) the holy character of God.
(5) The Place or Position of Justification Righteousness—2 Corinthians 5:21
When the individual receives Christ he is placed into Christ. This is what makes him righteous. We are made the righteousness of God in Him. This righteousness alone overcomes our desperate, sinful condition, and measures up to all the demands of God’s holiness.
(6) The Pronouncement of Justification Righteousness—Romans 3:25b-26
God must be perfectly consistent with Himself. He cannot break His own Law nor violate His own nature. “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and “God is light” (1 John 1:5). A God of love wants to forgive sinners, but a God of holiness must judge sin and uphold His righteous character as witnessed in the Law.
How can God be both “just and the justifier” of those who are sinners? The answer is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. When Jesus took upon Himself the wrath of God on the Cross for the sins of the world, He fully met the demands of God’s holiness as demonstrated in the Law. At the same time, He fully expressed the love of God’s heart. As the book of Hebrews makes so clear, the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament never took away sin, but when Jesus died, His death was retroactive all the way back to Adam and took care of all the sins of the past, especially of those who were believers. No one (including Satan) could accuse God of being unjust or unfair because He appeared to pass over the sins of Old Testament saints.
(7) The Proof of Justification Righteousness—Romans 4:24-25
The words, “and was raised because of our justification” points to the resurrection of Jesus Christ as that momentous event following the cross which gave proof of God’s acceptance of the death of Christ for our sin.
JUSTIFICATION AND SANCTIFICATION COMPARED
(1) Sanctify means to “set apart.” Sanctification has three aspects: positional (unchangeable), experiential (progressive), and ultimate (complete: being in God’s presence).
(2) Positional sanctification (Rom. 6:1-11) is the basis for experiential or progressive sanctification (Rom. 6:12-14).
(3) Experiential sanctification is the process whereby God makes the believer more and more like Jesus Christ through our union with Christ and the indwelling Spirit. Note: Just as in justification, sanctification is the work of God that must also be appropriated by faith.
(4) Sanctification (experiential) may change from day to day. Justification never changes. When the sinner trusts in Christ as his or her Savior, God declares him or her to be righteous, and that declaration will never be repealed nor need to be repeated.
(5) Justification looks at our eternal position in Christ (positional sanctification) whereas sanctification, depending on the context, may look at our experiential condition from day to day.
(6) Justification exempts us from the Great White Throne judgment, whereas experiential sanctification prepares us for the Bema, the Judgment Seat of Christ, and the blessings of rewards.
(7) Justification removes the guilt and penalty of sin for us. Experiential sanctification removes the growth and power of sin in and over us.
(8) In justification Christ died for sin’s penalty, where as in sanctification He died unto sin’spower.
Imputation is the reckoning or “charging to the account” of one what properly belongs to the account of another. Because of the person and work of Christ, God imputes or credits our sin to the person of Jesus Christ and imputes His righteousness to our account through faith in Him. The key word used of this is the verb logizomai which means “to count, reckon, credit, charge to the account of another.”
In Romans 4, the Apostle writes:
Romans 4:3-8,“3 For what does the Scripture say? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned (logizomai) to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned (logizomai) as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned (logizomai) as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons (logizomai) righteousness apart from works: 7“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered. 8 Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account (logizomai).”
2 Corinthians 5:21,“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
In these verses, we clearly see both the negative, our sin imputed to Christ who was made sin for us along with the non-imputation of our sin to us, and the positive, His righteousness reckoned or imputed to the account of those who trust in Christ.
The key word in the doctrine of justification and imputation is the verb dikaioo (dikaiovw). This verb ends in oo (ow), and verbs which end in oo (ow), are usually causative and mean “to make the object of the verb into the idea of the word.” For instance ikanoo (ikanovw) means “to make sufficient, empower someone for something.” But when a verb is formed from an adjective of a moral or spiritual connotation it means “to regard as, treat as, pronounce or declare as.” Thus dikaioo does not mean to make righteous, but to “declare, treat as righteous” when in essence the object may be just the opposite. Thus, the justified sinner is still a sinner and not without personal sins, but he is still viewed and treated as righteous by God and justly so because of the gift of Christ’s righteousness by imputation. The believer stands in the righteousness of Jesus Christ and his sins are not imputed to him. Not only are his sins subtracted, but Christ’s perfect righteousness has been added to the account of the believer.
Justification, then, does not mean “to make righteous.” If it did, the believing sinner would never again sin because he would have been made constitutionally righteous so he could not and would not sin. That condition will occur in our ultimate condition of sanctification once we physically die and enter heaven, but not now. Justification means that God accepts us and views us as perfectly righteous in Christ even though in our experience we will commit acts of sin or unrighteousness.
The failure to make this distinction has throughout history led people into various works systems by which they tried to become righteous and acceptable before God. Our acceptance before God comes through the gift of Christ’s righteousness to the believing sinner. Justification is by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:19-25; 4:1-12).
It is important to understand that there are two kinds of righteousness. There is the perfect and absolute righteousness of Christ which God gives to anyone who will believe and trust in Jesus Christ as his or her Savior (Rom. 3:22-24). Then there is the relative, less-than-perfect righteousness of men, which on a scale of 1 to 100 can never even come close to 100% in comparison to the standard of God’s righteousness. No matter how good or religious, all fall short of the righteousness which God requires (Rom. 3:23). Only the righteousness of Christ (which man can receive freely by faith) can give him acceptance with God.
The Apostle Paul who had been one of the most religious men who ever lived said in relation to these two types of righteousness:
Philippians 3:7-9, “7But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.
In other words when Paul saw the glory of Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road he came to realize that all his works of righteousness or human good were no better than refuse as far as providing a standing before God. Or as Isaiah put it, “… And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment …” (Isa. 64:6).
[For a more in-depth study see soteriology “Study Series 1 Meaning, Need and Scope of Salvation”]