Undoubtedly the greatest of all biblical doctrines is that of justification by faith. Martin Luther insisted that justification by faith alone is “the article upon which the church stands or falls.” In the midst of the hopeless, fallen condition of mankind, God’s mercy and grace in justifying sinners rises as the shining pinnacle of hope for all of creation. In it God’s perfect justice and His boundless love and grace meet to redeem mankind from the law’s condemning verdict, and thus declares the guilty sinner just. Martin Luther also claimed that Romans 3:21-26, the premier section of Romans which introduces the truth of justification by faith, was “the chief point, and the very central place of the Epistle, and of the whole Bible.” Donald Barnhouse echoed similar words concerning this section of Romans. He says unmistakably that the act of God in providing righteousness apart from the law “is the theme of the Epistle to the Romans, and in reality it is the theme of the New Testament and of the whole Bible.”
This declaration by God is not arbitrary, however. If it was, then God would not be righteous in declaring sinners to be something other than guilty, and He would not have the ground legally, according to His own law, to do so. What is shown in Romans 3:21 – 5:21, however, is how God was able to justly pardon ungodly people and still remain righteousness. The justification of sinners manifests God’s righteousness in that it is based solely upon the faithfulness and perfect obedience of Jesus Christ, being counted to the sinner through faith alone. In this way, God is revealed to be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).
Most Protestant scholars are united on the basic definition of justification. Douglas Moo writes that justification “is what a judge does when he declares innocent the defendant in a trial.” Likewise, Francis Schaeffer points out that justification “comes to sinful men and women when God declares that their guilt is paid for.” Schaeffer clarifies this definition ever further by saying that God does not “infuse” us with righteousness, rather He makes a legal declaration.
The Roman Catholic Church established their doctrine of justification which they still to this day hold to, that “God will never declare a person just until that person actually, under divine scrutiny, is found to be just.” The reason for this belief is based on the fact that in the early centuries of church history, Latin became the dominant language instead of Greek. The Latin word for justification is iustificare. The Latin word fiacre means “to make” or “to shape.” Thus, the Roman Church believes that in justification, God “makes” a person righteous, and that it mostly happens in purgatory after death.
The original Greek word for justification, however, is dikaioo and dikaiosune, which does not mean “to make righteous,” but rather “to declare righteous.” This distinguishes justification from sanctification. In justification God “declares” people to be righteous, whereas in the process of sanctification God “makes” them righteous.
J.I. Packer gives a fuller definition of justification. He states, “The biblical meaning of ‘justify’ (Hebrew, sadeq; Greek, LXX and NT, dikaioo) is to pronounce, accept, and treat as just, i.e., on the one hand, not penally liable, and, on the other, entitled to all the privileges due to those who have kept the law.” The term “justification,” then, is a forensic term which indicates a judicial act by God, in this case, by “declaring a verdict of acquittal and so excluding all possibility of condemnation.”
These definitions are supported by Scripture. The first time the word is directly used in this sense in Romans is in verse 24 of Romans 3. After stating that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (verse 23), which is, of course, the human predicament, Paul states that people, “are justified by his (God’s) grace as a gift…” (3:24 ESV). This tells us that justification is somehow a gift of God’s grace and that it is therefore not earned. Verse 26 says of God that He is the “justifier,” which denotes God as the supreme judge who has the final word in the case.
Paul switches analogies somewhat in chapter 4 by using the language of accounting. Picking up on the idea that justification is a gift from God, Paul points to Abraham whom God used to begin His whole work of redemption to begin with. The apostle uses the phrase, “counted to him as righteousness” and the word “counted” throughout this section, nearly every verse in verses 3–10 containing them. It is affirmed that God justifies the ungodly (verse 5) and that He does so by counting them righteous apart from works (verse 6). The word “counted” appears in other translations as “credited” (NIV, NASB, HCSB, NET) and “accounted” or “imputed” (NKJV). The Greek word is logizomai and means “to impute; to regard, deem, consider, conclude, presume.” Moo also provides a helpful definition of this crediting. Crediting Abraham’s faith as righteousness means “to account to him a righteousness that does not inherently belong to him.” This shows, then, that God is making a conclusion regarding the sinner. He regards them as righteous.
Justification, then, can be said to be the free act and gift of God whereby He concludes that a person is considered righteous in His sight, even when that person is indeed guilty of sin.
This definition, however, says nothing about the basis upon which this justification is counted. In the sixteenth century, both the Roman Catholic Church and the newly formed Protestant Church both agreed that justification was something that God does. They also agreed that is was a judicial declaration and that no one can be justified until God declared that a person was righteous. The main issue that separated them then was the question of what basis or grounds God declared a person to be righteous.
On what basis would God declare that a sinner is just when, in fact, he is guilty of sin? One can clearly see that God’s own righteousness is at stake here. A judge who lets a person off as innocent when he is guilty can hardly be considered righteous or just. Paul goes to great lengths in Romans 1:18 – 3:20 to establish the guilt of all human beings, both Jews and Gentiles, because all are “under sin” (Romans 3:9 ESV).
The answer to this dilemma of basis or grounds is found all through Romans 3:21 – 4:25, and is expounded upon in 5:12-21. Over and over Paul makes it clear that justification is based upon, not the works of the Law, but upon Jesus Christ. This is seen in all its glory, once again, in verse 24 of chapter 3. Paul declares that people are “justified by (God’s) grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (ESV).
What is it about Jesus Christ that becomes the basis of man’s justification? The answer comes by way of comparison between man’s sin and Jesus’ righteousness; between man’s unfaithfulness to God and Christ’s faithfulness; between man’s inability to keep the righteous demands of the Law and Christ’s perfection in keeping it. God’s righteousness is gifted to sinners based not on man’s ability, but “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:22 NET).
This faithfulness of Jesus Christ is expounded upon in Romans 5:12-19 where Paul makes a distinction between Adam whereby man received his guilt, and Christ whereby believers receive righteousness. John Piper comments that this passage “brings Paul’s exposition of justification in Romans 3-5 to a climax with a stunning comparison between the effect of Adam’s disobedience on those who are in him and the effect of Christ’s obedience on those who are in him.” Paul makes clear that “sin came into the world” through one man, and that sin and death spread to all men (5:12). This one man is without question Adam (verse 14). “That sin entered through one man is an integral element of the comparison or parallel upon which is to be built Paul’s doctrine of justification.” When Paul says that sin “entered the world,” he is referring to the entrance of sin into the human race. It is not the case, therefore, that people are guilty simply because all people committed their own sins. Paul is clear here that through Adam’s sin, all people are guilty, even those who did not sin in the same way Adam did (verses 13-14).
The comparison is completed when Paul says that “much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many” (5:15 ESV). If it still wasn’t clear whether justification was in view here, Paul brings the microscope in even closer by saying, “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (5:17 ESV). According to John Calvin, this means “that God graciously communicates righteousness to the unrighteous creature in order to restore that creature to fullness of life.”
So then it is made clear that the free gift of righteousness comes to people through Jesus Christ. But why? Paul’s answer is as clear as it is direct. “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (5:18-19 ESV). As Thomas Schreiner comments on these verses, “Paul adds the thought of Christ’s righteous conduct as the means of righteousness for believers.”
It is important at this juncture to point out the truth that Paul pointed out to his Roman readers that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in (God’s) sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (3:20). As Paul shows later in chapter 8, this is true because of the sinfulness of man’s flesh (8:3). Therefore, the righteous requirement of the law cannot be fulfilled in sinful man. However, Paul reveals that God sent His Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (8:3-4 ESV). In other words, Christ was perfectly obedient to the law, thus earning by His faithfulness the righteousness that would be counted to sinful men.
It is vital to note here that Jesus’ obedience led him all the way to the cross where his death made atonement for sins. Elsewhere, Paul states that Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV). God put Christ forward as a propitiation (3:25). “This clause contains the basis of our deliverance from the curse of the law, and our acceptance with God.” Thomas Schreiner makes this clear. “This justification is accomplished through the ransoming work of Jesus Christ on the cross.” John Murray brings the obedience of Christ together with the death of Christ very nicely. “It is through Christ’s sacrificial and redemptive work (Rom. 3:24; 5:9; 8:33-34). We are justified in Jesus’ blood. The particular significance of this truth in this connection is that it is the once-for-all redemptive accomplishment of Christ that is brought into the centre of attention when we are thinking of justification.”
According to Sproul, the Bible makes a distinction between Jesus’ active obedience and His passive obedience. “Jesus’ perfect obedience to the law of God was such that he earned by his own merit eternal felicity with the Father in the Father’s kingdom. He fulfilled all the terms of God’s covenant with man, the promise for which was blessedness.” That blessedness, says Sproul, is the eternal reward for His perfect obedience which He then trades for our sin. This perfect active obedience leads up to His perfect passive obedience, which is “submitting himself to the curse of the law and the wrath of the Father by willingly bearing our sins upon the cross.” It is both Christ’s active obedience and His passive obedience which are essential for the justification of a sinner.
Therefore, the righteousness that is given to sinners is God’s own righteousness through the obedience of Christ. “Justification is an act which proceeds from God’s free grace. It is an act of God and God alone. And the righteousness which supplies its ground or basis is the righteousness of God.” This, in turn, “vindicates” God, showing that He is faithful to keep His promises (Genesis 12:1-3) and that He can do so justly. Moo makes this point by saying, “God’s ‘righteousness’ carries the legal connotation of ‘vindication.’ When he intervenes in Christ, he is vindicating his name and displaying his faithfulness to the ‘contract’ he entered into with the world.”
This leads to the consideration of the means by which this justification is acquired. Although Paul said in 5:18 that “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men,” Paul is not advocating universalism. Rather, he is saying that there is no other way for men to be saved. There remains, therefore, the need to uncover what the means is by which men may obtain this righteousness.
Paul goes to great length in Romans to inform his readers that justification cannot be obtained through keeping the law. He sums up his previous argument in the opening chapters of the letter by saying, “For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (3:20 ESV). The following verse is the pivotal verse which begins the good news that God provided a way to be justified without the works of the law. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” (3:21 ESV). It has been established that it is through the finished work and complete faithfulness of Jesus Christ that our justification rests, but how does one go about obtaining this justification?
Paul’s answer is clear. Justification goes to all who believe (verse 22). “Because Christ paid the price for all our sin, ‘all that believe’ in Him (3:22) stand justified in God’s sight.” He further clarifies this by stating that it is to be received by faith. Sinners are “justified by 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” (3:24-25 ESV).
In returning to chapter 4 of Romans, Paul shows his readers that there is solid foundation for justification through faith and that since it is by faith, no one has any grounds to boast. “Throughout this chapter, Paul grounds his exposition in the key verse, cited in 4:3, of Genesis 15:6: ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ The focus is especially on the nature and meaning of Abraham’s believing.”
It is vital to make a distinction between ground and means, however. Faith is not the cause of our righteousness. Schaeffer explains, “It doesn’t mean that faith makes you righteous. This would be contrary to the entire teaching of Paul, indeed the entire teaching of the Bible. Rather, righteousness comes as you are linked…to the promises of God that have been fulfilled through Jesus Christ. By faith, you are entered into this righteousness.” Hodge also concludes, “Faith is not the basis of our justification. Faith is not the righteousness which makes us righteous before God…This righteousness is through faith, as it is received and appropriated by faith.”
This faith that Paul speaks of is a trust in God’s faithfulness to His promises just as Abraham believed God would be faithful to His promises. Paul Achtemeier says this clearly. “We have therefore in Abraham an example of how trust in God’s faithfulness is to be exercised.”
This trust in God’s promises is in complete opposition to works of the law. “To want to depend on such works means to want to depend on ourselves, rather than on God.” But as Paul points out, if justification was given to man by works, “his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due” (4:4 ESV). It is clear, however, that justification is not received by works because it is by God’s grace through faith. “Paul makes this clear in the very next verse by saying, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (4:5 ESV). The reason for this is because the law brings wrath, not salvation (4:15). “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (4:16 ESV).
Why, then, does Paul also say, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who are justified” (2:13)? Paul is not speaking here of the method of justification available for sinners, but rather the principle by which all will be judged finally. Sproul summed up this issue by saying, “In the final analysis, we are justified by works – but not our works.”
Since justification is a judicial declaration by God that a person is righteous in His sight based on the finished work of Christ, then it is a one-time act. Paul shows this in Romans 5:1 when he declares, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith…” R.C. Sproul points out the difference between the biblical view and the Roman Catholic view. “The great truth of the ‘therefore’ is that we can be justified now, contrary to what the Roman Catholic Church claims. Those who put their faith in Jesus Christ do not have a prolonged wait for their justification. The moment they believe in Jesus and put their trust in him, God declares them just, once and for all.” The “have been justified” refers to an act in the past. It is something that God accomplished through the finished work of Christ. Note that Christ’s work is finished. Our justification is a past action and we receive it when we believe. Sproul goes on to explain, “We see that our justification is a fait accompli. It took place the moment we believed—it is not something that we must wait to accomplish in purgatory.”
Not only is our justification accomplished once and for all time, but there are results from it. In the same verse, Paul goes on to declare that, “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Notice that this peace comes through Jesus Christ, the agent of peace. Justification solves sinners’ problem of being under God’s wrath as outlined in 1:18 – 2:29. Paul makes clear that those who are in the flesh are hostile to God and cannot please Him (Romans 8:7). Through Christ, however, we have been made at peace with God.
The second result of justification is that believers have access to God. “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (5:2). This means that we have access to the Father. In a believer’s previous state of sin, with sin not being covered and guilt not being removed, the sinner is cast out from the presence of God and has become a fugitive. But because of Christ, believers may now enter God’s presence. Literally, this verse means that the believer has access into a life of grace whereby God continues to pour out His grace upon him.
Thirdly, because of justification, believers have hope. “…and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (5:2 ESV). This solves man’s dilemma that Paul outlined in 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (ESV). This also means that believers can rejoice in the midst of their sufferings while they are still on earth (5:3). This doesn’t mean that God promises believers a trouble-free life, but it does mean that God will use even the sufferings to bring about even greater blessing.
As Christians persevere in this life which often includes suffering, justification provides an assurance of a future glory which God has prepared for his people. Paul states, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (8:18 ESV). Because justification is a once-for-all act by God which is not dependent upon any works that the person did, believers can be assured that their justification “will not disappoint” (5:5) and will translate into glorification on the day when Christ returns.
Paul leaves no room for doubt on this. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (5:9-10 ESV). As Moo says, The parallel ‘how much more’ arguments of verse 9-10 reiterate the hope that Paul has introduced earlier in the passage….And our hope is certain not only because it is based in God’s work for us (5:9-10) but also because it is rooted in God’s love for us (5:5-8).
This love that God has for believers is recounted by Paul in a major way in chapter 8, solidifying the assurance Christians have of their final glorification, and reassuring that since God justified us, no one can undo what He has done. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (8:32-34 ESV). Francis Schaeffer elaborates, “When Jesus died for us, He said, ‘It is finished.’ The debt for our sin was fully paid. But then, ‘much more,’ He rose again.” This is what is meant in 4:25 when Paul says, “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. So then faith rests not just on Jesus’ death, but also on His resurrection, whereby our justification and future glorification is made sure. “Through Jesus’ resurrection, the same opportunity (resurrection) is now afforded us.”
Paul concludes his argument by declaring in the strongest possible terms that, “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39 ESV).
The conclusion to the matter, then, is that “the only righteousness sufficient for us to stand before the judgment of God is the righteousness of Christ.” Justification by faith alone means that justification is by Christ alone, by His righteousness, which is received by faith.
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