“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). At the heart of the biblical gospel is the amazing truth of justification. Without this truth there would be no gospel at all. It is, in fact, very difficult to overestimate its importance because it is an absolutely essential element of true Christianity (see Galatians 1:8; 5:4). The Protestant Reformation was mainly over the nature of justification, and still today it is a dividing line between true and false gospels. As Christians, a better and more complete understanding of justification will help us to properly understand the gospel and our relationship with God.
Justification may be defined as a legal act of God, at the instant we believe in Christ, in which He 1) forgives our sins, 2) imputes to us the righteousness of Christ (this means that He thinks of it as belonging to us), and 3) declares us to be righteous in his sight, thereby 4) delivering us from all condemnation.
The first aspect of justification is forgiveness of sins. This means that God stops holding our sins against us and that they will never again be grounds for condemnation. In order for God to remain just in forgiving, however, He cannot just overlook our sin. He must judge it. Therefore, this element of justification is only possible because of the atoning death of Christ. On the cross, God punished Jesus for our sins in our place. God is now able to forgive our sins without compromising His justice because Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins: “…being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation [the sacrifice for sins that took away God’s wrath] in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness…so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:23-26). Justification is therefore closely tied to the atonement of Christ (His paying the penalty for our sins)–the atonement is not part of our justification but it makes possible our justification.
If we are to be accepted by God, however, it is not enough just to have our sins forgiven. This would only make us neutral in the sight of God, whereas God requires that we actually have a positive righteousness in order to be accepted by Him. This is where the second aspect of justification comes in: God imputes to us the righteousness of Christ. In this context, to have something imputed to you means being given credit for something that you did not do. So having Christ’s righteousness imputed to you means that God gives you credit for the righteousness of Christ–the perfect obedience that He accomplished in your place while He was on earth. “For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17; see also Romans 4:6). Another way to define imputed righteousness is that God thinks of Christ’s righteousness as belonging to you. God is then able to declare us righteous (or, just) in His sight (the third aspect justification) because He has given to us the perfect righteousness of Christ.
If God did not impute the righteousness of Christ to us, He could not declare us righteous. This is because we are sinners, and there is nothing in us that makes us worthy of being declared righteous before God. But God will not declare a person righteous unless there is some righteousness to base this declaration upon. The perfect righteousness of Christ solves this dilemma. God declares us righteous on the basis of what Christ did in our place. As Paul says, Christ became for us righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30; see also Isaiah 61:10; Jeremiah 23:6). Because God first imputes to us Christ’s righteousness (which He accomplished through His perfect obedience to the Father in our place while He was on earth), He can justly declare us righteous.
Imputed versus infused righteousness
The distinction between imputed righteousness and infused righteousness serves to further clarify this point. Justification does not mean that God infuses righteousness into our hearts and declares us righteous on the basis of that. He does not transform us into righteous creatures and on that basis declare us righteous. Instead, God imputes to us someone else’s righteousness–Christ’s–and declares us righteous on that basis. Thus, we are declared righteous before God on the basis of who Christ is and what He did, not on the basis of anything inherently good in us or anything that we have done. Justification involves a change in our standing before God but not a change in our character. Again, God does not declare us righteous on the basis of a change that He brings about in us or on the basis of good deeds that we do for Him (i.e., infused righteousness), but He declares us righteous on the basis of what Christ did for us and we are given the credit for (i.e., imputed righteousness).
This is how we can be both justified and sinners at the same time–because justification does not involve anything that we inherently are, but involves having credit for what Christ did. Paul makes this clear: “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). “…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” (Philippians 3:9). “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).
The concept of imputation is thus central to justification. It is the basis of both our forgiveness and our being declared just. God is able to forgive us our sins because He imputed them to Christ on the cross and then justly punished Him in our place. And He is able to declare us righteous because He took Christ’s righteousness and imputed it to us. What a deal! Christ gets the blame (and thus the punishment) for our unrighteousness and we get the credit (and thus salvation) for His righteousness. Paul brings out both of these aspects in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” This is a truly wonderful and marvelous thing that should bring about great praise to God from our hearts.
Deliverance from all condemnation
Finally, because justification involves forgiveness, being given Christ’s righteousness, and being declared righteous, we are thereby delivered from all condemnation because there is no reason left for us to be condemned. If we are justified, we will never be sent to hell: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns?” (Romans 8:33-34).
How justification relates to sanctification
I have tried to make it clear that justification does not have anything at all to do with something that God does in us; it is what He does about us. But do not take this to mean that a justified person will not begin a changed life. Justification is always accompanied by sanctification–the process by which God makes us holy in our character, not just our standing before Him. But it must be kept clear that justification and sanctification are not the same thing. They are simply two different things that occur together. Further, whereas justification occurs in an instant the moment one believes, sanctification is a process that continues throughout life. God begins this process of sanctification at conversion when we are justified, but it does not end until we die.
John MacArthur makes this distinction between justification and sanctification clear: “This is a crucial point on which Protestants have historically been in full agreement: sinners are not justified because of some good thing in them; God can declare them righteous because he first imputes to them the perfect righteousness of Christ….Again, this is owing to no good thing in us–not even God’s sanctifying or regenerating work in our hearts” (The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 199).
Justification is by faith alone
Perhaps the central truth of justification that must be understood is that it is by faith alone. We do not earn justification and salvation by good works–God does not give it to us because we are good enough. He gives it to us because we believe in Christ, period. It is not faith plus works, but faith alone through which we are saved. Many Scriptures make this clear: “By the works of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Romans 3:20). “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift” (Romans 3:23-24). “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28). “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy…” (Titus 3:5). “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Romans 11:6). “…nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus…” (Galatians 2:16).
Good works will always follow in the life of a justified person, but they are the result of our salvation, not the cause of it. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
But how does justification by faith alone square with the words of James: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24)? Is this in contradiction to the verses we saw above? No, it is not. As Dr. Wayne Grudem has said, “Here we must realize that James is using the word justified in a different sense from the way Paul uses it” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 731). Paul uses the word justify to mean “declare to be righteous,” but the word can also mean “to demonstrate to be righteous.” For example, the word is used this way in Luke 16:15. That James is using it this way is supported by the fact that the instance that he uses to show that Abraham was “justified by works” (2:21)–which is recorded in Genesis 22–came many years after Genesis 15:6 where Abraham believed God and “[God] reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Further, James is concerned in this section with showing that mere intellectual assent to the gospel is not true faith (2:18, 26). Grudem summarizes: “James is saying here that `faith’ that has no results or `works’ is not real faith at all; it is`dead’ faith. He is not denying Paul’s clear teaching that justification (in the sense of a declaration of right legal standing before God) is by faith alone apart from works of the law; he is simply affirming a different truth, namely, that `justification’ in the sense of an outward showing that one is righteous only occurs as we see evidence in a person’s life. To paraphrase, James is saying that a person is `shown to be righteous by his works, and not by his faith alone.’ This is something with which Paul also would certainly agree (2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 5:19-24)” (Grudem, pp. 731-732).
Faith does not earn salvation
It should also be kept clear that faith is not regarded by God as a good act that we do which He “rewards” by giving us justification. God does not see an individual believe and say, “Now that he has believed, I will repay His good choice by justifying him.” Instead, faith is the means through which we are justified. Faith is what connects us with the righteousness of Christ, not something that earns us the righteousness of Christ. For example, let’s say that a friend works a whole summer so that He can give to me the money he earns. He would have earned the credit in my place, just like Christ earned righteousness to God, through His obedience, in my place. Once my friend has all of the money that he earned, he then writes a check and offers it to me. In order to receive the check, I reach out my hand and grab it. Reaching out my hand was not something I did to earn the check, but it was instead the means through which I received it. So it is with justification. We do not earn it by our faith, but instead receive it through our faith.
In closing, what are the applications of this doctrine? First, if we believe in Christ we can be confident that we have peace with God (Romans 5:1). Second, a proper understanding that we are justified by faith alone through Christ alone is necessary to being a Christian (Galatians 5:4). Third, it gives us deep comfort, security, and confidence before God to know that even though I will never be perfect in this life, I am nonetheless considered perfectly righteous in His sight. This has huge ramifications for the way we relate to God. Fourth, knowing this truth gives us a fuller–and more accurate–understanding of our God and the gospel we preach, and keeps us from preaching a false gospel. Fifth, true humility is only possible by recognizing that we cannot earn salvation, but instead must admit our horribly sinful condition and accept salvation as a gift (Romans 4:2; Ephesians 2:8, 9). Sixth, knowing this truth gives us a greater delight in God and deeper worship of Him, for it reveals to us more of His ways that we may know Him more fully (Exodus 33:11). Finally, we need to know about justification in order to fully appreciate our salvation.
1. In justification we are forgiven of our sins.
2. God is able to do this because He imputed them to Christ and punished Him in our place.
3. In justification God imputes to us Christ’s righteousness.
4. God then declares us righteous on the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness, not on the basis of anything good in us.
5. Through this we have a right standing before God and are forever delivered from all condemnation because the basis of our condemnation has been entirely removed.
6. Justification is by faith alone, but this faith will always produce obedience. It is not like this: faith + obedience = justification. Instead, it is like this: faith = justification + obedience.
7. Faith does not earn justification, but is the means through which we receive it.
8. Knowing the doctrine of justification by faith alone has many wonderful applications.
All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.