The Biblical Concept of Justification (part 2)

The Procedure of Justification

Through the introductory comments of our discussion on justification, we found that a problem is presented in applying the idea of justification to the relationship between sinful man and a Holy God. The term justification carries the forensic idea of acquitting one who is guilty and in turn declaring them free of guilt. However, when God is seen as the Holy Judge that He is, and men are seen for the guilty sinners that they are, Job’s question is inevitably asked, “…how should man be just with God?” (Job 9:2)

Dr. Charles Ryrie spoke of three options open to God concerning an offending sinner. The first of these is simply to condemn the offender. Scripture seems to bear out this option to be the most reasonable, at least from God’s perspective. The second is to receive the sinner as he is, but this requires a compromise of God’s righteousness. The third and most hopeful option is for there to be a righteousness present for the sinner to actually receive and be declared as such. However, this option requires that the new found righteousness of the sinner must be individual, real, and acceptable by God’s standards. Once that righteousness is accomplished, God can declare the changed sinner righteous.

In other words, the only way for a sinner to be declared righteous by God is if that sinner is actually righteous. However, it is an impossibility for a sinner to achieve righteousness in and of himself that is on par with God’s standard. The only way that a sinner can be righteous is if true righteousness is placed on his account. Then, and only then, God can justify. But, the question remains – from where can that righteousness come? Or a better question would be, from whom could it come?

Justification is a theme soundly referenced throughout God’s Word. However, nowhere in a single passage is this doctrine more fully explained than by the Apostle Paul in Romans 3:21-26. In this passage we find two ideas that are necessary for justification: redemption and propitiation.

  • 3:21 – The necessary righteousness to be provided by God was never intended to be achieved by the law. Rather, that righteousness is altogether apart from the law. As verses found later in the chapter explain (e.g., verse 28), the plan for righteousness has always been centered in the person and work of the Messiah and not in the works of the law. It was only prophesied by the law as well as the prophets. (I Peter 1:11)
  • 3:22, 23 – The righteousness of God is manifested in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. That righteousness is placed upon the sinner the moment that faith is placed in Jesus Christ. Throughout the New Testament (even in places referring to the Old Testament period such as in Romans 4), faith is declared to be the medium through which the sinner is saved from sin. The idea is never given that we are saved because of our faith, if for no other reason then because faith is only as effectual as the object in which it is placed. If faith were the only prerequisite of being declared righteous by God, then the object of faith would not matter so long as there is faith involved. In that case, however, Christ would have been wrong in declaring, “no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) The New Testament never states that God declares a sinner righteous just because of faith. Rather, faith when placed in Jesus Christ is the channel through which sinners are declared righteous by God and are saved.
    Also, all are sinners and have the same need of justification. All must trust Christ in faith because all have sinned. There is no difference in the condition (a guilty standing before God), therefore there is no difference in the need (the righteousness of Christ) from one sinner to the next. As a result, there is no difference in the prerequisite for justification (faith in Christ) from one sinner to the next.
  • 3:24 – Redemption. The price to be paid for justification far exceeded any amount that any sinner could afford. However, that price was paid by Christ on the cross. The payment was not a matter of supply and demand. Christ did not need righteousness; He already had it. Nevertheless, He purchased it so that He could redeem those who could not afford it. The payment that was paid by the Lord Jesus Christ made it possible for redemption to be free for all who believe. This is grace at its most glorious. Only the grace of God could afford the price of justification!
  • 3:25 – Propitiation. The Lord Jesus Christ was given by God to be a propitiation for sinners. The idea conveyed by the term ‘propitiation’ (hilasterion) “signifies the turning away of wrath by an offering.” This idea is firmly connected with the Old Testament concept of the wrath of God upon the sin of men. The words used throughout the Bible for this idea do not imply simple forgiveness or  cancellation of sin. The concept that they form is the tuning away of God’s wrath. The death of Christ stands as a means of turning God’s divine wrath from sinners upon Christ Himself. As Dr. Leon Morris states, “The paradox of the Old Testament is repeated in the New that God Himself provides the means of removing His own wrath.”[iii]
    The involvement of propitiation in the Biblical idea of justification does not imply that the wrath of God was simply expiated. It is not a process of simple forgiveness or cancellation of sin. It must be carefully noted that Christ absorbed all of God’s wrath on the cross. The result of Christ bearing the wrath that we as sinners deserved is the forgiveness and cancellation of sin, but that forgiveness and cancellation includes the turning of God’s wrath from sinners onto Christ himself.  
  • 3:26 – God’s righteousness is held to the end. God remains just in that His wrath was poured out upon sin. However, He retains His position as the Justifier in that the Lord Jesus Christ absorbed that wrath on the Cross. The sin of man was placed on Christ (Is. 53:4-6; 2 Corinthians 5:21; I Peter 2:24) and He bore man’s punishment accordingly. By that same process of imputation, Christ was able to achieve righteousness on our behalf. It is His righteousness that is reckoned to the account of the sinner who believes. The end result is the pronouncement of the sinner as righteous before a holy God when that sinner places his faith in Christ. That pronouncement is the very heart of justification.  

It is extremely important to note that the declaration of a sinner being justified is just that – a declaration. Despite this declaration, the sinner remains sinful but is acquitted by God from guilt. This idea is seen in Scripture by how often justification is contrasted with condemnation. The idea of condemning never has the meaning of actually making one guilty (Deuteronomy 25:1). The guilt that merits condemnation is already present, so all that is necessary is a pronouncement of being condemned. Likewise, it cannot be assumed that justification means to make one righteous. The righteousness of Christ is placed on the account of the believing sinner. Therefore, it is by His righteousness alone that the sinner is declared righteous.

In essence, the justified sinner is not made inherently righteous. The sinner is declared righteous and has that standing before God as if he were righteous. Nevertheless, that righteousness is not his own. Though justified, he remains nothing more than a justified sinner. Nothing changes in the sinner in order for him to be justified. If anything did change, it would not be the work of Christ alone, and that is simply not allowed by Scripture. The sinner can only come to God in repentance, at least somewhat realizing his need for justification. Once the righteousness of Christ is placed on the sinner’s account, then, and only then, is everything in the sinner changed. That is why Paul declares the following:

“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19)

i. Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, Leon Morris, Baker Book House Company, 1987, pg. 424

 

ii. Basic Theology, C.C. Ryrie, Moody Press, 1999, pg. 344

 

 

 

 

 

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