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Justification

The word justification is used in more than one sense in Scripture. It usually refers to God's act of grace in reckoning righteous in His sight the repentant sinner. Other meanings concern the demonstration of righteousness, usually before men. We will deal here mainly with the major aspect of the justification of the sinner before God; other aspects, being of less importance, will be dealt with more briefly.

The necessity for the justification of the sinner on the basis of his faith in the atoning work of Christ on the cross is a fundamental scriptural teaching. But it is completely contrary to modern ideas. Man, says the liberal philosopher, is basically good and has the ability to save himself if given the opportunity; he can stand before the supreme Authority and give a good account of himself.

Such a proud attitude stems from a false conception of man's origin, status and nature. Man is the crown of God's creative work, now fallen and forfeiting all claim to blessing; subject to death because of Adam's sin. So we begin our present study at the dawn of human history, as recorded in the book of Genesis. The Creator, surveying His six days' work, described it as "very good" (Gen. 1:31). Man, made in the image and likeness of God, stood at the head of earthly created things. He was placed in the paradise of Eden to dress it and to keep it, in subjection to his Creator. God, in His sovereignty and for His ultimate glory, gave man a free will, but sadly Adam chose a course of action in direct defiance of a clear divine command.

Tried in the court of heaven, the sentence of death was passed upon Adam and, of necessity, upon his descendants.

"As through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin; and so death passed unto all men, for that all sinned" (Rom. 5:12).

That sentence meant separation from God, from whom all life and blessing flow. Physical and spiritual death now became man's lot. And unless means of reconciliation could be found, eternal death would be the ultimate penalty for all mankind.

But already in Eden the promise of deliverance had been given. Before Calvary but in view of it, a merciful all-wise God made provision for the forgiveness of sins. Scripture cites the case of Abraham in illustration:

"And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness" (Gen. 15:6, see also Gal. 3:6). Probably other faithful men before Abraham enjoyed the same experience (see Heb. 11). David, many years later, experienced the joy of sins forgiven and peace with God. He expressed it like this:

"Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity" (Psa. 32:1,2).

Various Old Testament writers refer to similar experiences (e.g. Isa. 53:4-12; Hab. 2:4), 50 it is clear that God in those times dealt with His creatures in the same way as He does today. The mercy of an unchanging God is still offered to men. The message to the repentant sinner is: believe God and His word and be reckoned righteous, a true "son of Abraham" (Gal. 3:7,9).

It is sometimes said that the word justification has a "forensic" or legal meaning. The apostle Paul approaches the subject in this way in the opening chapters of Romans. First of all; and in some detail, he proves the charge that all men are corrupt in' God's sight, summing up in the words,

"There is none righteous, no, not one;

There is none that understandeth,

There is none that seeketh after God;

They have all turned aside,

They are together become unprofitable;

There is none that doeth good, no, not so much as one" (3:10-12; Psa. 14:1-3; 53:1-3).

He then shows that justification cannot be obtained by the keeping of the law, which brings the knowledge of sin but cannot cure it (3:19,20). So man's efforts are futile, but God has provided a way of escape in the cross of Christ (verses 21 and 22). The sinner is justified by divine grace (verse 24) and "by His blood" (5:9) that is, by the atoning death of Christ on the cross.

In human courts a man may sometimes be set free, not because he is innocent, but because no adequate proof of guilt could be found. Indeed it is possible for a man in certain circumstances to obtain a pardon although at the same time it is recognized that he bears a measure of guilt. In contrast, in the court of heaven a man who is justified by faith is not merely acquitted but there remains not a single stain on his character. The past has been expunged; in the eyes of God he is reckoned righteous and receives God's free gift of eternal life. "As sin reigned in death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 5:21). And there are many other blessings besides, for God has "blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ" (Eph. 1:3).

At this juncture the problem of the apparent conflict between the forgiveness of sin and God's absolute righteousness may, quite correctly, arise in the reader's mind. Divine holiness and righteousness are emphasized throughout Scripture. God says, "I will not justify the wicked" (Exod. 23:7). Men are required to be righteous in dealing with their fellow men; judges must justify the righteous and condemn the wicked (Deut. 25:1). How then can God be just and at the same time justify the sinner? The answer is to be found in the cross of Christ. There "He was wounded for our transgressions" (Isa. 53:5). The blood of Christ shed at Calvary is the supreme demonstration of divine righteousness, showing that God can be both "just, and the Justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:25,26). The cross ensures that God cannot be accused of unrighteousness nor can the elect be condemned (Rom. 8:33,34). As Sir Robert Anderson puts it, "God imputed the sin of the believer to Christ ... He died under sin and for sin. Not that the guiltless died as guiltless for the guilty, which would be horrible; but the guiltless passed into the position of the guilty, and ... died to expiate the guilt imputed to Him". Why God has so ordered it we may not stay to enquire. That is within His own sovereignty to decide. We can only bow in humble gratitude to understand that it is so.

"0 the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgements, and His ways past tracing out!" (Rom. 11:33).

The truth of justification by faith, although clearly stated in the New Testament, was largely lost sight of during the Middle Ages but was one of the major truths contended for by the Reformers. The prominent part played by Martin Luther in this important movement is well known, but a hard-fought battle was waged for many years by learned and dedicated Christian scholars, both before and after Luther, in order to reestablish this divine principle in the body of true Christian teaching. At the same time, many aberrations were rife and continue with unabated popularity to this day. This vital truth of Scripture is watered down or even completely rejected by the mass of religious thought, represented by Roman Catholics, a large part of the Church of England, "Jehovah's Witnesses", Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Christadelphians etc. Justification by works is more satisfying to man's proud nature, and so is more acceptable to those who do not give the word of God its proper weight. Readers should beware of the slightly more subtle heresy that justification is not simply reckoned or imputed but is merited because of the act of faith of the recipient. But Paul argues that we are "justified freely by His grace" (Rom. 3:23,24), and,

"To him that worketh, the reward is not reckoned as of grace, but as of debt. But him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness" (Rom. 4:4,5).

So that justification is by faith alone. The believer opens his hand to receive what God freely offers. The works which follow faith have nothing to do with the obtaining of eternal salvation. They receive recognition in another court, the Judgement-seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:13-15; 4:5; 2 Cor. 5:10).

Abraham and David, as we have already seen, had personal dealings with God over the question of their sin and its cleansing. Every person must have the same personal experience, for God will allow no earthly intermediary. Like the publican who went up to the Temple to pray, the man stands alone with his God, owns his nothingness, asks for mercy and accepts the forgiveness freely offered. God justifies him (Luke 18:9-14). In taking his proper place before God, man is not degraded, as some would assert, but on the contrary he regains his true dignity and the honourable place in creation which was divinely intended for him in the beginning (Gen. 1:26-28).

Before leaving the subject a final word should be said to put justification by works in its proper perspective. It is sometimes said that James disagrees with Paul on this subject. But since both wrote Scripture under divine inspiration we must assume that what the Holy Spirit caused to be written cannot be inconsistent within itself. It is in this light that we examine both what James wrote in his epistle and the Pauline argument in the letter to the Romans. First of all it should be noticed that James wrote, as also did Paul, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness" (Jas. 2:23). With James this is the concluding statement in his argument about Abraham's being justified by works in the offering up of Isaac. His works were coupled with his faith, making his faith "perfect" or complete (verses 21,22). The distinctive propositions of Paul and James can be brought together by accepting that Abraham was justified before God because of his faith but before men because they could see his works, the product of his faith. Justification in the latter sense is that which is outwardly demonstrated rather than that which is inwardly imputed. God sees the change in a man's heart and is satisfied. The human onlooker has to wait in order to see the outward effects of that change. Perhaps some difficulty arises because James's main point seems to be to warn his readers about the sterility of a mere profession of faith which does not reflect a real change in the heart. His telling argument is, "the demons also believe, and shudder" (2:19 RVM). True faith must result in fruit being seen. None of this militates in any way whatsoever against Paul's grand theme of justification by faith.