Justification

Preaching and Worship Resources about Justification

In traditional Lutheran and Calvinist Protestantism, God's justification of guilty sinners by grace alone is a combination of three divine moves: forgiving the guilty party's sins because of Christ's atoning sacrifice, crediting to him or her the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, and therefore reconciling with the forgiven sinner. Such justification, received through faith alone, is the hinge on which the Protestant Reformation turned. In recent biblical theology, particularly in the thinking of N. T. Wright, justification is a first fruit, an emblem, a foretaste of God's eventual rectification of the whole universe when, in the fullness of time, God "gathers up all things" in Christ (Eph. 1:10) and so establishes shalom.

In Scripture

"Now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law" (Rom. 3:21 - 28).

"What does the scripture say? `Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.' Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: `Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin'" (Rom. 4:3 - 8).

"He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them" (Rom. 4:11).

"[Jesus] was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 4:25 - 5:1).

"For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made [or reckoned] righteous" (Rom. 5:19).

"Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us" (Rom 8:33 - 34).

"He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30).

"So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:17 - 21).

"We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law" (Gal. 2:16).

"[In love] he destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and insight" (Eph. 1:5 - 8).

"I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith" (Phil. 3:8-9).

"Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, `Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,' and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:21 - 24).

Points to Ponder

Justification as acceptance John Calvin's favorite term for justification was "acceptance." So regarded, the justification of guilty sinners no longer looks like merely legal acquittal. It looks and feels much more like a welcome. And, of course, acceptance is basic to human flourishing — so basic that if a ten-year-old is cruelly nicknamed ("fats," "monkeyface") she may spend a lot of her life trying to bury this early humiliation. She has not been properly accepted, and her nickname says so.

The craving for acceptance never stops. Teens are sometimes consumed by it. Clothing, slang, friends, demeanor, dates, and hairstyles are all chosen to gain acceptance from others and therefore from ourselves.

And then the beat goes on. People choose colleges for their prestige. People marry or couple to feel they belong, and sometimes end up lonelier than they were before. People pad résumés, puff accomplishments, wedge boasts into conversations, join clubs, appear in places with the right people — all to reassure themselves of acceptance. Some assassins of famous figures brood over their status as nobodies until they figure out the one way they will never be forgotten.

The gospel Deep in the Christian gospel is a word of acceptance. Outside of God's grace, our status is unacceptable. We are guilty sinners. In justification, our sin does not suddenly disappear. It remains. But, in a glorious turn of events, our guilt does disappear. We are forgiven. And though we are not actually righteous, we are declared righteous. We are seen as, regarded as, accepted as righteous. We are credited with Christ's righteousness just as if we really deserved to go scot-free. With memorable phrasing, the Heidelberg Catechism declares that "even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God's commandments, of never having kept any of them, and of still being inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without any merit of my own, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me" . This remarkable answer, with its powerful pair of "as if" clauses, concludes simply: "All I need to do is accept this gift [of God] with a believing heart."

Accept my acceptance All I need to do is to accept my acceptance. Justification is by faith. Or is it through faith? It's the latter, and the difference is important. "By" suggests that faith itself justifies us, but it doesn't. God justifies by grace alone. Faith — itself a gift — is only the instrument or channel through which we receive God's acceptance.

Justification includes the forgiveness of our sins. God never justifies sins — that is, God never excuses or accepts them. In fact, someone must pay for them. But God does justify sinners because in his atonement Christ stands in for them. God exempts his sons and daughters from the penalty they deserve and accepts them as children he loves. Sin is unacceptable to God, but sinners may be accepted.

Sin is a spoiler. Let's probe a little. Maybe we can look at things this way: sin is a problem to God as well as to us. It's like malware in a computer. It's like mistrust in a friendship or animosity within a church. Sin is a spoiler. God wants to receive and accept his sons and daughters, but sin is in the way.

Gracious arithmetic God's solution to the problem is the atoning work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who suffers our penalty so that we might have forgiveness and peace with God. Because of the mighty, painful work of Christ, God does a kind of gracious arithmetic. God subtracts our sin from us, and then adds to us the righteousness of Christ in its place. God himself makes us acceptable.

The righteousness of Christ: Jesus loved his friends. He spent time and energy on unpopular people. He resisted temptation. He stuck by a high-maintenance disciple like Peter. He fed his betrayer in the Last Supper. He honored the tiniest manifestations of faith. He was willing to die for the sins of others.

We now carry Jesus's "alien" righteousness with us. In justification, all this is mysteriously transferred to us as if we had acted in just the same way. We now carry Jesus's "alien" righteousness with us, the righteousness that is not properly our own but belongs to another. We shop with someone else's credit card. We get past checkpoints in someone else's uniform. We travel on another's passport. In fact, we now have perfect lives. We cannot live perfect lives; nonetheless, when God looks at us what God sees is Jesus's perfect life.

Dulcinea in Cervantes's Don Quixote In this way we are like Dulcinea in Cervantes's Don Quixote. Don Quixote is a sad, awkward, brave, and silly knight, a throwback to a time when there really were knights. In one episode, Don Quixote walks into a little village inn, where he meets the village prostitute. She is a prostitute, no doubt. After all, that's what everybody in the village says she is. And they all treat her like a prostitute. When people look at her, she reads "whore" in their eyes. But the sad and brave Don Quixote doesn't see a prostitute when he looks at her. He sees a sweet and noble lady. He tells her how noble she is. More important, when he looks at her, she sees in his eyes the image of a respected and noble person, and she recognizes the image as her true self. So she starts acting like the image she recognizes. She stops acting like a prostitute, and starts acting like a great and respected person. She becomes Don Quixote's noble lady.

James and Paul seem to contradict each other on justification. No doubt the tension between their positions may be underestimated. But, most likely, James means something different by "justification" than Paul does. When James says that Abraham's faith was "brought to completion" by works, he tips his hand. James wants to say that faith is attested, validated, confirmed by works. Faith is still the instrument of justification, but the evidence of true faith is good works. A good tree will produce good fruit.

Alternative interpretation of Paul An important alternative interpretation of Paul is that in speaking of justification he's speaking of God's arranging for us to be just, not righteous. Righteousness has to do with an interior, individual quality. Justice has to do with right relations with others. Our problem is that we have wronged God by withholding from God what is due to God (gratitude, for example) and by mistreating others, whom God loves. In this interpretation, God does not just "declare" us to be righteous, but actually arranges for us to be just, to be justified, to be in the right, by having Jesus Christ represent us with his perfect atonement for sin and perfect obedience to the law. Because he represented all the rest of us in these things, we are now actually just, actually justified. Thus, justification is a burst of shalom that prefigures the coming of the kingdom of God in its fullness.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.