Justification has been called “the sum of all piety” (John Calvin) and “the article by which the church stands or falls” (Martin Luther). It was my privilege on Sunday morning to preach on this crucial biblical doctrine, as part of my ongoing series of sermons on the order of salvation. Justification is at the very heart of the gospel because it is God’s gracious act in forgiving our sins and accepting us as righteous in his sight, all for the sake of Christ. There are two truths about justification I sought to communicate in my message:
First, God justifies sinners by declaring us to be just. Biblically, the word “justify” does not mean to make righteous but to pronounce someone as righteous (see Proverbs 17:15). Thus it is a legal or forensic concept. As our judge, God declares us to be righteous in his sight with regard to his law.
But how can God do this when we are sinners? How is it that God, as Paul says, “justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5)? It certainly isn’t on the basis of any righteousness we possess, either by nature or by God’s gracious work in us. By nature there is nothing in us but sin and corruption (Genesis 6:5; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:9-18). And though God does work in the hearts of his redeemed people to produce the fruit of genuine righteousness, nevertheless this work is only partial in this life and doesn’t take away the guilt of sin.
So how can we who are sinners be declared righteous in the sight of a holy God who is of “purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13)? The answer is that God imputes to us the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. On the basis of his sinless obedience, and of his suffering the condemnation and death we deserve for our sins, God justifies us. He counts the righteousness of Christ’s as our very own, as though we ourselves had lived sinless lives. What a marvelous exchange! Jesus takes our sin and guilt, and we receive his righteousness and innocence. This is justification – God declares us righteous for the sake of Christ: “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 Corinthians 5:21).
Second, God justifies us through the means of faith in Jesus Christ. This truth that the sole basis upon which God justifies sinners is the righteousness of Christ excludes any possibility that we can be justified as a result of our own works or law-keeping. Paul makes this point very clear in Romans: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28). This is the Bible’s way of saying we are justified by faith alone. And Paul proves that by pointing to the example of Abraham. The father of Israel was not justified by works, he argues, but as the Scripture says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). And so it is for every saved sinner: we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone.
The one point of application I made from this was simply, believe it. As Christians we must take to heart this incredible truth, that in Christ our guilt is entirely taken away. God has removed our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12), he has trod our iniquities underfoot and has cast our sins in to the depths of seas (Micah 7:19), and he has nailed our sins’ record of debt to the cross (Colossians 2:14). And so, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Could Scripture be any clearer about this, that in justifying us God has forgiven all our sins? Insofar as this truth saturates our minds and hearts, we will be filled with peace and joy (Romans 5:1, 2), and we will serve God our Father and Christ our Savior with gratitude and zeal.
At the evening service we looked at the ascension of Christ, using the Heidelberg Catechism’s Lord’s Day 18 as our guide. The same Christ by whose sacrifice we are justified, though ascended bodily into heaven, is with us today in his “divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit… [and] is not absent from us for a moment” (Q & A 47).
Soli Deo Gloria!