The doctrine of justification is central to the teaching of evangelical Christianity as it explains God’s appointed means of reconciling sinful mankind to Himself through the life and death of the Lord Jesus Christ. However, it is agreed in the Reformed Tradition that the “doctrine of justification by faith was not always clearly understood. In fact, it did not find its classical expression until the days of the Reformation” (Berkhof, Systematic Theology).
Before the Reformation, justification was defined as God’s way of making the ungodly righteous. The person justified would then possess an imparted righteousness which God accepts based on the works of righteousness that he does.
If the above definition were true, then God would have done an imperfect and incomplete job because even the best of man’s works are but “filthy rags” in God’s sight (Isa 64: 6). Not only would these works be rejected, for the doer of them would be in a state of condemnation, “for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal 3: 10b). Furthermore, this runs contrary to God’s own nature as it is stated in Proverbs 17:15, “He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the LORD.” Hence, this work-based definition of justification contradicts, and does injustice to God’s own righteous character. Thus it must be firmly rejected.
On the other hand, the Westminster Divines rightly define justification as “an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q.33). Justification is, therefore, righteousness imputed, not imparted to us. The difference lies in the kind of righteousness that God accepts. Since God cannot accept anything short of complete obedience to His Word, it is then the imputed (or credited) righteousness of Christ, and not our own, that God accepts for our justification.
In the explanation of justification, the 1563 Heidelberg Catechism answers the question, “How are you righteous before God?” with the reply: “God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart” (Lord’s Day 23, Q. 60). Simply put, in the justification of sinners, God pardons them on behalf of Christ just as if they have not sinned when they receive Him by faith.
Though they all happen simultaneously, faith and repentance logically precede justification. Upon hearing the Gospel, the convicted sinner believes in his heart and confesses his sins to God. Accepting Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Saviour, he is then justified by God: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom 4: 5). Yet, we must never forget that the faith exercised by man is, nonetheless, a gift from God (Eph 2: 8).
On the part of the believer, justification is a one-time act of faith and a pardon for life. But from God’s perspective, justification goes beyond forgiveness because the penalty of sin has to be satisfied. As easy as it may seem to us, sin cannot be overlooked and swept under the carpet by an infinitely holy and just God. “The LORD … will not at all acquit the wicked” (Nah 1: 3). Judgment must be meted out and the penalty of sin must be settled. Sinners need a “blood sacrifice” and God sent His only begotten Son to be their Substitute: “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (II Cor 5: 21).
Thanks be to God Who loved us and gave His Son, Jesus Christ to redeem us so that our sins may be forgiven and we are made righteous before Him: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; 7 That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Tit 3: 5-7).
Finally, the legal aspect of this doctrine must be elaborated. Justification is judicial, not experiential. It is a legal term employed in the court of law and does not describe a moral transformation. The person justified does not experience an immediate change in his conduct. He does, however, undergo a change in his status before God which may not be apparent to man. In God’s system of records, his spiritual citizenship has been changed. His name is permanently imprinted in the Book of Life.
Justification is that moment when God declares a sinner righteous. He, who once came under the sentence of Hell’s fire, is now no longer under divine condemnation but is adopted into the family of God.
Dear brethren, have we received Christ as our Lord and Saviour? Have we been justified by the blood of our Saviour? Have we received by faith, the imputed righteousness of Christ or are we still trusting in our own good works to enter the gates of heaven? Let us not be filled with unbelief or doubt. Rather, let us trust in Christ’s perfect obedience and sacrifice for us. Amen.
- Pr Kelvin Li