Sunday, January 4, 2015

What is the Doctrine of Justification?

A few months ago myself and three other pastors from my church were meeting to decide on the wording for a brief statement of faith that we wanted to start reciting at the beginning of our Sunday morning services. At one point I suggested that we use the word "justification" in one of the sentences, another pastor quickly looked at me and said, "do you know how many people don't even know what that word means?" What he said caught me by surprise, but as I thought about it I began to realize that he was probably right. This dilemma began to roll around in my thoughts for the next couple months until I finally decided that I needed to write this blog. So here it is, I am going to take some time to explain what justification is, it's repercussions, and why it is so crucial to understand as believers.

Justification is the declaring of a person to be just or righteous. It is a legal term signifying acquittal (Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology). That is, we are made to be righteous apart from, and in spite of our sins that earn us guilt. This word has a legal connotation implying that a certain penalty is not owed to an individual based upon their standing with the court. I'm sure after hearing these definitions you can begin to see why the word justification it is so central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but I will explain in detail all of it's repercussions later in this blog. Right now I want to take some time to focus on a pivotal text from scripture regarding this doctrine of justification.

Romans 5:1-2- "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God."

This passage gives us a basis for understanding how powerful justification really is when it comes to our salvation. Justification is so powerful that it gives us total peace with God. Justification nullifies the vicious cycle of striving to maintain a right standing with God. It puts to death our trust in us, it forces us to trust in the work that Christ did at the cross on our behalf. And this is exactly where God wants us to be, fully trusting Him for everything we need, especially our salvation. Justification gives us confidence that we now have total access to God the Father, we need not meet a list of conditions to enter His presence. Our faith in Christ has made us righteous in God's sight. Justification also serves as the only basis for a true and steady hope in eternal life.

Now, I mentioned that we need not meet a list of conditions to enter God's presence. One might say, "well doesn't the Bible say we need to confess our sins and repent when we make a mistake in order to get right with God again? Doesn't that serve as a condition?" That's a very good question. When a believer sins it doesn't cause them to break relationship with God. That is, we do not lose our position as a child of God. So no there aren't any conditions we need to meet to remain God's child. However, we do prohibit intimate fellowship with God when we sin. This is because when we sin it isn't just against us or somebody else, it's directly against God our Creator. Psalm 51:4-"Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge." In the same way that we offend another person when we do something aganist them, we offend God our Creator when we sin against Him, and thus our intimate fellowship is cut short until we ask God to forgive us. So the answer is no, confessing our sin is not a conditon we need to meet in order to maintain relationship with God, but it is a "condition" we need to meet in order to maintain intimacy with God. We wouldn't even be able to go to God and confess our sin if justification through Christ did not open the door for us to do so.

Without the binding legal ramifications of justification, we have absolutely no basis to hope in eternal life. This means we have no basis to be comforted when a believer we know dies, we have no basis to thank God for saving us, no basis to rejoice in the reality of His gift of eternal life, and no basis to not be horrifically afraid of dying. Why is all of this so? Because if there is any inkling of a possibility that we have to maintain a list of unattainable standards in order to continue to be justified in God's sight, we can have no certainty as to whether or not we will actually finish the race without error, and we can't be certain that others have finished the race without error either. Justification removes this uncertainty by addressing every aspect of our sin, past, present, and future, and giving a legal declaration of not guilty through faith in Jesus Christ. This is why when Paul writes about our justification in Romans chapter 5 he follows it with, "And we boast in the hope of the glory of God." This means that because we have been declared righteous by God we can now have certainty of eternal life. This gives us plenty of reasons to rejoice! It's the foundation of our joy in Christ! Justification is God's legal, binding, and irrevocable guarantee that we are going to spend eternity in His Kingdom.

While we are on the subject of justification by faith I want to take a moment to address the idea of "saving faith" versus "fleeting belief." A person cannot be justified in God's sight by merely having an emotional moment that amounts to nothing more than mental assent. I believe that thousands of people walk down the aisle each year hyped up over emotions, and they pray the sinners prayer thinking it's "the thing you have to do to get to Heaven." Many of these people do not experience saving faith, although some certainly do, but saving faith occurs when God grabs hold of you and empowers you to believe with your whole heart. With saving faith God's word penetrates a softened heart that was prepared by His Spirit beforehand, and it bears fruit afterward. In the parable of the sower we see an example of a person who demonstrates saving faith (Mat 13:23), but we also see an example of a person who demonstrates fleeting belief. "The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful." (Mat. 13:22) We also see this in Mat. 13:20-21, and various other places in the Gospels and New Testament letters. Justification can only occur when a person demonstrates saving faith.

Now, back to justification. Later on in Romans chapter 5 we find Paul explaining the process of justification by drawing a parallel between Adam and Jesus. Romans 5:18-19- "Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. Here Paul explains that through the disobedience of Adam we all inherited a sinful nature by default, this sinful nature leads to disobedience which brings condemnation for everyone. In the same way, a person is now able to inherit a new nature which is the essence of righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, this leads to justification for all who believe. So the way that justification works is that God gives us the righteousness of Jesus Christ, who lived a sinless life on our behalf.

Here is the way that God gives us the righteousness of Jesus Christ:

1. God took account of the perfect life of Jesus Christ, as He takes account of every life that lives on Earth. (Mat. 12:36)
2. Jesus Christ took the punishment that sinful men deserved by dying on the cross. (2 Cor. 5:21)
3. God raised Jesus Christ from the dead to be a mediator between Himself and mankind. (1 Tim. 2:5)
4. God gives us an invitation through Jesus Christ to be saved from the punishment we deserve as sinners. (John 3:16)
5. When we accept God's invitation He cleanses us of sin through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. (Eph. 1:7 & 13)
6. Now that we have been cleansed, God can now live within us, so God gives us His nature which is perfect and He credits the righteous life of Jesus to our account. (Eph. 1:13-14 & 2 Cor. 5:21)
7. Now that we have been cleansed and given a new nature, God does not impute our sin to us any longer, He reckons us a clean vessel with a righteous life and a righteous nature. He has justified us through faith in Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:1)

As you can see God is very systematic in the way that He goes about justifying a person. On might ask, "why doesn't God just forgive everyone and save all the trouble?" The answer comes from understanding God's multifaceted nature. God is not only merciful, He is also perfectly just. This means that He cannot let sin go unpunished. Therefore, God became a man to live a sinless life on our behalf and die the death we deserved in order to satisfy the penalty that our sin called for. This is what one would expect from a perfect God who is both merciful and just, and in Christ we find God combining two seemingly opposite concepts (justice and mercy) in a most beautiful and powerful way. As a matter of fact, there are no words to describe how majestic this process of justification truly is. Only the Eternal God could accomplish the feat of rendering mercy and justice together in the same independent act, and that act was the death of Christ on the cross.

The repercussions of justification by faith are unending but I want to point one final aspect of what justification does before ending this blog, the repercussion is this; justification by faith gives us power to endure trials. Romans 5:3- "Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance." So in this verse Paul has just finished writing that because of justification we can "boast in the hope of the glory of God (being with God forever)," then he goes on to say that because of justification we can also rejoice in our suffering. Why is that? I believe the most concise answer is found in 2 Cor. 4:17 where Paul says, "For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all."  Because of justification we have a certain hope in eternal life, and because of that we are able to look at our suffering and trails with the confidence that God will reward us in eternity for each of them. Without justification we have no certainty of eternal life and therefore our trails are meaningless and we have no reason to rejoice whatsoever. But thank God that is not the case! God will wipe every tear from our faces, and He will do this because we have been justified by faith in Jesus Christ! So as you can see justification is essential is more ways that we could ever imagine!

Justification is important for believers to understand for many different reasons. Without it you have no basis for hope in eternal life, you also have no reason to rejoice in suffering, you have no security in your relationship with God, you will tend view God as a taskmaster rather than a loving Father, you ultimately have no certain comfort regarding other believers who have died, you will tend to walk in condemnation and legalism, and you will never fully understand the power of what God really did through His death, burial and resurrection. I guess you could say in short that without justification by faith there is no gospel. Without justification by faith there is only religion, there is only an inadequate attempt to follow a list of rules hoping that you got it all right before you die, and none of us do. This is why justification is so important, because it is the very foundation of Biblical Christianity, it is the entire reason that Christ died!

Now that we have discussed what justification is, it's repercussions, and why it's important to understand as believers, I hope that you feel more empowered than ever to pursue all that God has in store for your life. We can now relate to God in a way that is confident, thankful, secure, hopeful, and so much more! Please consider sharing this message with others so that everyone can realize that justification is the gospel's most important word! God bless!

Written by: Kyle Bailey, M.Th.

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Photo credit to: http://counselmagazineonline.com/articles/justification/