Studying a Bible Theme: Justification

Students of the Bible soon learn the profit of studying a subject or a theme. This differs from other studies because the entire scope of Scripture is examined to understand its teaching. When studying the vital theme of “justification,” we would consider

The Meaning of Justification

What does “justification” mean? Lexicons or dictionaries (Brown, Driver, & Briggs, Strong’s, Thayer, Vine, etc.) give us its basic meaning. It is a legal term that means, “to declare righteous, to clear of guilt, to acquit, pronounce right.” It is not an act making right, but it views God as the judge declaring His verdict that the convicted, condemned sinner is right, and stands in a right position, accepted before Him, entirely through faith in Christ and His “righteous act” (Rom 5:18) on the cross.

We learn that “justification” is more than the commonly heard expression, “just as if I had never sinned.” While partly true, like many other expressions, it falls short of the truth. Justification clears the sinner of all guilt for all sins in God’s judgment; it also places him before God in a state of perfect, declared righteousness that can never be altered or lost.

It is obvious that sinful, condemned man cannot justify himself! Only the Judge can satisfy His own righteous requirements. Man’s court never can justify a condemned person who is actually guilty of committing a crime; it may pardon him or nullify the judgment, but if one is actually guilty, it cannot justly declare him “not guilty” without miscarrying justice. Only God can do this, and it is only through satisfying His righteous demands of judgment against the sinner. Therefore, God sees the justified sinner in Christ, and can bestow upon him all the blessings of that position.

First and Last Mention of Justification

Scripture has numerous references to “justification” in its various forms. It is translated as “righteous,” “just,” “justify,” “justification,” “justice,” “clear,” “freed,” “cleansed.” It is first found in Genesis 38:26 when Judah acknowledged the relative righteousness of Tamar. A more relevant reference is in Genesis 44:16 where Judah asks, in Joseph’s presence, “How shall we clear ourselves?” Being found in apparent guilt, how could they deliver themselves from that charge? They couldn’t! Joseph must do this for them. We cannot consider all of the references, but the same meaning persists throughout the Bible. The last reference is in Revelation 22:11, with the same meaning.

All the references to this word show that God is teaching His righteous, unchanging character and His standard of justice can only be met by the sacrificial work of the Lord Jesus on our behalf.

Development of Justification in Scripture

This truth unfolds throughout Scripture. The law established God’s righteous ground to judge sin according to the standard of a broken law. Man’s sin became the violation of the law (Rom 2:12; 3:20; 5:13). Man characteristically seeks to justify himself or others (Job 9:20; 27:5; Isa 5:23; Luke 10:29), but this always fails (Job 9:20; 15:14).

The sacrifices of the law could provide forgiveness of sins (Lev 4:31, 35; Rom 3:20; Heb 10:4) but never justification; that awaited the Lord’s coming and the sacrificial work of the cross (Acts 13:38-39). They were insufficient to fully meet the demands of God’s righteousness so as to put sin away entirely. Sins and repeated sacrifices brought a sense of guilt since sacrifices could not give a final settlement (Heb 10:1-4). Only the final, complete, sufficient sacrifice of Christ could answer the demand of divine righteousness in this regard.

If the law could condemn but not justify, we learn that Christ bore the curse of a broken law to redeem us out from it (Gal 3:13). Several books of the New Testament deal with justification, its ground and results.

Romans declares that justification (God’s ultimate purpose from the beginning) is through faith in Christ alone and not of any kind of works. Paul shows that this teaching is entirely consistent with God’s righteousness (Rom 3:25-26) since He has not violated His own standard to do so. Abraham is the example of faith that believes God entirely despite all contrary outward indications (Rom 4) and then demonstrates the reality of faith by the resultant life (Rom 12:1-2). Here justification by faith is in contrast to unbelief.

Galatians deals with justification in contrast to the ceremonial requirements of the law (Gal 2:16), and Paul teaches that the believer’s full blessing (having the Holy Spirit) is not through law but by justification by faith (Gal 3:3-9). Justification is the ground of received blessing and results in a life that is set apart (sanctified) to God.

James views justification from a slightly different perspective, but with nothing contrary to the truths of Romans and Galatians. He presents the result and reality of faith. Works in James are not works of the law, as in Romans and Galatians, but they are the acts of devotion to Christ that result from receiving His work. Those acts, such as Abraham’s being willing to sacrifice Isaac and Rahab’s siding with Israel against her own city, are not works that appear right to men, but they display the evidence of full devotion to God. As such, those acts in James 2 are the proof of faith that has justified the sinner before God and they are now seen by men.

Application and Significance of Justification

The truth of justification brings peace with God (Rom 5:1) and gives assurance to the believer. Because of it, he is conscious of an established position before God, judgment of his sins having passed because of the perfect work of the Lord Jesus. As a result, he displays the fruit of devotion and love for the Lord that is the essence of a testimony before men that honors the Lord Jesus (Titus 3:5-8). Thus, understanding “justification” is essential to our full appreciation of what God has done for us in Christ.