The Cross and Justification

Many are the benefits that flow from the cross and the atonement it represents. Justification is one of those benefits, for it has radically changed our standing with God. W.E. Vine writes that it means “to declare to be righteous,” or “to show to be righteous.” The second definition can be seen in James’ discussion of justification, namely, that the resulting good works, or righteousness in a believer’s life, will demonstrate that his faith is genuine. Since we are considering justification and the cross in this article, it is Paul’s focus which we will consider – that is, the first definition, “to declare to be righteous.” We will highlight four important results of justification as linked to the cross.

The cross removes our condemnation. Justification is a legal term that is best understood in a courtroom setting. In the divine courtroom, there is no introduction of exculpatory evidence, that is, evidence which tends to show the defendant’s innocence – because none exists (Rom 3:19,20,23). The sinner will never succeed in clearing his name, for he is justly condemned. Rather, says Paul, “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16).1  The believer can then rejoice, for “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). John Stott writes helpfully, “Justification is not a synonym for amnesty, which  strictly is pardon without principle, a forgiveness that overlooks – even forgets [amnēstia is ‘forgetfulness’] – wrongdoing … [but] an act of justice, of gracious justice.”2 Regardless of our interpretation of God’s remembering no more (Heb 10:17), we surely must recognize that justification is not owing to a case of divine amnesia, but rather to a lawful decision to grant a righteous standing, because another has borne the penalty of the offence. “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (Rom 8:33). Thus, “a justified believer emerges from God’s great courtroom with a consciousness that Another, his Substitute, has borne his guilt, and that he stands without accusation before the bar of God (Rom 8:1,33,34).”3 The cross is the place where Christ Jesus died for sin, and God the Justifier declares there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Him!

Paul tells the Colossian church that God has “forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:13-14). Here, it is the Law and specifically its claims against us that have been “set aside,” or “taken out of the way” (JND). But it was our sin that aroused its “legal demands” which stood against or accused us. Paul’s graphic imagery of cross-nailing makes clear that while the Law was the tool of our condemnation, the cross of Christ has become the instrument of our justification. There would be no justifying of the sinner apart from the “cancelation of the record of debt that stood against us.” The righteous cancelation of that debt was only possible through the atoning cross-work of Christ.

The cross establishes our peace. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). Peace is the fruit of justification. Another article in this issue deals with reconciliation, but suffice it to say that a right standing (justified before God) produces a right condition or relationship (at peace with God). Justification exchanges enmity for peace. The condemned sinner is incapable of experiencing true peace (Isa 57:20-21). The cross stands as the greatest demonstration that “righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psa 85:10 KJV), for He “made peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20 RV). Whereas we once were enemies of God (Rom 5:9-10), justification means He is now “for us” (8:31).

The cross displays God’s grace. One of the key features of justification is that it excludes our efforts. “It is God who justifies” (Rom 8:33), and “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16). Paul also told the Galatians, “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness is by law, then Christ has died for nothing” (v21 JND). Someone expressed it succinctly, “No sin, no need for justification: no grace, no possibility of it.”4

The cross is a stark reminder that justification is by faith alone (Rom 3:28), also  expressed as justification by Christ alone, for saving faith always has Christ and His work as its sole object. We “are justified by his grace as a gift … to be received by faith … so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (vv24-26).

The cross represents Christ’s obedience. Paul links our condemnation to the disobedience of Adam, but our justification to the obedience of Christ. “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (5:18). Nowhere is the sinner’s disobedience set in such stark contrast to Christ’s obedience as at the cross. Additionally, the cross serves to illuminate the far-reaching consequences of both, and the resultant wonder of justification: “For as indeed by the disobedience of the one man the many have been constituted sinners, so also by the obedience of the one the many will be constituted righteous [justified]” (v19 JND).

Christ was “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Php 2:8). He was then “raised because of our justification” (Rom 4:25 NASB). That is, the fact that He was raised is the full affirmation by the divine presiding Judge, and His stamp of approval that Christ’s atoning work as accomplished on the cross was completely sufficient to realize our justification.

There is a beautiful terrible cross
Where though You committed no sin,
Savior, You suffered the most wicked fate
On the cruelest creation of men.5

Ponder and worship that “in my place condemned He stood,” while giving thanks for “this grace in which we stand” (Rom 5:2).

1 Bible quotations in this article are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.

2 John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1986), 187.

3 Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1957), 624.

4 Tom Wright, “Justification,” an essay in The Great Acquittal, ed. Gavin Reid (London: Collins, 1980), 16.

5 James Todd Smith, Chad Robert Cates, Tony Webster Wood