A Biblical Explanation of the Doctrine of Justification
“Jesus our Lord...Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” Romans 4:25
Throughout the history of the Christian church there have been many different points of view and contradictory beliefs regarding the most important doctrine of Justification.
I offer this biblical study only to encourage you to look into this doctrine for yourself and urge you to use only the Bible (preferably the King James Bible) to see if you have the correct and biblical definition of the word that fits every instance where this important word is found.
There are several sites you may wish to look at to see how the doctrine of justification has variously been understood. Protestants differ to varying degrees among themselves whether Lutherans, Calvinists, or Arminians, and all of them differ not only among themselves but especially from the official Catholic explanation of what it means to be “justified”
A History of the Doctrine of Justification by Dr. John Gerstner, shows various conflicting views on this subject that have existed since the begining
J.I. Packer presents the Reformed view
A.W. Pink and John Calvin’s view may be seen here.
Generally speaking, most Protestants or Evangelicals define the word justification as “the JUDICIAL (or forensic) ACT whereby God pardons our sins and LEGALLY DECLARES US TO BE RIGHTEOUS.”
Most will then affirm, as Luther did, that we are “justified by faith” without the works of the law.
However I believe most of us are using the wrong definition of the words “to justify”, “justification” and “justified”, and this erroneous definition leads to confusion and contradiction. That is why Luther despised the book of James and did not think it should be part of the canon of Scripture - he was working with the wrong definition of the word.
Right up front I will tell you what I believe the word “to justify” really means, and then show you from the Bible itself why I believe this is the case. You do not have to agree with me. I know I am going against what many big name Christians throughout the history of the church have taught. I am only asking that you put aside all pre-conceived ideas and take a new look at what the Bible has ALWAYS taught regarding this most fundamental doctrine.
The implications of a correct understanding of the doctrine of justification are far reaching and radical. It will profoundly altar the way you understand the Scriptures and the significance of the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
I do not believe at all that justification has anything to do with a “legal, forensic, or judicial act”. No where in the entire Bible is the word "justify" used to legally declare the once guilty party to now be righteous. Not a single verse of Scripture teaches this, as we will soon see.
It is NOT the same thing as redemption or reconciliation. It did NOT occur at the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ when He died as a sin offering in the place of His people.
The true “legal, forensic, and judicial act” whereby God’s people were JUDICIALLY MADE RIGHTEOUS occured in the one time and never to be repeated event of the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary.
“For He (God the Father) hath made Him (Christ) to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21
“Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, AND TO GIVE HIS LIFE A RANSOM FOR MANY.” Matthew 20:28
“I lay down my life for the sheep.” John 10:15
“But He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him: and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; AND THE LORD HATH LAID ON HIM THE INIQUITY OF US ALL.” Isaiah 53:5-6
“But God, who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us TOGETHER, and made us sit TOGETHER in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 2:4-5 (See also Colossians 2:12-14)
When Christ died, we died. When Christ was raised from the dead, we (the elect of God) were also raised in Him and now sit together with Him in the heavenly places. Our sins became His and His righteousness became ours. What an amazing salvation! What a Wonderful Saviour we have!
The cross of Calvary was where God in fact redeemed His people and the great legal transaction took place. Our sins were laid on Christ, the Lamb of God, and His perfect righteousness was judicially imputed to our account. But this forensic, legal act of Redemption by His blood is not the same thing as justification, as I hope to show from the Bible’s use of this important word.
Correct Definition of the Word to Justify
If we get our definition of the words to justify, justified, and justification from the Bible and the way God uses these words rather than from man made theological works or worldly dictionaries which usually get their definitions from the writings of men, we see that “to justify” NEVER means to legally or judicially make or declare to be righteous.
Rather it simply means “to SHOW someone to be ALREADY RIGHTEOUS”. Only a person who was already and previously righteous can be justified, or shown to be what in fact he already was - righteous.
Even in common speech when a person justifies his actions, he is merely showing and explaining why what he did was the right thing to do. He is not making something wrong to be right. He shows why it was right to do it.
Of course the phrase is also used when a man who was wrong tries to justify (or show to have been right) what in fact was wrong. We even see this in the Bible in Luke 10:29 - “ But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour? “ and in Job 9:20 - “ If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me: if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse.“ and in Luke 16:15 - “And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.”
Let’s look at more of the Scriptures. I believe it is very clear the way God Himself uses this word.
In the law of Moses, Deuteronomy 25:1, God told Moses: “If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them; then THEY SHALL JUSTIFY THE RIGHTEOUS, and condemn the wicked.”
In this case the righteous man already was righteous. He was not guilty of wrongdoing. The judges were merely to declare him to be what he already was, that is, righteous. They were not to make or legally declare a wicked man to be righteous. If he were wicked, then he should be condemned.
The word is used in reference to both God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. In Isaiah 50:8 it is spoken of the Lord Jesus prophetically and says: “He is near that justifieth me; who will contend with me? let us stand together: who is mine adversary? let him come near to me.”
Obviously the Lord Jesus Christ was and always had been perfectly righteous. But He was accused by the Pharisees of His day as being a blasphemer and a malefactor. Christ expresses His confidence that God will justify Him, or show that He was righteous and not an evil doer.
In Romans 3:4 we read a quote from Psalm 51:4 -”God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.”
Again, God has always been righteous. How can He be justified? By merely showing Himself to be what He already was, that is, righteous. There is no judicial, legal or forensic decree going on here. God was not wicked and then He was made righteous. He already was righteous before He was justified. And so too is it with us who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb of God at the cross of Calvary.
Let’s briefly look at a couple more verses that bring out this truth before we look at all the things that do justify us.
Matthew 11:19 - “The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.”
Wisdom is merely shown to be right (as it was in the first place) by what it produces. What wisdom produces does not MAKE IT RIGHT. It already was right and the results just show it to have been right to begin with.
Luke 7:29 - “And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John. “
The people did not make God righteous or legally declare Him to be righteous. They just agreed that God was already righteous by what He said through His servant John.
How are we justified?
It may surprise you to find out that we are justified by a whole lot more things than just faith.
According to the Bible we are justified by 1. God Himself; 2. Grace; 3. Faith; 4. Works; 5. Our Words; 6. the Resurrection of Christ; and 7. by His Blood.
It may also surprise you to learn that we are NOT justified by His death, the cross, or the substitutionary sacrifice our of Lord in our place.
#1. God - “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? IT IS GOD THAT JUSTIFIETH.” Romans 8:33
#2. Grace - “Being JUSTIFIED FREELY BY HIS GRACE through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:24. We are not justified by the redemption, but by His grace through the redemption.
“That BEING JUSTIFIED BY HIS GRACE, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
#3. Faith - “Therefore BEING JUSTIFIED BY FAITH, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 5:1.
“Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be JUSTIFIED BY FAITH.” Galatians 24
Faith does not make us righteous. God’s elect people who died in Christ when He died, and rose together with Him when He rose, are already clothed in the legal righteousness of Christ. The legal, forensic transaction has already taken place. God gives us the faith to believe the gospel so that we may know what He has already done for us. By giving us the faith to believe, God makes known to us in a personal way that we belong to Him and are among the righteous in and because of Christ.
In that famous chapter of Isaiah 53 we read concerning Christ - “He shall see the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied: BY HIS KNOWLEDGE SHALL MY RIGHTEOUS SERVANT JUSTIFY MANY; for He shall bear their iniquities.”
Notice it is “by His knowledge” that He justifies many; not by His death. Christ reveals to His sheep what He has already done for us and gives us the faith to believe it.
Faith is a gift from God. See -
The gospel is not something God wants to do, or hopes to do, but it is something He has already done. It is the proclamation of the finished work of redemption. “Thou shalt call His name JESUS: for He shall save His people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21.
“Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us” Galatians 3:13.
“Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” 1 Corinthians 15:3.
#4. Works - “Was not Abraham our father JUSTIFIED BY WORKS, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?...Ye see then how that BY WORKS A MAN IS JUSTIFIED, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot JUSTIFIED BY WORKS, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?” James 2:21-25
These are the verses that Martin Luther stumbled over and because he had the wrong definition of “justification”. He thought that James contradicts the apostle Paul when Paul says in Romans 3:20 “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” And in Galatians 2:16 he further states: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ...”
But notice that James is not talking about the works of the law, even though he does mention works. What were the works that Abraham and Rahab did that justified them? Abraham was about to kill his own son and Rahab betrayed her own people, but both actions proved that they really did believe in the one true God who had revealed Himself to them. They acted on their faith and their works showed that they believed God, but neither “work” formed any part of the law of Moses. When the correct definition is given to the word “justify” it all makes sense and there is no contradiction.
#5 Our Words - “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For BY THY WORDS THOU SHALT BE JUSTIFIED, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” Matthew 12:36-37.
In the context of this passage the Pharisees had accused Jesus of doing His miracles by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of the devils. The Lord Jesus responds that whosoever is not with Him is against Him, and it is revealed by what we say about Him, either for or against, that shows whether we are righteous or wicked. We are justified by our words when we speak well of our Saviour, and others are condemned by their blasphemies against Him. But our words do not make us righteous; they merely reveal the true condition of our hearts towards Him.
#6. the Resurrection - “Who was delivered FOR our offences, and was raised again FOR OUR JUSTIFICATION.” Romans 4:25.
I remember a few years back hearing a Baptist preacher telling his congregation that the King James Bible was in error in this verse and he said the NKJV was much better because it translates the phrase as “and was raised BECAUSE OF our justification” instead of “FOR our justification.”
I understand why he said this. It’s because he had the wrong definition of the word justification. He probably got his definition from some seminary and never bothered to actually study the word out for himself.
He erroneously thought the NKJV (and the NASB) had the better translation because, in his way of thinking, “the legal, forensic and judicial act of our sins being transferred to Christ and His righteousness being imputed to us” occurred at the cross in the substitutionary death of our Saviour, and that that was where (he thought) our justification took place.
In fact, some versions like the Complete Jewish Bible actually translate the phrase like this: “who was delivered over to death because of our offences and raised to life IN ORDER TO MAKE US RIGHTEOUS.”
But the King James Bible got it right (as it always does) and is correct when it says that Christ was “raised again FOR our justification”. Reading this way as well are such translations as Wycliffe 1395, Tyndale 1525 "Which was delivered for oure synnes and rose agayne FOR to iustifie vs.", the Great Bible 1540 - " whych was delyuered for oure synnes, and was raysed agayne FOR oure iustificacyon.", Matthew's Bible 1549 "Whiche was deliuered for oure synnes and rose agayne FOR TO iustifye vs.", Bishops’s bible 1568, the Geneva Bible 1587 - "Who was deliuered to death for our sinnes, and is risen againe FOR our justification.", the Beza N.T. 1599, the Mace N.T. 1729, Whiston's N.T. 1745, Worrell N.T. 1770, the Thomson Bible 1808, the RV 1881, Darby 1890, ASV 1901 - "and was raised FOR our justification.", Worrell N.T. 1904, Douay 1950, RSV, NRSV 1989, The Lawrie Translation 1998, World English Bible 2000, The Tomson Bible 2002, the Complete Apostle's Bible 2003, The Resurrection Life N.T. 2005, the ESV 2001-2011 "and raised FOR our justification.", the Holman Standard 2009 "He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised FOR our justification.", the New Heart English Bible 2010, the Jubilee Bible 2010, The New European Version 2010, The Mounce N.T. 2011, The Biblos Bible 2013, The English Majority Text N.T. 2013 and The Modern English Version 2014, to name but a few.
We were already made righteous by the substitutionary death of Christ (See 2 Corinthians 5:21). If the sacrifice of Christ had not been sufficient to pay for our sins and give us His righteousness, then Christ could not have been raised from the dead.
But the fact that God DID raise Him from the dead PROVED that the debt had been paid and the legal transfer of His righteousness to His elect people had already been accomplished. That is precisely why the King James Bible correctly says that He was raised FOR our justification. The resurrection was the proof that the debt had been paid and we were already made righteous in Him. Praise the Lord Jesus!
#7 His blood - In the book of Hebrews God tells us a great deal about the contrast between the Old Testament covenant and its ultimate fulfillment in the New Covenant where Christ is both our High Priest and the final sacrifice for our sins. Just as in the O.T. the high priest offered the sacrifice on the altar and then took the blood into the Holy of holies on the day of atonement, so too we read of our High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ who fulfilled the type.
“But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but BY HIS OWN BLOOD HE ENTERED ONCE INTO THE HOLY PLACE, HAVING OBTAINED ETERNAL REDEMPTION FOR US.”
Notice that it was AFTER having obtained our redemption (and this took place on the cross of Calvary) that THEN as High Priest He entered into the heavenly Holy of Holies and there presented His blood as proof that the redemption had been accomplished.
So we read in Romans 5:8-10 - “But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, BEING NOW JUSTIFIED BY HIS BLOOD, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.”
Notice the parallel thoughts here. “Christ died” = “reconciled to God” vs. “now justified by His blood” = “saved by His life”. It is as the resurrected High Priest that the living Christ presented His blood in the heavenly Holy of Holies as a testimony to the fact that the atoning sacrifice had already been accomplished.
Reconciliation already took place by the death of the Son. Then He rose from the dead, presented His blood as proof that the sacrifice had been made and He is alive as our great High Priest forever.
Once you begin to see the truth that justification does not refer to any kind of legal, forensic or judicial transaction whereby the sinner is MADE righteous, all the verses fit together and there are no contradictions.
We are Accepted in the Beloved - Ephesians 1:6
I once presented some of these ideas about what it means to be justified and another man raised the objection asking me to explain Romans 4:5. I was a little surprised by this objection because it seems so clear to me that there is no contradiction with the rest of the Scripture. There we read: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”
To my understanding there is no real contradiction. We are still ungodly in and of ourselves. All our righteousnesses are still as filthy rags. We are still sinners even though we are also saints and counted as righteous before God. Paul says that he IS the chief of sinners; not that he WAS. See also 1 Timothy 1:15 and such verses as 1 Timothy 5:20, Luke 18:13, James 4:8; 5:20, 1 John 1:8 and Romans 7:9-25.
We see a similar thought in Luke 18:13-13. Here we read: "And the publican, standing afar off would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."
I am still ungodly, but God counts my faith as righteousness, and it is this same God given faith that justifies every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. This faith shows us that in Christ we have already been made righteous, but it does not MAKE us righteous. That legal transaction already took place on the cross of Christ some 2000 years ago where God “made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might BE MADE the righteousness of God in Him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21
All praise, and glory and thanksgiving to the Lamb of God. We are Accepted in the Beloved and Clothed in His Righteousness for ever.
Another objection, or at least, a question about my article on justification was sent to me by a pastor. He asked: Well, what about the righteousness of faith as mentioned in Romans 4?
In Romans 4:2-5 we read: “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justified the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”
I believe the answer is pretty clear. Abraham was not justified by the works of the law (which is the context) but by faith. He was shown to be what he in fact already was, righteous. The “righteousness of faith” is NOT the legal, forensic and judicial righteousness before a thrice holy God. It is NOT the legal transaction whereby atonement is made for our sins, they are punished to the full extent of the law - death - , our sins are paid for and blotted out of way. Only the substitutionary death of our Redeemer can accomplish this. But the “righteousness of faith” that justifies us (shows us to be indeed righteous) is a fruit of the practical righteousness of God’s people.
None of us can stand before a sin hating, sin judging God and claim a legal righteousness before Him simply because we have faith. Our faith did not pay for our sins and give us a legal standing before God. If it could, Christ did not need to shed His atoning blood.
Rather, the “righteousness of faith” is a practical righteousness as opposed to a legal and positional righteousness. It is much like other works of righteousness we read of in Scripture.
Compare these verses that tell us the time the children of Israel committed whoredom with the daughters of Moab and worshipped false gods. Phinehas picked up a javelin and went into the tent and “thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly” and so the plague was stayed. We read about this event in Psalms.
Psalm 106:30-31 “Then stood up Phinehas, and executed judgment: and so the plague was stayed. And THAT WAS COUNTED UNTO HIM FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS unto all generations for evermore.”
Can Phinehas stand before God in a coming day and tell God he doesn’t need the substitutionary benefits of the death of Christ to enter His Holy presence, because he killed two people? Of course not. But what Phinehas did merely showed that he was among those who were righteous.
In the same way, our faith does not make us legally righteous before God, but God gives us faith as an evidence that we too are righteous, but it doesn’t MAKE US righteous.
Let’s look at some other examples of “practical” righteousness as opposed to legal, judicial righteousness.
“For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not; but the publicans and the harlots believed him.” Matthew 21:32
Peter speaking to Cornelius: “But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” Acts 10:35
“Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?” Romans 2:26
“...but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.” Romans 6:13
“As it is written, He hath dispersed abroad; he hath given to the poor: his righteousness remaineth for ever.” 2 Corinthians 9:9
“...and increase the fruits of your righteousness.” 2 Corinthians 9:10
“Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God.” Philippians 1:11
“Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions.” Hebrews 11:33
The righteousness spoken of in all these verses is a “practical” righteousness, just as is the righteousness of faith. They are the evidences that show that we are among the righteous, but they do not make us righteous. The ONLY legal righteousness we have is that “robe of righteousness” given to us by our Redeemer Saviour, who shed His blood to pay the legal penalty for our sins and puts to our account His own Righteous standing; we are Accepted in the Beloved - Ephesians 1:6
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