What Is Biblical Justification?

David Finkbeiner  and J. Brian Tucker
header for What Is Biblical Justification?

Do you ever feel guilty—really guilty—for something you have done? Almost everyone does, and for good reason. These feelings are mere glimpses of our status before the living, holy God. Written over everything we are and do is the verdict “guilty,” and there is nothing we can do on our own to change that (Rom. 3:19–20). Humans long to be freed from such guilt, to experience what David proclaimed: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the lord counts no iniquity” (Ps. 32:1–2a ESV).

David’s exultation is no pipe dream. After meticulously laying out His case in Romans 1:18–3:20 that all human beings without exception are sinners guilty before God and helpless to save themselves, the apostle Paul boldly restores hope in the next verse: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law” (Rom. 3:21a ESV). This hope comes through Christ’s work of redemption, received by faith and justifying us before the holy God (Rom. 3:21b–26). Justification is God’s legal judgment that all believers’ sins are forgiven and that they are righteous in His sight, based on the redemptive work of Christ received by faith.

Let’s unpack this marvelous doctrine of justification a little more by looking at five of its characteristics. First, justification is forensic, a legal verdict from God (Rom. 3:19–28; 4:4–5; 5:1; 8:1–2, 33–34). It is God’s judicial decla- ration regarding our legal status that we are righteous rather than condemned in His sight. It is not about transforming people’s character so that they stop sinning and live morally upright lives in everyday practice. In fact, God justifies sin- ners, people whose character and lifestyle deserve a verdict of condemnation. He is not unjust in declaring us righteous, because our justification is based on something other than our performance.

Second, justification is based solely on the finished work of Christ (Rom. 3:23–26; 5:18–19). God’s verdict about be- lievers cannot be based on their own standing before God, for on their own they are justly under God’s wrath and deserve eternal condemnation for their sin. But God’s wrath is met by His infinite mercy in Christ. For Christ lived the perfect human life in this fallen world and was perfectly righteous and well-pleasing in the Father’s sight. Christ died on the cross for our sins, fully satisfying God’s wrath against our sins as the sinless sacrifice. Christ then rose again, confirm- ing the acceptability of His sacrifice and issuing in new life for His people. By virtue of believers’ union with Christ, Christ’s sinless life, atoning sacrifice, and resurrection become theirs.

Third, considering what Christ has done for believers, jus- tification has two aspects. On the one hand, Christ’s sacrifice means all their sins—past, present, future—are paid in full in God’s sight and they are forgiven completely (Isa. 53:6; Rom. 3:25; 2 Cor. 5:21; Eph. 1:7; 1 Peter 2:24). When people some- times say that justification means God treats believers “just as if they never sinned,” this is the aspect they are stressing. But this is only half the story, for on the other hand, Christ’s perfect life means His righteousness is credited to believers (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 5:12–19; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9). From Christ we receive what theologians call an “alien” righ- teousness, a righteousness not our own, because it comes from outside ourselves. Justification therefore brings a dual imputa- tion, a “great exchange.” My sins are credited to Jesus and fully paid by Him on the cross, and His righteousness is credited to me. When the Father sees me in Christ, He not only sees me as completely cleansed of all my sin; He also looks on me with favor since I am clothed in Christ’s righteousness.

Fourth, justification is received only by grace through faith (Rom. 3:21–4:12; Gal. 3:21–26; Eph. 2:8–9). It is a free gift of God. And it can only be received through faith, through trusting in Christ alone. This is why justification is not earned through our good works in any way. It is not a process by which we do good works to earn our righteousness, at which point God then declares us righteous. Instead, immediately upon trusting Christ, we are considered no longer under con- demnation and righteous in God’s sight.

Fifth, although justification is not in any way grounded in good works, it inevitably results in good works (Eph. 2:8–10; Titus 2:14). The one who is justified does not “continue in sin that grace may abound, for the grace that justifies us is also the grace that transforms us to become more and more like Christ in our lives (Rom. 5:20–6:23). God has a much bigger agenda than simply delivering us from hell (Rom. 8:28–30). Conse- quently, while no one is justified in any way by good works, good works will inevitably follow in the lives of those who have been justified. Put differently, sanctification does not lead to justification, but it does certainly result from justification.

The description of justification outlined earlier represents a definitional standard among most Protestants. Others, how- ever, would differ. Traditional Roman Catholicism, for in- stance, sees justification as a process beginning with baptism and continuing throughout our lives as we become more holy in practice. It thus rejects the forensic nature of justification, merges justification and sanctification, and insists that faith and cooperating works together effect justification. Others agree that justification is forensic, comes by faith alone, and involves forgiveness of sin. But they deny that it also includes Christ’s imputed righteousness, lest we lose motivation to grow in godliness. Others still embrace the standard Protes- tant view almost entirely, with the exception that they deny that justification will always produce good works (i.e., sanc- tification) in the life of the one justified. They say that if jus- tification is really through faith alone, then it is possible for someone to be justified without any resulting change in their life. And, of course, many people and religions are legalistic, thinking that they can earn a right standing with God by their own good works. As we have seen, all such views fall short of the biblical presentation on justification.

Just think what justification means if you are a believer. It means that your fundamental identity is fixed securely in Christ, regardless of your failures or successes in your Chris- tian life. It means that all sins you have committed or will commit are paid in full. It means that you do not have to carry around guilt for the past. It means that you can reject legalism once and for all because you already have His favor and do not have to earn it. All of us can indeed heartily join David’s testimony to the blessedness of “the man against whom the lord counts no iniquity” (Ps. 32:2a ESV). But there are further blessings beyond justification.