Imagine a courtroom scene for a crime. The jury has just come back into the room with their verdict, and everyone is waiting to hear what they will say because a guilty verdict will carry a hard sentence for the defendant. The prosecutor and defense attorney both presented very strong cases, and it seems as though the verdict could go either way. The verdict is read: “Not Guilty.” The defendant breathes a big sigh of relief, hugs the attorney, and begins getting back to living a normal life.
This is what the Christian doctrine of justification is at its most basic level. It is a judicial or forensic statement of righteousness. This means it simply declares a person to be righteous; it does not make someone righteous, just like the “not guilty” verdict of the jury did not make the defendant innocent, it only declared the fact of his innocence.
Examples in Scripture
We can see proof of this in several places in the Old and New Testaments.
Proverbs 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” If justification included making someone righteous, then God would not consider it an abomination. But it aligns with God’s character to consider it an abomination to declare a wicked person to be righteous.
We can see this in a positive way in the law: “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 (Deuteronomy 25:1, KJV).” In the Bible, it is the judge’s job to justify – or declare – the righteous to be innocent. They do not make them innocent.
In the New Testament, we see the same in Luke 7:29: “When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John.” The phrase “declared God just” is a different way of saying they justified God. When the tax collectors justified God, they were certainly not making God righteous, they were declaring what God already is.
Only Half of the Story
You may be thinking that if justification simply is a declaration of righteousness, how can God declare anyone righteous since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)? To understand this, let us revisit the opening illustration with a few changes:
Imagine a courtroom scene for a horrible crime. The jury has just come back into the room with their verdict, and everyone is waiting to hear what they will say because a guilty verdict will mean a death sentence for the defendant. The prosecutor presented a very strong case, and the defense attorney could do nothing in response. Sure enough, the jury’s verdict is read: “Guilty.” But in this scene, you are not just an observer, you are the defendant, and you know you are guilty.
Before the judge begins to sentence you, something very strange happens. Out walks an innocent man and the judge tells you that this man is willing to step in and accept your guilt and death sentence. All you have to do is accept his offer. If you accept the offer, your guilt will be gone, and his innocence will be given to you. You are free to go as though you did not commit the crime.
The Heart of Justification
This is a fuller picture of all that happens when God justifies us. God’s justification is part of the chain of salvation provided by God and occurs after conversion when we repent of our sins and accept the gift of Jesus’ righteousness as our own by faith. Then our sin is imputed – or put on – to Jesus and His righteousness is imputed to us. This full picture is important because when God justifies us, He is not sweeping our sin under the rug. He can declare us righteous because we are righteous after receiving Christ’s righteousness. As Paul says, by doing this, God “might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).”
The Controversy of Justification
The final point to make about justification is that it is an event. Justification is not a process where we are made righteous. It is something that God does it once and then it is complete. We cannot add to it, and it cannot be taken away from us. We will never be more justified than we were at the moment of our conversion.
While the doctrine of justification is very simple to describe and illustrate, it has been misunderstood in the Christian faith and was one of the central causes of the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s. There are those who still teach that justification is a process where God slowly makes us righteous and free from sin. For Martin Luther and the Reformers, it was important to get this right because a proper understanding of this doctrine makes it clear that the entire act of salvation is a work of God and not us. As a result, God gets all the glory because it is all a gift from Him.
Let us praise God for the gift He has given us.