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"The doctrine of justification is at the heart of the gospel that saves us."
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenburg, one of his main concerns was the sale of indulgences. These indulgences were offered by people in positions of church authority as a way of paying for sins. Buy an indulgence, and any punishment you or a loved one would receive for a particular sin would be taken away.
Luther saw this as an implicit denial of the gospel he read about in the Bible, and his objections launched the protestant reformation. Near the center of the reformation was this issue: how are we made right in the eyes of God? In other words, how are we justified before God? The doctrine of justification is at the heart of the gospel that saves us. Below are 6 things you should know about justification:
The Greek word for "justify" can also be translated, "to declare righteous." In the Bible, when God justifies us, he makes a declaration about us. The image is from the world of law: a judge makes a declaration about someone that determines their status and how they are viewed by their legal system. When the judge declares someone not guilty, he is declaring that they are viewed as innocent by the court and will be treated that way. When God justifies us, he is declaring that in his sight we are righteous and no longer under the penalty of our sin. Unlike a human court, this declaration is despite the fact that we are clearly not righteous! But like a human court, this declaration is permanent. The ruling is final, and there is no double jeopardy. God's declarations stand eternally.
In Romans 3:20, Paul says that "no one will be justified by works of the law." But then, in Romans 4:5, Paul says that God "justifies the ungodly." His point is clear and echoed throughout the Bible: we can't earn justification. God declares us righteous by grace alone. We do not bring any merit to the table that God recognizes as righteous. In fact, the Bible says the opposite: we were "dead in our trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1). All signs of spiritual life were gone; we have no ability to justify ourselves. But Paul goes on: "by grace you have been saved ...and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph 2:8-9). Our justification is by grace alone, with no help from our works or effort.
Paul spends all of Romans 4 explaining that our justification doesn't come as a result of what we do, but as a result of our faith in what God does for us. His chief example is Abraham: it wasn't Abraham's obedience but his faith in God's promise that was "counted to him as righteousness" (Rom. 4:5). The same holds true for us: it's not our obedience that justifies us, but our faith in Jesus, the culmination of God's promise to save his people from their sins. It's important to remember that we aren't justified by having a certain amount of faith or a certain experience of faith. We are justified because of what our faith points to: Jesus.
The Bible is clear that God is perfectly just, and so he can't declare us righteous when we clearly are not. Peter explains that we are justified because "Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God" (1 Peter 3:18). Christ took our place, paid our punishment, and bore our sins on the cross so that our unrighteousness would be taken away. What's more, when we are united to Christ we are united to his perfect righteousness! The only way the Father can justify us is because of what Jesus did in his death and resurrection.
While justification is the declaration that we are righteous in the eyes of God, sanctification is our progressive growth into the image of Christ in our actual lives. In other words, justification is about our status before God while sanctification is about our lifestyle before God. When we confuse sanctification and justification, we think that our lifestyle determines how God feels about us. When you sin, you wonder if God still accepts you; when you don't sin, you think you've earned his approval. But when we keep justification and sanctification distinct, we recognize that our acceptance isn't based on our performance, but on Christ's performance for us. That keeps us reliant on God's grace and spurs us on to further obedience.
James writes that "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). He goes on to say that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:26). Some people see a flat contradiction here, but upon closer inspection we find an important lesson about our justification: it has effects on our life. While our justification doesn't make us righteous, it does affect the way we live our lives. To be justified before our creator and adopted as his child forever will necessarily change our identity, decisions, reactions, relationships, and lifestyle.
Brian serves the church by overseeing preaching and Sunday morning services at Cornerstone.
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