Justification is at the heart of Biblical Christianity. It addresses the crucial question of how a sinner can be right with God. Therefore a correct understanding of the doctrine of justification is vitally important in defining God’s way of salvation, and yet, generally speaking, many believers have an inadequate or mistaken view of this doctrine.
When we speak of justification we are not talking about a moral transformation. Justification is not a changing of our inward natures, that is, regeneration. Justification is a legal transaction, it is God pardoning our sin and accepting us as righteous. To ‘justify’ (a sinner) means, to ‘declare righteous’. Justification is not working a change in us, but rather, it is a declaration about us. In justification we are in the law courts and not in the surgery.
However while justification is a declaration by God about us, the difference is, that when God makes this declaration, He is also constituting the sinner righteous, in order that He might declare him righteous. (Rom.5:19; 4:5-8) This understanding of justification is peculiar to redemption.
This raises the question, how can God declare the sinner ‘justified’? On what basis does God make this declaration about us? We need to be clear that it is not because of anything in us or anything done by us. It is on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone. (Rom. 3:21-26; 5:17-19) It is Christ’s perfect obedience to the law, and by Christ meeting the demands of the law for us, that enables God to constitute and declare us ‘justified’ in His sight. God imputes or credits the righteous of Christ to the sinner. “He became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Cor.5:17)
Justification is not, ‘just-as-if-I’d-never sinned’. Justification does not simply bring us back to square one, (ie. to Eden restored) but rather it imputes to us the righteousness of Christ. We become in God’s sight as righteous as Christ Himself. God justly justifies the sinner because of, and on the basis of Christ’s work alone.
If only we could more fully grasp the truth of justification the believer would enjoy an ever deepening sense of peace with God, and would more fully rejoice in the reality of what it means for God to declare us justified. “Therefore been justified by faith we have peace with God…” (Rom.5:1-2)
A second question is poised, how does this righteousness become ours? The answer is by faith alone. However it is on this point that most confusion has arisen. It is not that God does this because of our faith – for then faith would be a work, a merit of ours. Such an interpretation is a denial of the biblical doctrine of justification. Faith is the instrument, not the grounds on which God justifies us; it is only the vehicle through which He justifies us. Faith is the outstretched empty hand which receives from God the righteousness of Christ. Faith is wholehearted reliance on God to do what He has promised to do. It is the acknowledgement that we cannot do a thing to save ourselves, to be right with God, but rather affirms that salvation is all of grace, and gives all the glory rightly to Christ alone. (Eph. 2:7-9; Tit. 3:4-7)
Why is it important that we are right on the doctrine of justification? This doctrine that was at the heart of the Reformation, is still crucial because it more than any other defines the true gospel and establishes the grounds for ecclesiastical unity. Any who deviate on the doctrine of justification, according to Galatians 5:4, are guilty of apostasy from Christ and devoid of the grace apart from which men cannot be saved.
Therefore, the biblical doctrine of justification can never be reconciled with the teaching of the Church of Rome on the subject, there can be no compromise, no uncertainty, no agreeing to differ, and most definitely no co-operation for religious or evangelistic purposes with Rome or any church that departs from this central truth.