What is justification?
In Romans 1:17, Paul writes: “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”
This does not refer, in so many words, to “justification by faith.” However, the idea is clearly expressed: God’s righteousness is “by faith from first to last.” It is the one who is “righteous by faith” who will gain spiritual life.
What does this mean? Douglas Moo explains:
The history of the doctrine of justification
This doctrine of justification by faith has had a checkered history.
It was virtually ignored until the Reformation. That all changed with Luther, who elevated justification to the head of all doctrines. Ever since, Lutheran theologians have followed their founder’s lead, proclaiming in the oft-quoted phrase that justification by faith is the doctrine “on which the church stands or falls.”
While justification by faith has been important for the other Reformers, it did not have quite the same importance as it did for Luther. Still, the Protestant tradition generally has put great emphasis on the doctrine.
And specifically, for Protestants, the most important part of the doctrine of justification has been the judicial, or forensic, understanding of justification and righteousness language generally.
In other words, to be “justified” does not mean, Protestant theologians insist, to be “made” righteous, but to be “declared” righteous.
What God does for us in justification is similar to what the judge does in a law court: He does not change the defendant by turning him or her into a new kind of person; rather, he declares the defendant innocent of the charges brought against him or her.
Roman Catholic interpreters have often denied this forensic understanding of justification. Instead, they have insisted that righteousness must always include inner transformation.
This difference set the battle lines for Protestant-Roman Catholic debate for centuries.
The contemporary understanding of justification
But we live in a new world.
Now, most contemporary Roman Catholic scholars agree that the Protestant theologians are right to insist that “justification” language in Paul is forensic.
At the same time, many Protestant interpreters now want to minimize the significance of the doctrine of justification by faith.
On top of this, new debates have sprung up over the key issue of the basis of God’s verdict of justification. Just how can God declare the sinner “innocent” when he or she is really not?
We want briefly to highlight two points: the importance of justification and its essential meaning.
Why justification is so important
Under the tyranny of being “relevant” many preachers in our day avoid doctrine like the plague. It smells of old books and dusty theologians debating incomprehensible issues.
But doctrine is, of course, simply the truth that God has revealed to us in his Word. And if the Christian life is anything, it must be rooted firmly in the truth about God and the world.
God makes clear to us that the fundamental human problem is not horizontal (estrangement in human relationships) but vertical (estrangement from the only true God).
Justification is God’s response to that problem. That’s why understanding justification by faith is so important.
What it means to be justified
Through the gospel, God unleashes a power to change people, and at the crucial point: in their relationship to him.
When people respond in faith to the message of the good news, God “justifies” them. That is, he declares them innocent before him and removes the barrier that exists between all human beings in their natural state and God.
Everything else in the Christian life flows from this marvelous experience.
Yet many people do not hear this good news, and many Christians do not understand what has happened to them.
Because too many preachers don’t think a topic like justification by faith is “relevant.”
A fresh commitment on the part of all preachers to set before their people what God, in his Word, has deemed relevant will go a long way toward bringing the church to a deeper consciousness of the most important truth in the world: that the God of this universe is willing to accept us as his own simply through our faith.
As we recommit to bringing the truth of justification before our people, we need to be sure to present it accurately.
It is vitally important that we emphasize that justification is a forensic action. As we explained above, in justification God does not change us but accepts us as we are. To be sure, he insists on changing us once we have been accepted, but the acceptance always comes first.
Christians who struggle to think of themselves as “worthy” to be in relationship with God need especially to understand this truth.
We, in ourselves, are never worthy, not the best one of us. The gospel is precisely “good news” because it announces that God accepts us anyway. All that we have to do is receive his offer in faith—to be sure, a faith that must, by its very nature, always be accompanied by obedience (cf. Romans 1:5).
Justification reminds us that our standing with God is by grace and that thankfulness should be the hallmark in all our dealings with him.
What are the results of being justified by faith?
In Romans 5, Paul writes:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.
In other words, when we are justified, we can expect three things to take place:
The first result is “peace with God.”
“Peace” is a rich biblical word. Our English word “peace,” in keeping with the secular Greek use of eirene, often has a negative sense: the absence of hostility. But the Old Testament and Jewish conception of peace, shalom, was much more positive, connoting a general sense of harmonious well-being.
Isaiah 32:17–18 says this about peace:
The fruit of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever. My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest.
This peace is the objective state of harmony with God that believers who have been justified enjoy.
Another wonderful result of our justification is “access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.”
The Greek word behind “access” (prosagoge) suggests the same idea as the English word, as when, for instance, we say a person has “access” to the President.
But Paul surprises us by claiming not, as we would expect, that we now have constant access to God, but that we have access “into this grace.”
He therefore implies again how fundamental the notion of grace is to him.
But grace here does not, as in these earlier verses, refer to the freedom with which God acts toward his creatures. Rather, it is a state in which the believer lives.
God’s free giving to us does not stop when we become Christians. It continues to be poured out on us so much that we can be said to live in a constant state of grace (cf. Romans 5:21; 6:14, 15).
The third result of our new justified state is that “we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”
The verb for “rejoice” (kauchaomai) suggests both the idea of taking confidence in and of rejoicing in. Some versions also translate this as “boast.”
Paul introduces what becomes the theme of this paragraph: the hope we have as Christians to share in God’s glory.
But Paul quickly adds in a surprising development, “we also rejoice in our sufferings” (5:3).
Having ministered with people for so many years, Paul knows that many will react to this enumeration of blessings in one of two ways.
Some will think he is promising believers a trouble-free existence, suggesting life will be a “bed of roses” now that they belong to God. Others, who have been Christians long enough to know that suffering does not come to an end with conversion, may dismiss Paul as an unrealistic dreamer.
Thus Paul takes the offensive.
Yes, he says in effect, I know Christians will continue to suffer. But life’s difficulties do not contradict what I have been saying about the wonderful blessings of being a Christian. In fact, God actually uses them to bring us even greater blessing.
The key is the way we respond to the difficult trials that come our way. What we must do is to recognize that God uses them to build into our lives “perseverance,” which, in turn, leads to “character.”
Only then can we truly “rejoice” in the midst of suffering, knowing that God is at work even in these evil things to bring us blessing.
Paradoxically, Paul also claims that suffering can actually lead to “hope.” Just as resistance to a muscle strengthens it, so challenges to our hope can strengthen it.
Justification by faith leads to hope
In Romans 5:9–11, reminds us what God has already done for us through the death of Christ: He “justified” us (v. 9) and “reconciled” us to him (v. 10).
“How much more,” then, Paul reasons, can we be sure that God will complete his work by saving us from his wrath in the last day.
Bringing rebellious sinners into relationship with God is an act of amazing love (vv. 5–8). Now that he has done that, Paul suggests, we can be absolutely confident he will do what, in this sense, is the “easier” thing: deliver from wrath people whom God has already brought to himself.
What’s interesting about these verses is that Paul interchanges “justify” and “reconcile” in his argument.
Does this suggest that they mean the same thing? Not at all. Rather, they are two ways of describing what happens when God first accepts us.
He declares us innocent and absolves us from punishment for our sins—he justifies us—and he removes the hostility that existed between us and him because of that sin—we are reconciled.
The former is a judicial idea, the latter a relational one.
What does it mean to be saved?
Paul claims that being “saved” comes after we are justified and reconciled.
This may seem unusual, since we often use the word “save” to refer to our initial acceptance with the Lord (“I was saved in 1971”).
Paul does use the word this way (see, e.g., Romans 8:34), but he more often uses it to depict the believer’s final deliverance from death and the wrath of God in the last day.
Later in Romans, Paul claims that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (see Romans 13:11; see also 1 Cor. 3:15; 5:5; Phil. 2:12).
The gospel, Paul has announced in his statement of the letter’s theme, is the “power of God for . . . salvation” (Rom. 1:16).
But that salvation is not completed until we have put sin and death behind us and been vindicated in the judgment. Being justified and reconciled to God is the critical step on the way to salvation; if these are in place, eventual salvation is certain.
Justification by faith leads to assurance
For Paul, as we have seen, God’s verdict of justification marks the entrance into the Christian life. When we respond to the gospel in faith, God declares us innocent and our relationship with him begins. To be sure, some verses in Paul may suggest justification is more than a past event for the believer (see Galatians 5:6, for example).
But, on the whole, as Romans 5:1 suggests, justification is the entry point into our Christian experience.
In Jewish theology, however, justification and its opposite, condemnation, were verdicts that would be delivered only on the Day of Judgment.
Jesus uses the language in typical Jewish fashion: “By your words you will be acquitted [justified], and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:37).
Paul’s claim that a person can be justified in this life is a radical departure from Jewish thinking. In a way characteristic of the New Testament perspective, he proclaims that believers in Christ can experience an eschatological event—right now.
This does not mean, however, that Paul does away with the typical Jewish teaching about a future day of judgment. He affirms that some day Christians as well as non-Christians will have to stand before God to be judged.
With this background in view, we begin to understand better why Paul must focus on the issue of assurance in these verses.
Christians, he has asserted, are “justified.” But we have not yet appeared before God on the Judgment Day. How can we know that this verdict of justification will do us any good when that Day comes?
It is this underlying question that sparks his teaching here and throughout these chapters. The apostle’s answer is clear: In justifying us, God has already pronounced his verdict over us. It can be neither rescinded nor changed.
True, we must still appear before God to have our “case” disposed of.
But we can face that day with utter confidence, since God in Christ has already decided the case in our favor.
Justification releases us from any uncertainty or fear about that judgment.
This post is adapted from material found in Douglas Moo’s online course, The Book of Romans: History, Meaning, and Application. To learn more about the doctrine of justification in the book of Romans, sign up for the course.
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