What is Justification by Faith?

The Meaning of Justification by Faith

Justification deals with the question of our standing before God. How can I be right with God? That's the question the Doctrine of Justification answers. How can I be right with God because I'm already a sinner and the law condemns sinners? It's a irremediable condemnation. There is no roadmap in the law to get back to a right standing with God once you've broken the law because if you offend in one point, you've broken it all and you're guilty. The law condemns. It doesn't give us a way of eternal salvation. 

So that's where grace comes in and that's why the Gospel is a different message from the message of the law. The message of the law isn't a bad message. It's a good message in the sense that it serves the right purpose. It shows us of God, it shows us how high the standard is, but it also teaches us it's an impossible standard. So the law leaves us without hope and that's where the gospel comes in and gives us hope. And that hope is embodied in the Doctrine of Justification, which teaches us that the righteousness God requires, the righteousness we need for a right standing before God is supplied for us by Christ. That's what he did with his life and his death. 

He lived a perfect life. He died as a guiltless man, but he died in payment for the sins of others. And since he took my unrighteousness and paid the price of it, I get his righteousness and I get the credit for it. It's a perfect exchange. That's what Second Corinthians in 5:21 is talking about when it says that God made Christ, who knew no sin, to be sin for us so that we might be the righteousness of God in him. It's just an interesting phrase and a fascinating verse. Notice, God made Christ to do this. 

So the atonement was actually ordered by God and ordained by God and fulfilled by Christ in obedience to his father, out of love for his father and out of love for those whom he redeemed. But it was God's doing, the atonement, that even though he's the one who demands the penalty of sin, he's also the one who supplies the payment on our behalf in the person of Christ who took our sins. That's what the meaning of the cross is. Christ was guiltless. He'd never sinned. And even in the testimony of his trial at the crucifixion, everyone said we find no fault in this man. No one could righteously condemn him for anything. Yet he died a sinner's death. He did that, scripture says, on our behalf, even as far back as Isaiah 53. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. He was smitten for our offenses. He was punished for our sin. That's what Isaiah 53 is teaching. That's what the entire New Testament teaches. And that's what we mean by atonement, that Christ substituted for us, took the punishment we deserve, and now his perfect righteousness is given to us like a perfect garment that covers our sin and covers our guilt and gives us a righteous standing before God. 

That's what the Doctrine of Justification is about. It's all about how guilty people can have a right standing before God, be forgiven of their sins, be invested with a righteousness that really doesn't even belong to them, but they get the credit for it. Paul was so taken with this that when he gave his own testimony in Philippians three he talked about all that he'd done as a Pharisee. He was raised as a Pharisee, trained to be a Pharisee, lived his life in fastidious obedience to the minutia of the law as much as he possibly could, but Paul knew he was a sinner anyway. He couldn't keep the law perfectly the way the law demands. And he was trained in all the ways of righteousness and the law of God. He knew it with all his heart. He memorized major portions of scripture and he took all that training and all that righteousness that belonged to him and it's no better than dung. It's rubbish. He threw it away and said because I want a righteousness that's not my own righteousness, the perfect righteousness of God, which is imputed to those who believe in Christ, and that's the Doctrine of Justification. 

We actually get a righteousness that's so flawlessly perfect and so vastly full and free that there's no way we could ever earn it, and so it's much better than any righteousness we could possibly earn for ourselves. That whole concept is embodied, even in our language. We talk about self righteousness and we know that's a bad thing to be self righteous. The self righteous are those who think they can concoct a righteousness of their own that's good enough to earn their standing with God. But scripture commands us and the Gospel teaches us to be humble and not depend on any righteousness that's our own, but to count on the righteousness of Christ to be the basis for our standing with God. That's the antithesis of self righteousness. That's also what it means to believe the gospel. That's what the Doctrine of Justification teaches. That's why it's so important. It's the heart of the Gospel.


Originally published September 30, 2010.